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Research Excellence in Religious Studies at The Open University 

By Graham Harvey 

We are pleased to share news about the results of the UK’s national audit of research: the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The results are out this week and more information will follow. However, we are keen to celebrate our research as well as our teaching and learning contributions.  We’ll also take this opportunity to briefly update you on highlights of what we’ve been doing and what we plan to do.  

The REF results provide scores for the quality of publications, based on a submission of a specified number (23) of ‘outputs’ that we considered to be among our best. We selected among our publications to reflect research by our 11 colleagues. The REF panel rated 83% to be world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour (4*) or internationally excellent (3*) in the same terms. In other words, they considered that anyone researching a topic relevant to 4*-rated publications must engage with those works, and would certainly be wise to engage with the 3* works too. We are pleased that an increasing number of our publications are ‘open access’, i.e., freely available to read through the websites of relevant publishers or journals. The Open University’s Open Research Online repository makes even more of our work available in pre-publication versions (which are usually very close to the final published versions).  

In addition to the selection of published work, we also provided a statement about our ‘research environment’ for evaluation. This sets out how we facilitate, encourage, support and reward research by department colleagues and our postgraduate researchers. It also evidences our contributions to the wider national and international community of Religious Studies researchers (e.g., as peer reviewers of research and publication proposals, book and journal editors, learned society committee members, conference organisers and more). The expert panel rated 75% of our research environment statement to be at an internationally excellent level.  

We were also required to submit Impact Case Studies (ICS) to evidence how our research has changed and/or benefited the world beyond academia. We selected two to illustrate the coherence of a vibrant research community and culture focused on ‘contemporary religion in historical perspective’. Our first ICS demonstrated the ways in which the research of Prof John Wolffe, Dr John Maiden and Dr Gavin Moorhead has increased the present-day impact of religious history and archives. Our second ICS set out how Prof Graham Harvey’s ‘New Animism’ research has had an impact on creativity, culture and society. The REF panel categorised 50% of these case studies to be 4* and 3*. We celebrate these results and will say more about the research and impact involved in future blogs.  

Existing blogs already show how all members of the department conduct research and contribute to effecting positive change in the world. We have not rested since completing our REF submission but have sought to enhance our research and engagement with wider communities. We are also devoted to producing and delivering similarly world-leading and research-based learning opportunities for both our students and all learners. We have been joined by a twelfth colleague whose work extends the range of issues about which we research and teach – in particular engaging with ‘non-religion’. We remain strongly committed to using the OU’s technological expertise and online reach to engage publics with research which enhances religious ‘literacy’. A recent example of this is the AHRC-funded ‘Census Stories’ project, which used innovative storytelling techniques to engage people from Milton Keynes with data on demographic changes in religion and ethnicity in the UK. This is now a free public online course, which enables others to use the same approaches to understanding the complexities of religious and non-religious identities in their own localities. We are also set to continue our engagement with young people on religious diversity through the European Commission funded RETOPEA (Religious Toleration and Peace) project. An online ‘Badged Open Course’ will soon be released, designed for high-school teachers, youth workers and museum staff, which equips them to help young people make ‘docutubes’ – short ‘Vlog’ style documentaries – about religious diversity past and present. These are just some of the ways in which RS at the OU is providing world-leading and internationally excellent research-based resources for everyone interested in understanding and debating religion in many arenas.  

Eco-reflexivity in Extinction Rebellion’s Regenerative Culture

By Dr Maria Nita  

Although we are often told that late modernity is self-reflexive, and grounded in self-examination this reflexivity has been critiqued from many quarters for its “ouroboric” tendencies, or for not being grounded in social practiceIt is as though, with the advent of what Peter Berger called the ‘shrinkage’ of the sacred, or Max Weber called ‘disenchantment’, there were fewer and fewer vistas for sustained collective reflection—‘Sorry folks, all we have left is this small bottle of individual self-exploration leading to an intoxicating search for self-identity. It may look small, but it is bottomless…’ No wonder that only something as collectively sobering as the climate crisis could bring about the new ‘elusive virtue’ of ecological reflexivity, with its components of  ‘recognition, rethinking and response’ (Pickering 2019), or as Extinction Rebellion encapsulates it: ‘Act Now’. 

