Lassner, “Medieval Jerusalem”

Next month, the University of Michigan Press will release Medieval Jerusalem: Forging an Islamic City in Spaces Sacred to Christians and Jews by Jacob Lassner (Northwestern University). The publisher’s description follows:

Medieval JerusalemMedieval Jerusalem examines an old question that has recently surfaced and given rise to spirited discussion among Islamic historians and archeologists: what role did a city revered for its holiness play in the unfolding politics of the early Islamic period? Was there an historic moment when the city, holy to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, may have been considered as the administrative center of a vast Islamic world, as some scholars on early Islam have recently claimed? Medieval Jerusalem also emphasizes the city’s evolution as a revered Islamic religious site comparable to the holy cities Mecca and Medina.

Examining Muslim historiography and religious lore in light of Jewish traditions about the city, Jacob Lassner points out how these reworked Jewish traditions and the imposing monumental Islamic architecture of the city were meant to demonstrate that Islam had superseded Judaism and Christianity as the religion for all monotheists. He interrogates the literary sources of medieval Islamic historiography and their modern interpreters as if they were witnesses in a court of law, and applies the same method for the arguments about the monuments of the city’s material culture, including the great archaeological discoveries along the south wall of the ancient Temple Mount.

This book will be of interest to a broad range of readers given the significance of the city in the current politics of the Near East. It will in part serve as a corrective to narratives of Jerusalem’s past that are currently popular for scholarly and political reasons.

McCauley, “The Logic of Ethnic and Religious Conflict in Africa”

In March, the Cambridge University Press will release “The Logic of Ethnic and Religious Conflict in Africa,” by John McCauley (University of Maryland, College Park).  The publisher’s description follows:

This book explains why conflicts in Africa are sometimes ethnic and sometimes religious, and why a conflict might change from ethnic to religious even as the 9781107175013opponents remain fixed. Conflicts in the region are often viewed as either ‘tribal’ or ‘Muslim-Christian’, seemingly rooted in deep-seated ethnic or religious hatreds. Yet, as this book explains, those labels emerge as a function of political mobilization. It argues that ethnicity and religion inspire distinct passions among individuals, and that political leaders exploit those passions to achieve their own strategic goals when the institutions of the state break down. To support this argument, the book relies on a novel experiment conducted in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana to demonstrate that individual preferences change in ethnic and religious contexts. It then uses case illustrations from Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Sudan to highlight the strategic choices of leaders that ultimately shape the frames of conflict.

“Violence, Religion, Peacemaking” (Irvin-Erickson & Phan, eds.)

In May, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Violence, Religion, Peacemaking,” edited by Douglas Irvin-Erickson (George Mason University) and Peter C. Phan (Georgetown University).  The publisher’s description follows:

This volume explores how religious leaders can contribute to cultures of peace around the world. The essays are written by leading and emerging scholars and Unknownpractitioners who have lived, taught, or worked in the areas of conflict about which they write. Connecting the theory and practice of religious peacebuilding to illuminate key challenges facing interreligious dialogue and interreligious peace work, the volume is explicitly interreligious, intercultural, and global in perspective. The chapters approach religion and peace from the vantage point of security studies, sociology, ethics, ecology, theology, and philosophy. A foreword by David Smock, the Vice President of Governance, Law and Society and Director of the Religion and Peacebuilding Center at the United States Institute of Peace, outlines the current state of the field.

“Christianity, Conflict, and Renewal in Australia and the Pacific” (Magowan & Schwarz, eds.)

Next month, Brill will release “Christianity, Conflict, and Renewal in Australia and the Pacific,” edited by Fiona Magowan (Queen’s University Belfast) and Carolyn Schwarz (Goucher College). The publisher’s description follows:

Cultural expressions of Christianity show great diversity around the globe. While scholarship has tended to consider charismatic practices in distinct geographicalcontexts, this volume advances the anthropology of Christianity through ethnographically rich, comparative insights from across the Australia-Pacific region. Christianity, Conflict, and Renewal in Australia and the Pacificpresents new perspectives on the performative dynamics of Christian belief, conflict, and renewal. Addressing experiences of cultural and spiritual renewal, contributors reveal how tensions can arise between spiritual and political expressions of culture and identity, opening up alternative spaces for spiritual realization and religious change. These local processes further mobilize responses of individuals and groups to state forces and political reforms, in turn, influencing the shape of translocal and transnational Christian practices.

