Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Invasion of Waziristan and its Aftermath

By Hugh Beattie

Just over a hundred years ago, at the end of 1919, British troops invaded Waziristan, a mountainous region on the border between Afghanistan and British India and the homeland of a number of semi-independent tribal groups, including the Mehsuds and the Wazirs. Widely reported around the world at the time, the invasion’s centenary has been almost entirely ignored in Britain. There are good reasons for remembering it though: the part played by Islamic loyalties and Muslim leaders in resistance to it, the complications caused by the fact that the region bordered on Afghanistan, British willingness to use the latest weaponry against its people, and the resulting disagreements among the British themselves. [For a sketch map of Waziristan see here. The places mentioned are more or less in the centre of the map]

Since the later nineteenth century British strategists had argued that Waziristan’s location on the border with Afghanistan meant that it would be a mistake to allow it to remain independent. Unable to justify the expense and trouble of conquering it outright, they succeeded in establishing a loose control over it by recruiting two militias and paying allowances to influential men. WWI had a major impact on this. In particular, sensing British weakness, in 1917 some Mehsuds launched a major anti-British rising, and in the late spring of 1919 many of the militiamen deserted and British influence in Waziristan largely evaporated. In order to reassert it, and to punish the Mehsuds for what was seen as their ‘bad behaviour’ during the war, Britain decided to try and take full control of the region.

The Barari Tangi (one of the gorges through which the British troops advanced in January 1920). https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1957-02-11-1

On December 19 1919 a force of 29,000 men began to move into Waziristan. The Mehsuds managed to pin it down on the edge of their territory and halted the advance. Resistance was led by an influential Mehsud, Musa Khan Abdullai, and a mullah called Fazal Din. Fazal Din was a son of a famous anti-British religious leader or ‘frontier mullah’, Muhiy-ud-Din, whom the British referred to as the Mullah Powindah. The Mehsuds saw themselves as defending Muslim territory from their Christian and Hindu invaders (many of the British troops were Hindus) as well as their independence, and may have received some help from an anti-British Muslim movement, the Jamaat-i-Mujahidin (based outside Waziristan). Some Wazir men joined the Mehsuds and the Afghan ruler, King Amanullah, sent one of his officers to assist them. The British position was so bad that some officials suggested that poison gas might be used to disperse them. After some weeks, however, the troops broke the Mehsud hold, and forcing two narrow gorges, were able to move into the heart of their territory and establish a base at Ladha. As they advanced the soldiers destroyed houses, terraced fields and irrigation canals, for instance the settlements around Makin, the Mehsuds ‘capital’.

Jirgah (council) of Mahsuds [Mehsuds] near Kaniguram Waziristan 1920 (with soldiers looking on). https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1993-08-106-185

According to one historian the expedition was a fiasco.[1] That may be an exaggeration, but it was expensive in terms of human life (and money) – it’s been estimated that as many as 2,500 soldiers died during it; probably more than 2,000 Mehsuds and Wazirs, including many non-combatants, died too. Nor did the British completely subdue the Mehsuds, and some of them took refuge in Afghanistan. In 1921 the British troops used howitzers to shell some of their villages. During the winter of 1922/23 the RAF bombed them and troops were sent to demolish buildings that had escaped destruction in the earlier attacks.

The burning of ‘Makin’ from air and land – Waziristan, Pakistan, dated 1890 but probably early 1920s. Photo by Mela Ram/royal Geographical Society/Getty Images.

The British had conducted punitive expeditions into various different parts of Waziristan before, but the troops had always withdrawn after killing anyone who resisted them, and destroying houses and crops and seizing flocks and herds. Keeping them there permanently attracted bad publicity internationally. It was also expensive, and the cost of the occupation had begun to worry senior officials. At one point a serious disagreement broke out between the British Government of India and the ‘Home Government’ over Waziristan policy. Towards the end of 1923 therefore the troops were withdrawn from Mehsud territory, and relocated to a place called Razmak just of the north of it, where they built a huge base. Some Mehsuds continued to resist them until 1925. In fact the British never succeeded in subduing the region completely. During the 1930s resistance principally came from the Mehsuds’ neighbours the Wazirs, led by another religious leader, Mirza Ali Khan, whom the British referred to as the Faqir of Ipi. When the British withdrew from the Indian sub-continent in 1947, they had still not brought Waziristan fully under their control.

