From Negative to Positive Narratives: Values and Strategies in Negotiating Difference

Foundation Update

From Negative to Positive Narratives: Values and Strategies in Negotiating Difference

01 May 2015

The export of religious freedom from the West has serious consequences for religious communities around the world. The impact of such policies can serve to only further divide societies already torn by conflict. Perhaps the greatest problem is the Western, and even Christian, bias these policies contain. A better understanding of local sensibilities and contexts combined with an appreciation for local practices of negotiating religion would provide a more viable building block for the achievement of equality, writes Lori G. Beaman for our Global Perspectives Series.

From Negative to Positive Narratives: Values and Strategies in Negotiating Difference

By Lori G. Beaman

Caution is needed in thinking about how the regulatory discourses of policy and law are directed toward religion, religious freedom and religious diversity. Numerous criticisms have been raised about religious freedom and its export from the United States of America and Canada. For example, see E. Shakman Hurd, 'Believing in Religious Freedom', in W.F. Sullivan, E. Shakman Hurd, S. Mahmood and P.G. Danchin (eds.), Politics of Religious Freedom, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, forthcoming (2015), pp. 33-41; W.F Sullivan, 'The Impossibility of Religious Freedom', The Immanent Frame, 8 July 2014, []; L.G. Beaman and W.F. Sullivan, 'Neighbo(u)rly Misreadings and Misconstruals: A Cross-border Conversation', in W.F. Sullivan and L.G. Beaman (eds.), Varieties of Religious Establishment, Farnham, Ashgate, 2013, pp. 1-14. Indeed there are serious limitations to the present tendency to want to 'save' local religious minorities through various state offices of religious freedom.

First, many public policy and academic discussions about religious diversity and freedom of religion extract religion as a decontextualised variable that then takes on a life of its own. Scholars of religion have long agonised over definitions of religion, or even whether such a thing as religion exists at all. Understandably, this is not something that policy makers have a great deal of time for. For an excellent overview of the definitional quagmire, see L. Woodhead, 'Five Concepts of Religion', International Review of Sociology, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2013, pp. 121-142. Indeed, many academics find this debate tiresome and an embarrassing example of intellectual self-absorption.

However, we would do well to step back and ask ourselves how naming something as 'religious' or being 'about religion' can have an impact on local communities and groups. Religion can act as a simple dividing factor in articulations of conflict. This is in no way intended to exempt religion as a potentially negative, or positive, force, but to advise caution in its use as an explanatory tool. The flip side of this also poses serious problems, namely the ignoring of religion as an important force in social life. However, it is important to recognise the clear distinction between appreciating the religious dimensions of a particular situation and reducing everything to religion.

Second, despite a great deal of lip service to within-group difference, monolithic representations of religious groups dominate the academic and policy landscape. In my research with Muslims, for example, a number of participants have expressed concern that states and policies are reifying a particular orthodoxy about Islam that then plays out on the ground. Principal Investigator Jennifer Selby, 'Religion in the Everyday: Negotiating Islam in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador'. This showed how Muslims negotiate their religious identities. Parallel interviews with Muslims in Montreal, conducted by Amélie Barras, also heard stories of people working out difference in daily life. Not all Muslims pray five times a day, eat halal or, in the case of women, wear hijab, yet these often dominate conversation about Islam and the need for 'accommodation'. This is not a good Islam versus bad Islam conversation, R. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars who Study Them, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2005 but rather an observation that all religion is nuanced in practice and we would do well to attend to that nuance before engaging in diversity engineering strategies.

Another variation of this is the tendency to want to reshape all religion in the image of Christianity, a sort of 'take me to your imam' approach that is grossly out of step with how religion is practised in many regions of the world. This can have the effect of empowering particular religious actors who may not represent the majority of practitioners, or who exclude important segments of religious practitioners. Again we must consider the impact that this has on communities. Women in particular are excluded, A. Shachar, Multicultural Jurisdictions: Cultural Differences and Women's Rights, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001; S.M. Okin, J. Cohen, M. Howard and M.C. Nussbaum, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999. but the effect can be far wider. The Fundamentalist Latter-day Saint community of Bountiful, British Columbia, for example, is almost always characterised as 'polygamous', despite the fact that the majority of its families are not living in that family form.

This leads to a caution about gender. There is a pervasive rhetoric of gender equality in relation to limits on religious freedom that has the effect of establishing 'West as egalitarian, rest as oppressive' that is disingenuous. Examples can be seen in the Stasi report from France, the S.A.S. case from the European Court of Human Rights and the Bouchard-Taylor Commission in Quebec, amongst others. Commission Stasi, 'Commission de réflexion sur l'application du principe de laïcité dans la République: rapport au Président de la République', 11 December 2003, [ 0000.pdf]; S.A.S. v. France [2014] ECHR 695; G. Bouchard and C. Taylor, Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation, Quebec, Government of Québec, 2008. Gender equality is held out as the justification for protecting women, even when they do not want such 'protection'. For example, the equality of men and women is used as a justification for all manner of public sphere intervention and debate about women's dress. There is ample evidence that gender equality is far from achieved in Western democracies, both by academics and in statistics about violence against women, pay equity, division of household labour and so on. A. McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change, Los Angeles, Sage, 2009; S.J. Douglas, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work Is Done, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2010; C. Hemmings, Why Stories Matter: Grammar of Feminist Theory, Durham, Duke University Press, 2011; L.G. Beaman, 'The Status of Women: The Report from a Civilized Society', Canadian Criminal Law Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2012, pp. 223-246; L.G. Beaman, 'Overdressed and Underexposed or Underdressed and Overexposed?' Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, Vol. 19, No. 6, 2013, pp. 723-742; L.G. Beaman, 'Opposing Polygamy: A Matter of Equality or Patriarchy?', in M-P. Robert, D. Koussens and S. Bernatchez (eds.), Of Crime and Religion: Polygamy in Canadian Law, Sherbrooke, Éditions Revue de droit de l'Université de Sherbrooke, 2014, pp. 131-157. Religious or not, there is some serious work to be done before anyone can claim to have achieved gender equality. Thus, to hold ourselves out as paragons of equality virtue is quite simply dishonest. Having so seriously misread the situation 'at home', it would seem to be prudent to exercise extreme caution and care when exporting 'the equality of men and women' or using it as justification for the regulation of women's bodies for their own good.