Qurtuby, “Religious Violence and Conciliation in Indonesia”

In March, Routledge will release “Religious Violence and Conciliation in Indonesia: Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas” by Sumanto Al Qurtuby (King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Saudi Arabia). The publisher’s description follows:

Maluku in eastern Indonesia is the home to Muslims, Protestants, and Catholics who had for the most part been living peaceably since the sixteenth century. In 1999, brutal conflicts broke out between local Christians and Muslims, and escalated into large-scale communal violence once the Laskar Jihad, a Java-based armed jihadist Islamic paramilitary group, sent several thousand fighters to Maluku. As a result of this escalated violence, the previously stable Maluku became the site of devastating interreligious wars.

This book focuses on the interreligious violence and conciliation in this region. It examines factors underlying the interreligious violence as well as those shaping post-conflict peace and citizenship in Maluku. The author shows that religion—both Islam and Christianity—was indeed central and played an ambiguous role in the conflict settings of Maluku, whether in preserving and aggravating the Christian-Muslim conflict or supporting or improving peace and reconciliation.

Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork and interviews as well as historical and comparative research on religious identities, this book is of interest to Indonesia specialists, as well as academics with an interest in anthropology, religious conflict, peace and conflict studies.

Gray on the Ubiquity of Evil

John Gray has a long, superb essay on the subject (h/t L. Joseph), with scathingly acute criticisms of the modern sense in which evil is eminently conquerable through (of all things) politics, or really doesn’t exist, or must somehow be the result of somebody’s mistake, or could be cleared up as a simple matter confusion. Particularly keen are Gray’s comments about the way in which the old religious traditions offer certain insights on the matter, insights that are today largely either ignored or disbelieved. Read it all, including this:

It’s not that [most western leaders] are obsessed with evil. Rather, they don’t really believe in evil as an enduring reality in human life. If their feverish rhetoric means anything, it is that evil can be vanquished. In believing this, those who govern us at the present time reject a central insight of western religion, which is found also in Greek tragic drama and the work of the Roman historians: destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves. In this old-fashioned understanding, evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.

No view of things could be more alien at the present time. Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind. According to this view, evil, if any such thing exists, is not an inbuilt human flaw, but a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be permanently improved.

Paradoxically, this belief in the evanescence of evil is what underlies the hysterical invocation of evil that has lately become so prominent. There are many bad and lamentable forces in the world today, but it is those that undermine the belief in human improvement that are demonised as “evil”. So what disturbs the west about Vladimir Putin, for example, is not so much the persecution of gay people over which he has presided, or the threat posed to Russia’s neighbours by his attempt to reassert its imperial power. It is the fact that he has no place in the liberal scheme of continuing human advance. As a result, the Russian leader can only be evil. When George W Bush looked into Putin’s eyes at a Moscow summit in May 2002, he reported, “I was able to get a sense of his soul”. When Joe Biden visited the Kremlin in 2011, he had a very different impression, telling Putin: “Mr Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” According to Biden, Putin smiled and replied, “We understand each other.” The religious language is telling: nine years earlier, Putin had been a pragmatic leader with whom the west could work; now he was a soulless devil.

