Category Archives: contemporary religion in historical perspective

Democracy, Information, and Religion

By Paul-François Tremlett

On the 17-18th January this year, academics, activists, journalists, religious, policy makers and artists assembled at Burlington House in London (see photograph) for a series of trans-disciplinary talks and activities to address the role of religious institutions and religious communities both in the generation and dissemination of disinformation but also in the cultivation of information literacy to resist information manipulation. The event was organised by Dr Paul-François Tremlett (Religious Studies) and Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody (POLIS) and was funded by the Open Societal Challenges initiative at the Open University (see Democracy, Information, and the cultural capital of Religion: Sharing Global Best Practice on Press and Election Manipulation (open.ac.uk)). Their respective expertise in the Philippines and Russia – countries where powerful religious institutions have promoted disinformational and anti-disinformational narratives – was the catalyst for the event, which sought to analyse shifting and multi-layered contexts including a neoliberal frame that pervades contemporary economic and political discourses where the financialization of everything means big profits for those creating and dissemating disinformation, huge dissatisfaction with ruling elites across the global South and global North accompanied by a rise in populist and divisive politics, and widespread disengagement from traditional forms of political participation as governments appear increasingly distant from and unresponsive to the populations they are supposed to serve.

In such fractious times disinformation, conspiracy theories and dissension can feel like the means to “stick it to the man”. Indeed, they offer forms of political and discursive participation albeit ones grounded in a constellation of affects from anger to vexatiousness (among others) that signal a breakdown of trust in once hallowed and taken-for-granted institutions, political and cultural traditions and social memories. Bringing religion – often a synecdoche for stability, morality, tradition and trust – into the conversation about democracy and disinformation, means that we can start to explore the involvement of religious institutions and communities in spreading and/or contesting disinformational narratives, but also work to refine our theoretical and methodological tools to study the entanglements of the information and disinformation-scapes of religion and democracy.

When it comes to information, of course, there is no passage to a neutral language or medium that can be detached from politics, history or passion or indeed from situated reception and interpretation. We know that what we’re talking about is power; networks of alliances and forces which the political strategist Antonio Gramsci, in the Prison Notebooks, characterised as “unstable equilibria”. Solving the problems around democracy, information, election manipulation and religion cannot be done by fact-checking or media, political and religious literacy training alone, as much as such initiatives help. Rather, the interventions we design must make the most of those “unstable equilibria” to find new centres of gravity around the commons and the public good. We’re hopeful that through our event and the interactions and collaborations it has set in motion, we will develop new initiatives to tackle what’s rapidly emerging as a key challenge of our time.

The Green Man and the Blue Man

By David Robertson 

I lived in Leith when my kids were small, so I spent a lot of time pushing a pram around. I got to know the streets and paths well, and the many interesting buildings. Although more famous today for the poverty and addiction that plagued the area in the 1980s and 1990s, Leith was a hugely wealthy harbour for most of its long existence, and the evidence is written in the dark sandstone.

Figure 1 - The Green Man, Junction Street, Leith (photo by the author)

Figure 1 – The Green Man, Junction Street, Leith (photo by the author)

Something I quickly noticed was the many example of the “Green Man” around the place. Like many (including the King!), I’ve long been fascinated with the verdant, vigorous, vital trickster grinning down from the eaves. He seems to speak of a pagan past – even though in fact he was a Victorian invention that synthesised a number of different local figures and traditions into a single universal figure, in much the same way that today’s Wheel of the Year — the pagan calendar of equinoxes, solstices and “quarter days” — was created. He fitted the growth of interest in “folk customs” that accompanied urbanisation, and the fashion for ornate neo-gothic architecture, and so we should not be surprised that the wealthy merchants of Leith included him in their new buildings.

Figure 2 – Carved pair of heads, Constitution Street, Leith (photos by the author)

But then I noticed that in Leith, he often has a friend. I found several pairs of heads, matching except for their paraphernalia — where the Green Man seemed to be peering out from the greenery, leaves and vines and fruit in his hair, his friend had waves for a beard and shells in his hair.