Razmak Camp, Waziristan, 1940(c). https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1965-04-64-98

For fuller accounts of the expedition and its aftermath see, for example, Brian Robson, Crisis On The Frontier; The Third Afghan War and the Campaign in Waziristan 1919-20 (Staplehurst, 2004) and my Empire and Tribe in the Afghan Frontier Region: Custom, Conflict and British Strategy in Waziristan until 1947 (London/New York, 2019).

[1] James Spain, The Pathan Borderland (The Hague, 1963), p.183.

Institutional Racism, Religious Studies and #BlackLivesMatter

By Suzanne Newcombe

As a privileged white American, I am compulsively drawn to watch the drama now unfolding in the United States; my emotions split between shame and hope. I am also well aware of the parallels and differences of institutionalised racism and discrimination in my adopted country of Great Britain.

As I mature, I become more aware of the multiple layers of institutionalised discrimination – and how I have directly benefited from many of these structures. I have now accepted that becoming aware of my own prejudice – products of our collective culture and history – will be a lifelong project.

Education is crucial to revealing the implicit and structural racisms which still oppress the majority of the world’s populations. The Open University is well placed to promote growing social justice in the face of global challenges, and our understandings of religion are a central aspect of how cultures perpetuate inequalities as well as promote change.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trump_Bible_photo-op_2020%C2%B706%C2%B701.png

I want here to lay down some of the ways we, as a Religious Studies department, have been trying to address the continuing legacy of colonialism and institutionalised racism as individuals and as a department. #BlackLivesMatter. We do care. We are trying to educate ourselves and our students away from institutionalised prejudice and discrimination.

 

Decolonising the Curriculum – What We Teach

We work hard show how much of our thinking about what religion is, is based on cultural, colonial and Christian assumptions. Put simply, much mainstream thinking around and about religion is colonialist and racist.

To challenge these assumptions, we emphasise the exploration of how religion is lived, how ‘ordinary people’ create their own rituals and meaning out of larger traditions as well as the blurry boundaries between religion/non-religion or religion/culture. We explore indigenous and animist forms of relating to the world, questioning the basis of common assumptions about the divisions between humans and non-humans.

We show how historical and cultural context as essential to understanding what religion might be for humans – grounded in particular time and place. This approach is part of a broader critical project to demystify the colonial framework of understanding the world that we have inherited, and ultimately, to challenge it. The critical study of religion is inherently decolonising.

For introductions to what this looks like in practice, see our free OpenLearn course Religious Diversity, drawn from A227: Exploring Religion – which really asks our students to explore the questions of ‘What is religion?’, ‘How can we study religion?’ and ‘Why should we study religion?’

 

Methods of Teaching – How We Teach

Running throughout our teaching is an approach which asks our students to reflect upon their assumptions and consider the beliefs and practices of ‘others’ with an attitude of enquiry and empathy. These are essential interpersonal skills which must be embodied to tackle racism and prejudice in all contexts.

We also require students to take an attitude of evidence-based critical thinking when approaching controversial subjects.  We try to teach students to confront controversial subjects subject head on, with appropriate skills – to come to their own educated, informed opinions and express these opinions well to others. Articulate, evidence-based analysis is essential to tackling institutionalised racism.

For an introduction to how we work in practice see our free FutureLearn course on Why Religion Matters.

 

What and How We Research

Author Lululemon athletica. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ustrasana_-_Camel_Pose_Purple_Top.jpg

In the religious studies department, we are all active researchers. Our areas of expertise and research experience are very diverse, but they share a commitment to dialogue and excellence in evidence collection. Many of our research areas directly address areas where inequalities and social justice work are informed by religious and non-religious identities. We see religion as an important cultural resource which can be used to challenge and transform our society.

