Wednesday, December 1, 2010

5 Questions with Scott Hibbard, author of Religious Politics and Secular States


1. What inspired this book?

The initial impetus for the book emerged in the mid-1990’s, when I was working in the Special Initiative on Religion, Ethics and Human Rights at the U.S. Institute of Peace.  During that period, the Egyptian government was in the process of defeating an Islamist militant insurgency.  At the same time, however, books and films were being banned by Islamic censors within the Egyptian government, and a variety of secular intellectuals were being tried in Egyptian courts for apostasy.  The most notable case was that of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayed, but there were others, such as Sayed al-Qumni and Said Ashmawy.  The question in my mind, then, was why the government was winning the battles against insurgent Islamic groups, and yet losing the war?  It was this paradox that prompted my initial research.

On a deeper level, the inspiration ultimately derives from the fact that I am enormously interested in religion and politics.  I remember vividly my mother’s political activism in the 1960’s and 1970s, and how this was very much intertwined with our Church (which was a non-denominational liberal Protestant church in West Michigan).  In that arena, the fault lines of political conflict on a host of issues – abortion, the environment, etc – were not along class lines, but between different religious denominations (or, more specifically, between different churches).  The main argument of book, in many respects, flows from this basic insight: the fault lines of political conflict often reflect the religious divisions within a given society.

2. What common elements do the US, India and Egypt have when it comes to religious politics?

There are several commonalities discussed in the book, of which I will touch on three.  The first is the association of religion and nationalism, and how different interpretations of religion inform differing conceptions of national identity.  In other words, all nationalisms are defined by a high degree of malleability, and typically pit inclusive  – or civic – conceptions of national identity against exclusive – or ethnic – conceptions.  Moreover, differing interpretations of religion, such as modernist and fundamentalism (or what I describe in the book as “liberal” and “illiberal”), inform these competing visions of nationalism and identity.  

This, then, ties into the second issue: the secular legacy.  During the 1950’s and 1960’s, these three countries were the quintessential examples of secular modernity: Nasser’s Egypt, Nehru’s India and Kennedy’s America.  And, yet, all three cases subsequently witness the rise of chauvinistic religious (or fundamentalist) movements.  The book focuses, then, on explaining why that is the case.  A key part of this narrative is how modernist (or liberal) interpretations of religion helped to inform the secular consensus of the post-WWII era.  Secularism in this sense was an issue of state neutrality in matters of religion, not hostility to religion.

The third commonality is the way in which the secular legacy was displaced in all three countries.  As I argue in the book, state actors were key defenders of the secular order in the 1950s and 1960s.  This changed, however, in the 1970s and 1980s.  During this latter period, fundamentalist, or theologically conservative, interpretations of religion were invoked by state actors to sanction a new era of conservative politics.  This shift reflected a new era of right-wing populism, which helps to explain the demise of the secular order.  In other words, the changing attitude of mainstream political leaders towards exclusive conceptions of religion and society helps to explain the ideological transformation in each case.  It is not that the secular was overthrown, as much as it was abandoned.

3. How has the book been received?

To date, I have received positive feedback, both from external reviewers and from the various talks that I have given on the book (both pre-publication and post-publication).  It definitely fills a niche, in part because of its emphasis upon the instrumental manipulation of religion – and the interactive nature of religious politics – which are key differences from other, related studies.

4. What was the most interesting part about writing the book?

The most interesting part of writing this book was clearly the field work.  I spent a fair bit of time living and researching in Egypt (in 2000 and 2002), and in India (2003).  During that period, I conducted interviews with a variety of political actors, journalists, academics and opposition political party members.  In India, I also engaged in extensive archival research, though I did interviews there as well.  The individuals with whom I met, the opportunity to live overseas, and the overall experience was truly formative.  It also provided a unique insight into the countries in question.  

5. What's next for you?

I am currently working on book chapters for two separate edited volumes on the topic of religion and politics, and am co-editing a book on Islamic thought and politics with two colleagues.  When these projects are completed, I plan to write a book on Islamic politics and American foreign policy. 

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