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From Foreign Text to Local Meaning: The Politics of Religious Exclusion in Transnational Constitutional Borrowing

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 April 2020


Constitutional drafters often look to foreign constitutional models, ideas, and texts for inspiration; many are explicit about their foreign borrowing. However, when implemented domestically, the meaning of borrowed elements often changes. Political scientists and scholars of comparative constitutional law have analyzed the transnational movement of constitutional ideas and norms, but the political processes through which the meaning of foreign provisions might be refashioned remain understudied. Sociolegal scholars have examined the “transplantation” and “translation” of laws and legal institutions, but they rarely scrutinize this process in the context of constitutions. Drawing on an examination of borrowed constitutional elements in four cases (Pakistan, Morocco, Egypt, Israel), this article builds on research in comparative politics, comparative constitutional law, and sociolegal studies to provide a nuanced picture of deliberate efforts to import “inclusive” constitutional provisions regarding religion-state relations while, at the same time, refashioning the meaning of those provisions in ways that “exclude” specific forms of religious, sectarian, doctrinal, or ideological diversity. Building on sociolegal studies regarding the translation of law, we argue that foreign constitutional elements embraced by politically embedded actors are often treated as “empty signifiers” with meanings that are deliberately transformed. Tracing the processes that lead political actors to engage foreign constitutional elements, even if they have no intention of transplanting their prior meaning, we highlight the need for detailed case studies to reveal both the international and the national dynamics that shape and reshape the meaning of constitutions today.

© 2020 American Bar Foundation

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Funding for this article was provided by the Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Forschung (Center for Interdisciplinary Research) at the University of Bielefeld in Germany.


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