The 2018 reboot of the climate movement, Extinction Rebellion (XR), seems to have already accomplished the impossible by carrying through elements from the long 1960s transatlantic counterculture, to green millennials. When XR activists talk about REGEN—the regenerative culture project at the heart of XR—you can hear reverberated echoes of the alternative communes and free festivals, which seemed to have either become distant history or, may have been gestating inside new global transformative festivals (St John 2022; van den Ende 2022). Art and performance festivals had indeed preserved elements of the counterculture, but the protest spirit of the 1960s hippie culture had entered a dormant, performative, and memorialized phase (Nita and Gemie 2020). Sure, the so-called ‘long 1960s’ culture might be remembered and celebrated for two short weeks at Glastonbury or Burning Man, but could a new generation be living it out? 

REGEN (short for ‘regenerative culture’) recaptures the ethos of civil disobedience, artistic activism, and communalism of the early hippie communes which were anticipating and preparing themselves for a future world in deep crisis (Miller 1999). Take for example the four-minute clip below where an XR activist explains this new culture in the making. She describes REGEN as ‘the mycelium upon which XR relies for its nurturing a new society that is resilient and robust and can support us all through the changes we must inevitably face together’. REGEN helps us ‘reweave ourselves as part of a living eco-system’ through climate mindfulness, expressing grief, learning resilience, and experimenting with new types of self-care and communication practices—like ‘listening circles’, gatherings where people listen without directly responding to each other. Surely, these are practices of eco-reflexivity—but where are they coming from?  

XR Regen Culture Explained | April Griefsong | March 2019 | Extinction Rebellion UK – YouTube 

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Pride in our past, Faith in our future: Fulneck and Fairfield

By James Rollo, PhD Candidate

The origins of the Moravians date back to the foundation of the Unity of Brethren in 1457 by Gregory, the Patriarch of the Moravian city of Kunwald. After years of persecution, the church re-emerged in 1722 with the establishment of the settlement (a planned community) at Herrnhut in Saxony on the estate of Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf. Moravians from the Herrnhut community visited England in 1734, seeking permission to settle in the American colonies. There was, however, great interest in the Moravian Church in England, and the first English congregation was established at Fetter Lane London in 1742. The settlement at Fulneck was the first in England – the land was acquired in 1743 and the foundation stone for the church was laid in 1746 – while Fairfield was the last with the foundation stone laid in 1784.

These two sites are integral to my fieldwork for my PhD thesis on Contemporary Moravian identity in historical perspective. Combining archival research and contemporary fieldwork at these two Moravian settlements in England, my thesis examines contemporary notions of Moravian identity and tradition from a historical perspective. I investigate how members of these settlements view the history of their church and its relevance to them now. Open Days were cancelled during the pandemic in 2020, but they are now back on track, and I have finally been able to visit the settlements again. They are of a similar size: Fulneck has ninety-eight residents and Fairfield one hundred and six. Fulneck is built on a hill, its orientation is linear. It consists of a single one-way road running parallel to the buildings and a lower-level cobbled walkway. Rather than a single road, the settlement at Fairfield contains three in the form of a capital F, rotated ninety degrees.

Fulneck – The Terrace South Side (Jim Rollo 18/09/2021)

Fulneck Church and The Terrace North Side (Jim Rollo 31/07/2021)

Heritage Days were held in Fairfield on 12th September (though more toned-down than pre-Covid) and in Fulneck on the 18th of September 2021. These Open Days gave the residents of the two settlements the chance to present to the public the importance of their history and heritage, the things that matter to them, their public facing identity. Both settlements offered similar programs with guided tours of the settlements, and opened their doors to both their museums and churches. Fulneck church had an exhibition on the theme of food and the self-sufficiency of the settlement, while at Fairfield, there were presentations about the history of the Moravian Church and the development of the settlement.

