Cairo Participants and Paper Abstracts

Cairo Workshop January 2013

C.S. Adcock
Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies, Washington University of St Louis

Paper Abstract:  Indian Secularism as Tolerance: Religious Freedom Debates of the 1920s”

In India in recent years, state-level legislation restricting religious conversion has rekindled debate over how the right to religious freedom should be interpreted in the South Asian context.  Many contend that to interpret religious freedom to include a right to proselytize is to impose on India a distinctively Western conception of religion that effectively favors “proselytizing religions” like Christianity and Islam over “non-proselytizing” traditions like Hinduism that are more typical to India.  Outside India too, critical reflection has called into question whether it is possible to produce a sufficiently neutral definition of religion to allow religious freedom to be administered to all persons equally.  This is more than a question of majority bias.  Because religion is a category derived from a modern European history, I argue, we need to ask what forms of politics religious freedom excludes.  This is particularly true when we consider the histories of religious freedom outside Europe and North America.

To illustrate the importance of the politics of translation, the paper offers a critical history of the Tolerance ideal that has animated debates over religious freedom and proselytizing in India since the early twentieth century. By Tolerance I refer to a distinctive formulation of Indian secularism that is associated with (but not limited to) the Gandhian tradition.  In conventional accounts, the emergence of Tolerance during the 1920s is described as a victory of Indian secularism over the intolerant practice of shuddhi “proselytizing” pursued by the reform organization, the Arya Samaj, which was threatening harmonious Hindu-Muslim relations. Attending to the politics of translation, the paper reveals that by translating shuddhi into the language of religion and religious freedom, Tolerance functioned to obscure, and to suppress, the politics of caste.  The paper uses this historical case from the 1920s to reflect on the contemporary politics of religious freedom.

Nehal Bhuta
Professor of Public International Law, European University Institute

Paper Abstract:

This paper will examine the reasoning of the European Court of Human Rights hijab cases and argue that embedded in the court’s reasoning is a not a Kantian or “bourgeois liberal” conception of freedom of conscience, but a Christian personalist one. I will reflect on recent historical scholarship which demonstrates the importance Christian personalism in the post-war formulation of the right, and argue that, like all political concepts, the right had a distinctly polemical content which shaped also the understanding of “European secularism.” This understanding shapes the cases’ reasoning about the justification for limiting manifestations of religious belief, and seems to revive an earlier European anxiety about the threat posed to public order by the presence in the public sphere of rival religious world views. Hence, in the ECHR cases, we see a convergence of 2 kinds of thought about freedom of religion: a post-war Christian democracy, and an older preoccupation with rival sacral communities as intrinsically threatening to civil peace.

Magdi Guirguis
Fellow at Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Kafrelshiekh University

Paper Abstract:  Dialogue between Mosques’ Minarets and Church Towers in Egypt.

The amazing scenes of the mosques’ minarets embracing the church towers are very familiar in Cairo, as well as in the provincial cities and villages. These scenes could be read and understood in different and contradictory ways. In this paper I will talk about the different views of such phenomena by looking at different readings and perception of these buildings and their functions among Muslims, Copts, and foreigners. In doing so, I hope to shed light on the emergent culture of religious freedom in Egypt and the struggle over space as an contest over Egyptian identity.

Evan Haefeli
Associate Professor of History, Columbia University

Paper Abstract:  Alternatives to John Locke: English Tolerance in the early Enlightenment

 John Locke has come to be a crucial figure in the history of toleration, treated as the culmination of the long, complex struggles over religion in England. Indeed, Locke became one of the most influential philosophers of religious and educational life in the British world in the eighteenth century, setting the tone for Anglo-American liberal thinking on religious diversity ever since. His sense of individual religious right nestled within a broader social consensus has provided a cornerstone of liberal thought on tolerance. The dominance of Locke in the global narrative of religious tolerance contributes to the prevailing impression that tolerance (or toleration) is an “idea” and that the primary goal of historians of tolerance is to trace how that “idea” spreads and is accepted, however imperfectly, around the world.

What is often lost in this approach is that tolerance is also a practice – a topic drawing increasing amounts of attention from European historians stressing the everyday social dimensions of religious coexistence (or lack thereof). Much work has been done on local conditions in continental Europe during the early Enlightenment (roughly Locke’s lifetime) as well as, to an extent, England itself. What is still missing is the full range of range or practices overseen, promoted, or endured by Englishmen which included overseas possessions like Tangiers, Madras, Bombay, New York and Ireland as well as the fractious domestic setting of late Stuart England. In theory and practice English tolerance touched Catholics as well as Protestants of various stripes, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and various sorts of “heathen” or “pagan” individuals. English responses to these situations varied for religious, political, and philosophical reasons. There was no single guiding idea or priority that unified these arrangements but rather a series of competing and conflicting ones – with Locke but one among many.

