A conference report for ‘Religion, Politics, and Critique: Comparative Political Theology’

This conference concluded in February 2019, but bios for participants and video recordings of presentations are available.

What might ‘political theology’ – often seen as a Western or Christian discourse – contribute to discussion of religion, politics, and the secular in the Middle East? Is the discipline inappropriate to any tradition outside of Europe and the West, or are useful contributions yet awaiting the proper approach?

To address this question from a variety of academic and faith perspectives, the Christian-Muslim Studies Network from the University of Edinburgh and the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut co-hosted the conference, ‘Religion, Politics, and Critique: Comparative Political Theology’.

‘There seems to be, then, a road not yet taken by political theologians in North America and Europe: to participate with Arab thinkers in the work of writing comparative political theologies that decolonize knowledge and seek a more just alternative to the world as it stands’, wrote Dr Joshua Ralston, Director for the Christian-Muslim Studies Network, in Political Theology.

In February, accomplished scholars, students of politics and theology, and local civil leaders gathered in Beirut. Some formal presentations and informal discussions focused directly on Christian-Muslim engagement, and others looked instead to constructs within politics, faith, and the secular.

Reflections on ‘Religion, Politics, and Critique: Comparative Political Theology’

The conference theme, ‘Religion, Politics, and Critique: Comparative Political Theology’ was expounded in an editorial in Political Theology by Dr Ralston:

‘We can say that something like political theology exists in Arabic—and is a quite lively enterprise covering everything from sectarian representation and cultural critique to legal theory and divine sovereignty—but we must resist the temptation to collapse it simply into a reflection of Western concerns. While arguments over secularism, sovereignty, religion, God, and state are prevalent in the Arabic discussion, resonating and overlapping with Western ones given the influence of Greek thought, prophetic revelation, modernity, and global capital, the Arabic and Western discussions move in different directions at key points because of the distinctive questions addressed in the Arabic discussion including the nature of trans-national Arab identity, models of political pluralism rooted in Ottoman and ‘Abbasid traditions, and notions of community and freedom formed by the ethical impulses of Islam.

Ralston, Joshua. “Political Theology in Arabic.” Political Theology 19, no. 7 (2018): 549-52.

The challenge, as Dr Ralston argued in the editorial, was to establish how or to what extent this paradigm for comparative political theology might be enacted, all with the help of scholars from four continents and located in the birthplace of many of the greatest ideas of world civilization.

Within this discussion, Dr Anne Hege Grung found connections to her own work on Muslim-Christian relations with a gender perspective, as well as promise for comparative political theology generally:

Comparative political theology turns out to be a promising, emerging field within Christian-Muslim relations and Interreligious Studies. The conference in Beirut certainly opened interesting discussions around this. Dr Mona Hassan brought our attention to the asymmetric power structures that are shaping our understandings of and our research in the field, and a comparative political theology would certainly have to engage with this in several ways.

Dr Lama Abu-Oudeh presented a critique of Saba Mahmood’s work that was both interesting and fruitfully disturbing. This accentuated not only how religious and secular feminisms may not be able to connect in terms of shared conversations, but also on the ethics of working on Muslim-Christian relations with a gender perspective.

The comparative element should be theoretically and methodologically explored: What does comparison entail? What are the limits and gains? One of the obvious gains is to challenge any “taken-for-granted” positions within political theology. This includes views on time and history, eschatology, but also on human rights and concepts of salvation.

Responses to the discussion

The discussion at the Issam Fares Institute, American University of Beirut, were open to public engagement. Admiral Nazih Jbaily, a retired Rear Admiral of the Lebanese Armed Forces, traveled two hours to attend the discussion in Beirut. It was a mark, he said, of how much he valued the aims.

‘I encourage everybody to read and even participate in events like this, because this is what we need in a world torn with secularism and extremism,’ he said. ‘The more I know about my brothers in humanity, the more I love them and realize that they are exactly like me’.

He said he considers Christian-Muslim Studies to be among the most important areas of international relations.

‘The subject of theological studies is new to me in term of academics, but I enjoyed it so much’, he said. ‘I admired how much the foreign, especially the Western professors, knew about Islam’.

Students also attended and participated in the discussion.

‘Such controversial topics were treated with well-informed scholars, approaching them with relevant and recent studies’, said Mohamad Alawiyeh, a masters student in Sociology at the American University of Beirut (AUB). ‘The arguments that took place after each panel revealed important points where scholars engaged with each other, criticizing and complementing major points. The religious and political diversity the Lebanese culture has provides the American University of Beirut with a crucial position to hold academic discourse regarding religion and politics’.

Others also noted the significance of the location. Beirut has long been celebrated for cultural and religious richness, as well as for providing links between East and West.

‘The conference was utterly brilliant, made more special by the location — where else would you have been confronted with the remnants of a past scarred by a religious conflict and evidence of the continuing tensions created by the most recent history?’ said Dr Barbara Schwepcke, Executive Trustee of Gingko.

Having traveled from London to attend the conference, Dr Schwepcke was most interested in the thesis of the conference, that cooperation between different faiths and traditions can produce new and workable ideas in both history and contemporary politics.

‘Is comparative political theology possible?’ she asked, alluding to Dr Ralston’s initial challenge. ‘I think that the Beirut conference proved that it is!’

For information about upcoming international conferences and other events with the Christian-Muslim Studies Network, please see the Events page.