In contemporary Suriname religious and ethnic differences are imagined through the ways people live on and with the land and the spirits and gods that inhabit it. Through contrasting moral discourses about how land should be used and the consequences of the history of that use, members of ethnic/religious groups explain and justify their differences and social exclusions. In this paper I show how differences in the ways Ndyuka Maroons and Indo-Surinamese and Guyanese Hindus ritually engage the land are held to constitute salient distinctions between kinds of humans, gods, and spirits. As subsistence farmers, larger scale agriculturalist, or landless newcomers, each of these populations conceptualizes its moral identity through how it relates to the land’s spirit inhabitants. This, when situated in terms of a history of government land grants or their denial, makes contestations over land central to maintaining ethnic and religious differences. Juxtaposing Hindu and Ndyuka rituals for resident spirits and gods with circulating rumors about these rituals, I explore how these practices and discourses influence everyday descriptions of ethnic and religious pluralism. Through alliance or exorcism, people grapple with local spirits to activate or subordinate fraught histories of colonial settlement by often antagonistic coerced labor diasporas. In doing so, people create both the threats and the intimacies that warrant the performance of ambivalent pluralisms in their dizzyingly diverse but thinly populated nation.
Public cemeteries in central Vietnam today feature graves organized in several distinct groupings. Among them are graveyards for Catholics and those for Buddihists or followers of indigenous Cao Dai. Across these diverse religious groupings of the dead, however, pervades the morality of familial unity and related ancestral worship, as well as notions of traditional spirit beliefs in which the souls of the dead are given a powerful sentient existence and vital social agency. These beliefs run counter to the principles of revolutionary secularism that the Vietnamese state hierarchy has sought to empower since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. This paper will explore the situation that popular spirit beliefs function as an instrument of social integration, partly in place of the revolutionary politics of secularism and as effectively as the latter.
The post-1945 communist regime in the former Yugoslavia interpreted the mass atrocities committed during the Second World War through the prism of the People’s Liberation War and marginalized them in favor of the “brotherhood and unity” resistance narrative. The dissolution of socialist Yugoslavia saw the resurgence of nation-building religious communities (Vjekoslav Perica, Balkan Idols ), which had been suppressed for decades by the Titoist regime. In Croatia, unresolved issues from the Second World War, particularly previously taboo victimization narratives, were distorted and manipulated by both Serb and Croat nationalists as the country spiraled into a new wave of violence. Although certain members of the Catholic and Serbian Orthodox Church (as well as Jewish and Islamic communities) called for a peaceful resolution to the ethnic conflict, others actively used traumatic sites of memory (Jasenovac, Bleiburg) to justify the renewed ethno-nationalist bloodletting. Nearly 20 years after the end of the Yugoslav Wars, sites of memory from the Second World War continue to divide the Catholic and Orthodox Churches rather than acting as an inspiration for interfaith dialogue on dealing with the past. This paper examines three case studies of contested narratives of the Second World War: the uprising in Srb; the Jadovno mass grave; and the Glina church incident from the summer of 1941.
The exponential growth of Evangelical Christianity in Brazil in recent years has pushed discussions on the character of Brazilian secularism (laicismo) to the center of public debates. Some of the most vocal proponents of secularism in these conversations have been practitioners of the African diasporic religion Candomblé. Frustrated by the rise of Evangelical Christian intolerance and attacks against their religious practices and beliefs, Candomblé practitioners have called on the state to live up to its secular ideals and protect their religious liberties. The state’s response to this has been mixed. Some government representatives, especially ones affiliated with departments concerned with Afro-Brazilian affairs, have positioned themselves on the side of Candomblé practitioners. Others, including a number of state judges, have belittled or even dismissed the latters’ claims to religious persecution arguing that Candomblé does not constitute a real religion.