My own research has largely focused on the complex global and multi-cultural entanglements of yoga in the modern period. Understanding the complexity of the creation of systems of practice, ethics and belief such as yoga is essential if fundamentalist versions are not used to oppress specific populations. For example, neoliberalist ideals of thin, lithe white women who are featured in advertisements, Instagram and grace the covers of magazines, can make the practice seem exclusive to the upper-middle class white women that form the majority of practitioners in the ‘Western’ world.

Simultaneously, yoga is can also be used to promote a narrow Hindutva vision of modern India, where ancient Indian wisdom is verified by modern biomedical methods into a streamlined ideology and export product.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Prime_Minister,_Shri_Narendra_Modi_visiting_the_Drug_Discovery_%26_Research_Laboratory_after_inaugurating_the_Patanjali_Research_Institute,_at_Haridwar,_in_Uttarakhand.jpg

But the practices associated with yoga and meditation practices are also widely used many individuals and groups to experience greater freedom, empowerment and ability to put in to motion more ethical actions and authentic identities at both individual and social levels. Both of these positions for yoga and meditation practices are real – and both are important to understand and consider.

Making Peace in Prison - Yoga and Meditation are having remarkable effects in turning around Prisoner's lives. Could this be the key to rehabilitating offenders?

https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/258605203580509822/

Religious practices such as yoga can also be used as powerful as cultural resources which can spaces for reconciliation, social justice, environmental stability and greater respect for non-human life.


I know my efforts as an individual are far from perfect in understanding my own ignorance and prejudices. As an institution and department, our efforts to support #BlackLivesMatter are far from finished. For example, we don’t have enough BAME representation in either our student body or in our departmental staff. We all know that our efforts can and must be further extended, refined and developed. But by being transparent about our intentions is the first step towards change.

#BlackLivesMatter and we look forward to being better able to better serve our obligation to promote equality and social justice in the Religious Studies Department.

What COVID conspiracies tell us about our society

By David G. Robertson

Reblogged from the Religion Media Centre: https://www.religionmediacentre.org.uk/factsheets/conspiracy-theories-are-rubbish-but-tell-us-one-truth/

In times of stress, people look for answers to their problems. When their usual answers aren’t working, they may reach for unusual answers. The sociologist Martin Stringer identifies this as situational belief — we might not “believe in” acupuncture, but if our back pain is bad enough, we may well be prepared to give it a try.

This goes for religion, too. The war-time expression, “There are no atheists in foxholes”, expresses this idea, and it is far from uncommon for people to “find God” after a serious illness or the death of a loved one.

It is also true for what we have come to term “conspiracy theories” (a phrase that is harder to define than you may think). Consider how conspiracy theories about immigrants have become more popular after the 2008 financial crash and the decade of austerity that followed.

In fact, health issues (whether our own or someone else’s) seem particularly to encourage people to “try out” ideas they wouldn’t in normal circumstances, and given that Covid-19 is the largest threat to public health for at least a generation (if not in terms of overall deaths, then in terms of its sudden onset and the uncertainty over its long-term impact), it’s not surprising that conspiracy theories have quickly sprung up.

In the UK, the leading narrative is that the spread of Covid-19 is being caused (or exacerbated) by the rollout of the 5G network. When theories like this seem to take off quickly, the reality is often that they combine with current ideas, with a ready-made audience.

The idea that the 5G network will cause health issues — or the 4G network, wi-fi, even power lines — has been around for years, and if you already accept that, it makes “sense” to then connect this to a sudden pandemic. I need to be clear, however, that this does NOT mean I think they are correct.

Similar conspiratorial narrative sprung up about the Aids/HIV crisis in the 1980s, and even the Spanish Flu after the Great War.

In the United States, Covid-19 has been drawn into the ever-evolving, millennial QAnon narrative, which believes a series of cryptic emails supposedly from a White House insider are clues to Donald Trump’s secret plan to “drain the swamp” once and for all. The connections to health concerns are still there, though less obvious; Q developed out of the PizzaGate narrative in the run-up to the 2016 election, which was itself a resurfacing of the satanic ritual abuse panic of the early 1990s. The panic was started by evangelical Christians and took off because it fitted well with widespread but largely unspoken concerns about the welfare of children in the post-nuclear family America.

