Recent Posts

June 23rd, 2017

Sacrality, secularity, and contested indigeneity

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Indigenous peoples articulate their indigeneity within the political and legal language of secularism, even as it renders certain claims to indigeneity illegible. In this short essay, J. Kehaulani Kauanui examines the close linkages between secularism, settler colonialism, and Protestant Christianity in three interconnected issues in the United States context: sacred sites, temporality, and divine right.

This is the fourth essay in the series on Indigineity and secularity.

June 20th, 2017

Apologia pro Reza: Why I like Believer

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I am a comparative historian of early Christianity who reads widely in and engages in academic forums around new religious movements and popular and local religious forms, both contemporary and ancient. I also came into the study of religion out of great distaste for comprehensive generalizations (à la Huston Smith) about religions of the world—that is, generalizations that elevate the so-called “mainstream” of any religion. Religion, I believe, should be interesting, even exciting—for the likes of me but even more for the outsider or undergraduate whom I want to attract to my classes and hope finds value in my field. If the alternative to “sensational” is “mainstream,” then I will take—and encourage—the sensational.

So what has Believer been doing since it began? On the one hand, Aslan wants optimistically to find some inclinations toward tolerance and human rights in diverse religious movements around the world. In a world that is coming apart from nationalist intolerance and the demonization of indigenous religions (usually at the hands of Pentecostal missions in Africa and Latin America), that is a worthy, hopeful endeavor.

June 16th, 2017

Law and truth in the German religious constitution

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Acta Pacis WestphalicæIt is a widely held view that the juridical and political management of religion should be grounded in fundamental normative truth. Catholic communitarian and natural law doctrines are among the more evidently sectarian variants of this view, teaching that society should be understood as an association governed by the natural law goods that it must realize as virtues, and that law and state should govern in accordance with the values embedded in community or society.

Less evidently sectarian are those variants teaching that law and politics should be grounded in the free choices of rational individuals, whether this be understood in terms of the Lockean state acting as a trustee for individual rights, Immanuel Kant’s conception of public law as the exercise of power required to realize the a priori principle of individual right, or the latter-day improvisations on Kant found in John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas. Catholic commentary has rightly pointed to the Protestant character of these individualist-rationalist doctrines, although without first removing the sectarian beam from its own eye.

June 14th, 2017

The river is not a person: Indigeneity and the sacred in Aotearoa New Zealand

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Whanganui River (Image via Wikimedia Commons, photographer James Shook)Earlier this year, the New Zealand Parliament passed a remarkable piece of legislation declaring the Whanganui River to be a legal person. This was quickly taken up by global media: “New Zealand declares a river a person,” read the headline in the Economist, in an article that revealed uncertainty about what such legal recognition meant. Was it another quirky example from Downunder or a radical and effective form of environmental protection? The legislation was almost immediately taken up by Indian jurists as a precedent for making a similar declaration in respect of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. Yet the story of the statute’s making is a very local one, in which legal recognition of the river’s personhood is deemed to be a postcolonial incorporation of Indigenous concepts of ecological spirituality and interdependency with nature. Both the local historical context for its making and the tensions that the statute manifests need careful unpacking.

In this essay, I question the assumption that the legal fiction of personality is an accurate translation into law of what Whanganui people believe and practice.

June 8th, 2017

On the recent past, fraught present, and tenuous future of Turkish Muslim civil society

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Muslim Civil Society and the Politics of Religious Freedom in TurkeyTo practice anthropology is to accept an implicit temporal double bind: We think we write ethnography, but frequently our expositions and analyses have become history by the time they achieve publication and elicit responses from readers and peers. When I set out to conduct the research that eventually became the basis for my new book, Muslim Civil Society and the Politics of Religious Freedom in Turkey (Oxford University Press, 2017), I envisioned a panoramic study of a vibrant, emergent field of religious and political action in Turkey, embedded in the institutions and discourses of civil society.

I began fieldwork at a relatively sanguine moment in recent Turkish history, in 2005, when the destabilization of the hegemonic, frequently illiberal forces of statist Kemalism, especially the military, carried the promise of a new, multi-centered public sphere that might incorporate a plethora of previously peripheral positions and silenced voices. At the time, I could not imagine that this climate of political optimism, as well as the very domain of Muslim civil society that I set out to study, would prove to be so evanescent.

