Magazine article Cross Currents

Development, Religion, and Modernity in Palestine-Israel

Magazine article Cross Currents

Development, Religion, and Modernity in Palestine-Israel

Article excerpt

Introduction: defining the religious

Research on peacebuilding and development organizations in the Global South seeks to assess the merits of either "faith-based" (i.e., religious) or "secular" missions in conflict areas. This scholarship ostensibly evaluates the efficacy of organizations on their ability to engage local partners at either secular or religious levels. Arguments in this vein generally fall into one of two positions: on one hand, scholars hold up the unique modern-secular capacity to intervene in places of "religious" conflict; on the other hand, scholars highlight the unique positionality of religious organizations, which enables them to connect with parties in "religious" societies and conflicts. In fact, these two positions are on two sides of the same coin. Both arguments are predicated on a distinction between the "secular" and the "religious" as a precondition of analysis.

Here, the "secular-religious" distinction itself is called into question as a product of modern thought and scholarship on religion and development is examined for its reliance on this distinction. What work does this distinction perform in peacebuilding work? How has this distinction come to command importance in this field? This critique attempts to illustrate the overlapping and shifting relationships that constitute religious identity and peacebuilding work in Palestine-Israel. Unsettling this distinction allows us to explore the ways that "Muslim," "Christian," "religious," and "secular" categories are products of contingent and fluid relationships, rather than static identities. I am not calling for a relativist position that strips from such terms their meaning or effect, but rather exploring the process by which these constructed frameworks come to have meaning and material effect in a specific time and place: Palestine-Israel today.

Talal Mad has argued that the liberal nation state is paradoxically required to define the genuinely "religious" in order to lay claim to the secular. Similarly, we believe self-described "secular" peacebuilding and development organizations are compelled to define themselves in opposition to religious groups and religious parties in areas of their operation. They must define the "religious" in order to carry out their work as secular organizations. It is precisely their "secular" status that compels them to delineate and circumscribe the religious. This engagement is a tenuous process that leads to homogenized and static definitions of people and groups. It also limits organizations' ability to provide advocacy and policy guidance to various parties in a conflict. Perhaps most importantly, it grants secular institutions the power to name and de/legitimize religious organizations. And this is integral to the dominant frameworks that development and peacebuilding have historically operated within. This speaks to what Ziauddin Sardar identified in his "Development and the Locations of Eurocentrism" as the "real power of the West," a power "not located in its economic muscle or technological might," but rather "in its power to define." (2) This power is leveraged to obscure the "margin" in order to constitute Europe as epistemological "center." In other words, Europe as the site of universal epistemology is not possible without the margin. That which claims for itself the position of "center" is always enabled by the effaced contributions of the margin. (3) Therefore, the secular-religious distinction is itself made possible by obscuring other formations and ideas located at the margins.

Recent discussion in "faith-based" organizations builds from the enacted schism in Western tradition between the religious and the secular. A World Vision employee, Serge Duss wrote, "Unlike Western society, which separates the spiritual from the physical, Islamic society particularly, integrate the spiritual into every aspect of their lives in societies." (4) Evangelization or proselytization by Christian organizations is, of course, a geopolitical as well as religious question. …

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