These longer histories should make it clear that the internet isn’t “causing” conspiracy theories (a point made repeatedly by Joseph Uscinski) or that they are “new”. It is, however, making them more visible.

I was at the G8 demonstrations in Edinburgh in 2001 which turned into a riot. But a surprisingly small proportion of people there were actually demonstrators. Apart from the police, most were journalists or simply curious bystanders (like me). And the ones left fighting at the end of it were local bully boys who just used it as an excuse.

Online conspiracy theories work the same way. Conversations that used to be confined to the pub, a chat at the back fence or among close friends, now have a potentially global audience. This makes it easier for journalists to pick up on the story, and amplify it, particularly now when nothing else is happening to report on, but we are all shut in our homes and looking for entertainment. The core of committed “believers” stays small, but the circle of curious bystanders, and trolls who delight in kicking the hornet’s nest, grows larger and larger. For a short while, anyway, until the next novelty comes along.

It concerns me, however, how quickly the demands have come to silence such ideas, and control the narrative by force, for example You Tube’s decision to ban all conspiracy theory videos falsely linking coronavirus to 5G.

Rather than getting angry at what we see as an outbreak of mass irrationality, a more constructive approach would be to see these conspiratorial narratives as evidence of broader concerns.

Covid-19 is one, to be sure — but so is the position of China in the global power structure, the pace of technological change, and the massive inequality in modern society. Indeed, the long-term discussion around Covid-19 may itself begin to revolve around the pace of development, and how for-profit technologies so often seem to outpace those for the common good.

A conspiracy theory doesn’t have to be correct for it to tell us a lot about the problems in our society.

Iran’s shrines during pandemic

By Hugh Beattie

Towards the end of March the Iranian authorities took the unprecedented step of closing the shrine of the 8th Imam, Ali ibn Musa al-Reza, in the western city of Mashhad, to pilgrims, as well as the shrine of the Imam’s sister, Fatima Masuma in Qom, south of Tehran. They also closed the Jamkaran mosque in Qom – linked with the 12th Imam, this shrine has in recent years become major pilgrimage centre. The spread of the virus, coupled with the impact of the US sanctions, has led President Rouhani to request aid from the International Monetary Fund, the first time that such a request had been made since 1979, the year of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Although the religious authorities in Iran supported the closures of the shrines, the decision to do so upset many Iranians, not just the very devout, as the rituals performed at the shrines have cultural as well as religious significance.

Mashhad, Iran. Ninara from Helsinki, Finland / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

The authorities may have been influenced by the fact that Iran had been badly affected by Spanish Flu in 1918/19, when it experienced the ‘most lethal and widespread pandemic’ it had ever experienced. Although Iran’s government had declared the country’s neutrality at the beginning of WWI, some areas were invaded by foreign forces – Ottoman, British and Russian, and clashes between Ottoman forces on the one hand and Russian and British ones on the other occurred in some areas, particularly the north-west. The occupying armies requisitioned food, and there was also drought, crop failure and hoarding by landowners, leading to the outbreak of famine in some areas in 1917.

Jamkaran Mosque. Mostafameraji / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

The famine may have contributed to mortality when Spanish Flu entered the country by several routes in the late summer and autumn of 1918. Another factor may have been the widespread use of opium, for example to stave off hunger pains, and to treat the symptoms of malaria, endemic throughout the country. The initial wave of influenza was followed by a second more virulent form of the virus, and the pandemic did not die down until November 1919. Estimates of the number who died range quite widely – from 8.0 to 21.7 per cent of the population (or between 902,400 and 2,432,000). There is no doubt though that Iran was one of the countries most badly affected by the Spanish Flu.