Plan of Fairfield (Historic England, 1966)

Fairfield Square East Side (Jim Rollo 12/09/2021)

What then do these Open Days tell the visitor about the way contemporary Moravians present themselves to the public? Common themes of the settlement tours and of the exhibits included the importance placed on a sense of community and heritage, and residents’ pride in and identification with the settlements and their history. However, the onsite museums also reflect differences between the two settlements in their approach to history. The museum at Fulneck is the older of the two. Opened in July 1969, it is titled a ‘museum of local history’ and is very much focused on the history of life in the settlement. Fairfield, on the other hand, juxtaposes 18th century Moravian practices of worship with 21st Century worship, showing continuity and development, rather than dwelling on past traditions.  The comparison between ‘then and now’ is a theme that runs throughout all of the Fairfield museums’ exhibits. The ‘now’ stands out most with the display of how Fairfield is used in television and film the most recent being the TV series Peaky Blinders and the film Mrs Lowry and Her Son.

Stills from Mrs Lowry and her son (Jim Rollo 12/09/2021)

Of course, the desire to use Fairfield in period film is also due to the settlement being unspoilt and grade two listed, without satellite dishes and other modern-day clutter. However, it also says something about the community’s pride in the picturesque location of their settlement that they want to share. Furthermore, this represents an interesting contrast: on the one hand, the fact that the Fairfield community allows TV / film crews to use their settlement as a backdrop reflects a willingness to embrace modern technology, while on the other, it maintains the old-world image of the settlement itself.

While their history and heritage form a part of their identity, it is important to remember that these are active living religious communities today. As both the guides to the tours pointed out, there is so much happening in the settlements, both secular and religious, it is very difficult for the residents to not become actively involved in community life.

The power of religious life outside of institutions

By Claire Wanless

Sociologists have sometimes taken the view that in the absence of hierarchical institutions, religion lacks the ability to sustain itself over generations or to motivate participants to socially significant activity. That is to say that regardless of the value or otherwise of practices and beliefs, religion needs strong institutions to make it functionally viable. It is tempting to use this kind of argument to suggest that the individualized religious and spiritual practice that is increasingly seen in societies like the UK is best regarded as mere personal superstition – an ultimately trivial and socially unimportant private practice. Arguably, to do so is to accept that we need powerful leaders to direct us in order to prevent our society from fragmenting into one ruled primarily by self-interest. My PhD research (recently published in book form) indicated a different conclusion. The subjects of my research were people who felt themselves to be spiritual or religious but who prioritised their own subjective experience over any external religious authority. Many of them were people who had previously been involved with top-down religious institutions and who had then decided to cast their own religious path. They had not rejected religious or spiritual practice as an activity, but they had rejected top-down religious institutions. I found that, far from being isolated in their practice, many of these people took advantage of various kinds of shared practice groups and networks to create their own opportunities for constructive practice and information exchange. This resulted in a far richer and more dynamic spirituality-related culture than you might expect if practitioners were merely indulging in isolated personal superstition. While individuals in this context can take radical ownership of their personal spiritual journeys, they recognise the parallel efforts of their peers to do the same, and they see value in working together. This can give rise to a shared discourse and ethic of mutuality that both aids transmission of ideas and practices and facilitates socially significant activity.

It is important to note that what is transmitted in this kind of context is not best understood as religious truths or identities, but as ideas, practices and similar spiritual resources that are then accepted only to the degree that they are found to be useful. The information exchange that occurs is therefore not only dynamic but highly creative in its operation. While still prioritising their own subjectivity and personal authority over their religious lives, these individuals benefit from a shared approach to the making of (among other things) meaning, moral frameworks and creative purpose.