Figure 3 – The Green Man, Junction Street, Leith (photo by the author)

I reached out to a local historian I know on Twitter, who told me that, in fact, most of the heads are meant to represent Bacchus (Greek god of wine), because alcohol was their primary import. This is very clear in the spectacular carving on the corner of Maritime Street, the former offices of “distillers, blenders and manufacturers of cordials”, Robertson, Sanderson & Company, which is replete with vines and bunches of grapes (as well as Scottish thistles).

Figure 4 – Bacchus head, Maritime Lane, Leith (photo by the author). Continue reading

Religious diversity in Jordan: “Docutubes” in Amman and As-Salt

John Maiden

From 2018 to 2022, along with Open University colleagues John Wolffe and Stefanie Sinclair, and scholars and stakeholders across Europe, I was part of the Horizon2020 project ‘Religious Toleration and Peace’ (RETOPEA). The purpose of the project was to explore historic examples of historic religious diversity and coexistence, and to engage young people with this research through a process of creative learning, called the ‘docutube’ methodology. These are short films, scripted, filmed and edited by young people (in schools, youth clubs etc.), which make connections between religious toleration and peace in historical contexts, the present day and their own experiences. So often, we found, European young people tended to assume that the ‘religious past’ was one of intolerance, antagonism, and violence. The point of RETOPEA was to raise awareness of historic ‘counternarratives’ of religious coexistence and peacebuilding.

In September 2023, along with Research Associate Dr Katelin Teller we took the ‘docutubes’ methodology outside of Europe, and to a Muslim majority context, for the first time. Our partner on the ground was the Royal Institute of Inter-Faith Studies (RIIFS) in Amman, an institution which promotes research and engagement in the area of religious diversity. The group of young people were aged 18-22 and each from a Muslim background. At the beginning of the workshop, we examined historic sources on religious coexistence in Jordan and the Middle East more widely. We looked at the significance of the figure of Saint George and Al-Khadar amongst Christians and Muslims, including examples of multi-religious space and popular religious practice in relation to this figure, for example as described by the Muslim geographer al-Muqaddasi (946-1000) in Lod. We looked at religious clothing in Jordan, for instance where local Catholic priests had dressed similarly to Bedouin. We examined too the Amman Message, a statement on diversity and unity in the Muslim world, which RIIFS had a major role in putting together.

Once young people had engaged with wider themes of religious coexistence, we visited the city of As-Salt. Here they were able to visit both Catholic and Orthodox churches, a marketplace used by both communities, and interview religious leaders in a city which has a long reputation for ‘everyday’ peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims. Here, the young people filmed their docutubes, drawing on their previous day’s thinking on historic sources and their observations of the material examples of religious diversity in the city.

The point of making docutubes is to enable deep, creative learning. Rather than give the young people historical ‘facts’, we seek to give them the chance to engage with historical sources and material environments. The insightful nature of the young peoples’ films, which will soon be made available (in Arabic, with English subtitles) at www.retopea.eu, indicates the potential of this approach.

Wildfires, Shaman-trees, and Gateways to Hell

Liudmila Nikanorova 

With the arrival of autumn, it has been confirmed by the World Meteorological Organization (WHO) and NASA  that the summer of 2023 was the warmest on record globally. During this period, record-breaking heatwaves, wildfires, extreme rainfall, and flooding swept across much of the world. 2023 wildfires in North America, South Europe, Central Asia, North Africa, and Russia’s Far East destroyed millions of hectares of forest fuelling further climate crisis, threatening water and food security, polluting air for millions of people, and damaging ecosystems, wildlife, and soil.

The Sakha Republic (Yakutia), one of the coldest regions in the world, has been severely affected by devastating wildfires in recent years. Unprecedented forest fires in the region in 2021 became one of the world’s worst ever air pollution events, named by the Guardian an ‘airpocalypse’ (see the article here). This summer, nearly one hundred wildfires spread across 125,000 hectares leading to the declaration of the state of emergency by Aisen Nikolaev, the Head of the Republic of Sakha. One of the larger problems with wildfires in the region is the acceleration of permafrost thaw. Not only does it create a ticking ‘methane bomb’ of greenhouse gases accumulated over thousands of years in permanently frozen soils (see WWF Arctic Programme and Special Report on the Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate), but a series of immediate environmental and infrastructural disruptions.

