Category Archives: Opinion

Afghanistan – War without End?

By Hugh Beattie

Is war the new normal in the Middle East, asks a recent Daily Telegraph review of Elliot Ackerman’s Places and Names, about American involvement there since the turn of the century.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the answer must be yes. For much of the 20th century the country was relatively peaceful. Forty-one years ago (in April 1978) a left-wing government took power in the country in a military coup, and attempted to introduce a series of major social and economic reforms, provoking a major insurgency. At the end of 1979 Soviet troops entered Afghanistan to defend the new government. The country has suffered ever since from an ongoing civil war which has varied in intensity, but has never really ended.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion, it may be a good moment to reflect on why conflict has continued for so long. A few brief thoughts.

Firstly, there are some agriculturally very productive areas in different parts of Afghanistan, but there is a desert area in the south, and mountains (rising to 7,492 metres in the east) run across the country from east to west. These help to make communications difficult and have contributed to a strong sense of regional and even local rather than national identity.

Part of a propaganda poster produced by the new government in 1978. It depicts the last two stages in the evolution of human society according to Marxist theory; it reads from right to left – the image on the right represents capitalist society and the one on the left the final stage – the socialist utopia.

Secondly, the Afghan state, largely a product of later 19th century British imperialism, has shallow roots. Even in the later 20th century, its reach was often quite limited in rural areas and local communities maintained a considerable degree of independence.

Thirdly, there is the country’s ethnic diversity. About half the population identify as Pashtuns and Pashtu is often their first language; there are substantial minorities, who have different mother-tongues, including Persian, Uzbeki and Baluchi.

Fourthly, there is the presence of a number of powerful neighbours and near neighbours, including China, Pakistan, India and Iran, each interested in maintaining as much influence over the country as possible, and keeping others out. This is partly for strategic reasons, and partly in the hope of gaining control of the country’s mineral wealth. So, for example, since the early 1990s Pakistan has usually supported the Taliban, while its neighbour and rival, India, has tended to support more secular movements. Other, more distant, actors have also interfered during the last half-century, ranging from the USA and the UK to Saudi Arabia and the UAE (as well as Al-Qaida), NATO and the UN.

A shrine in the Kabul suburbs, the Ziarat-i-Sakhi, which has Imami Shi’a connections, taken on New Year’s Day (according to the local calendar March 21) 1979.

The religious factor is an important one too, with the almost all Afghans being Muslims, and influential religious leaders having a history of mobilising resistance to foreign intrusion, for example the Mullah Din Muhammad, known as Mushk-i-Alam (meaning ‘the perfume of the world’), who helped to lead resistance to the British during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80).

As a result, during the 20th century Afghan governments usually had to tread carefully and not interfere too much with society and the economy if they wanted to stay in power. Some rulers tried to compensate for their weakness by looking for help from outside, but accepting aid from one foreign country in particular, especially a non-Muslim one, was usually very unpopular. It also encouraged other states to intervene, in order to prevent a rival getting the upper hand there.

After the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001 following 9/11, it seemed possible that a new page in Afghanistan’s history might be turned and a new socio-political order based on freedom and democracy might emerge. But the problems were enormous, and all too soon the ‘golden moment’ passed. Soviet troops had left the country in 1989 leaving behind a weak government in Kabul and a number of powerful leaders (often referred to as warlords) in the provinces. Now it seems that in its turn the USA will soon withdraw almost all its troops, leaving a weak government in Kabul and a renascent Taliban in control of at least half the country. Sad to say, peace seems as remote a prospect as at any point since 1979.

Photo of the tomb shrine of a Sufi ‘saint’, Padshah Sahib, a few miles outside Kabul. Reportedly he died defending the local people from invaders during the 18th century CE.

Institutional Secrecy, Vatican Disclosure and Roman Catholic Priests’ Children

By Sarah Thomas

Are new and mass media nudging institutional secrecy into the open for a younger generation of Catholics? This is an interesting question to consider following the recent New York Times disclosure on 18th February this year; that the Roman Catholic Church has for years held a document containing a secret set of rules for priests who father children. Vatican spokesperson Alessandro Gisotti admitted to a New York Times journalist that “The Vatican has a secret set of rules for priests who break their vow of celibacy and father children…I can confirm that these guidelines exist…It is an internal document.” Gisotti went on to state that the document “requests” that the father leave priesthood to “assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child.” This disclosure is the first public acknowledgement by the Vatican that the Roman Catholic Church has an internal process for dealing with this most obvious transgression of the vow of priestly celibacy. Many biological children of priests (who have been trying to raise awareness about their existence by working with media outlets such as The Boston Globe since 2017), understandably feel it to be a ground-breaking moment.

