Title: Adjudicating the Nation, Disciplining Islam: The Judicial Construction of Religion
Name: Asad Ahmed

Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago

Year: 2002
Type: Dissertation Fellowship
Summary:

My dissertation project is a historical and ethnographic examination of criminal offences against religion. The legal sections in the Pakistan Penal Code delineating these offences are popularly referred to as the "blasphemy laws." These laws and the trials they engender have become a critical site of contestation within society and state between those who argue that Pakistan should be a liberal Muslim polity, a "Muslim homeland," and those who argue that it is to be an Islamic state. Historically, I track the institution of these laws from the British project of legal codification and their attempt to secularize offences against religion to the current mobilization of these laws by non-state actors who utilize them to discipline what are increasingly regarded as heterodox Muslim religious, cultural, and linguistic practices. Through an ethnographic examination of current cases I examine how the law both mediates and adjudicates arguments over morality, virtue, and correct Islamic practice. However, "blasphemy" cases prove to be problematic for the modern state and for the predominately liberal legal system, for they draw attention to the foundational tensions inherent to liberal political and judicial thought. These trials involve questions with respect to the limits of freedom of individuals when confronting questions of public order and morality, national security and, in the post-colonial context, national identity.

In particular I seek to contribute to an understanding of how the colonial legal system and court decisions shaped "religion" as a discursive entity and the emphasis on "belief" as central to religion strengthened discourses of orthodoxy and heterodoxy that were instrumental in shaping religious communities and identities. I believe my work illuminates a number of themes that are of importance in anthropology and colonial history with respect to questions of secularism and the role of religion in public and legal cultures.