It is interesting to speculate about the extent to which this kind of association is apparent elsewhere – perhaps alongside the top-down structures of more traditional religious institutions, or among artistic and creative communities in which people see themselves as independent practitioners within a culture of peers. The parallel may be especially striking in fields of grassroots political activism where there is a moral element and a shared desire to change the world for the better. It would be interesting to find out more about the importance and structure of any shared ethic of mutuality among political activists, and particularly where its boundaries lie. Over the last few years we have seen how social media can be used to manipulate us into likeminded bubbles, in which we only talk to those who think like ourselves and see those who are outside of our own bubble as somehow the enemy. Further research on how and why this ethic of mutuality works might help us understand how to break down the silos and create a more open and inclusive political discourse. In the meantime, perhaps each of us could benefit from thinking about our own personal ethic of mutuality, and whether it extends as far as it should.

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Indigenous festivals and the re-making of the world

By Graham Harvey

Among the many impacts of the Covid19 pandemic is the moving of festivals to online venues.  Starting on 13 May 2021, this year’s ORIGINS Festival of First Nations will begin with a series of digital events. Previously, the biennial festival has brought Indigenous artists and thinkers from around the world to perform and present in London. Before the pandemic, an exciting programme of events over a period of about two months provided audiences with opportunities to enjoy and engage with music, theatre, dance, talks, films and other media in venues as diverse as the British Museum, Rich Mix and public parks. The festival not only begins with a ceremony informed and largely led by Indigenous participants but also includes many performances inspired and informed by Indigenous ceremonial repertoires and or sacred knowledges. In addition to be hugely enjoyable and profoundly educational, ORIGINS has been an exciting site for my research about religion. The 2021 ORIGINS Festival promises to be similarly inspiring and provocative.

You can find plenty of information about this year’s year-long ORIGINS Festival of First Nations – and about previous festivals – in the organising company’s website and in social media. The opening event on May 13th includes an online performance of the short play, Katharsis, by Yvette Nolan (Algonquin, Canada) – billed as “a digital love letter to a theatre left empty by the pandemic”. The festival continues with a series of talks by Indigenous writers (poets, environmentalists, and a horror novelist) addressing the three main themes of this year’s festival: Covid, Climate Change and Colonialism. As the festival continues throughout 2021 and into 2022, live, face-to-face performance-based interventions in public spaces are planned. Some will move beyond London, including a journey of a Totonac artist’s totem carving to the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow this autumn.

In addition to contributing to dialogue with some of the Indigenous presenters and performers, my involvement with the festival involves research focused on dynamic interplays between ritual and performance, and celebration and decolonisation. The first of these seeming contrasts is a classic issue in the study of religions and related disciplines. Some scholars have insisted that theatrical performances are different from religious rituals in several ways. Rituals, it has been claimed, do not have audiences, only participants. They carry and convey serious meanings rather than offering entertainment. They do not encourage improvisation but should follow established traditions. Each of these (and other) comparisons have been challenged and the inadequacies of their underlying assumptions often rejected. More recent studies of both theatre and ritual have reflected deeply on their commonalities. This is improved understanding of and debate about the ways in which people improvise when they get involved in religious rituals, making them part of contemporary lives in one way or another. We might also play with phrases like “suspension of disbelief” and “make-believe”, sometimes used in relation to theatrical performance to think about what happens when people do ceremonies.

Grupo Sotz’il in OXLAJUJ B’AQTUN – ORIGINS 2015 photo by John Cobb

All of this is useful to students of religion in reconsidering some key terms and debates in our discipline. But what happens at the ORIGINS Festival suggests that another phrase might be more useful: “world making”. Performers, artists, film-makers and speakers raise important issues and proffer powerful suggestions about ways of tackling the contemporary challenges. In various ways, audiences are invited to set aside colonial and romantic perspectives and to reflect on how things might be different. They are challenged, explicitly or implicitly, to consider the legacy of European historical, cultural and religious processes, and especially to re-imagine communities that embrace rather than exclude Indigenous peoples and the larger-than-human world. There are, then, religious and political world-making projects braided in with the enjoyment of rich cultural events. If the world is, as many Indigenous people insist, made up of multi-species communities, then the solutions to pandemics, climate crises and colonialism have to involve the needs of all living beings. My research at ORIGINS and other Indigenous festivals leads me to think that we could expand our notions of religion and democracy to embrace many more participants than just us humans.