It is also a particularly timely disclosure for my PhD research, that focuses on the phenomenon of Roman Catholic priests’ children and their use of new and mass media. I first became interested in this phenomenon as a research topic because, as a child of an RC priest myself, I began to notice patterns and themes emerging when listening to and reading about other priests’ children’s stories. These included priest’s children having experienced diverse forms of silencing behaviour from the Roman Catholic Church which caused isolation from their fathers – as well as from family, friends and communities – the same intention was behind: to keep the children hidden and unacknowledged.

My first contact with other priest’s children was through Coping International, an online support group for the children of Roman Catholic priests, run by Vincent Doyle, who is the son of a priest himself. Doyle has been an active campaigner for the rights of priests’ children since 2014. He was shown the Vatican’s internal document containing secret rules for priests with children two years ago during a meeting in Rome, called by Doyle to discuss the relevant issues and their impact. It was Doyle who worked with The New York Times to bring this recent disclosure to public attention, and other media outlets across the globe picked up the story immediately, causing this article to become one of the most widely reported stories initiated by a priest’s child so far.

What impact does this discovery have? The Roman Catholic Church’s much studied response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis highlights their predisposition to close ranks and maintain a wall of silence during times of scandal. There are of course very real differences with criminal behaviour and arguably the simple breaking of a promise, but are patterns of response likely to be the same? This secrecy has been the church’s attitude to priests’ children’s publicity so far, which is what makes the Vatican’s admission of this secret document so different and interesting.

Preliminary results from my twenty two interviews with Roman Catholic priests’ children point to the majority of them wanting change, and a de-stigmatising of the perception of them as objects of shameful transgressions. Comments on the Coping International closed Facebook page show how the majority of children active on the site welcomed The New York Times disclosure as an important milestone in their fight for recognition and acceptance.

While it would be naïve to think that one isolated media disclosure about Vatican guidelines will have any long lasting discernible effect on priests’ children’s lives (arguably the aspiration of Doyle and many members of Coping International), it nevertheless draws attention to a wider social movement that many more minority groups than priests’ children are involved with, one that involves resistance, small power shifts and just maybe the possibility of eventual change. There is an observable pattern of individuals coming together as critical mass, as seen with the #MeToo Campaign and other contemporary challenging of institutional authority from groups, where these groups use social and mass media to challenge power ‘horizontally’, rather than trying to engage with traditional ‘vertical’ power structures (as in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church). People are no longer remaining quiet because they are being told to from ‘above’. Being kept as isolated individuals can lead people to feel powerless, but being part of a critical mass leads people to believe they can affect change.

A phenomenon within and outside this, that sparked my initial question, is the increased use of social media generally – particularly by younger generations – to live life more publicly by regularly posting on new media outlets, as well as embracing the immediacy of email and other forms of digital communication. If this tendency towards openness and immediate communication is coupled with continued resistance to institutional authority, and the power of institutional secrecy is slowly diluted by a generational predilection for living life more openly – where individuals have the power to publicly post their own experiences without having to go through traditional institutional gatekeepers – then perhaps future generations of priests’ children will find current issues of shame and stigma melting away as institutional secrecy within the Catholic Church becomes unacceptable to younger generations of Catholics. After all, if a Vatican spokesperson unwittingly pinging an email across the pond can result in a worldwide disclosure for priests’ children, then surely anything is possible?

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Durkheim, Energy and Contagion

Just published on the blog of Oxford University Press is a piece by Paul-Francois Tremlett taking a fresh look at the work of foundational sociologist, Emilé Durkheim. He argues that we have tended to overlook some of his ideas, and looks at two examples – energy and contagion – from 1912’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life:

According to Durkheim, the performance of ritual supplied so-called aboriginal society with the resources it needed to ensure the right balance between the generation of energy on the one hand, and the consumption of energy on the other. Durkheim, of course, could not have known how apposite this line of thought would be to we humans of the Anthropocene, a term coined to mark that moment in Earth’s history when human impact on eco-systems (notably the extraction of resources for generating energy) now threatens the sustainability of all human societies.

You can read the full article here.