It’s in the Middle East, however, that the prevailing liberal worldview has proved most consistently misguided. At bottom, it may be western leaders’ inability to think outside this melioristic creed that accounts for their failure to learn from experience. After more than a decade of intensive bombing, backed up by massive ground force, the Taliban continue to control much of Afghanistan and appear to be regaining ground as the American-led mission is run down. Libya – through which a beaming David Cameron processed in triumph only three years ago, after the use of western air power to help topple Gaddafi – is now an anarchic hell-hole that no western leader could safely visit. One might think such experiences would be enough to deter governments from further exercises in regime change. But our leaders cannot admit the narrow limits of their power. They cannot accept that by removing one kind of evil they may succeed only in bringing about another – anarchy instead of tyranny, Islamist popular theocracy instead of secular dictatorship. They need a narrative of continuing advance if they are to preserve their sense of being able to act meaningfully in the world, so they are driven again and again to re-enact their past failures.

Many view these western interventions as no more than exercises in geopolitics. But a type of moral infantilism is no less important in explaining the persisting folly of western governments. Though it is clear that Isis cannot be permanently weakened as long as the war against Assad continues, this fact is ignored – and not only because a western-brokered peace deal that left Assad in power would be opposed by the Gulf states that have sided with jihadist forces in Syria. More fundamentally, any such deal would mean giving legitimacy to a regime that western governments have condemned as more evil than any conceivable alternative. In Syria, the actual alternatives are the survival in some form of Assad’s secular despotism, a radical Islamist regime or continuing war and anarchy. In the liberal political culture that prevails in the west, a public choice among these options is impossible.

There are some who think the very idea of evil is an obsolete relic of religion. For most secular thinkers, what has been defined as evil in the past is the expression of social ills that can in principle be remedied. But these same thinkers very often invoke evil forces to account for humankind’s failure to advance. The secularisation of the modern moral vocabulary that many believed was under way has not occurred: public discourse about good and evil continues to be rooted in religion. Yet the idea of evil that is invoked is not one that features in the central religious traditions of the west. The belief that evil can be finally overcome has more in common with the dualistic heresies of ancient and medieval times than it does with any western religious orthodoxy.

There follows an interesting discussion of Manicheanism and the views of Augustine, and then this:

In its official forms, secular liberalism rejects the idea of evil. Many liberals would like to see the idea of evil replaced by a discourse of harm: we should talk instead about how people do damage to each other and themselves. But this view poses a problem of evil remarkably similar to that which has troubled Christian believers. If every human being is born a liberal – as these latter-day disciples of Pelagius appear to believe – why have so many, seemingly of their own free will, given their lives to regimes and movements that are essentially repressive, cruel and violent? Why do human beings knowingly harm others and themselves? Unable to account for these facts, liberals have resorted to a language of dark and evil forces much like that of dualistic religions.

The efforts of believers to explain why God permits abominable suffering and injustice have produced nothing that is convincing; but at least believers have admitted that the ways of the Deity are mysterious. Even though he ended up accepting the divine will, the questions that Job put to God were never answered. Despite all his efforts to find a solution, Augustine confessed that human reason was not equal to the task. In contrast, when secular liberals try to account for evil in rational terms, the result is a more primitive version of Manichean myth. When humankind proves resistant to improvement, it is because forces of darkness – wicked priests, demagogic politicians, predatory corporations and the like – are working to thwart the universal struggle for freedom and enlightenment. There is a lesson here. Sooner or later anyone who believes in innate human goodness is bound to reinvent the idea of evil in a cruder form. Aiming to exorcise evil from the modern mind, secular liberals have ended up constructing another version of demonology, in which anything that stands out against what is believed to be the rational course of human development is anathematised.

“Religion, Violence and Cities” (O’Dowd & McKnight eds.)

In November, Routledge Publishing will release “Religion, Violence and Cities” edited by Liam O’Dowd (Queen’s University Belfast) and Martina McKnight (Queen’s University Belfast). The publisher’s description follows:

In exploring the connections between religion, violence and cities, the book probes the extent to which religion moderates or exacerbates violence in an increasingly urbanised world. Originating in a five year research project, Conflict in Cities and the Contested State, concerned with Belfast, Jerusalem and other ethno-nationally divided cities, this volume widens the geographical focus to include diverse cities from the Balkans, the Middle East, Nigeria and Japan. In addressing the understudied triangular relationships between religion, violence and cities, contributors stress the multiple forms taken by religion and violence while challenging the compartmentalisation of two highly topical debates – links between religion and violence on the one hand, and the proliferation of violent urban conflicts on the other hand. Their research demonstrates why cities have become so important in conflicts driven by state-building, fundamentalism, religious nationalism, and ethno-religious division and illuminates the conditions under which urban environments can fuel violent conflicts while simultaneously providing opportunities for managing or transforming them.