All these changes pose risks for people living in permafrost areas, which is seen, among other examples, in deformed buildings, damaged gas and oil pipelines, and destruction of roads and electric power supply lines. Traveling within the Sakha Republic, particularly in remote areas, has become increasingly dangerous because of the precarious state of the road conditions. Most roads in the region, especially to the remote destinations, operate only in winter, when they are frozen and navigable; for the rest of the year, these roads turn to mush (Argounova-Low and Prisyazhnyi 2016).

Concerns about the dangers of becoming stranded on muddy roads, encountering forest fires, floods, or other unforeseen challenges have grown into a significant worry for the local population. One notable response to these concerns can be seen in the phenomenon of shaman-derevo [Ru.] [‘shaman-trees’] in the Sakha Republic. In recent years, it has become increasingly common to make stops by such trees with wishes for a safe journey, especially during long-distance travels. Typically, people adorn the trees with colorful ribbons, known as salama in Sakha. It is also common to leave coins, cigarettes, sweets, and even some freshly prepared alaad’ee (fried Sakha pancakes) by the tree.

While shaman trees are described as ancient Sakha practices, it wasn’t until the 2000s that they began to be explicitly referred to as “shaman trees,” particularly in guided tours for tourists interested in Sakha religion. However, even at these tours some guides emphasise that shaman trees have little to do with shamanism:

“Shamans are individuals who do not belong to any religion. Regarding shamanism, it was exterminated during communism. When I was preparing my guided tour, I heard of a shaman tree on the outskirts of the city. I did some research and found the tree, which I included in the tour “Religion in Yakutia”. The tour focused on the two main Sakha religions – Christianity and Tengrism. Although shaman-derevo has nothing to do with either of the religions, I kept it because it is one of the favorite sights of tourists.” – The guide from “Religion in Yakutia” tour.

This particular shaman-derevo, a tall tree struck by lightning, is located near the border between Yakutsk and Khangalasskiy district (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Shaman tree on the outskirts of Yakutsk

Although most refer to these trees as “shaman-trees,” they are also known to be called as Belekh Mas [Sa.] [‘gift trees’] and Aartyk Ichchi Mas. Sakha ethnographer Vladimir Popov (2017) argues that:

“These trees are typically found on the roadside and at the borders between territorial divisions, serving as gathering points for people to leave offerings for a safe journey. While they are commonly known as shaman-derevo, they do not belong to shamanism. There are numerous such trees outside Yakutsk. Leaving gifts at these locations is believed to ensure a safe and successful journey.”

In addition to shaman trees, there are also other efforts to seek protection during the travels. In many cars traveling on long-distance roads, you would often find both Sakha kharyskhal [Sa.] [‘protection’] and Russian Orthodox icons. These elements coexist with each other without much of a conflict (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Kharyskhal and Russian Orthodox icons

Another example of how the locals from the Sakha Republic story the ongoing environmental changes is the Batagaika crater, which was formed in the 1960s due to the thawing permafrost after the deforestation of the area. The crater is known among the locals as “Vorota v Ad,” which translates from Russian into the “Gateway to Hell” due to the eerie sounds that emerge from the crater as the permafrost thaws (see Figure 3 and Reuter’s drone footage from July 2023). In this context, Christian apocalyptic stories are intertwined with stories of melting lands and disturbed landscapes as the result of global warming.

Figure 3. Batagaika Crater NASA from Wikipedia Commons

Large scale seasonal wildfires in the Sakha Republic affected most parts of daily lives of the local population, pushing them to make use of all accessible tools and strategies to cope with the precarious climate conditions. All the above discussed examples show how the lexicon of religion is employed to tell contemporary stories of increasing consequences of the climate crisis. Although some stories are aimed at interpreting changing landscapes and others as an effort of preventing accidents and disasters, they all illustrate how religious articulations surface in moments of precarity, disruption and crisis.

References:

  1. Argounova-Low, T & Prisjazjnyj, M. 2016. «Biography of a Road: Past and Present of the Siberian Doroga Lena». Development and Change 47 (2): 367 – 387. https://doi.org/10.1111/dech.12220.
  2.  Popov, Vladimir. 2017. «Shaman-derevo». Yakutsk Vecherniy, 16. June. 