All that glitters doesn’t always shimmer: values during and beyond the pandemic

By Graham Harvey

“The earth shimmers”, Debbie Rose wrote of her learning-through-dancing among Aboriginal Australian hosts. The pulse of seasons informs the shimmering rhythms of dance which capture participants, encouraging them to flourish. It’s a fine vision, especially for those of us anticipating summer sunshine. But Rose contrasts this Aboriginal approach to the world with the cascading mass extinctions that follow from Western-originated efforts to separate humans from the world we exploit.

Tempting as it is to think here about the rhythms of isolation and permitted exercise, I propose to look at another stark contrast. The Coronavirus pandemic has decreased industrial production and consumption (except of loo rolls, it seems) and led to decreased share prices globally. As a result, gold is casting its glittery allure again.

The president of Brazil insists that Amazonia should be exploited, timber and minerals extracted, financial wealth gained. Amazonia’s rivers and soils are being polluted as miners quest for the lucrative glittering metal. Indigenous communities, already ravaged by “ordinary” diseases (measles and flu) now face the danger of Covid-19. In his book The Falling Sky (2018), the Yanomami author Davi Kopenawa writes about the devastation of previous epidemics. This new virus, already killing Indigenous people in many places, not only across South America, is likely to be worse.

Kopenawa also writes about the irrelevance of gold to his Yanomami people. What glows with value and life for them is the forest world which provides everything but requires careful respectful interaction. Kopenawa is a diplomat and also a shaman who gains knowledge from bright dancing spirits he calls Xapiri. The glitter of gold has an allure for miners. The liveliness of the forest and Xapiri captivate the Yanomami. The shimmer of these contrasts is one of many invitations to us to consider our values and our ambitions.

 

References

Kopenawa, Davi, and Bruce Albert. 2013. The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. Cambridge: the Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Rose, Deborah B. 2017. “Shimmer: When all you love is being trashed” in Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubant (eds). Arts of living on a damaged planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. G51-G63.

High religiosity and ‘resisting’ Covid 19 governmental advice in Romania

By Maria Nita

The Covid 19 social distance posed real challenges for the largely rural, traditional and sensorial Orthodox Church in Romania – where kissing icons and other embodied rituals could not so easily find a virtual counterpart. In a recent Pew survey, Romania scored 1st among 34 European Countries as the country with the highest religiosity – yet we have to look beyond religious commitment if we are to dig deeper into the reasons why Romanian priests seemed to ignore official advice and gave communion in the midst of the pandemic. A recent euronews article suggests that priests had not had an order from the Patriarch – which makes an interesting point about religious authority in Eastern Europe.

High religiosity aside, as a British-Romanian academic I can see the ‘new Romania’ of the last couple of decades embracing European freedoms and progressive values and being increasingly at odds with the highly conservative Romanian Orthodox Church. Yet I can also see Orthodox churches preserving their special status in both town and country, much like the candle-lit golden oases in the grey Communist Romania of my childhood.

When Ninian Smart, the British scholar of religion, asked a Romanian informant in the 1970s whether the Orthodox Church had ‘a dialogue’ with the Communist Party, which might help it thrive at the side of ‘an ideologically hostile regime’ – the retort captured the dry taste of Romanian humour: ‘Why should we have dialogue if we see each other every day?’ The Church maintained its independence from the Communist Party through silent acts of resistance. Clearly, new survival and adaptive mechanisms are now badly needed.

Alt-ac and the ethics of academic discourse

By Theo Wildcroft

As an independent scholar who’s a Visiting Fellow for the Open University but self-employed, a lot of my regular academic work is actually engagement work. It means translating my research findings on the teaching of contemporary yoga, into workshops and trainings for the subcultures that I research, rather than syllabi for students. As a result, I’m spending a lot of time at the moment organising and planning my schedule of events for the year – honouring my commitments as guest faculty on various yoga teacher trainings, running continuing professional development workshops, and accepting invitations to conferences, both here and abroad.

