Sunday, October 30, 2016

A new book on the global politics of religion

by Salman Hameed

If you are interested in the ways religion gets defined and used in 'freedom of religion' debates, then check out this new book by Elizabeth Hurd titled Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion. And of course, I learnt about it through the incredibly invaluable New Books Network podcast (this was part of the series on Middle Eastern Studies and Religion). Here is the interview podcast with Elizabeth Hurd (or download it here).

One of the things that really stood out for me from the interview was her discussion of "good" and "bad" religion as constructed by various international organizations - with their own agendas and goals - and how it skips all the messiness of the actual lived experiences (around 16 minutes in). I also found her discussion of Turkish Alevis, and the varied construction of their religious identity by the Turkish state and the European Union (in the latter half of the interview). She also discusses the book cover (see above) - which shows a photograph of a wall that the Moroccan government built to keep out and demarcate the Sahrarawi people of Western Sahara (for more on this, here is a brief article from Al Jazeera last year: Western Sahara's Struggle for Freedom Cutoff by a Wall).

In any case, listen to this fascinating interview (about 45 minutes long). Here is a blurb about the book from the New Books Network site:
Among the most frequent demands made of Islam and Muslims today is to become more moderate. But what counts as moderate and who will decide so are questions with less than obvious answers. In her timely and politically urgent new book Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (Princeton University Press, 2015), Elizabeth Hurd, Associate Professor of Religion and Political Science at Northwestern University, explores the powerful global networks that seek to regulate and moderate religion in the name of promoting religious freedom. Through a careful examination of the discourses and activities of a range of state and non-state actors, in the US and elsewhere, Hurd demonstrates that international regimes of religious freedom advocacy actively participate in the labor of defining and generating particular notions of good and normative religion that privilege particular actors and institutions over others. However, as Hurd brilliantly shows and argues, such attempts to canonize good religion, which often corresponds to the articulation of religion most amenable to US imperial interests, remains thwarted and unsuccessful. This is so because the global industry of producing good, moderate religion cannot come to grips with the messiness and complexities of lived religion that is unavailable for neat, digestible, and ultimately misleading generalized categorizations. In short, this book represents a profound and meticulously documented argument for the unavailability of religion for projects of moderation, division, and bifurcation into good and bad religion. Hurd assembles this argument by discussing the discourse of the two faces of faith in international relations circuits, the politics of religion-making in international religious advocacy programs, overseas religious engagement programs sponsored by the US government, and the construction of religious minorities as endangered corporate bodies. Beyond Religious Freedom is as mellifluously written as it is analytically delicious. It will make an excellent reading for undergraduate and graduate courses on Islam, Secularism, and Modernity, Middle Eastern Politics, religion and politics, and on theories and methods in Religion Studies.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A new collaboration for Harun Yahya?

by Salman Hameed

Most of the recent news about Harun Yahya lately have been dominated about his TV channel and his "angels". However, in late August, his organization held a creationist conference at a hotel in Istanbul. The title of the conference was International Conference on the Origin of Life and the Universe. Now back in early 1990s, his organization held a series of conferences with creationists in the US, in particular, the Institute of Creation Research (ICR). In fact, much of Yahya's work has been a reworking of these US based creationists, and modifying their young earth creationism with an older earth narrative suitable for Muslim audiences. However, for the August conference, his organization collaborated with another US based group Reasons to Believe. As far as I know, they are old earth creationists, and their President, Hugh Ross, is a Christian version of Maurice Bucaille. In fact, here is the main blurb on Reasons to Believe (RTB) website:
RTB's mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature.
Now, of course, there have been other creationist conferences in Turkey (I reported on one a few years ago), but those have (or more likely "had") been organized by the Gulen group. With the current political situation, those are certainly impossible. Perhaps, Harun Yahya's groups sensed an opportunity to organize one by themselves. Not surprisingly, the audience looks different between the Yahya organized conference and the one organized by the Gulen folks: 
A conference in Istanbul from August 2016 - organized by Harun Yahya's group

A conference in Istanbul in 2012 - organized in part by the Gulen group

Here is a self-reporting blurb by the organizers on what happened at the creationism conference in August: 
The conference;
- Once again proved that genetics, biology, paleontology, physics, chemistry and astrophysics all answer the question ‘How did life begin?’ with ‘Creation’.
- Hosted leading academicians from the science world -all experts in their respective areas with many academic studies.
Some of the topics discussed by the prominent scientists during the conference were as follows:
- The true origin of man
- Why I say ‘God exists’
- Detailed examination and criticism of evolutionary theory
- Origins and creation of the universe
- Fossils: The conclusive evidence of the history of life 
The Reasons to Believe speakers were: 
Dr. Fazale Rana (Biochemist, Vice President of Research & Apologetics, Reasons to Believe) Anjeanette Roberts (Molecular Biologist) Jeff Zweerink  (Astrophysicist)
And here is Fazle Rana on the conference: 
Beginning his lecture, Dr. Rana said, "I am truly honored to be here today. It is refreshing to be part
of a project in where the goals is to show the world that Christians and Muslims can work together towards a common goal.  Showing that there is scientific evidence for God’s existence and also showing that there are genuine scientific challenges to the evolutionary paradigm. Both are objectives that Muslims and Christians can agree upon."

This is all fascinating. Initially I thought that Fazle Rana was a token Muslim at RTB. But that is not the case. He is the Vice President of Research & Apologetics at RTB, and here is an excerpt from his bio
I watched helplessly as my father died a Muslim. Though he and I would argue about my conversion, I was unable to convince him of the truth of the Christian faith. 
I became a Christian as a graduate student studying biochemistry. The cell's complexity, elegance, and sophistication coupled with the inadequacy of evolutionary scenarios to account for life's origin compelled me to conclude that life must stem from a Creator. Reading through the Sermon on the Mount convinced me that Jesus was who Christians claimed Him to be: Lord and Savior. 
Still, evangelism wasn't important to me - until my father died. His death helped me appreciate how vital evangelism is. It was at that point I dedicated myself to Christian apologetics and the use of science as a tool to build bridges with nonbelievers.
I wish I could have attended the conference as it seems a fascinating amalgam of pseudoscience - both against science (evolution) and pro science (both Christian and Muslim I'jaz) at a particularly turbulent time in Turkey. 

And rest assured, our favorite creationist, Oktar Babuna, spoke over there as well (you may remember Babuna from his unintentionally hilarious presentation at the 2013 Deen Institute evolution conference in London. See my article on this here). And of course, there there were two giant faces of Harun Yahya on the screen - as well as some dancing. 

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