 

 

In Good Faith? How the Bloom Report misrepresents religion in the UK

By David G. Robertson

In October 2019, the then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed an Independent Faith Engagement Adviser to make recommendations to the Secretary of State for Communities. The final report, “Does Government ‘do God’? An Independent review into how Government engages with Faith” (also known as the Bloom Report), was published on 26th April, 2023. It clocks in at 159 pages, including a series of twenty-two recommendations on “properly engaging with people of faith” (summarised on pp. 18-24).

There is much to commend in the report’s conclusions. #7 urges government to properly support RE teaching in secondary schools. It also seeks to redress the way that Muslims were singled out for criticism in the Blair/post 9-11 era, with policies such as the Prevent Strategy seemingly assuming the Muslim was the image of “problematic” religion (#14). It also acknowledges the diversity within religious communities—a theme which our students on A332 Why is Religion Controversial? are very familiar with. Perhaps most significantly, it urges the government not to shy away from addressing problems within religious communities “head on”. Forced marriage is an issue that Bloom particularly focuses on (#20-22), but the report also discusses financial exploitation, radicalisation in prisons (#11) and coercive control (#19), but not clerical abuse, nor the role of religious institutions in challenging anti-LGBTQ+ equality.

The report also recognises the growing religious diversity in the UK, but however fails to acknowledge the most seismic change to the religious landscape in the UK today—the rise of “no religion”, a cohort which has grown 26% since 2001, drawing in the main from those who formerly identified as Christian. The UK is no longer a Christian-majority country, indeed it is likely a country which will soon be a majority non-religious country, but you would not get that impression from this report (see the critical response from Humanists UK).

To be fair, Bloom does see the non-religious as “part of the solution to improving society” (p.5). In fact, he proposes that the government should divide religious people into three groups: “true believers”, “non-believers” and “make believers”:[1]

The first are ‘true believers’ who, regardless of their faith, are sincere, devout and peaceful. Government can and should work with true believers. The second are ‘non-believers’ who, like true believers, are generally sincere, peaceful and decent. True believers and non-believers are part of the solution to improving society. The third are ‘make-believers’. Make-believers are generally the cause of most of the problems that government encounters in the faith space. Make-believers are often motivated by ego, money, prestige or power and abuse their position to promote themselves or their causes, clothing them with religion to give them divine legitimacy. Make-believers are a problem, both for government and for the communities they claim to represent.

It is commendable that here Bloom puts “true believers” and “non-believers” on the same footing as being sincere and peaceful (until you notice the qualifier “generally”, at least). But this categorisation is highly problematic, nevertheless. Bloom is here combining two inaccurate, though widespread, tropes—on the one hand, that religion is necessarily about “sincere belief”, and on the other, that religion is always a force for good.

The first trope is clear in the definitions of “religion”, “belief” and “faith” which the report presents in Recommendation #3. Several commentators have already critiqued this (see for example, this thread by Rudi Elliot Lockhart, former CEO of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales)—but I will summarise briefly here.

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Age of the Spirit? How charismatic Christianity became ‘mainstream’

John Maiden

Some months ago, Max Lucado, one of a handful of Christian leaders who since the death of Billy Graham might possibly be said to fall into an ‘America’s pastor’ category, and who has sold well north of 100 million products, revealed that he spoke in tongues in his devotional life. What was perhaps most striking about the news was the absence of any substantial backlash. There was almost a collective shrug of the shoulders, as evangelicals seemed to say, ‘And what?’. The lack of criticism is one indicator of a remarkable shift of charismatic practice, from the periphery of non-Pentecostal Christianity to the mainstream.

My new book, Age of the Spirit: Charismatic Renewal, the Anglo-World and Global Christianity, 1945-1980 (Oxford University Press) shows that in the 1960s, in English-speaking contexts such as the United States, the situation was very different. It was only six decades since the wider evangelical holiness movement had been riven by the ‘tongues’ controversy, and pentecostals had soon after begun to form their own denominations. In the early 1960s, in Southern California, Morton Kelsey an Episcopalian, described charismatic prayer groups – ecumenical grassroots gatherings where Christians sought to experience the power and presence of the Holy Spirit – as having ‘some of the characteristics of a secret society’ such was the threat of ‘ridicule or censure’. In New Zealand, the historian Peter Lineham described anti-charismatic behaviour in the Brethren churches as comparable to that of McCarthyite anti-communism. In my research, I have often read of, or spoken to people, who were ‘put out’ of their local congregations because they had been ‘baptised in the Spirit’, spoken in tongues, or practiced some other charismatic gift.