I speak at both practitioner and academic conferences, but one academic conference this September that I am most excited to attend is hosted by Chester University, and the topic is ‘Spiritual Abuse: Coercive control in religions’. Its remit is wide and interdisciplinary, and the subject is a brave one to tackle. I was generously invited to, and I have proposed, a panel on sexual abuse in yoga, but I am sure there will be many panels of vital interest to my ongoing research. Although it was slightly tangential to my thesis, sexual abuse is a live issue that has been at the heart of contemporary yoga discourse for the last few years. It involves attempts to gain justice for long term historical issues, debates about regulating an international profession in a post-colonial context, and the development of significantly new pedagogical practices.

The largest yoga teaching accreditation body in the world, Yoga Alliance, has spent two years redrawing their ethical standards for yoga teachers, and I have been a small part of that process. A number of independent researchers have also been involved in the wider public discourse, and I know that their contributions will be welcomed at the conference in Chester. Working to high standards of rigour and ethics, but beyond the academy, independent researchers have built upon established research from multiple disciplines in order to debate the relationship between abusive behaviours and the development of touch in teaching yoga, or theorise the relationship between charismatic teaching, habitus and somatic dominance in teaching spaces. These writers and researchers have been able to be part of holding abusive organisations and individuals to account, on behalf of survivors, and often at considerable personal cost.

For myself, a year since my PhD was awarded, and like almost all of my cohort, I’m realising that there may not be a permanent, full-time academic post in my future. But unlike many, when I started my PhD, I had a decade of self-employment behind me. In the course of completing my doctorate, I’ve managed to grow a significant level of organic engagement among the communities of my research that wouldn’t have been possible while also holding down a full-time academic post. I now earn about half of my annual income by teaching workshops on my research. I promote my work with interviews, blog posts and podcasts. I am working on online content and planning a second book, and as a result of all this work, I might actually break the income tax threshold this year, which is more than some of my peers.

As a result, I find myself among a growing number of those, post-PhD, who want to keep researching, learning, and teaching, and really want to stay in conversation with our colleagues and mentors, but don’t see a traditional academic position as very attainable. Instead, we’re finding ways to collaborate on edited volumes and events, writing and creating content for a multitude of platforms, experimenting with applying for smaller grants for specific pieces of work, and wondering about charitable funds and even crowdfunding options. It is all very alt-ac – very higher ed 2.0 – but it comes with a number of issues.

The most immediate is the umbrella under which such work happens. Some of us are lucky enough to still be sheltered by the institutions that awarded our PhDs, but that accreditation has a time limit. Being a Visiting Fellow at the OU awards me access to the library (and thus academic databases and scholarly content behind the paywall), and an email address (and thus the required legitimacy for conference submissions and other scholarly endeavours). Leaving it behind would render the core work of a scholar – being part of the greater academic conversation – much more difficult.

This is a problem we’re going to need to solve, not just as individuals, but as a sector, as academia attempts to diversify its models of working in ways that are more sustainable, more engaged with the public, more inclusive to different working patterns, and, to be honest, more budget-friendly. Independent researchers can work in ways that academics with full teaching loads cannot. We can do fieldwork and engagement, writing and research that is unavailable to many scholars. Yet funders and institutions alike can find it difficult to collaborate with alternative academic projects that aren’t fully embedded in established institutions and established industries.

The conference on Spiritual Abuse in Chester shows the invaluable addition that independent scholars are making to broad cultural discourses on vital issues of religious ethics. Given that, and the support of colleagues organising the conference, it seems odd that my hardest task in bringing together this ground-breaking group of researchers, for an unprecedented conversation, is going to be proving not the value or quality of their work, but their institutional credentials.

Given the increasingly arbitrary boundary between academia and independent research, as scholars are increasingly encouraged to bridge the gap between engagement, advocacy and social impact, are there not better ways to organise our conferences, our research projects, and our peer reviewed outputs? Can scholarly discourse find a way to both support and learn from the academy, whilst also supporting and including independent, casualised and precariously-employed researchers? Could the role of Independent Scholar find a similar but different status to Visiting Fellow: part of the conversation, even if not a formal part of the institution? After all, increasingly, we’re doing a lot of the same work, and there are so many things we can learn from each other.

Where are Extinction Rebellion’s cultural roots?