At present there remains a wide gulf between historians of religious tolerance as an idea and those who examine it as a practice. This paper will situate John Locke’s ideas within the wider spectrum of tolerationist thought – and practice – across the English world of his lifetime. His ideas have come to epitomize that peculiarly English way of thinking known as “common sense” – a philosophical claim with pretensions to a deep base of popular legitimacy. But common sense, like all other forms of seemingly pragmatic behavior, has a political context and consequence. By setting Locke’s ideas within the range of options available to English people at the time this paper highlights that Lockean liberalism was not the inevitable outcome of English history, but rather one of a range of possibilities – albeit a politically powerful one. Ultimately Locke’s vision did less to shape the practice of tolerance in the Anglo-American world than it did to legitimate a particular political arrangement that has held tremendous staying power since the early eighteenth century. It is hoped that this contextualization will then facilitate a more global approach to the history of tolerance by demonstrating the provincial and historically specific roots of the presumably universal attributes of Lockean toleration.

Nadia Marzouki
Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Paper Abstract:  Nahda and religious freedom, between state and society

This paper will examine some of the ambiguities, complexities and pitfalls present in Nahda’s conception of religious freedom. Much has been said about Nahda’s so called double-speak and many analysts have underlined the impact of current power relations on its shifting strategy. While it is important to take the plurality of Nahda’s constituents seriously, as well as the complexity of the current political context, I will focus here on what I call the constitutive ambiguity of Nahda’s approach to social reform. The somewhat illegible position of the Tunisian Islamist party-movement regarding religious freedom is inherently linked to a more profound uncertainty about the relation between state and society.  The discourse of its leaders and intellectuals expresses both an anti-state, individualist point of view and a defence of state governance and disciplining of society. On the one hand, intellectuals such as Rached Ghannouchi have long advocated for a transformation of individuals as a condition of reforming society. According to this view, the question of state institutions only comes third, and is made entirely dependent on the virtuous reform of individuals and society. But since October 2011, Nahda has come to endorse positions and initiate projects that give precedence to the state over society. Social reform does not presuppose the virtuous transformation of individual, but the passing of laws, the monitoring of mosques, and the establishment of state funded educational programs or charities. The issue of gender equality is particularly telling: a form of state islamo-feminism seems to be replacing the secularist version of state feminism of the Ben Ali era. Based on the analysis of speeches, documents, and writings of key Nahda political and intellectual figures since 2010, this paper will examine this ambiguity and consider some of its outcomes.

Melani McAlister
Associate Professor of American Studies, International Affairs, and Media & Public Affairs, George Washington University

Paper Abstract:  US Evangelicals and the politics of Slave Redemption as Religious Freedom

This paper will explore transnational evangelical activism on issues related to the long civil war in South Sudan. From the 1990s until 2010, US evangelicals, as well as a multi-national and multicultural group of evangelicals based in Europe, made Sudan a major political issue. They argued that Christians were being persecuted by the Islamist government in Khartoum, and that South Sudan was a staging ground for larger issues of religious conflict and religious freedom on the international stage.

American evangelicals, as well as mainstream activists like Nicholas Kristoff, systematically misunderstood and/or misrepresented the fundamental issues at stake in the Sudanese civil war.  The south of the country (now a newly independent nation of South Sudan) was fighting for some autonomy and exemption from Sudan’s Islamic law, as well as access to profits from the oil fields, almost all of which are located in the southern part of the country. But various evangelical groups painted the conflict in simpler, more colorful terms, as a battle between Arab Muslims in the North and African Christians in the South. The framing operated on multiple levels. It mobilized the politics of race, suggesting (rather incongruously) a racial difference between northerners and southerners. And it harnessed a larger set of concerns about the status of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. Those concerns had been central to evangelical politics, not just in the United States but internationally, throughout the 1990s.

The presentation will examine how ideas of international religious freedom as a political issue unfolded in evangelical communities globally in the 1990s, especially in relationship to activism on Sudan. The construction of an evangelical politics embracing (and in the process constructing) religious freedom as a foreign policy issue was far from straightforward. On the one hand, US evangelicals had a long if fraught history of support for strict church-state separation, albeit in the limited and problematic terms that scholars like Winifred Sullivan have laid out as constitutive of religious freedom arguments more generally. By the 1990s, however, even this limited vision was being eroded by US evangelical muscle-flexing, as many theologically conservative Christians came to believe that they had a right and a duty to impose their religious values in the public sphere. (This history is enormously complicated, and I will try to do it some justice in the article, but relatively briefly.) At the same time, US evangelicals enthusiastically linked themselves to a global evangelical community whose numerical strength and, ultimately, moral center was increasingly located in the Global South. In parts of Africa, in particular, evangelical believers often faced off against a Muslim community that was also growing; the competition for adherents and struggle over resources led to a great deal of hostility – hostility that only strengthened the already-powerful anti-Muslim strain in US and European evangelical intellectual life.

