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I just finished reading “Becoming Recognizable: Postcolonial Independence and the Reification of Religion,” an outstanding doctoral thesis by Maria Birnbaum, who recently completed graduate work in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence. Birnbaum’s work will be of interest to anyone engaged in analysis and critique of religion as a category of public policy because:

  1. it advances theorizing about how religion becomes constructed in the discourse of international relations about the recognition of states and because
  2. it illustrates why such theorizing matters in the practical functioning of international statecraft.

I expect to cite Birnbaum in my work and will recommend her dissertation to graduate students and colleagues.

Before proceeding any further with a short summary of the thesis and a brief discussion of how it relates to my project, I want to indicate a significant lacuna in what Birnbaum has written: with the exception of works by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, there is very little mention of current critiques of the depiction and use of religion in IR. Most notably, Birnbaum makes no reference to Timothy Fitzgerald’s 2011 benchmark book, Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (Continuum). This is unfortunate since Fitzgerald’s substantial interrogation of themes and authors Birnbaum engages in her text would enrich her own analysis considerably. I hope that she will remedy this omission as she proceeds with publication of her important work.

The thesis is a clear and concisely written argument for practicing what Birnbaum calls “genealogical sensitivity” in international relations theory (IR). She uncovers major flaws in the work of Daniel Philpott, Scott Thomas and Jurgen Habermas – three authorities in IR who argue for the recognition of religion in global politics. Birnbaum shows although religion is assumed to be an “already present and intelligible” phenomenon that is a powerful determinant of identity and agency, none of the three can identify what it is that ought to be recognized. Furthermore, she argues that the process of recognition they support works to create that which it purports to be acknowledging. She claims that, in general, IR theory tends to be unaware of the contingencies of history, economics and power relations that underlie what gets labeled and institutionalized as ‘religion.’ Thus, Philpott, Thomas and Habermas exemplify what Birnbaum sees as forgetfulness and naivete in IR – forgetfulness (her word) about the processes of history that have brought about social groupings and classifications and naivete (my word) about how the very rhetoric of difference and particularity functions to produce the groups that governments aspire to manage.

Birnbaum condenses a great deal of complex theory and analysis in her text. Philosophical and political discussions pertaining to “being and becoming” are summarized and evaluated. She favors an approach that would balance the necessity of stabilizing social and governmental entities – i. e. “being” – with attentiveness to constant change that requires flexibility of boundaries and group definition – i.e. “becoming.” She reviews debates and literature related to the foundation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland and Israel as a Jewish state to show how religion emerged during the twentieth century dissolution of the British Empire as a “taken-for-granted juridical, cultural and political category” that affected the lives and deaths of millions. Her moving conclusion restates her argument that religion ought not to be used as a stand-alone analytic category because such a practice represses and thus disguises what is at issue in the struggles for power and resources that continue to fuel global conflicts.

Presently, I am at work on developing theory about how the category of religion is used strategically in technologies of statecraft to at times support existing orders of authority and at other times to undermine them. I argue that ‘religion’ has emerged rather recently as a placeholder for conquered and marginalized groups that are allowed to exist with some degree of cohesion within the jurisdictions of dominant sovereignties. The dominated group is allowed a circumscribed degree of autonomy as a religion if it agrees to abide by certain limitations chiefly in regard to a renunciation of the forms of violence – i.e. police and military functions – that the ascendant state reserves for itself. Thus, I understand religions to operate as the weakened vestiges of former states within fully functioning states. However, the very fact that religions are accorded some degree of sovereignty within dominant governments gives them a platform on which to strive for increased power and recognition. Religions are always restive to some degree and therefore behave like once and future states. Likewise governments habitually aggrandize religions by invoking theistic traditions as honored predecessors in order to glorify authority wielded in the here and now with a mantle of mystified and ancient grandeur. Examples abound in the preambles of contemporary legal and quasi-legal documents that make vague reference to a divine power as the ultimate justification for the present governing order. Because such theistic antecedents are almost always male, such contrived practices of nostalgia result in the shoring up of patriarchal ruling structures that characterize current governing regimes.

The thrust of the theory I am proposing undermines difference between so-called secular and religious orders of governance. Instead, I posit the existence of two unequal registers of government that eye one another with alternating degrees of competition and collusion, that jockey each other for domains of influence and that make use of one another to maintain and increase power.

I am developing such arguments along with several colleagues in a series of essays, edited collections and a monograph in progress. Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty, edited with Trevor Stack and Timothy Fitzgerald, will to appear this year from Brill. My essay in the volume, titled “The Category of Religion in the Technology of Governance: An Argument for Understanding Religions as Vestigial States” is an overview of my position.)

By showing how theorists in international relations articulate ideology that first reifies religions under the guise of recognition and then works to create and solidify contemporary state apparatuses to manage what is imagined as already there, Birnbaum enhances understanding of how ‘religion’ is linked to processes of governmentality. She also documents a sinister side to the whole business by pointing out some of the ways in which reified religions have become carriers of rigid and policed identities that exacerbate inter-group tensions and undermine progressive politics. Her work contributes to a growing and urgently necessary body of theory that is unraveling confusions propagated in the narratives of government in which we are all enmeshed.

NB This blog was first published on the NAASR site, 11.5.15.