Doing Research on Religion, Gender and the State
Tobias Müller, organiser of the conference held at the Woolf Institute on March 25-26, 2019, on outcomes, controversies, future research, and a new definition of "fundamentalism".
How do religion, gender and the state intersect? What are the most analytically promising ways to talk about strictly observant, "fundamentalist", socially conservative belief and practice? To address these questions, the Woolf Institute hosted the international conference "Strictly Observant Religion, Gender and the State" on Monday 25 and Tuesday 26 March 2019. Since it is impossible to sum up the multiple strands of discussions and the different perspectives introduced during the conference, I would like to arbitrarily select five particularly memorable arguments.
- With regards to the usefulness of the category "fundamentalism", a corollary of the term "strictly observant religion", the discussions revealed that there are two important positions to take into consideration. Speakers endorsing the first position, vocally represented by Dr Sukhwant Dhaliwal, who has been working with the group "Women against Fundamentalism", argued that fundamentalism is an important term to assess a particular trend within contemporary religion. Rigid religious practice, exclusive social hierarchies and patriarchal organisational structures are among the key identifiers of fundamentalist practice. Feminist and anti-racist groups should identify and jointly counteract these tendencies. In this sense, fundamentalism can serve as a concept that helps to establish a common language of critique and forge bonds of solidarity between groups that seek to overcome gender-based discrimination, homophobia and transphobia.
- On the other hand, the discussions of the conference demonstrated why using terms such as fundamentalism can also have problematic implications. Especially in Western Europe, fundamentalism is most of the time used to denote beliefs and practices of believers of Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) backgrounds, particularly those adhering to certain strands of Islam that are considered to stand outside a so conceived liberal democratic order of values. Instead of fostering understanding and dialogue, as argued for instance by Dr Romina Istratii from SOAS, these labels can reinforce and aggravate a sense of alienation and exclusion. This sense of exclusion is the very sentiment that the attractiveness of so-called fundamentalist groups is thriving on. Moreover, assumptions about "fundamentalism" are often linked to labelling non-Western groups as backward, non-modern, irrational or even uncivilised. The epistemic violence that can be exercised through these categorisations draws on colonial and imperialist language and political practice. The discussions at the conference urge scholars to critically assess the discursive associations any generalising term such as "fundamentalist", "strictly observant", "radical" or "extremist" convey. Because of the normative judgements that are often implicit in these generalisations, using terms used by these groups themselves, e.g. socially conservative evangelicals, Salafis or (ultra-)orthodox Jews, might be more suitable to facilitate research that avoids unfounded generalisations and stereotyping. At the same time, employing the language used by the groups themselves might allow a more cooperative and effective engagement with those groups in order to tackle dangerous developments such as discrimination on the basis of any of the protected characteristics of the 2010 Equality Act such as sexual orientation, gender and religion.
- The discussions at the conference identified a phenomenon that has hitherto not been properly understood in its scope and significance. A key finding of the conference is that there exists a variety of groups that advance change towards accepting diversity with regards to sexual and gender related questions within strictly observant religious groups. This is true for the so-called "Haredi Spring" among ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel that Prof Michal Kravel-Tovi from Tel Aviv University discussed, for the pious feminists in Turkey studied by Dr Pinar Dokumaci from the University of Toronto and the conservative Catholics in Lyon analysed by Cambridge University's Camille Lardy. All these groups have in common that they sit at an unlikely and often politically and socially uncomfortable intersection between strictly observant religious practice, secular feminist groups and the liberal state.
- A primary outcome of the conference is that we are witnessing a strong dynamic with regards to sexuality and gender in religious groups. This is particularly true for those groups that are socially very conservative. Because of the demands put on them by their mainstream co-religionists and the agencies of nation states, they develop mechanisms of adapting their practices so that they are accepted in mainstream society, as is the case for evangelical Christians in an Oxford congregation presented by Malcolm McLean from the University of Cambridge. These new forms of partial toleration are often complemented by the propagation of conservative gendered practices such as polygamy by groups such as the "Obedient Wives Club" in Malaysia discussed by Dr Nurul Huda Mohd Razif from IIAS Leiden. The considerable pressures of liberal sexual and gender values that strictly observant religious groups experience produce a variety of coping strategies that vary from cooperation through co-regulation to boycott and undermining liberal state agendas, as the presentation of Dr Eva-Maria Euchner from LMU Munich pointed out.
- In the public keynote lecture, "Fundamentalism: Reflections on Definitions, Religious Authorities and Research Agendas", Prof Torkel Brekke from the University of Oslo presented the audience with hitherto unpublished research, building on his prior work on fundamentalism as prophetic protest movement against globalised modernity. In his lecture, which is now available online, he presented, for the first time, his new definition of fundamentalism: "Fundamentalism is actions, attitudes and ideas aimed at restoring the authority of religion - in system and in lifeworld - which was destroyed from the middle of the 19th century as a consequence of the secularizing forces of the modern state, a process starting in the USA and Western Europe and unfolding in different ways and at different times in all parts of the world through globalization".
The emphasis on religious authority is emphasising the importance of a current dynamic trend in scholarship on religion. However, in many ways the new definition does not offer remedies to the criticism of eurocentrism, the question of generalisability and a suspiciously teleological understanding of history. The most effective remedy for these conceptual problems seems to be, as the conference suggests, to engage in an analysis of concrete historical and contemporary religious movements and their relation to gender and the state. We are looking forward to continue the conversation started with the launch conference of the Strictly Observant Religion, Gender and the State project, the first phase of which will run until November 2020.
This article is written by Tobias Müller, who is a Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute and is currently working on the project Strictly Observant Religion, Gender and the State.
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