Anthropologist awarded grant to study politics of religious freedom

December 2, 2010
By: Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

The Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs has awarded Saba Mahmood, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, a three-year, $496,000 grant to study how law and politics are transforming religious freedom.


Saba Mahmood

Mahmood's "Politics of Religious Freedom" project will bring together key human rights and civil society organizations, along with jurists, policymakers and academics who have helped reshape the debate on religious freedom in the United States, the Middle East, South Asia and the European Union.

"This project will bring sorely needed scholarly insights and multiple perspectives to the increasingly important global issue of religious freedom," said Michael Gilligan, president of the Henry R. Luce Foundation.

Departing from the idea of a single, stable principle of religious liberty enshrined in international law, United Nations protocols and national constitutions, the project's research team will study different historical trajectories, interpretations and practices organized under the rubric of religious freedom.

Mahmood, whose research focuses on religious social movements, Islam and the Middle East, said that in order to reach agreement about religious freedom issues in the human rights and international communities, it is important first to understand analytically the conceptual and practical stakes.

"Rather than reduce global religious differences to a lowest common denominator, our project aims to map out the nature of these differences so as to consider their implications for religious liberty at national and international policy levels," she said.

Joining Mahmood as co-principal investigator is Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University who is known for her work on international relations and secularism.

Other core researchers include Peter Danchin, an associate professor of law at the University of Maryland's School of Law, and Winnifred Sullivan, professor of law at the State University of New York's Buffalo Law School. Both are leading voices in debates on the right to religious liberty internationally and in the United States.

Based on project workshops planned with participants from India, Egypt, the European Union, South Africa and the United States, the researchers will produce a handbook for academics, legal practitioners and civil society organizations working on religious liberty; prepare translations of and commentaries on precedent-setting legal cases involving religious freedom in the regions cited above; and publish in special issues of leading academic journals several key papers presented in the workshops and at the final capstone conference.

The project will also develop undergraduate and graduate syllabi on the comparative history of religious freedom, and will support four graduate student interns in two legal aid organizations in Egypt and in India that will collaborate with the research team.

"I am thrilled that the Luce Foundation has offered its support to professor Mahmood and that the social sciences at UC Berkeley will be able to facilitate her collaboration with other national leaders in this ambitious and timely program," said Carla Hesse, UC Berkeley's dean of social sciences and a professor of history.