How things have changed. Within Anglicanism, there is a charismatic Archbishop of Canterbury. Holy Trinity Brompton, a west London charismatic flagship congregation and birthplace of the Alpha evangelistic course, has become a driving force of Christian witness. As Andrew Atherstone’s (2022) recent research has detailed, Alpha has been packaged as a global brand. Charismatic worship, and ministries such as Hillsong, Bethel and Passion, has dominated the Christian music industry, and songs are frequently to be heard in non-charismatic churches. There is a growing academic literature on independent congregations (including many mega-churches) and phenomena such as the ‘new paradigm churches’, the ‘New Apostolic Reformation’, and ‘Independent Network Christianity’. And we are not only talking about charismatics as part of the evangelical mainstream. The Roman Catholic Church, which in the mid-1970s became perhaps the first mainline denomination to take engagement with charismatics seriously, has increasingly sought to integrate them into its larger life.

Age of the Spirit follows the movement of charismatic practices and experiences from the periphery to the mainstream. It shows, furthermore, how Anglo-world charismatic networks, and an imaginary of ‘charismatic renewal’ or a ‘New Pentecost’, were situated in, and increasingly connected with, a wider global context, through transnational flows of media, people and money,

For a religious studies scholar, a particular aspect of interest may be the tangled genealogies which produced charismatic renewal. The book discusses the influence, for example, of early century healing movements; not only sacramental and thaumaturgical, but as Pam Klassen’s (2011) work has also shown, metaphysical or experimental approaches to healing, for example in the New Thought tradition. Charismatic renewal often emerged from a seedbed of ‘seekership’, the kind which Steve Sutcliffe (2002) has identified as a context for the development of the New Age movement. For charismatics, authenticity was to be found in ‘going back to the beginning’ – a rediscovery of the power of the Holy Spirit in a nuclear age, and of the supernatural world of New Testament Christianity as everyday experience.

As the book claims, if you want to understand global Christianity, you need to engage with charismatics. I hope this research will go some way towards helping others to do so.

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Understanding #asburyrevival using visual methodologies

By Laura Hall

On the 8th of February 2023 imagery connected to the hashtag #asburyrevival started trending across social media platforms. Revivalism is intrinsic to evangelical varieties of Christianity and ‘outpourings of the Holy Spirit’ as (innumerable) testimonies, in the form of multimedia video clips in the evolving digital archive attest to, are feature of Pentecostal/Charismatic movements. Revivals, specifically at Asbury, a Methodist College in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition have previously occurred in 1905, 1908, 1950 and the 1970’s. At the time of writing, Asbury ‘23 is still ongoing; it has been displaced from its original location when the town of Wilmore was overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of curious visitors taking selfies. Connected (#asburyawakening) revivals have broken out in a number of other locations, comparisons drawn with the ‘Toronto Blessing’ of the 1990’s, and similar events. Where Asbury ’23 differs, is in the prolific use of social media to ‘authorise’ and ‘authenticate’ (or disauthenticate) a Christian practice (a ‘revival’) visually: by means of imagery.

The global circulation of images, connected via digital objects such as hashtags (a textual inclusion) or emojis, is a feature of the shift from the ‘new’ media of the early 2000’s (‘Web 2.0’), to what Lev Manovich refers to as the age of ‘more media’ (2020)—the proliferation of social media platforms where visuality is the key mode of communication, such as Instagram (launched 2010) or TikTok (2016). The networking of imagery, (such as the Iranian protests over compulsory hijab wearing, or clips of the moment climate activists threw soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in some recent examples), are a feature of our ‘more media’ world. Whilst the imagery associated with the revival at Asbury is not quite as provocative, the principal is the same.