Don’t forget that Paul-Francois was also one of the editors (along with our own Graham Harvey and Liam T. Sutherland of the University of Edinburgh) of a recent book which also re-assesses the work of a seminal early figure in the study of religion, Edward Burnett Tylor. Watch out for a video discussion on Tylor in the New Year, recorded at the BASR conference in Chester this September.

Culture Wars: Alt+R vs. Ctrl_L, and what the Social Sciences can do about it

By Suzanne Newcombe. Part 2 of a Series (read Part 1 here)

The concept of the Alt+R has become familiar with the ascendency of Donald Trump to the office of the President of the United States. The need for an alternative to the political and economic status quo is felt on all sides of political persuasions. What to do about this situation though, often appears harder to propose and even harder to agree upon. I will first describe the current ‘culture wars’ as a conflict between an Alt+R and a Ctrl+L – before arguing for the importance of teaching and using the methods of the Social Sciences and Humanities to navigate this environment.

The Alt+R is associated with abrasive ‘plain-talking’ populist ‘truths’ and cries of ‘fake news’ when facts are interpreted with what is seen to be the wrong conclusion. The Alt+R uses a variety of strategies to delegitimize and silence opposing political views, from promoting its own ‘trusted’ and ‘unbiased’ sources such as Breitbart, Fox News and Citizen’s United political ‘exposes’ to decrying critical news sources as ‘FAKE NEWS’, to blatant ad hominem attacks, in the USA, against  figures like Senator Rand Paul, Hilary Clinton or Arianna Huffington.

While this vitriolic discourse is more intense on the other side of the pond, there are echoes of it in European politics with the various populist movements from the English Defence League, UKIP, to France’s National Front to Greece’s Golden Dawn.

Although the Alt+R has embraced this term as one of positive self-identity, one can also identify what I will term a “Ctr+L” – those self-identifying on the left of the political spectrum who also attempt to silence opposition.  At times, traditional media sources have described the Alt+R’s message as unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, discrediting the message without examination of the evidence.

University engagement in no-platforming and silencing of opposition through noisy protests and chants, removing the books of Holocaust deniers from open-access shelves, and an enforcement of ‘politically correct’ language, provides ammunition for the Alt+R’s impressions of the existence of a ‘liberal thought police’.

The Ctr+L is not above riots and violence, as events surrounding schedule talks of (then) Breitbart News spokesperson Milo Yiannopoulos at California Universities UCLA, Davis and Berkeley during early 2017 and some G20 protests have shown.

Photograph of a burning police cruiser at the G20 protests in 2010 which turned violent in Toronto.  Image by Mark Mozaz Wallis (Creative Commons).

So what can we, as educators, do in a time when (apparently) the ‘authority of experts’ is derided? Continue reading

Culture Wars 2.0 and the End of Faith

By Paul-Francois Tremlett. Part 1 of a series.

The recent election of Donald Trump to Presidential office in the USA and the referendum to leave the EU in Britain have been described as evidence for an outbreak of new culture wars. The term ‘culture wars’ has been used to describe conflicts in late 19th century England and late 20th century America between secular and religious populations over issues such as gender and sexuality and the status of religious and scientific truth-claims. The rise of the self-styled new atheism was arguably part of the same phenomenon.

Interestingly, the linkage of Trump and Brexit to a new bout of culture wars has no obvious link to any religion-secular flashpoints. The 2016 report by Kirby Swales on the Brexit vote by the National Centre for Social Research concluded that “the EU Referendum was highly divisive, highlighting a wide range of social, geographical and other differences in Great Britain. This was less a traditional left-right battle, and more about identity and values (liberalism vs authoritarianism). It is a strong sign that the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the US have arrived in Great Britain in earnest” (2016: 27). Rich Lowry in The Guardian argued in similar fashion that Trump’s election in the USA exposed new fissures around populism, immigration and nationalism. But, if the new culture wars do not reproduce the religious-secular flash-points of the past, what do they do?

A key feature of the Trump and Brexit election campaigns were claims about fake news and alternative facts. If the arch-postmodernists Jean Baudrillard and Jean-François Lyotard are to be believed, this is because the modern narrative of incremental progress and knowledge is breaking down—if not, indeed, going into reverse. Where classical sociology predicted secularization—a terminal loss of faith in religious institutions—postmodern sociology predicts a loss of faith in all the other institutions as well, from the banks, universities, newspapers and courts to the politicians. The election of Trump and the Brexit vote point to this wider breakdown. The Occupy movement—about which I’ve conducted research in London and Hong and Kong (Tremlett 2012 and 2016)—registered global distrust in economic institutions. The camps that sprang up in cities around the world were attempts to find new sources of authenticity in speech and the face-to-face intimacies of camp life, and to imagine economies not in terms of competition, but rather cooperation. Ultimately, of course, the protests failed both in terms of their primary aim of bringing about political change to rein in the banks and in terms of their secondary aim of restoring peoples trust that they were part of a common society. But the movement did provide an imaginary which formed around the preference for close, horizontal relationships over distant, vertical or hierarchical ones.

