Strictly Observant Religion, Gender and the State (SORGES)

It has been commonly accepted that the secularisation thesis, according to which religion is about to disappear in the modern world, has been proven wrong. Much less acknowledged, however, is the fact that strictly observant religious tendencies, often labelled "fundamentalism", are not declining either (Harding 2000; Riesebrodt 2000). On the contrary, ways of being in the world that consciously resist ways of life associated with liberal, secular modernity seem to be on the rise in Western Europe and across the globe. Since forms of religion that are critical of liberal mainstream attitudes, particularly with regards to gender roles and sexuality, are likely to persist, we need to address the question, why they are so attractive, particularly young people? This question has become even more pressing in an age of rapid transformations in gender relations, as evidenced by the political and religious responses to the #MeToo movement.

The research project Strictly Observant Religion, Gender and the State (SORGES) investigates the interactions of religious groups and the state over questions of sexuality and gender. The project analyses how contemporary contestations around religion and gender in societies marked by liberalism and secularism challenge the project of the nation state (Asad 2003; Mahmood 2016; Scott 2017). The project asks how religious groups cooperate with, challenge, and resist the different levels of state bureaucracy regarding topics such as the role of women, homosexuality, sexual abuse and sex education in schools.

These challenges to progressive gender norms urge us to critically reflect on how knowledge formations about secularism, nationality, race, class and sexuality shape the mutually transformative interactions of religious groups and the state. The project employs ethnographic fieldwork with different religious groups interacting with local and central government level state agencies in a diverse urban neighbourhood in the UK. The research is inspired by recent conceptual developments in the fields of critical secularism research (Amir-Moazami 2018; Fernando 2014; Mas 2006; Sayyid 2014), intersectional theory (Bilge 2010; Yuval-Davis 2010), feminist theory (Butler 2008; MacKinnon 1991), masculinity studies (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005; De Sondy 2013) and critical state theory (Jessop 2016; Pateman and Mills 2007).

Researchers: Tobias Müller and Dr Ed Kessler MBE

For more information or suggestions for cooperation, contact Tobias Müller.


25-26 March 2019. International Conference: Strictly Observant Religion, Gender and the State, International Conference at the Woolf Institute, keynote speaker: Prof Torkel Brekke (University of Oslo and PRIO) 

Events, talks and presentations

23 May 2019. Reconsidering Gender, Religion and Agency, panel discussion with Dr Laura Davies (Department of English and King's College, Cambridge), Dr Julienne Obadia (Centre for Gender Studies and King's College), Dr Lea Taragin-Zeller (Woolf Institute and University of Cambridge)

8 May 2019. Hope and Fear in Response to Religious Diversity: Contesting Security, Identity and Diversity in London Research presentations and discussion with Tobias Müller (Woolf Institute), Dr Emanuelle Degli Esposti (Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge), Prof John Dunn (King's College and POLIS), Prof Richard Bourke (King's College and Faculty of History) 

27 March 2019. Discontents of Toleration: Local Religious Freedom, Depoliticisation and the Nation State, research presentation by Tobias Müller (Presentation at CRASSH Conference: Toleration and Religious Freedom in the Early Modern and Contemporary World, University of Cambridge)

4 February 2019. How to Talk about Islam? Contemporary Debates in Political Science and Anthropology of Religion, research presentation by Tobias Müller (Queens' College Cambridge SCR presentations)

22 January 2019. "We Need to Talk about Israel/Palestine", public discussion with Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Jonathan Freedland (Woolf Institute)

18 January 2019. Polygamy for the Masses: Cross-Boarder Marriage, the Islamic Bureaucracy, and the State in Contemporary Malaysia, research presentation by Dr Nurul Huda Mohd Razif

15 October 2018. Rethinking Religious Fundamentalism (University of Cambridge Festival of Ideas), panel discussion with Prof Kim Knott (Lancaster University), Dr Ed Kessler (Woolf Institute), Dr Sara Silvestri (St. Edmund's and University of Cambridge) and Tobias Müller (Woolf Institute)



On strictly observant religion. In this episode, Ed Kessler sits down with the Woolf Institute's Tobias Müller, and Professor Kim Knott, from Lancaster University and the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats to try and add nuance to the way we talk about fundamentalism. How do fundamentalist ideas and behaviour function? Is fundamentalism always a threat? And how do we distinguish between fundamentalism, extremism, radicalism and orthodoxy? Featuring Ed Kessler, Tobias Müller, Kim Knott and David Perry.

On dialogue. In a special podcast by the Woolf Institute, recorded live at our 'We Need to Talk about Israel/Palestine" event, Baroness Warsi and Jonathan Freedland attempt to do just that. How can British Muslims and Jews talk about the conflict? Why have past discussions led to so many tensions? And what can we learn from an open and honest dialogue? Featuring Jonathan Freedland, Sayeeda Warsi and Ed Kessler.


17 April 2019. Istratii, Romina, By Whose Standards? Religious Fundamentalism,  Gender Equality and Cross Cultural Differences

15 April 2019. Müller, Tobias, Doing Research on Religion, Gender and the State

13 February 2019. Mohd, Nurul Huda, The Changing Face of Polygamy in Contemporary Malaysia

26 September 2018. Müller, Tobias, What is Fundamentalism and What Should We Do About It?