Figure 1. Google Image Search. Searching Images sources and web locations. Left: Asbury Revival 1970 juxtaposed with Asbury Revival 2023. Right visual matches located by the algorithm.

An ‘event’, in this case a revival at Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky, sparked an image reaction: the networking of images on a scale that was global (I traced reactions from Nigeria and South Korea amongst other locations), and simultaneous with a number of ‘citizen journalists’ and participants providing live streaming for a seemingly affective worldwide virtual audience. Social media users annotated the images by commenting, either positively or negatively, liking, tagging, altering, and recirculating them, (a user-generated classification system called a ‘folksonomy’), and platforms provided time/date stamps; an opportunity, as Niederer & Colombo (2019) describe, for ‘knowledge co-production’.

Figure 2. Example of one of many livestreams of #asburyrevival shared via Twitter

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How Indigenous Women are Driving the Decolonisation of Theory

By Liudmila Nikanorova 

Who is given the authority to theorise?

The voices of Indigenous people, especially women, have been excluded and nearly absent until early- to mid-twentieth-century sources. Although Indigenous women often contributed to the research of visiting ethnographers and anthropologists, especially with translation, their work has almost never been acknowledged or credited. Women were routinely depicted in relation to their men and were mostly mentioned in sections about family, marriage practices, and traditional clothing. In the study of religion, scholars predominantly focused on Indigenous men’s practices since the observers were typically white men. Thus, Indigenous women’s knowledge production was not taken seriously until they themselves entered academic corridors of power.

A recent methodological turn in humanities caused by the emergence of Indigenous and decolonial studies had a major impact on the disciplines of ethnography, anthropology, and religious studies. Suddenly, ‘the objects of study’ could not only speak back but theorise back. As a result, the normative was de-normalised, universals particularised, and the methodological apparatus of academia destabilised. Theory-making is the most powerful academic endeavour, which has been historically dominated by Eurocentric male scholars. Within the last few decades, Indigenous women pushed themselves away from the position of the objectified and silenced others to leading intellectual resistance against colonial systems of knowledge.

While colonial ethnographers and anthropologists were preoccupied with describing exotic others and imposing Western notions of religion, race, culture, and gender, Indigenous women discussed the limits and impact of such approaches. Theorising from the ongoing experiences of coloniality, racism, and gender-based violence, Indigenous women continue to create and claim a place for themselves and for other marginalised voices within academia.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s groundbreaking volume Decolonising Methodologies (1999) was fundamental in the development of Indigenous research, Indigenous standpoint theory, whiteness studies, trauma theory, as well as decolonising work, and Indigenous knowledges approach. By theorising her experiences of encountering colonising knowledges from Māori perspectives, Tuhiwai Smith (1999: 10) pushes her readers to ask:

Whose research is this?

Who owns it?

Whose interests does it serve?

Who will benefit from it?

Who has designed its questions and framed its scope?

Who will carry it out?

Who will write it up?

How will the results be disseminated?[1]

 

We could further add:

Who is assumed to be a scholar?

Whose knowledges hold positional superiority?

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The Secularization of Money

By Paul-François Tremlett

Money is so ubiquitous, so ordinary and everyday that it can sometimes evade critical scrutiny. We are familiar with using money as a means of exchange; we are paid money for our labour, and we pay or owe money for the goods and services that we use or purchase. Money is a magic that renders very different things equivalent by assigning them values. These days we are inundated with news about the cost of living and the economy, but I am not talking about money in this sense, or indeed as a kind of magic. The money I’m interested in is the physical stuff in our pockets, purses and wallets and, in particular, the national and cultural symbols that it carries.

If you have some coins and notes to hand, this would be a good moment to examine them: in my wallet I have one ten-pound note and one twenty-pound note. On the ten-pound note there is the Queen (I’ve yet to see one of the new notes displaying the King’s head) and various images associated with Jane Austen including a quote from Pride and Prejudice and images of Godmersham Park which Austen visited a number of times, as well as Winchester Cathedral, where she was buried. On the twenty-pound note there is the Queen (again), and the painter J. M. W. Turner and an image of his painting, The Fighting Temeraire. I also have some coins of various values which are notable for carrying various national and cultural symbols including the Queen’s head, the Royal Coat of Arms and the phrase “Dieu et Mon Droit” which refers to the divine right of the monarch and the national symbols of England (rose), Scotland (thistle), Wales (leek) and Northern Ireland (shamrock). The point I am making is that when we use physical money, we are not only exchanging these tokens (coins and notes) for goods and services. We are also exchanging culturally loaded national symbols which, among other things, authorise the works of certain individuals as exemplary national culture and legitimate certain institutions as sacred.