Metaphor and Religion

by Paul-François Tremlett

In the late 19th century, as the sheer diversity of religions dawned on nascent traditions of enquiry in the social sciences and the humanities, a number of scholars sought to define Religion by establishing the key common traits and features they assumed would be shared by all of the different religions. This project generated new research which, while certainly adding to the sum total of human knowledge about religions, nevertheless did not deliver on the promise of a definition of Religion, or at least not a universal one that could boast any consensus outside usage by particular interest groups.

In the early twenty-first century, the standard approach to Religion (still with a capital R) is somewhat different. Instead of trying to delineate a distinct class of religious facts we approach Religion through metaphor. Think of “liquid religion” or “vernacular religion”. These metaphors, both popular in today’s academic circles, tell us not what Religion is, but rather invite us to attend to certain qualities of Religion that chime with our wider contemporary experience. “Liquid”, as Zygmunt Bauman said, means “change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty”, and the new mobilities and flows enabled by globalization and digital media have seen both new forms of Religion (from place-based congregations to digitally-enabled global communities such as El Shaddai) and new kinds of Religion influenced by popular culture and new technologies, such as Terasem. “Vernacular religion”, with its connotations of local variation and performance as well as perhaps dissenting departure from official norms, invites us to imagine Religion not as something abstract or grandiose but rather as something put to work in ordinary life. It is a metaphor with enormous resonance in cultures that celebrate the individual as a source of its own authority and in societies keen to celebrate local authenticities and eccentricities against imaginaries of bloated institutions and zombie bureaucracies. Thinking about Religion through these and other metaphors is, in my view, productive and a welcome alternative to the collection of facts and the formulation of typologies that defined Religious Studies in decades past and, in this short post I want to road-test an alternative metaphor for Religion: “sticky”.

There are at least three iterations of “sticky religion”. The first comes from the functionalist school in twentieth century Sociology which regarded the performance of religious rituals as sticky occasions because of their capacity to cement or glue different societal elements together. Emile Durkheim’s classic The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (first translated into English in 1915) is regarded by many as a foundational expression of this point of view.

The second comes from feminist and post-colonial theory but shares certain affinities with the first. Sara Ahmed’s interest in emotion and affect and her exploration of the ways in which emotions move and come to bind bodies, objects and places together, extends Durkheim’s insight as to the mucilaginous qualities of certain social practices. For example, according to Ahmed, words become sticky through the various resonances and associations that they gather through time and through use. If we apply her insights to Religion, it is clear that it is a word that has accumulated many layers of meaning and significance, both emotional and intellectual, largely without anyone being particularly aware of the when, why or how, and those meanings cannot easily be unstuck or separated.

The third comes from contemporary cognitive anthropologists such as Pascal Boyer and Dan Sperber, who regard religious beliefs as side-effects of ordinary thinking. In their view, human brains are pre-wired to anticipate reality. That is, humans arrive into the world with a pre-programmed set of expectations about how the world works: a solid object can’t pass through another solid object (everyday physics), animals without wings can’t fly (everyday biology) and I will never know what’s going on inside my reader’s mind (everyday psychology). Religious beliefs break all of these hard-wired assumptions about reality: ghosts walk through walls, mythical horses fly, and gods are privy to every human thought. But if religious beliefs contravene our expectations of reality – expectations which in other circumstances our lives depend on – why do people believe them? Why do these beliefs persist when they deliver false expectations? According to our cognitive anthropologists, people believe them because they are sticky, first activating and then bonding with, other cognitive capacities associated with social life.

“Sticky religion” offers a way of thinking that draws attention to certain qualities or aspects of Religion. It neither offers to explain nor understand Religion. Instead it positions it in a fragile and shifting web of connections.

 

References

Ahmed, S. 2014, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2nd Ed), Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.

Bauman, Z. 2000, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity.

Boyer, P. 2000, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, New York: Basic Books.

Durkheim, E. 1915, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (trans). J. W. Swain, London: Allen and Unwin.

Sperber, D. 1996, Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach, Oxford: Blackwell.