By Maria Nita

I would like to explore here some of the cultural roots and influences on the Extinction Rebellion movement, since this will shed light on the discourses that can be revived when XR is discussed in the public domain, be it by politicians, the general public or the media. For example, when climate activists are described as ‘uncooperative crusties’ in their ‘heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs’ (Rawlinson, 2019), we can recognise a well-established anti-hippie discourse which dominated public concerns over the free festivals in the UK, in the early 1970s. Such remarks are not dissimilar to those I found in my archival data from the free festivals, when the hippies were often vilified as ‘smelly’, ‘long hair types’, ‘a lunatic fringe’, ‘drug pushers’, ‘addicts’ and so on (Nita and Gemie, 2019). Surprisingly, it was the Christian clergy that had an important conciliatory tone and a role in recognizing the Christian values in the hippie movement – which in time helped legitimize the early festivals and indeed the ensuing, gone mainstream, festival culture.

Early festivals, protestivals, non-violent disobedience

We can trace some of XR’s ideological and cultural roots in the early festival movement, as well as the earlier 1960s communes, which had a similar mix of civil disobedience, artivism – or artistic activism, cooperative ethos, communalism, and of course anticipating a world in deep crisis future which the commune could withstand (Miller, 1990). Certainly, as an heir of the early festivals – the ‘protestival’ – has been a common form of expression for the alter-globalization movements we have seen since the 1980s (St John, 2008), as well as many contemporary movements of artistic social reform, such as the global Occupy Movement in recent history (Tremlett, 2016). However, XR is also extending its countercultural roots, reaching out towards the mainstream, in new ways. The unprecedented urgency of the ecological crisis means that XR needs to reach many more people than the original Climate Movement was able to, and its inspiring policy of ‘radical inclusivity’ – welcoming ‘everyone and every part of everyone’ – can be seen an open invitation to those who might not see themselves as green activist material. By tracing its own non-violent disobedience origins to the civil rights movement, and often linking the movement to Martin Luther King and Gandhi, XR aims to widen its scope from an earlier Climate Movement that recognised its limitations as a largely white and middle class movement, to one that is entirely relevant to multicultural communities and current widespread concerns with inclusion: see for instance XR’s swift response to condemn co-founder Roger Hallam’s offensive remarks towards the Holocaust (November, 2019).

A changed Climate Movement

Having researched the Climate Movement as an ethnographer/ anthropologist concerned with Christian and Muslim activists since 2008, I was naturally excited by its revival and re-invention as the Extinction Rebellion movement. A key driver for the renewal and growth of the Climate Movement was the publication of the last International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) report – which states that carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall dramatically by 2030 – to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Past this threshold – the changes will be catastrophic, with loss of many ecosystems. Back in the field, I could see that the fabric of this revived movement was tangibly and visually changed. If the ‘early’ Climate Movement had used colours of green, blue and white in many of its marches and global days of action, to represent the raising waters or the vanishing ice caps for example – XR flew back in and blocked big capital arteries and village capillaries with dramatic colours of extinction and grief, blood and funerals – deep reds and black being at the forefront of its performative actions, like the iconic Red Brigade pictured here.

Can XR change our extinction trajectory?

My research suggests that, notwithstanding the global growth and influence of contemporary non-violent resistance movements (Chenoweth and Stephan, 2011) – from Brazil’s indigenous tribes to the Arab Spring – we find in XR a model of protest and social change that is pivotally rooted in the cultural landscape of a post Christian society: a type of protest that is non-violent, sacrificial, communitarian and performative. More so, the small components of this model – the semiotics or internal grammar of performative actions – reveal a deeply familiar underlay. From XR songs to performative actions, such as ‘die ins’ – when protestors lie on the ground as if dead – to making their bodies go limp as they are being arrested and carried away by the police – we recognise in many XR public rituals a heroic vulnerability that has Christian resonance. Given my claim that Christianity represents an original and persistent model for cultural change (Nita, 2018), I have hope that XR can make as many of us as possible – and most importantly our political leaders – committed to a sustainable future, since this is the only one possible.

