Although the narrative of the secular state is pervasive, most countries in the world do regulate the religions in their jurisdictions in one way or another, and thus, public commitments notwithstanding, do not abide by a secular-separationist ideology. The data by political scientist Jonathan Fox is instructive in this regard. His Religion and State Dataset illustrates that not only do the majority of authoritarian states in the world interfere with the religious lives of their citizens by suppressing, promoting, and molding various elements of their majority and minority religions, but democracies also do so, albeit with different means and generally on a lower scale. By funding religious education, imposing censorship on religious or secular content, and granting tax breaks to some groups but not others, democracies, too, interfere in the religious market. In most states in the world, therefore, there is little evidence of a “free” religious marketplace: to the contrary, most religious markets are characterized by state-driven distortion of the competition for the faithful. And, as Fox has established, state-driven regulation of religion has even increased since 1990. Worldwide, since the end of the Cold War, states have placed higher restrictions on minority religions and greater regulations on the majority religion.

Southeast Asia is a particularly fascinating place to explore in this regard. Few other regions feature such superdiversity in terms of religious traditions crisscrossing ethnic, regional, linguistic, and class identities. Even though diversity is thought to be correlated with higher levels of religious regulation, Southeast Asia is also a region where state policy towards religion remains understudied and little understood. For example, Indonesia and Malaysia are often assumed to be extensions of their Middle Eastern Islamic counterparts, following the notion that what is true in Egypt or Saudi Arabia (perceived “centers” of the Islamic world) must be true in Muslim Southeast Asia too (a perceived “periphery”). Yet Indonesia and Malaysia, like other Muslim countries, have their own unique traditions of Islamic authority and Islamic life, and not infrequently impulses for renewal at the center have originated in the so-called periphery.

The starting point for examining bureaucracy and bureaucratization across the social sciences is often Max Weber’s work on the construction of public administration. In Weber’s analysis, bureaucracies involve regularized working processes, the employment of expertise in fixed divisions of labor, clear hierarchies, formal chains of command, institutional (as opposed to individual) review and evaluation criteria. Even though he was anxious about the double-edged nature of the rationalization of modern life (which bureaucratization processes accelerate further), Weber identified the latter as supremely efficient ways of organizing human activity. Bureaucratization could enhance organizational transparency, predictability, and raise the level of expertise applied to a particular social problem. As a way of organizing and regulating societies, bureaucracies have in the twentieth century proven themselves to be power instruments of the first order. The question of who controls the bureaucratic apparatus, or in the words of sociologist Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, “whether bureaucracy is master or servant, an independent body or a tool, and, if a tool, whose interests it can be made to serve” has therefore become fundamental to the study of public administration.

While religion may be bureaucratized by the state for various purposes, bureaucratization frequently also has inadvertent or unintended effects. Some Southeast Asian states feature large state ministries of religion, which when created in the 1940s and 1950s were often viewed by secularist political elites as efficient tools to coopt and manage religious elites. To draw on Eisenstadt’s ideas of master and servant, these bureaucracies of religion were clearly instituted to serve the higher purpose of consolidating the secular state. Over time, however, central states often lacked the capabilities of asserting their presence (for example, with schools, courthouses, and police) over the entire territory, with the result that traditional religious leaders and communitarian authorities re-gained, or never lost, their social significance and were from the 1970s onwards gradually accepted as intermediaries between central state elites and wider society. For this reason, postcolonial states often reactivated communitarian authorities and incorporated them into the state administrative apparatus, endowed with official (legal) authority and state resources. Communal law (often religion-based family law) was reintroduced where states had previously been committed to one civil law irrespective of the religious identity of citizens.

On the basis of this regained power, religious elites were able to demand greater funds for state ministries of religion and greater leeway in how such funds would be dispersed. The adoption and expansion of religious law required expanded bureaucracies and new training institutions for religious judges. Ministries of religion, which in the immediate decolonization era had been servants of secular state projects, transformed into elaborate bureaucracies that increasingly were the bearers and executors of important state functions, thus furthering their popularity and cementing their raison d’être. In Indonesia, the Ministry of Religious Affairs grew into one of the largest state ministries in the early 1970s, regulating Islamic schooling, administering Islamic justice, organizing the hajj, and over time also developing an elaborate halal certification scheme (which could just as well have been placed in the Ministry of Health). From the late 1980s onward, the ministry of religion’s bureaucracy evolved into a master who could significantly influence the development of religious belief and religious life across the country. Set up originally to mold and tame religion in the eyes of secular post-Independence elites, the ministry evolved into an institution promoting a particular brand of Islam and drafting policy towards religion for the government as a whole. In short, it had evolved from servant to master.

The five articles included in this special symposium provide rich empirical analyses of a phenomenon, the bureaucratization of religion, deemed increasingly relevant to studies of comparative secularization and comparative religion-state relations. Together they chart the evolution of bureaucracies of religion from erstwhile “servants” of larger ideological state projects to large independent institutions that in many cases now are major producers of religious authority, and as such have entirely transformed national landscapes of religious life.

Read the articles in this symposium without charge until 31 January, 2019.

Jonathan Fox: The Religion and State Dataset.
Shmuel N.Eisenstadt: “Bureaucracy, Bureaucratisation, Markets, and Power Structure,” in Essays on Comparative Institutions (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965), 177–215.

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