The heart of the talk will be an examination of the imbrication of ideas about religious freedom with the politics of race, religious identity, transnational solidarity, and the reenergized commitment to missionary work that shaped a great deal of evangelical relations toward Sudan after IRFA. In particular, I will examine the performances of “slave redemption” that brought evangelical Christians—black and white, American and European—to small villages in southern Sudan were emotionally powerful dramas of suffering and salvation. My goal in the paper is to put “international religious freedom” as a political issue into conversation with other formations of activism and identity, including evolving forms of transnational religious solidarity.

Maya Mikdashi
Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University

Paper Abstract:  Sex and Sectarianism: Recognition and the Disarticulation of Madhhab/Sect and Sex/ Gender in Lebanon

In this paper I examine the legal practice of strategic conversion, by which I mean religious conversion undertaken in order to make use of different aspects of the Lebanese legal system. I illustrate the process of strategic conversion by comparing it to that of correcting one’s sex in the census registry, an act that also changes the network of laws that applies to a citizen. A further comparison is made by introducing the practice of removing one’s madhhab completely from state census registries, a right won by activists for a secular personal status law in March 2009. Through ethnographic and archival research on these practices of strategic conversion,madhhab removal, and the legal “correction” of sex by transsexual citizens, I question what effect the legal and bureaucratic transformation of madhhab or sex has on the identification and or/recognition of a citizen’s sect or gender. While madhhab is the category through which the Lebanese state recognizes the personal status pertaining to each citizen, sect is a more multivalent and dense category that is recognized by the use of various technologies. What are the mechanisms through which these identities of madhhab, sect, sex and gender are recognized and practiced? In what ways are Lebanese citizens acting within and towards the law and how do these actions help to redefine their identity as always in relation others? What work does the disarticulation of the madhhab and sect do, and how might this disarticulation inform scholarship on citizenship in Lebanon? Thinking with these questions, I tease out the different technologies through which sex, gender, madhhab and sect are both recognized and practiced in contemporary Lebanon. I call for the categories of “madhhab” and “sect” to be critically re-interrogated, just as the categories of sex and gender were and continue to be.

Noah Salomon
Assistant Professor of Religion, Carleton College

Paper Abstract:  Religion after the State: The Creation of a Muslim Minority in South Sudan

My essay will explore the emergence of a modern secular bureaucratic state in South Sudan and the tensions inherent in its twin agendas of promoting religious neutrality and cleansing the nation of the mark of Islamization acquired prior to national partition.  In particular, my interest will be in exploring the bureaucratic technique involved in conjuring the demographic category of “Muslim minority,” a label placed upon the Muslim population (once part of a “national majority”) on July 9, 2011, concurrent with national independence.  Safely constituting its Muslim population thusly, policy makers in the new state seek to cleanse South Sudan of its previous Arab and Islamic stamp, forging new identities in state institutions from the Ministry of Culture to law, in which the markers of Islamic and Arab identity are notably absent.  Such an ideal, however, masks the complexity on the ground wherein Arabic remains the lingua franca and a sizeable Muslim population exists which also demand recognition from the state.  This essay will explore not only what it means to be a Muslim in this fraught and evolving context—and many theories of a new southern Muslim identity divorced from northern hegemony abound—but what it means to be constituted as a religious minority as well.

The foundation of South Sudan is a solar eclipse of sorts for the scholar of religion in which s/he can observe the actual creation of the category of religious minority in real-time, and in this essay I will seek to understand the precise political conditions which led to its emergence and the tensions present in its fulfillment as a rather unstable guarantor of social stability.  Moreover, I will examine in this essay how the creation of distinct religious demographics (promoted for example through processes of national registration in the Office of Religious Affairs) affects a landscape where religious belonging and its relationship to identity has always been more fluid.  In a nation where neither tribes, nor regions, nor often evenindividual families aretraditionally divided on the basis of religion—it is not uncommon to find households with Christians, Muslims and followers of traditional faiths under the same roof—how will the constituting of Muslims (by demographers and Muslim activists themselves) as a distinct legislateable minority affect the existing social fabric?   While the Muslim minority certainly is granted a retinue of rights in the new polity, Muslims also complain of violations, as the state, in the name of protecting its commitment to secularism, denies the right of Muslim political assembly and destroys mosques (or, rather, converts them to mundane use: former mosques used as barracks and cafeterias are what I observed) on public land. Through observing the secular state coming into being, this paper will explore what kinds of religious freedom are achievable under this unique political arrangement and which must necessarily be foreclosed.