The new culture wars, then, may not be about religion, but they are about faith and loss of faith: the loss of faith in existing institutions to speak sincerely and the process of trying to discover something or someone new to place trust in.

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The launch and reception of Roots of Yoga

Theo Wildcroft, PhD Candidate

Roots of yoga coverRoots of Yoga, authored by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, is the first major text from one of the most significant research projects into the history of hatha yoga, the familiar form based on postures. As such, the book has been eagerly awaited by scholars and practitioners alike. Whilst contemporary yoga has become globally popular through the last century or more, the source material for that globalisation is surprisingly narrow.

Roots of Yoga aims to bring to light more of the vast diversity of pre-modern hatha yoga practice. It collates curated extracts from original pre-modern texts, together with an analysis of common themes and differences. It also acknowledges non-Indian and non-Hindu influences that are mostly omitted from non-academic accounts of hatha yoga. This bold choice will have political as well as scholarly implications.

The reception of historical yoga scholarship beyond the academy can be fraught. The narrow source material of most contemporary yoga was reformed in the pre-independence period, invigorated with transnational influences, combined with medical terminology and neo-Vedantic philosophy, and promoted as an enduring, ancient, authentically Indian practice for holistic health. That practice eventually proliferated into global significance, still trading on associations with authentic Indian roots, but increasingly subject to commercial appropriation. One overt aim in recent years for both American activists for social justice and the right-wing Hindu nationalist Indian government is to ‘return’ yoga to control by its perceived culture of origin. This has become entangled with politics of caste and sect, and denies the long history of multi-faith syncretism shown by Roots of Yoga, as well as a century of transnational innovation within the evolution of yoga. As such, the reception of new historical commentaries on yoga has become highly politicised.

Few would wish to repeat the experience of Wendy Doniger, whose The Hindus was removed from sale in India following governmental pressure. But as a researcher of contemporary, rather than historical practice, I find that it is in social media spaces that the impact of new scholarship is first felt beyond the academy. Mark Singleton’s previous book, Yoga Body, had a powerful impact on the transnational yoga scene. Followers of the Mysore lineages have understandably been the most resistant, whilst secular reformers and post-lineage innovators alike find in the book a strong justification for their own evolution of the practice.

The most common dismissal of Mark’s work, and that of other academics, is that mere scholars as non-practitioners can only have the most superficial of understandings of the practice. Although Mark is a yoga practitioner, his co-author James Mallinson is much more demonstrably so, having appeared in a BBC documentary on the Kumbh Mela being ordained as a mahant. With copies of Roots of Yoga in just a few practitioner hands so far, it has already become common to respond to critics dismissing the book with a link to the BBC documentary.

Already, Roots of Yoga has both fervent supporters and critics who refuse to read it, organising along lines of sect and politics. So far, the most interesting review is that by the yoga writer and thinker Matthew Remski, for Yoga Journal. It perfectly encapsulates many of the contradictory forces currently acting upon transnational yoga culture.

The review’s title is “10 Things We Didn’t Know About Yoga Until This New Must-Read Dropped”, a click-bait title that makes its writer uncomfortable. Within the very short word limit, Matthew does his best to drop a number of key facts, focusing on core concerns of contemporary practice: the historical place of women in yoga, cultural diversity and appropriation, physical and emotional safety, body image and the clash between scientific and pre-modern epistemologies. Yoga Journal chose to accompany the article with links to less serious links such as ‘A Beginner’s Guide to the Chakras’, as well as exactly the kind of images of normative bodies that yoga cultural commentators like Matthew criticise in their writing. It leads to the delightful incongruity of number 8: “’Yogic suicide’ is a thing” illustrated by a woman sunbathing in a bikini. It’s an image that could be screenshot and used in any lecture on contemporary transnational yoga culture.

 

Historical Religion in Contemporary Perspective?

Not only is it important to consider contemporary religion in its historical context, but we need to consider the study of contemporary religion in its historical context too.

Arrarnte elders, Alice Springs, 1896. Via Wikimedia commons.

