When new media are introduced into religious communities, they often become sites for struggles over the very nature of mediation. In the new millennium, for example, some nonliberal (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in Brooklyn began to blog, creating debates about publics and alternative forms of authority and expression. In this essay I examine how the community vernaculars—nonstandard varieties of Yinglish and Yiddish, along with Standard English and Yiddish—were used in blogs to challenge the legitimacy of contemporary nonliberal Judaism, what bloggers called “the system.” I also explore how blogging practices were gendered and what kinds of publics—religious, secular, or otherwise imagined—were created through gendered language choice.
With a Guatemala’s history of social and political instability, the place of religion in public life is often fraught with tensions and ambiguities, especially with regard to the nature of morality. These issues tend to crop up when the practices of competing religious institutions exit the relatively circumscribed spaces of churches and enter into erstwhile public spaces. The following examples, drawn from my own fieldwork and that of two other ethnographers of Christianity in Guatemala, illustrate these tensions and suggest that greater attention to the sensory dimensions of public religiosity can shed light on the varying ways that religious actors imagine and engage with public spaces.
The construction of space constitutes one of the primary ways through which religions create templates for behavior. As they construct their physical spaces, religions create models of the ideal, places within which adherents can visualize and enact religious principles in a concrete way. Anthropologists have often discussed this process in terms of sacred space—edifices such as temples, churches, synagogues, and mosques can be seen as spatial embodiments of religious ideas, allowing worshipers to physically act out what are ordinarily abstract notions. Communal religions often extend this to the space of daily living, constructing living spaces, workplaces, and communal spaces that mimic those of the ideal world, allowing members to approximate in this dimension the virtues that will be fully realized in the world to come. Anthropologists have written extensively about this process, examining the construction of space in religious organizations ranging from churches to monasteries to ethnoreligious enclaves.
Introduced in Québec in March 2010, Bill 94 proposed requiring women to unveil their faces if they wanted to work in the public sector or access public services, including hospitals, universities, and public transportation. The bill was eventually tabled and was followed in November 2013 with Bill 60, which demanded in more generalist language the removal of conspicuous religious signs in order to dispense or use public services in the province. These Québécois bills—which have not passed—echo the logic of the April 2011 French law targeting the niqab (face veil) and banning the “dissimulation of the face” in public spaces. Both French and Québécois proponents of these laws cited gender equality and women’s emancipation—which they deemed foundational to French and Québécois values—as their primary goal. Despite Québec’s long insistence that it espouses a third path between Canadian multiculturalism and the French Jacobin model, Québec and France have increasingly converged to promote a model of secularism in which liberty and equality are articulated as sexual liberty and sexual equality. In fact, these niqab restrictions represent a broader secular-liberal discourse—what Joan W. Scott calls “sexularism”—that posits secularism as the best guarantor of women’s sexual freedom and sexual equality and, therefore, as that which distinguishes the West from the woman-oppressing rest, especially from Islam.
The cityscape of Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, is dominated by two houses of worship known as the National Mosque and the National Church. Facing each other in the heart of the city, these impressive architectural monuments symbolize the crucial place of organized religion in the postcolonial Nigerian state’s efforts at forging a unified national public. The national population of 160 million is notoriously heterogeneous, comprising hundreds of languages, ethnicities, and so-called “traditional” religious and political institutions. For political and rhetorical expediency, this diversity is often reduced to the country’s 36 states, 6 geopolitical zones, and 3 majority languages (plus English). But the Muslim/Christian dichotomy is arguably the central organizing trope in contemporary discourses of Nigerian nationhood.
A few weeks after the ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the New York Times ran this headline: “Egyptian Liberals Embrace the Military, Brooking No Dissent.” The accompanying photograph showed a man with a full beard and shaved moustache in the Salafi style, a prominent prayer mark (a “raisin” in the Egyptian vernacular) on his forehead. Behind the man is a wallpaper of Muslim pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba in Mecca. A framed portrait of then-general and coup master Abdel Fattah el-Sisi leans against beige tiles stickered with several Qur’anic verses. The headline limits the military’s support base to (secular) liberals, while the image shows us it actually extends beyond this narrow stratum.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died shortly before the 2012 Meskel festival, the Finding of the True Cross—one of the major festivals of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Its public centerpiece is the burning of a great bonfire in Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square, which takes its name from the occasion. State television broadcasts the ceremony every year, and the 2012 broadcast (2005 by the Ethiopian calendar) can be found on YouTube. The festival revolves around the bonfire, recalling the smoke that led Constantine’s mother Saint Helena to the recovery of Christ’s cross. On this occasion a kitsch re-enactment of the story precedes the lighting of the fire, as Helena and her entourage parade the cross, decked with fairy lights, on a carnival float [4:50-5:20]. Overlooking the whole event, and clearly visible as the fire burns, are several billboards depicting the recently deceased Prime Minister. One reads: “We will keep our word and fulfill your vision.” The religious connotations of the Ge’ez word ra’iy, “vision,” are presumably intentional.
Ark Encounter will be a $150 million biblical theme park, scheduled to open in summer 2016. Set on 800 acres of Kentucky rolling hills, 40 miles south of Cincinnati, the centerpiece of the park will be an all-wooden re-creation of Noah’s ark, built to “Young Earth Creationist” specs from the text of Genesis 6:9. The completed ark will be built from three and a half million board feet of timber; stand 50 feet tall, 75 feet wide, 510 feet long (about 300 feet shorter than the RMS Titanic); and contain more than 100,000 square feet of exhibit space.
The park is a joint venture between the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG) and the for-profit Ark Encounter, LLC. Founded in 1994, AiG is the same ministry that opened the $30 million Creation Museum in 2007. From October 2011 through June 2014, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork with the creative team leading the conceptualization and design of Ark Encounter.
Perhaps the most pertinent question to be asked of Egypt’s revolutionary/counter-revolutionary process in the past three years is this: how can we properly diagnose the persistent incongruity between the slogan of the 2011 revolution—“bread, freedom, and social justice”—and the failures of all political entities in Egypt to achieve them? These entities include the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a transitional military regime that assumed power directly after the revolution (February 2011–June 2012); the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (June 2012–July 2013); and now, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s new presidency and the immediately preceding civilian regime installed under his military command (July 2013–May 2014). In other words, how and why has every organized entity in Egypt since January 2011 failed to meet the basic demands of the revolution?
Carl Becker was right in his assessment of great events: they have an ability to create a new normal language of profound significance. Each era has few words that epitomize its worldview. The Arab Spring has been a momentous event of profound significance, but the systematic hampering of ideas into pre-packaged catalogs of binary grouping, as reflected in Mohamad Elmasry’s comment on my reflection on Egypt, has been a major obstacle in revealing the creative ideas of this unique event. This response is to transcend the binary framework in both Dr. Elmasry’s readings of Egypt and the wider discourse regarding the Arab Spring.
My reflection concerns ideas, not groups. Elmasry’s version of the story is the opposite. This is the dividing line between our two viewpoints. Both could be right in their incommensurable paths. As such, there is a conceptual trap in responding to his binary framing of the story. Since his version is a litany of claims for and against the Muslim Brotherhood, a response to them will by default put me in the opposite camp, which I abstain to join.