Videos from BASR 2020

The videos of the two panels from this year’s BASR conference are now available. The conference page is archived here. Here’s the info for each individual video:

Title: BASR 2020 | Teaching and Learning Panel

Description: The opening panel from BASR 2020 focused on Teaching and Learning. First is a presentation from 2020 Teaching Award recipient Melanie Prideaux, together with her student Natasha Jones (both University of Leeds). This is followed by an open discussion on the COVID-19 pivot to online delivery, with contributions from Dawn Llewellyn (2019 Teaching Award recipient, University of Chester), Stefanie Sinclair (BASR T&L rep, Open University), Paul-Francois Tremlett (Open University), BASR President Bettina Schmidt, Melanie Prideaux and Natasha Jones.

 

Title: BASR 2020 | Worldviews in RS and RE Panel

Description: This panel, curated by Wendy Dossett (University of Chester), discusses the Commission for Religious Education’s proposal for a shift towards studying “Religion and Worldviews” in Secondary Religious Education. Contributions from Wendy Dossett, Rudi Eliott Lockhart (former CEO of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University), Paul-Francois Tremlett (Open University) and Malory Nye (Independent Academic affiliated to University of Glasgow).

BHM | Africa at the Forefront of Global Scholarship

By Graham Harvey. This is the first in a series celebrating Black History Month 2020.

To point out that Africans have developed many mature and vital religions, philosophies and lifeways would be banal if it were not for the weight of distain which tends to dismiss these as primitive or foolish. Contested terms like “fetishism” and “animism” could illustrate the long history of prejudice in European assessments of African religions. However, looked at differently, and challenging the legacy of colonialism, they can instead draw attention to well-established African ideas and practices which turn out to have been prescient of cutting edge global scholarship.

In recent decades many academic disciplines have re-assessed human relationships with the wider world, not only with animals and plants but also with artefacts. Practices that were once dismissed as fetishism (allegedly a mistaken attribution of life to inanimate objects) now provide significant encouragement for the “ontological turn”, the “new animism” and the “new materialism”.

In these trans-disciplinary debates, Indigenous and other ways of understanding and moving through the world are inspiring challenges to dominant “Western” or “Modern” worldviews. In particular, researchers are re-considering European-originated obsessions with individuality. People, it turns out, are shaped by their relationships – and not just with other humans. We are always becoming some kind of relation: parent, student, chef, painter, philosopher, healer, story-teller or cat-lover perhaps. Other beings and objects – cats and computers, dogs and desks – make us who we are in each encounter. It is similar with desks: they are only desks when used to support computers, papers, pens and so on. Otherwise, perhaps they are just collections of word and screws.

In the colonial era, Europeans mocked Africans for making amulets and statuettes which they expected to provide guidance or protection. Let’s ignore for now the irony that those same Europeans were wearing religious symbols and venerating images of their deity and saints. Neither group was ignorant of the “made-ness” of the disputed objects. Prejudice and polemic stood in the way of understanding.

It has taken a long time to change things. African and African-diaspora songs, oratory, novels and poetry have contributed by familiarising the world with the ideas that have informed African adaptability and creativity over the years. The late Harry Garuba (Nigerian poet and professor of English Literature and African Studies in Cape Town, South Africa) demonstrated that understanding Africa requires understanding of what he called “animist realism”. This involves the active participation of the larger-than-human community (including made things as well as animals, birds and plants but also ancestors and other significant beings) in relationships and events. What might seem like poetic metaphors have the force of personal interactions. Cowrie shells and birds in flight communicate about reality. Calabashes and stomachs express their desires to be filled with palm wine.

Whether or not you agree with the poets and writers who deploy animist realism to propel the action of their work, there is a profound insight here into the multi-species world. Humans are far from alone or unique. Our relationships (including aggressive and unpleasant ones) with the larger community shape our lives. We are aided, and constrained, by our interactions with others. These ideas are foundational in recent scholarly debates in many disciplines (such as Actor-Network Theory). An improved, de-colonial relationship with Africa and its prescient ideas and practices can animate more new thinking about interactions between humans and the larger world.

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.