Arrarnte elders, Alice Springs, 1896. Via Wikimedia commons.

I recently attended a talk by Professor James Cox on cultural memory among the Australian Aboriginal people. In particular, Cox focused on the work of T.G.H. (Ted) Strehlow among the Arrarnte people, recording the traditions of the Elders. Many of these stories and rituals were later compiled in Aranda Traditions (1947) and Songs of Central Australia (1971). He was initiated into the tribe, whereupon several of his elderly informants confided in him that they could not rely on their sons or grandsons to preserve their stories, rituals or sacred objects (tjurunga). If not for Strehlow, almost all of these would have been forgotten a generation later, which Cox described as a break in the chain of memory (invoking the work of Danielle Hervieu-Leger). However, Strehlow’s work has allowed the current generation to relearn these tales and practices, in what Cox described as a process of “repatriation”.

No doubt, this is an empowering situation for present-day Arrarnte people, and important for addressing the problematic legacy of colonialism. But this set me thinking about the idea of a chain of memory. How do we know for sure that this was an ancient tradition? Might it have been the case that the elders had forgotten as much of the traditions of their forefathers as the present generation had of theirs? The fact is, without evidence, we are simply guessing. Worse, we are possibly making the rather colonial assumption that such indigenous people existed in a timeless state, essentially unchanged since prehistory – at least until they encountered Europeans.

There is a tendency to see the modern world as something special, a period which is dramatically and fundamentally different from all that has gone before. For all that we have gained, the argument goes, like technology, literacy, human rights, we have lost other things, like community, simplicity, perhaps even enchantment. Before we could blame it on the Internet, the Victorians harked back to a pre-industrial pastoral existence as they rushed into the soot-smothered cities, and the incipient scholars of the Enlightenment harked back to the pagan grandeur of Greece and Rome.

Ironically, then, separating our age from what has gone before is exactly what previous ages have done. Modern scholars are no different; indeed, the idea is there from the moment that we started to look at modern society seriously. Weber saw an iron cage of disenchantment; Durkheim saw the complexification of society leading to anomie and suicide; Frazer saw a progression from magic to science, whereas Müller saw a degeneration from natural, pure religiosity. The secularisation thesis has been refined and reformulated over time, but was originally based upon the teleological idea of an inevitable move from superstition to religion to science. Yet as we now know, it is increasingly difficult to make the data fit this argument.

Perhaps this is the issue: data. The further back we go, the more we are working with official data and less with the thoughts, deeds and ideas of ordinary people. Where there are primary documents, they are difficult to read at face value due to years of interpretation and even redaction. But when looking at the modern world, we are awash with data, drowning in it almost, from every level and section of society.

The study of contemporary religion is rich in ethnological specificity and deals well with change. What would a study of indigenous religion – or Medieval Catholicism, or the Classical world – which assumed not stability and tradition, but constant reformulation, innovation and diversification look like? Understanding contemporary religion in historical perspective might be an approach which helps us to understand the religion of the past as well.

Islamic state, Dabiq, the Mahdi and the end-times

Dabiq is the name of a small town in northern Syria with no special claim to fame apart from the fact that the Umayyad caliph Sulaiman ibn Abd al-Malik (674-717 CE: reigned 715-717) was buried there in 717. So why has Islamic State (ISIS) called the magazine it publishes Dabiq? The main reason appears to be that according to Muslim eschatological tradition it will be the site of a major battle that will be fought between Muslims and Christian invaders, a battle that will be one of the signs that the end-times have begun[1].

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‘Wars of religion’: A career opportunity in Religious Studies?

 For those who maintain that Religious Studies has an identity and concerns distinct from those of Theology, it is galling to find the higher education sector and the media, which reports it, subsuming Religious Studies under Theology. I came across this again most recently in a Sunday newspaper supplement on UK university places available through the clearing scheme. I doubt whether it would have helped recruitment to Religious Studies – catching the attention of prospective students who might be ill-advised enough actually to look for places under Religious Studies. But then a number of other disparate reports that bear upon the prospects and concerns of Religious Studies have made me ponder of late. For example, a recent, routine emailing about research opportunities headlined a new career direction for researchers in the study of religions – charting the decline of religion in Western Europe; hardly new waters, more back to familiar debates about secularisation theory. It is not, perhaps, the career opportunity to persuade a new generation of potential researchers that Religious Studies is a vibrant and durable discipline, which offers new, unfolding frontiers to explore.

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