But what has any of this got to do with secularization? The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (2000) defines secularization as that process whereby “people, losing confidence in other-worldly or supernatural accounts of the cosmos and its destiny, abandon religious beliefs and practices” such that “religion loses its influence on society”. But we can also understand secularization as a wider process that is not only about religion but about the wider desacralization – or what the sociologist Max Weber called “disenchantment” – of once hallowed beliefs, practices and institutions.

One of the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the rapid decline in the exchange of the physical tokens called money and their replacement by contactless and online methods of exchange. According to Bella Thorpe-Woods, before Covid, the exchange of cash had been dropping by around 15% a year since 2017 (source). In 2020, partly as a result of (erroneous) fears that Covid could be caught by handling notes and coins, that fell by a further 35%. Current projections suggest that Britain will be a cashless society by 2026.

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Protests in Iran: Football and Headscarves

By Hugh Beattie

The Iranian football team recently attracted some attention in Qatar, not just because of the games they played in, but also because the players did not sing the Iranian national anthem before the game with England. Their brief protest reminds us that after three months of demonstrations it seems that the government has still not got a grip on the widespread protests that began in September following the death of the young Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, on September 16, in hospital in Teheran following her arrest by the Guidance Patrol, known as the Morality Police.  

There have of course been serious demonstrations against the government before – in 2009 and 2019 for example, but these were relatively easily crushed. 

Rejection of the headscarf has become an important feature of the current protests. Women’s dress has been a controversial issue in Iran for many years, becoming a central symbol during the culture wars between more secular and more religious sections of Iranian public opinion. In 1936, as part of efforts to modernise the country, the government of Shah Reza Pahlavi brought in the Mandatory Unveiling Act which made it illegal for women to wear a veil. For some years the law was harshly enforced; one reason for what the historian Nikki Keddie calls ‘a later pro-veil backlash’ (Keddie 1981). When serious protests broke out against the government of Shah Muhammad Pahlavi (Shah Reza Pahlavi’s son) in 1978, wearing a cloak (chador) which covers the whole body became a symbol of women’s resistance to the Shah and his Westernising government. After the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, women were required to dress modestly. When they left the home they had to wear a manteau, a kind of overcoat, and a headscarf to cover their hair. Wearing a chador was not actually compulsory, but even the manteau and the headscarf have become increasingly unpopular during the past few years. In passing it is interesting to note the contrast with Turkey, where during the 1980s the headscarf was actually banned in public institutions, universities among them, and women have continued to argue that this is unfair and that those who want to wear it should be allowed to do so (like in this example). 

To return to Iran, the Tony Blair Institute recently published an opinion poll from Iran with some interesting findings – 

  • of the women interviewed 74 per cent opposed the compulsory wearing of the hijab (a headscarf that covers the head and neck; hijab can also refer to clothing that covers the whole body apart from hands and face) as did 71 per cent of men. 
  • 84 per cent of those respondents wanted ‘regime change’. 

Perhaps the most surprising result was that 76 per cent considered that religion did not play an important part in their lives (source). 

In response to the ongoing demonstrations in various parts of the country, government forces have so far killed more than 400 people and detained around 16,000 others. But two weeks ago, the Iranian Attorney General seemed to make a concession to the protestors when he announced that the Guidance Patrol, which enforces the laws on dress and personal behaviour, would be suspended. Roya Hakakian, however, suggests that the current protests are about more than the headscarf, and that the government’s recent suspension of the Guidance Police will not be sufficient to satisfy the protestors (see the recent piece in The Atlantic).  Certainly, the Iranian singer-songwriter Shirvin Hajipour refers to a wide range of grievances in his song Baraye (with English translation), which has been referred to as the anthem of 2022 protests. 

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