Paul Sedra
Associate Professor, Department of History, Simon Fraser University

Paper Abstract:  Copts and the Millet Partnership: The Intra-Communal Dynamics Behind Egyptian Sectarianism

Since last year’s revolution, the journalistic shorthand that has emerged in discussing the current situation of Egypt’s Coptic Christians is that the community bears a double burden – both that borne by all Egyptians as a consequence of the torturous ‘democratic transition,’ and one particular to Christians, namely, the apparent revival of sectarian tensions.  The unfortunate consequence of this shorthand is that Copts come to seem, yet again, passive victims of a politics beyond their control.  This paper will, instead, analyze the ways in which Copts came together in the wake of the revolution to mount a series of unprecedented protests, ostensibly against discrimination.  I will suggest that the participants in this political action were sending a message not only to the Egyptian state and to Muslims, but to their Church leadership as well.  Specifically, the paper will explore how particular sectors of the community are resisting the dominance of the clerical hierarchy in representing Coptic interests on the national stage, and how this struggle among Copts may come to influence relations between Copts and Muslims in Egypt at large.

Mariz Tadros
Fellow with the Participation team specializing in the politics and human development of the Middle East, Institute of Development Studies

Paper Abstract:  Whose rights are wronged? Whose religious rights are denied?:  Contesting hegemonic discourses on sectarianism in Egypt

This proposed paper is on questions of religious freedoms, their framings and their implications for sectarian relations vis-a-vis Egypt’s majority Muslim and minority Christian population. The paper is based on quantitative data of all sectarian incidents that have occurred in Egypt between 2008-2011and qualitative analysis of the power configurations behind them. The paper makes three principle contestations.

First, hegemonic discourses around gender relations as triggers of sectarianism have tended to frame the matter as being a case of the Coptic Orthodox Church being responsible for the denial of married Coptic women’s freedom to convert and exercise their right to marry and divorce according to their free agency. However, the data collected suggestions that the majority of cases causes by gender related involve unmarried women, and involve wider issues of the laws- formal and informal associated with freedom of religious belief in Egypt.

Second, discourses on freedom of worship have tended to represent incidents of sectarianism associated with assaults on churches as ones involving the violation of the law by Coptic citizenry, i.e. their construction, renovation or extension of places of worship that do not have legal status- and therefore are in violation of the law. However, questions regarding the application of parallel governance system- separate from the law- and managed by the State Security Investigations Apparatus (secret police) are sidelined from such discussions. Moreover, despite calls for a revision of the existing legal framework, the very philosophy behind it in terms of ensuring religious pluralism hardly featured.

The third contestation discussed in this paper and which is related to the first two, deals with the normative frameworks for securing religious freedom, pluralism and inclusion. While a Shariah-based framework has been put forward forcefully by the Islamists (and others) as the most appropriate, viable and sophisticated reference for ensuring the rights of non-Muslims living in Muslim majority contexts, this paper systematically shows how both the framework and its application undermines the prospects of building inclusive socio-political orders where the freedoms of all are guaranteed without qualifications.

The paper hopes to speak to several themes of the Religious Freedom project, including religious freedom conceived as an individual versus a collective rights;  the place of minorities in a democracy and the protections accorded to them; framings and representations of religious freedom and conflict.

Other Participants

Hossam Bahgat
Executive Director, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights

Amr Ezzat
Attorney, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights

Alessandro Ferrari
Department of Law and Economics of Firms and Persons, Università degli Studi dell’Insubria

Ishaq Ibrahim
Field officer, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Religious Freedom program

Adel Rafea
Lawyer, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights

Amr Shalakany
Assistant Professor of Civil Law, American University, Cairo Egypt

Jonathan VanAntwerpen
Director of communications and director of Council programs on Religion and the Public Sphere, Social Science Research Council

Mona Oraby
Rapporteur, Politics of Religious Freedom Project, Cairo.  Oraby is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University. She is interested in the status of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority states, exploring the legal construction and regulation of religion and religious difference in these contexts. Her present focus is on the Baha’i community in Egypt. Through an investigation into the perceived threat that members of the Baha’i faith pose to the Egyptian state and its dominant renderings of religion, she probes the operative meaning of citizenship as one whereby national identity and community are mutually constituted via religious affiliation.

Go To:
About the Cairo Workshop
Cairo Workshop Program
Cairo Workshop Report