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Interview – Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

Behold the Two Headed Spanish Horse

Courtesy Alan Levine/Flickr

This interview transcript was originally published by by E-International Relations (E-IR) in September 2016.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is Professor of Political Science and Religious Studies at Northwestern University. Professor Hurd’s latest book Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (Princeton, 2015) has attracted international attention by framing important debates around what the author believes is a problematic intersection of policy, religion and political interest in global affairs today. In this interview she discusses the implications of her scholarship and where she believes the study of religion in IR is headed.

What motivated you to write your latest book Beyond Religious Freedom?

Beyond Religious Freedom is my response to what I see as a need to rethink how we approach the study of religion and politics in the field of international relations. There’s been a gold-rush mentality lately as scholars scurry to ‘get religion right’ – but many of these efforts are confused, or even troubling. The problem, as I discuss in more detail elsewhere, is that international relations ‘got religion’ but got it wrong. Beyond Religious Freedom encourages scholars to step back from the political fray. It neither celebrates religion for its allegedly peaceful potential nor condemns it for its allegedly violent tendencies. Instead, I propose a new conceptual framework for the study of religion and public life. It accounts for the gaps and tensions that I perceived between the large-scale international legal, political and religious engineering projects undertaken in the name of religious freedom, toleration, and rights, and the realities of the individuals and communities subjected to these efforts.

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Mediation Perspectives: Preventing Clashes over Religion and Free Speech

Protest March in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

A protest march organized by the Nabaviyyah Islamic Youth Organization in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 24 September 2012. Photo: Vikalpa | Ground Views | CPA/flickr.

September marks the first anniversary of Muslim outrage over the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims. The furor over the crude video clip depicting Muhammad as a womanizing buffoon was the latest installment in a series of disputes over Western depictions of the Prophet. As some liberal secularists think that Muslims who are reluctant to accept the principle of free speech are best dealt with by habituation – constantly exposing them to (possibly offensive) free speech -, further explosive incidences of giving and taking offence can be expected.

Irreconcilable Differences?

The problem of giving and taking offence is probably best illuminated by the ongoing struggle over blasphemy and hate speech in the legal arena. For over a decade, members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have attempted to introduce binding legislation against the defamation of religions at the United Nations, only to be blocked by Western states. Muslims in Western countries have frequently lodged complaints against offenders under hate-speech or blasphemy laws, but have rarely scored a legal victory. The reason for their respective failures boils down to one major factor – competing values of free speech and respect for religion. » More