Political Theory and the Question of Religion

Convenor: Zubair Ahmad, BGSMCS, Freie Universität
Contact: zubair@zedat.fu-berlin.de

In her recently published book, Liberalism’s Religion (2017), political and legal theorist Cécile Laborde reflects on the “foundational issues about the place of religion in liberal political theory.” In doing so, she suggests that while the “notion of religion is central to the historical elaboration of Western liberalism (…), strangely, it has remained under-theorized by liberal political philosophers.” (1) Departing from this observation, the workshop suggests that the lack of engagement vis-à-vis religion is not only limited to liberal political philosophers. The category of religion as such has remained under-theorized within the disciplinary settings of political theory. However, this is not to suggest that there has been no engagement with ‘religion’ whatsoever – quite the contrary has been the case. Investigations of the so-called return of religion, whether described as a “deprivatization” (Casanova 1994, 5), a “revitalization” (Habermas 2005, 120), or an “explosion of politicized religion” (Chatterjee 2008, 58), have taken place but largely remained within the interpretative horizon of liberal political theory. In effect, even a critical scrutiny of (the category of) religion takes the latter as a self-evident, general, and ahistorical category, a natural aspect in the world, divided from politics, economy, or race. But why should we assume, asks Timothy Fitzgerald (2007, 4),

“that religion has a nature distinct from the aesthetic, the ethical or the political? Do all these categories refer to things with natures? If discourse, practice, community and institution are what constitute the core components of the nature of religion (its essence), how does religion differ from secular history, or from secular politics, or from secular anything you like? Do they not all have discourse, practice, community and institution?”

Critical scholarship on religion, however, has been suggesting that (the category of) ‘religion’ is not only a “historical product of discursive processes” (Asad 1993, 29) but that its contingent formation, operation, and effects have been tied to the process of secularization (Masuzawa 2008; Scott 1999, 67-68). Additionally, scholars from other disciplines have entangled religion with questions of race, political theology, orientalism, issues of class and gender, governmentality, and many more. These conversations have remained marginal at best and absent at worst when it comes to political theory.

Against this backdrop, this workshop seeks to provide a forum for critically engaging with (the category of) religion beyond the liberal orders of interpretation. The workshop invites papers from various disciplinary backgrounds and a wide range of theoretical and analytical perspectives to address the topicality (and category) of ‘religion’, such as:


  • Postcolonial & Decolonial Thought
  • Race, Gender, Class
  • Governmentality and Religion
  • Critical Muslim Studies
  • Liberation Theologies & Political Theologies of the Global South
  • Political Theology
  • Frankfurt School


The overall aim is twofold: Firstly, to evaluate and problematize the hegemonic, and therefore persistent, analytical avenues taken within a more mainstream engagement with religion and, secondly, to broaden the scope of engagement, depth, and analysis by introducing alternative questions, epistemologies, modes of investigation, and problematizations vis-à-vis ‘religion’ in order to enhance the conversation within the sub-discipline of political theory.


Abstracts should be 300-500 words, and should be send by June 1st to Zubair Ahmad (zubair@zedat.fu-berlin.de). Applicants will be notified by June 10th about the outcome of their submission. Successful applicants will each have 30 minutes of presentation time, plus Q&A. A limited number of bursaries is available and eligible parties need to apply to MANCEPT organizers before 23rd June. Please note that these bursaries only cover registration.