Anna Su on How to Study Religion in Times of Crises

Nurfadzilah Yahaya's picture

In the recently concluded ‘Roundtable on How to Study Religion in Times of Crises’ on June 28th 2016 organized by the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, Anna Su, Assistant Professor of Law at University of Toronto spoke of law and religion. Su is the author of Exporting Freedom:  Religious Liberty and American Power published by Harvard University Press earlier this year. The book which has been widely reviewed traces America’s exportation of religious freedom in various laws and policies enacted over the course of the twentieth century, in diverse locations and under a variety of historical circumstances including in the Philippines after the Spanish–American War, in Japan following World War II, and in Iraq after 2003. She also highlights how American officials spearheaded efforts to reform the international legal order by pursuing Wilsonian principles in the League of Nations, drafting the United Nations Charter, and signing the Helsinki Accords during the Cold War.

At the Roundtable, the question that was posed to the Su’s panel was “how do times of crises affect analytical frameworks, research methodologies, writing and presentation techniques in research on religion?” She tackles the question by first looking at how religion has been packaged in the twenty-first century. After September 11 2001, religion became the object of attention in the US - especially the subject of religion ‘abroad.’ The study of religion became separate from other kinds of philosophical engagements.  More specifically, scholarship on Islam often focuses on whether it is compatible with democracy, and anything that does not fit has to be reasoned away. Increasingly over the past decade, more phenomena became ascribed to religion. For one, recent moral panic has led to an obsession with determining whether the Islamic State (IS) is truly Islamic or not. This framework has also led to an oversized role of religion in politics. For example, the Rohingya in Myanmar have been primarily identified as Muslims above all.

Su draws our attention to the reproductive health statute that was passed in the Philippines in 2014 that requires government health centers to provide contraceptives and mandates sex education in schools. The Catholic Church in the Philippines opposed this move beforehand, and invoked Catholic doctrines instead of legal doctrines to support their position, much to the chagrin of legal scholars. Although it is tempting for some legal scholars to dismiss the Church's arguments, Su argues that they could do more to bear in mind social and historical contexts in such situations.

In other words, it would really help for scholars to contextualize how people do things. Su points out that there is indeed a strong public demand for more access to legal knowledge currently. The website ShariaSOURCE which is launched by the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School provides a good example of an effective platform for the dissemination of legal knowledge. Historians, as memory activators, also contribute by providing knowledge about similar phenomena in the past that might explain or clarify the present.