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By Malory Nye

What does a Critical Religion approach have to do with race, and in particular in what ways should Critical Religion make central an engagement with Critical Race theory?

Tim Fitzgerald (e.g., 2008, 2012, 2015) – and others on this blog – have very clearly set out the agenda for a Critical Religion approach, much of which I strongly agree with. Thus, my own starting point for the study of religion is that this entity that gets called ‘religion’ (a thing that is not-a-thing) is bound up closely with another ideological entity that is called modernity (Asad 2003; Fitzgerald 2007). The discourse of religion is an integral part of modernity. Thus religion and secularity are conjoined; the development of modernity is in itself a product of the construction of an idea of secularity – the separating out of certain elements of power and social organisation into discourses of the non-religious.

However, the story does not end there: modernity is a much larger concept which works to produce a series of further ideological (taken-for-granted) categories. Concepts such as ‘politics’, ‘property’, and ‘markets’ have been well discussed in this respect, but I would add to this other key analytical terms such as gender, race, sexuality, and ability (along with of course religion) – these are all discourses of analysis and categories of social difference. That is, the modern world takes for granted not only certain assumed biology-derived differences between men and women, hetero- and non-hetero- sexualities (particularly homosexuality), whiteness and colour (particularly Blackness), and so on. And within such distinctions there are differences between religions – in particular, between Christocentric practice and others (in what is often called the ‘world religions paradigm’, cf. Masuzawa 2005).

In addition, modernity produces such differences – providing material advantages and privileges for those who are identified as white, male, and hetero and thus causing disadvantage (often through systemic or actual violence) to those who are considered as non-white, non-male, and non-hetero. Needless to say, these identities and discourses (and the violence that comes from them) often overlap and intersect. Violence and disadvantage is directed against Blackness, against women, and against gays, but it is also particularly focused when these categories intersect – against Black women, against Black LGBTQ, and so on. To talk of such categories and identities requires an intersectional approach (Crenshaw 1989; hooks 1987; Hill Collins and Bilge 2016) that focuses not only on the categories in themselves, but also on their intersections (or assemblages, cf. Puar 2007:212; 2014).

Again, religious identities are often implicated across and within such intersections. This is not to say that a ‘thing’ called religion can be ‘found’ in or ‘influenced’ by other categories such as gender, race, and sexuality. Instead, the discourse or category of religion is very often assumed to be a significant element of differentiation. This may be in terms of long standing intra-Christian religious categories (such as Protestant or Catholic), or categories that presume racialized differences, such as between (white) Christians and (non-white) others such as Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. Again there are layers of other categories intersecting across these categories of religion – such as, of course, the persistent gender-based ‘concerns’ about Muslim women (in particular clothing, freedom, etc.), about Muslim women’s sexuality (covering up and unveiling), and assumptions about Muslim men and violence (as ‘terrorists’, wife-abusers, and sexual predators).

Thus, it is important to think beyond the idea of each of these categories as existing separately and in themselves (as ‘sui generis’). The categories of gender, race, sexuality, and religion (and secularity) are all products of modernity, and within the context of modernity they are practised through their intersections. There is no single practice of gender – of maleness or femaleness – but instead each context also relies on the other categories: masculinity is racialized, sexualized, and religionized. This is one of the ways in which modernity works.

However, my main interest is in how the category of race works. And so, I argue in particular for a critical race and religion approach. This puts a central focus on how religion and modernity are the product of European colonialism, which is an ongoing project – what Quijano (2007) and others have labelled as the ‘colonial matrix of power’, or more simply as modernity/coloniality. Both race and religion are the grammar of this historic and present day coloniality.

This leads me to questions of how religion is racialized, or more particularly how the process of talking about religion (religionization) is in itself a form of racialization (Nye 2018, 2019). As Theodor Vial has recently argued:
‘Race and religion are conjoined twins. They are offspring of the modern world. Because they share a mutual genealogy, the category of religion is always a racialized category, even when race is not explicitly under discussion…’ (Vial 2016, 1).

The categories of both race and religion are products of modernity, and both relate to entities imagined to be ‘real’ and which are socially constructed (and hence are real). My issue is that the differentiation between these categories obfuscates more than it reveals – for example, in the extensive debates about whether Islamophobic violence against Muslims can be categorised as ‘racism’ since (as claimed) ‘Muslims are not a race’; or whether anti-semitism is about religious or racialised hatred. This is not merely an academic concern about categorisation, it obviously spills out into very real and pressing issues. And most importantly, this slippage and mutual construction between categories of race and religion is not a recent development, the study of religion has for centuries been dependent on the ambiguities of whether religious groups are racialised or vice versa. Critical religion is about the study of such racialisation.

However, discussion of race also requires acknowledgement of the ‘elephant in the room’: the ideology and identity of whiteness. That is, the racialising aspect of modernity that places white identities as the driving forces of all other aspects of modernity/coloniality. Of course, such whiteness is usually obscured and ignored, but has still dominated public and political life, as well as academic discourses (cf., Sara Ahmed, 2014 on ‘white men’). To raise the issue of whiteness is to talk about the water in which scholars and their readers swim, the air that they breathe – it is there, but not noticed. It is invisible and seen everywhere. Mills (2017) and Wekker (2016) talk of this as white ignorance and innocence, and Bhambra (2017a) talks of methodological whiteness. Of course, in the study of religion this is as simple as pointing to the centrality of issues of Christianity and white Europeans (and other people who racialise themselves as white), and the long-term use of a paradigm that classifies all others who are outside this into ‘world religions’. Thus, the analysis needs to try ‘to understand both the ways in which race, as a structural process, has organised the modern world and the impact that this has had on our ways of knowing the world’ (Bhambra 2017b). In short, the concept of religion (and more broadly the academic study of religion) serves the interests of such whiteness.

Therefore, (what gets called) religion is an important part of this colonial matrix of power, albeit ‘it’ does not stand alone or distinctly. (What gets called) religion is part of an intersecting system involving categories of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability. In this respect, the idea of the study of religion is a product of a very particular form of modernising theory (that is, of a distinct entity of religion, which stands out from secularity and non-religion). A critique of such theoretical and methodological whiteness suggests that this modernist study of religion needs to be reconsidered, as it is a tool of colonial power (both past and present).

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———. 2017b. “Why Are the White Working Classes Still Being Held Responsible for Brexit and Trump?” LSE Blog, November 10, 2017. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2017/11/10/why-are-the-white-working-classes-still-being-held-responsible-for-brexit-and-trump/.
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———. 2012. “The Breadth of Critical Religion.” Critical Religion Association, November 9, 2012. https://criticalreligion.org/2012/11/09/the-breadth-of-critical-religion/.
———. 2015. “Critical Religion and Critical Research on Religion: Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Critical Research on Religion 3 (3): 303–19.
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