References:

Chenoweth, Erica and Maria J. Stephan. 2011. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.
Miller, Timothy. 1990. The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond. Syracuse University Press.
Nita, Maria. 2018. ‘Christian Discourses and Cultural Change: The Greenbelt Art and Performance Festival as an Alternative Community for Green and Liberal Christians’, Implicit Religion, 21 (1): 44-69.
Nita, Maria and Sharif Gemie. 2019. ‘Counterculture, Local Authorities and British Christianity at the Windsor and Watchfield Free Festivals (1972–75)’ in Twentieth Century British History [online] https://doi.org/10.1093/tcbh/hwy053
Rawlinson, Kevin. 2019. ‘Extinction Rebellion’, The Guardian, 8 Oct 2019 [online] http://bit.ly/GuardianExtinctionRebelion [accessed 24 November 2019].
St John, Graham. 2008. ‘Protestival: Global Days of Action and Carnivalized Politics in the Present’, Social Movement Studies, 7 (2): 167-190.
Tremlett, Paul-François. 2016 ‘Affective Dissent in the Heart of the Capitalist Utopia: Occupy Hong Kong and the Sacred’, Sociology, 50 (6): 1156-1169.

Trojan Horse: A New Play

By Stefanie Sinclair

The award-winning play ‘Trojan Horse’ is currently touring theatres in the UK (for dates and details, see here). I would thoroughly recommend seeing it, if you can. Written by Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead, originally developed by Leeds Playhouse and performed by the LUNG theatre company, this fast-paced ‘documentary play’ powerfully highlights the devastating effect that the ‘Trojan Horse affair’ in Birmingham schools has had on local communities.

This ‘affair’ first hit UK media headlines in 2014 and was linked to claims that there had been an organised Islamist plot by ‘hardline’ Muslim governors and teachers to infiltrate Birmingham schools to radicalise school children. While these allegations remain unproven and long-drawn-out disciplinary proceedings against teachers were eventually discontinued, their impact has been significant. Not only were these allegations used to justify controversial changes in educational policies, practices and government PREVENT guidance for schools, registered childcare providers, universities and colleges in the UK to include ‘non-violent extremism’. The way the Trojan Horse affair was presented by the media and used by politicians has also had a serious, long-lasting and damaging impact on the local communities concerned. Based on testimonies from more than 200 hours of interviews with about 90 witnesses, the play gives voice to previously neglected perspectives of members of local communities that were involved, including school children, teachers, governors and members of Birmingham city council.

‘Trojan Horse’, Credit: Ant Robling (also top image)

The LUNG theatre company has been keen to engage its audience and to attract and involve members of Muslim communities. For every performance, 30 headsets are offered with Urdu translations of the play and free tickets have been made available to members of local Muslim groups. The actors include Qasim Mahmood, who grew up in Alum Rock, the location of Park View Academy, one of the schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse affair. The performances have also been followed by after-show panels and audience discussions with John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham, who was an expert witness used by the defence in the professional misconduct cases brought against teachers at these schools. These after-show panels have also involved leaders of local community groups, academics as well as actors and members of the production team. I have taken part in these lively after-show panel discussions to a sold-out theatre at the Lowry in Salford, Liverpool Unity Theatre and the Dukes in Lancaster. I was invited to join these panels on the basis of my research that critically investigates party-political discourses of ‘extremism’ and ‘British values’ used in the context of the Trojan Horse affair (see my recent article in Implicit Religion 21.4).

The ‘Trojan Horse’ after-show panel members at The Lowry, 12th of October 2019 (from left to right: Stefanie Sinclair, Necla Acik, Basir Kazmi, Madiha Ansari, Qasim Mahmood and John Holmwood)

The play is touring the UK until the end of November 2019 and will also be performed in the Westminster parliament in January 2020 as guests of the All Party Parliamentary Committee on British Muslims.

John Holmwood (Professor of Sociology and Social Policy) with writers Matt Woodhead (co-writer and director) and Helen Monks (co-writer) – and the Trojan Horse.