June 6th, 2017

Secular Christian power and the spiritual invention of nations

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Stand With Standing Rock Nov 11-15 2016 | Image via Flickr user Leslie PetersonIn the Americas, missionary colonialism prospered on the sharp edge of secular Christian power. Cutting up land with a blade that reflected Christian glory on one side and secular state governance on the other, the new nations of the Americas were made through a process of violent spiritual-political invention. New Christian-infused forms of spiritual jurisdiction—royal proclamations and constitutions—were written on top of already-existing Indigenous laws and alliances also rooted in spiritual claims. Indigenous scholars such as John Borrows and Audra Simpson have made clear that for scholars to understand ongoing Indigenous sovereignty requires attention to history, to protocol, and to how Indigenous stories are both told and withheld.

I would add that thinking about Indigeneity in North America—or Turtle Island—requires careful attention to how ceremony, protocol, and invocations of the spirit have shaped all claims to sovereignty on this land, including those of settler-colonial nations.

June 1st, 2017

Is the “native” secular?

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Stand With Standing Rock Nov 11-15 2016 | Image via Flickr user Leslie PetersonHeadlines scream of burgeoning populism around the world, but the shift in politics today could also be described as a return of nativism, and perhaps even of a certain indigeneity. Politicians speak of a people at home in a land, rooted in that land. They evoke the threats posed by those perceived to lack such roots: immigrants, racial minorities, and global elites.

There is a romance to the land, from rural farms and mines, to the provincial village, to the post-industrial city—sites  of lost dreams, of vanishing greatness. The specifics of place are joined together under the heading of “nation,” but nation alone is cold and abstract; it must be joined with the warmth of nativeness—indigeneity—to capture the imagination. Of course there are agents involved: politicians conjuring the images and feelings of nativeness, and the powers that be—whiteness, patriarchy, neoliberalism—whom those politicians serve, wittingly or unwittingly.

May 30th, 2017

Practice and performance in ritual language

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Practice and performance in ritual languageDoes it make a difference to think of ritual language such as prayer in terms of a relation between practice and performance? I do not mean this in the sense that a musician practices an instrument in preparation for a concert performance, or an athlete practices in preparation for performance in a competition. I mean it in the sense of practice as carrying out a particular activity in a regular or habitual way, in contrast to performance as a marked or highlighted form of action distinct from everyday action and addressed to an actual or imagined audience. Someone may engage in the practice of singing every day, but may also sing every day for an audience, real or imagined. One can identify a continuum of “degree of performance” between informal everyday speech and formal ritual utterance. . . .

Focusing specifically on prayer as a mode of utterance present both in ritual events and in everyday life allows for a rethinking of practice and performance as simultaneous modalities of action. The simultaneity of performance and practice in this theoretical or conceptual sense is not the same as the collapsing of performance into practice in prayer that I observed ethnographically. In this sense, any act of prayer has both a practical and a performative component. Practice is guided by a logic while performance is impelled by a rhetoric. Both are necessary features of prayer as ritual language.

May 23rd, 2017

The Myth of Disenchantment: An Introduction

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Myth of DisenchantmentA great many theorists have argued that precisely what makes the modern world “modern” is that people no longer believe in spirits, myths, or magic. Even theorists who have challenged grand narratives of secularization often assume that modernity produces a disenchanted world. The age of myth is allegedly over, the spirits have vanished, and vibrant nature has been subjugated.

In The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences, I argue that as broad cultural history goes, this narrative is wrong. Our era is far from mythless, belief in spirits continues to be widespread, vitalized nature has been a persistent philosophical counter-current, and even attempts to suppress magic have failed more often than they have succeeded. Hence, I contend that the whole notion of “modernity” as rupture that undergirds a host of disciplines is itself a myth.

May 19th, 2017

A State of suspicion: Counter-radicalization in Norway

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Norwegian rally against ISIS and the Prophet's Ummah, August 18 2014. Photo: Sindre BangstadAt the national party congress of the governing populist right-wing Progress Party in Norway in May, the assembled party delegates adopted resolutions calling for state control of Norwegian mosques in the name of preventing “radicalization into violent extremism.” The Progress Party (FrP) also adopted resolutions calling for the Norwegian state to introduce compulsory Christian prayers in public schools, for a national ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf (the hijab) for pupils under the age of sixteen in public schools, and for a national ban on circumcision of male children. In other words, the run-up to the Norwegian parliamentary elections in September 2017, which will make it clear whether the right-wing coalition government of the Conservative Party and the populist right-wing Progress Party will fall or be returned to power, is in full swing.

And as it has since the mid-1980s, the FrP will run this parliamentary election campaign on a platform of a politics of fear and division—targeting immigrants, in general, and Muslim minorities, in particular.