In this paper I examine these debates on how to interpret Evangelical Christian attacks against Candomblé, and on state institutions’ responsibility to address them. Building on Hussein Agrama’s understanding of secularism as a “discursive problem space”, I train my attention on how the frame of secularism both constrains and enables different actors’ diverging arguments on the character of “religion” and its proper place in and in relationship to the Brazilian political public sphere. In so doing, I suggest, these debates have come to constitute a privileged arena for not only discussing but also establishing a new public consensus on the appropriate balance between religion and politics in an increasingly Evangelical Christian Brazil.
In 2005, I began dissertation fieldwork in the Republic of Sudan. At that moment in time, the government of Sudan was entering into a peace agreement with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement who represented the majority non-Muslim southern third of the country. One of the key conditions of this peace, in addition to wealth and power-sharing, was the recognition of non-Muslims within the identity of the state. Such recognition occurred through the establishment of a legal apparatus for self-governance in southern regions, a new “multicultural” constitution and public ethos (from street theater to government billboards), and a general interrogation of the Islamic character of the state even by its most ardent supporters. In 2011, I was in Juba as South Sudan declared its independence, in part articulated as a result of the failure of the pluralist model established by the Islamic State. South Sudan promised state secularism as a means of addressing the challenges of religious diversity that the Islamic state was unable to overcome.
While the vagaries of state attempts to govern religious diversity are interesting, in this paper they serve only as a background for a study of how religious communities came to negotiate the models of pluralism with which the state presented them. Whether they sought to defend the religious character of the state from the perceived threat of pluralism, or whether they embraced pluralism—inhabiting the discursive category of “religious minority” or instead promoting a vision of religion-blind citizenship—the strategies of religious communities for articulating religious difference were extremely active sources of debate as Sudan grappled with the threat, and then the reality, of national partition. Religious communities negotiated pluralism by drawing on diverse sources, from the trans-regional (Islamic law, human rights, religious freedom) to the local (Sudan’s Islamic history, confessional blurring, inter-religious coexistence). Through examining how pluralism, in both secular and Islamic guises, has been negotiated by those who must live through it, my presentation will explore how religious difference is both mediated and constructed as the facade of state models for coexistence crumble before our eyes.
Talal Asad has forcefully questioned the notion that secularism as a political ideology simply seeks to establish a separation between religious and secular institutions by confining religion to the private sphere. “What is distinctive about “secularism””, Asad argues, “is that it presupposes new concepts of “religion,” “ethics,” and “politics,” and new imperatives associated with them” (2003: 1-2). The modern state deploys its powers to infuse the practical categories of “religion” and “secular” with authoritative meanings. Certain ways of being, thinking and behaving become permitted, encouraged and authorized while others are looked upon disdainfully, marginalized or dismissed. At the same time, Asad (2003: 201) proposes crucial “outstanding” questions that pertain to the triangular relationship between religion, secularism and the modern nation-state: “How, when, and by whom are the categories of religion and the secular defined? What assumptions are presupposed in the acts that define them?” This essay takes up this latter line of inquiry by posing the following questions: how do social actors perceive state’s sensibilities about religion? How do they make normative claims in order to make their own religious sentiments legible and authoritative within structures of modern governance? What assumptions underpin such claim making?
Specifically, this essay draws on concrete historical episodes from colonial India and postcolonial Pakistan that allow a problematization of “religious sentiments of Muslims” in relation to the controversial religious views of Ahmadiyya community. It argues that religious actors, both Ahmadis and non-Ahmadis, routinely seek to make their religious sentiments legible within the institutional apparatus of the modern state, most often, although not exclusively, through the domain of law. In so doing, they engage in contestations and negotiations over how “true” Muslims ought to feel about Ahmadiyya religious difference and how the state ought to authorize and legitimize certain structures of feeling. Religious sentiments, in other words, are neither naturally given personal emotional responses nor emergent from “authoritative discursive traditions” in any straightforward sense. Instead they are deeply political by virtue of being a site of conflict and negotiation among social actors.
