How should we navigate the waters of religious pluralism and diversity? Answering this question almost always takes us to discussions of laws, rules, and court decisions concerning freedom of religion. In Deep Equality in an Era of Religious Diversity, religious studies scholar Lori Beaman urges us to shift our attention and instead look for answers in everyday instances of people negotiating their religious differences. The starting point of her inquiry is to go beyond the reified frameworks of religion and religious identity by looking at the “micro-processes that make up the everyday negotiation of difference” (3). What we see from this bottom-up lens is the emergence of the notion of deep equality—a lived state and a process—as a new foundation for these interactions. Exploring the conditions under which deep equality might or might not emerge or flourish is the main aim of this book. In its frequent invocations of the importance of mundane everyday interactions, Deep Equality shows its great ambition. It engages in a thorough and comprehensive ground-clearing effort to decenter law and its hegemonic claim on our civic imaginations, to disturb a commonplace static vision of religion, and to displace tolerance and accommodation as the organizing language of public discourse around religious diversity. The book makes its argument using films, novels, interviews, court decisions, and other kinds of ethnographic material, and shows how religious individuals and communities are more than just the religious markers people assign to each other. In the first chapter, Beaman questions the rigidity of identity differences and the tendency to use religion as the primary point of reference in relating to others. Her examination of lived religion in films, academic studies, and in her own fieldwork highlights the complexity of identity and the harmful consequences of putting people in boxes. The second chapter provides a roadmap on how deep equality can be achieved by emphasizing local solutions over national ones, and highlighting examples involving empathy, respect, and cooperation. She cites, for instance, the focus on positive responses from submissions made before the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, headed by prominent Canadian sociologist Gerard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor. The body was tasked by then Quebec Premier Jean Charest in 2008 to take stock of accommodation practices throughout the province. The third chapter looks at the underlying everyday values that can make deep equality a real possibility, such as respect, humor, caring, and forgiveness. Subsequently, Deep Equality examines the genealogy of the privileged terms of religious diversity discourse, namely, tolerance and accommodation, with a view to dislodging them. Beaman particularly targets the term “reasonable accommodation,” which she argues has stunted discussions of equality. Indeed, she devotes an entire chapter to reclaiming equality from the law, that is, to hold law “in a suspended state to facilitate the recovery of some under-explored spaces in which equality, diversity, differences…can be understood” (178). The book offers an important lesson in this day and age of cause lawyering, especially concerning intractable conflicts between religious freedom and equality. Beaman’s observation that “law has so effectively colonized the notion of equality that is almost impossible to think about it apart from a legal apparatus…” (178) encapsulates a key dilemma of our times. On the one hand, law provides a necessary framework for everyday inter-personal relations, validating, as it were, certain norms and social arrangements. It is not necessary to list examples of court decisions or laws to assert that they are a useful tool to vindicate rights and uphold certain values. But on the other hand, its pervasive character renders us unable to see alternatives beyond what is offered in legal terms. As the equality example shows, its legal understanding has displaced practices showcased in the book. This is not a new argument. Law and religion scholars such as Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Benjamin Berger have written on the distorted yet overencompassing frame with which law views religion. Beaman does the same with equality in this book. Crucially, however, Deep Equality goes beyond this requisite diagnosis and shows a horizontal view of what practices involving deep equality might look like. In other words, it takes this powerful and longstanding critique and provides a map for addressing it. Indeed, this is probably the book’s most important contribution. Its prescriptions closely track the findings of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. One of the overarching themes of the report was the emphasis on nongovernmental responses toward anxiety over accommodations and the maintenance of Quebec identity and values. As the report notes, accommodation should not be overly legislated, and it should be up to individuals and groups to work out how they will accommodate each other on a case-by-case basis, although Beaman characterizes the report nonetheless as too reliant on law. At any rate, the values highlighted in the book fit well within such a more or less ad hoc, horizontal framework. Deep Equality is laudably aware of the criticisms it will face over its elevation of social and relational aspects of norms and values, particularly the claim of its naïve and utopian character. The book is peppered with positive accounts of people negotiating their differences, such as the “Cook a Pot of Curry” movement in Singapore or the children of the Brossard soccer team wearing turbans in a sign of solidarity with those affected by a turban ban on soccer players by Quebec. But there are also obvious limitations associated with this approach. Consider Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, a 2006 case decided by the Supreme Court of Canada that features prominently throughout the book. The book suggests that the result of having a Sikh boy wear his kirpan to school was evidence of deep equality, but notes that the result was brought about by a court. The reason it went before courts in the first place was that the negotiation between his parents and the school was not sufficient to resolve the case, as the family later became subject to disrespectful treatment by the community. And it was the legal result in that case that prompted a community-wide discussion on the issue of accommodation. True, part of the problem is that, as Karl Marx dismisses in On the Jewish Question, formal equality amongst rights-bearing individuals usually has no correlation with real equality. But sometimes, legal equality at least addresses the practical inequality of religious minorities trying to hold on to their identity and practices amidst a community trying to do the same thing and provides an opportunity for real or deep equality to occur. I reckon many of the harder questions involving religious difference such as Multani would require both legal and nonlegal approaches for their resolution. Deep Equality provides a path for both. Overall, the book is a very useful corrective to prevailing theoretical and practical approaches vis-à-vis religious identity and diversity. The reader will find the ethnographic work particularly illuminating in grounding many of the abstract theories and concepts often employed in discussions involving religious freedom and in emphasizing that deep equality depends, by and large, on people recognizing similarities in one another. Deep Equality thus significantly broadens the frame with which we view these debates, not only in terms of methodology but also substance. There is a rich world outside law, notwithstanding law’s seemingly long shadow. And it starts with the person in front of us. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 2, 2018
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