Being realistic about one's own culture is also important from another vantage point. Statements in interviews from non-Christian immigrants about the Christian nature of Canada challenge the carefully constructed story of Canada as a secular nation. Principal Investigator Peter Beyer, 'Religion Among Immigrant Youth in Canada' and 'Religion Among Immigrant Young Adults in Canada'; also Selby, 'Religion in the Everyday', op. cit.. These included interviews with Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist youth. Interviewees were vocal about their perception of Canada's Christian leanings. This requires a bit of careful rethinking for Canada and for other Western countries promoting religious freedom. Recognising Canada's Christian character does not, and should not, mean reifying it. However, the ways in which Christianity permeates Canadian institutions, including its Constitution, holidays, and public symbols, means that as a multicultural country claiming to value diversity and to support religious freedom it must carefully think about how this impacts on those who want and deserve full participation in its society. To characterise majoritarian religion as 'culture' conceals majoritarian religion and its impact from scrutiny. See for example, Saguenay (Ville de) v. Mouvement laïque québécois [2013] QCCA 936. This is not only a problem in Canada, but one that plays out in the European Union as well. For example, Lautsi and others v. Italy [2011] ECHR. No. 30814/06. This is cited with approval by the Quebec Court of Appeal in Saguenay. When Christian values are represented as universal values, there is no escape from them. We all become Christian then.

Related to this is the growing presence of those who describe themselves as 'nones'. This group is globally pervasive, growing and yet its potential impact and its contours are largely ignored by states that are instead scrambling to respond to the 'new' religious reality. Western democracies in particular (though not exclusively) have shown a dramatic increase in people who, when asked to identify their religious affiliation, state that they are 'none' or have 'no' affiliation. Statistics Canada data suggests that one in four Canadians is now a 'none'; in the USA, Pew Research Center indicates that this category accounts for one in five adults; and in the England and Wales, 25.1 percent of the population say they have no religion. Statistics Canada, National Household Survey, 2011 shows a rise in religious nones from 16.5% in the 2001 Census to 23.9%; R. MacDonald, 'Canadians losing their religion and other survey highlights', The Globe and Mail, 8 May 2013, [ Pew Research Centre, '"Nones" on the Rise', 9 October 2012, [] shows unaffiliated adults as 19.6%; Office for National Statistics, 'Religion in England and Wales 2011', 11 December 2012, []. There is a fine line between the recognition of the importance of religion in some people's lives and the assumption that everyone has a religious, or at the very least a spiritual, life, whatever that may mean. This 'will to religion' is dangerous for a number of reasons, including its exclusion or denigration of those who simply do not want to be identified as either religious or spiritual. Particularly troublesome is the construction of the non-religious as unreasonable, radical or lacking common sense. See Lautsi, op. cit., particularly the opinion of Judge Bonello, and Saguenay, op. cit.; see also L.G. Beaman, 'The Will to Religion: Obligatory Religious Citizenship', Critical Research on Religion, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2013, pp. 141-157.

Finally, while much attention is paid to conflict and strife that is quite often nominally about religion, there is much less attention devoted to the ways in which people simply get along and go about the business of negotiating and navigating diversity in day-to-day life. It might therefore be advisable to pay careful attention, through positive narratives, to what works in local settings, instead of imposing top-down 'solutions'. Too often this means a focus on 'inter-faith exchanges' that rely on religious identity rigidity that misrepresent the complex ways that many people 'do' religion in everyday life. Monotheistic religions are especially notorious for rejecting syncretic, eclectic or what W.C. James calls 'dimorphic approaches' to religion, W.C. James, 'Dimorphs and Cobblers: Ways of Being Religious in Canada', in L.G. Beaman (ed.), Religion and Canadian Society 2nd Edition, Toronto, Canadian Scholar's Press, 2006, pp. 55-68. which permeate the practice of many 'religious' people around the world. Shifting the focus to positive narratives of, what I term, the micro-processes of negotiating difference, whether between religions (broadly conceptualised) or religion and non-religion, may facilitate the successful navigation of difference and diversity. Sometimes the situations in which this happens are so unremarkable that they are, essentially, non-events. But they are important moments in tracing the path toward a more robust or deep equality.

Here I return to my first point: religion in these stories is deeply intertwined with other identity markers and experiences that provide a platform from which people identify similarity with others rather than emphasising difference. Rather than reinventing religious freedom as an export from enlightened democracies, a careful examination of local practices of successful negotiation of religious difference might provide a more viable building block for an expanded capacity for the achievement of equality.

This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume  here.


The views expressed by this author remains solely their own and may not necessarily be the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Copyright © December 2014 by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Edited by Daniel Cere and Thomas Thorp.
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