Based on ethnographic research in Croatia and Turkey, this paper explores how two distinct spatial projects of religious community reflect and inflect broader state and trans-state logics of religious minoritization, interreligious pluralism, and tolerance. In Croatia, I examine how public discourse surrounding the construction of the Nova Džamija (“New Mosque”) in the city of Rijeka pivoted on the notion of the shared victimization of Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks at the hands of Serbs during the wars of the 1990s. As I argue, the New Mosque has achieved articulation as a physical sign of Croatia’s new dispensation of tolerance toward Muslims, both in accordance and tension with broader European logics and projects of interreligious pluralism, even as it has helped to silence other, more fraught histories of religious violence in the West Balkans. In Turkey, I analyze an ongoing project to construct an integrated mosque-cem house (cami-cem evi) in the Ankara district of Mamak, which aims to provide a single site of worship for two divergent communities of belief and practice, (majority) Sunni and (minoritized) Alevi Turks. Here, I trace the history and contemporary politics of the relationship between Sunnis and Alevis in Turkey in order to elucidate why the spatial proximity of worship forecast by the mosque-cem house has provoked sharp political anxiety on the part of many Alevi commentators, even as this very proximity is championed as evidence of inter-communal tolerance on the part of the project’s boosters.
This paper will address the ways in which discourses on religious difference and diversity employ the notion of ‘culture’ as an immutable category of identity. Drawing on work in Greece, I will be showing that the application of shariah family law, especially in matters of marriage and divorce, has rendered the Turkish-speaking minority community distinct from the majority population not only in terms of identity, but in temporal terms too, thus furthering its marginalization. This data will be used alongside presentations of more recent work on the discursive continuities in the ways minority and migrant communities are presented in Greece and Cyprus. It will be argued that in this light, ‘religion’, and more so its relation to ‘culture’, cannot be taken for granted as factors of identification and/or vectors of coexistence, but as tools of governance, where difference and continuity is defined not from within but externally constructed.
When the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot was arrested for performing what authorities called a “blasphemous” song in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in downtown Moscow, the location of the events was just as significant as the content of the song and the identities of the singers. As the events unfolded, the church was alternately a sacred space and a political space, and the Russian state became both an arbiter of secular social justice values and Russian Orthodox doctrine. In the end, these events raised intriguing questions about the sites in Russia where the state, its citizens, and religious communities meet and for what purposes. Distinctions between religious and secular, church and state, faith-inspired action and civic duty have become muddled and refashioned in today’s Russia. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the realm of faith-based social justice activities. In the socialist era, Soviet planners simultaneously excised both religion and charity from official and daily life. Religious communities were closed, charity was transferred from religious communities and private organizations to state agencies for social welfare, voluntarism was appropriated as labor for the state, and personal beliefs and practices of compassion and social justice were reframed as political ideologies of equality, tolerance, and civic responsibility. In the post-Soviet era, the new Russian state has allowed, and even encouraged, both the revival of religious and charitable communities. Since the early 2000s, the new Russian state has increasingly looked to these religious communities as partners in supporting state initiatives, including efforts to promote human rights and social justice. These new partnerships and opportunities have had profound consequences for the ways in which state and religious entities present themselves, their respective goals and responsibilities, and their interactions with one another. In particular, these partnerships have raised intriguing provocations about the sites where civic and religious values and activities meet and take place.
This paper examines several key sites where Russia’s civic and religious bodies intersect in pursuit of social justice goals. Drawing on longterm ethnographic fieldwork among faith-based charities and social justice organizations in Moscow, I examine in this paper how church and state are both being reconfigured in Russia today. Of key interest are the physical, social, and legal spaces where church and state, secular and sacred, civic and personal, intersect and the consequences of these intersections for how Russians understand new configurations of church and state, private and public. What are emerging are new forms of religious and political pluralism that transcend any one particular space (e.g., for worship, community life, or political support or protest) and instead reveal shifting practices and ethics of social justice that are more progressive and tolerant than may otherwise appear to outside observers.
In Turkey as well as in those Western European countries with strong Turkish migrant populations, the religious identity of Turkey’s Alevis, the origins of their traditions, and in particular their relation to Islam has taken center stage in a debate that was launched in the context of the public coming out of the Alevi community since the late 1980s, when the Alevis embarked on a public campaign to be recognized as a distinct cultural and/or religious tradition. The debate itself, however, is not new. The question of Alevi difference was in the second half of the 19th century raised by Protestant American missionaries, reformulated by Turkish nationalists in the early 20th century, and ever since constituted a major issue in the public discussion Alevism. In my presentation I will discuss different sites for the production of Alevi difference such as the missionary encounter, nationalism, academia, as well as indigenous Alevi discourses.
A strand of Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalism, developed in 2008, offers an unconventional rejoinder to evangelical efforts to intensify conversions. Pentecostals assert that Christ offers instantaneous Salvation whereas Theravāda Buddhism requires passage through many lifetimes of suffering. In contrast to concomitant political efforts to curb conversions, one maverick monk implicitly responded to such competitive theological provocations. Specifically, he enlisted devotees to engage in ritual and moral cultivation to foreshorten the far-future arrival of the messianic Bodhisattva Maithreya. Neither derivative, nor “syncretic,” the maverick’s efforts to fortify Buddhism are nevertheless dialogically responsive to multiple sources of religious competition. Following the traffic of aspiration, contestation, and charismatic affinity between Buddhism and rival religiosities on one side, and within Buddhism on the other, the ethnography discloses a multi-religious milieu. Within it, several competing religiosities stir the anxieties of Sinhala Buddhist nationalists. These old and new rivalries create tensions, pose constraints, while simultaneously providing fodder for religious innovation.
What kind of religious difference distinguishes the pious from the impious? How is that difference acknowledged and described? How may a focus on such differences in everyday life help us to rethink both the categories of modern state governance and the scholarly concepts that elucidate them? My paper foregrounds these questions in an extended account of some scenes from everyday life in the Kurdistan region of Iraq in 2008-2009. I focus on the intimate dynamic between a father and daughter in which the latter embodied a pious Muslim sensibility and the former gave shape, substance, and gesture to a sensibility that I gloss as ‘impious.’ Through an analysis of their interactions and the father’s reflections on the religious life that thrives within their household, I seek to develop two concepts that are sufficient to the description of the ethical orientations that were palpable in the everyday life of this family. A principle challenge in this effort is to attend to the ways in which religious differences were acknowledged in the course of ordinary life—not only in the reflective mood of self-presentation proper to interviews, but also the rough and tumble of everyday life where intimate relationships are often at stake. Rather than articulations of identity, I first focus on the appearance of gestures (e.g., “[not] listening to religion” or “kissing the hands” of esteemed religious authorities) as descriptors of religious sensibility.
I argue that tracking these descriptors through everyday life renders a landscape of religious difference that is distinct from the categories of governance that characterize modern states. Irreducible to creed, sect, or identity, this form of religious difference nonetheless poses its own set of threats and possibilities for religious life in Kurdistan. Secondly, in shifting the stakes of acknowledging religious difference shift from the management of populations to the ongoing relationships of ordinary life, I resist the move toward the care of the self and instead develop the concept of pleasure in (and of) relationships as a substance that enables the ethical work of sustaining intimate relations to others. Recasting Foucault’s concerns in this way, I draw on Spinoza to articulate a concept of ethical pleasure that looks beyond sex to encompass other ways of encountering others. Together, the concepts of pleasure and gesture provide traction for thinking about the configurations through which Iraqi Kurdish Muslims have acknowledged and sustained a form of religious difference—that between the pious and impious—that has largely escaped scholarly attention.