Clarke et al., eds., “Religion, Intolerance, and Conflict”

Here’s an interesting cross-disciplinary collection that assembles a Religion, Intolerance, Conflictreasonably broad range of contributors–Religion, Intolerance, and Conflict: A Scientific and Conceptual Investigation (OUP 2013), edited by Steve Clarke (Oxford), Russell Powell (BU), and Julian Savulescu (Oxford).  The publisher’s description follows.

The relationship between religion, intolerance and conflict has been the subject of intense discussion, particularly in the wake of the events of 9-11 and the ongoing threat of terrorism. This book contains original papers written by some of the world’s leading scholars in anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and theology exploring the scientific and conceptual dimensions of religion and human conflict.

Authors investigate the following themes: the role of religion in promoting social cohesion and the conditions under which it will tend to do so; the role of religion in enabling and exacerbating conflict between different social groups and the conditions under which it will tend to do so; and the policy responses that we may be able to develop to ameliorate violent conflict and the limits to compromise between different religions. The book also contains two commentaries that distill, synthesize and critically evaluate key aspects of the individual chapters and central themes that run throughout the volume.

The volume will be of great interest to all readers interested in the phenomenon of religious conflict and to academics across a variety of disciplines, including religious studies, philosophy, psychology, theology, cognitive science, anthropology, politics, international relations, and evolutionary biology.

Elliott on Religion in Northern Ireland

Last month, Wiley Online Library posted Religion and Sectarianism in Ulster: Interpreting the Northern Ireland Troubles published in Religion Compass by Laurence Elliot.  The description follows.

The following article considers the various arguments and counter-arguments around the role of religion in causing and sustaining the conflict in Northern Ireland. It identifies the essential elements of the problem and assesses a number of the explanations given, emphasising the difficulty of providing a single answer to such a complex question. The correlation between religion and the divisions in Northern Ireland seems at first sight obvious, but, as a number of commentators have rightly observed, pinning down the relationship between someone’s religion and their attitudes is much more problematic. This essay therefore avoids the reductionism and ‘either/or’ formulations of so many scholars on both sides of the debate, instead emphasising that religion is ultimately one of a number of dimensions to Northern Irish identity, the politics of which sustains the social divisions and was the source of the political violence that ravaged the region.

Studying Conflict Without Solving It: An Agenda

I participated in a terrific conference yesterday organized by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown. The master of ceremonies, Tom Farr, did a wonderful job of putting interesting panels together. And our own moderator, Tom Banschoff, put a series of provocative questions to our panel. I learned a lot from my good co-panelists, Cathy Kaveny and Mark Rienzi, and was happy to see and listen to many old friends and meet new ones (I am now on the train home with some spotty internet access, and so will forbear from linking to the various places where you can learn about the conference — at some point, a video will be available for those who need a sleep aid).

Our panel’s overarching subject was conflict between religious liberty and other rights. My initial comments had to do with the importance of conflict — not only its inevitability, but indeed (and more controversially), its positive desirability as a reflection of the reality of our respective and very different backgrounds, traditions, and memories, but also as a reflection of our internal struggles to manage the clash of sundry values as to which we each hold strong allegiances.

But I realized — both throughout the day and during the panel itself — that my approach and that of others may be slightly different, and in a way that maybe it would be helpful to spell out. During the conference, there was sometimes mention, by some of the speakers, about the need to “build bridges” or to reach mutual agreements or to “solve” conflicts with those with whom one disagrees. Provided that compromises are undertaken at the right level of particularity, I think these are all very worthy goals. They are important as a matter of practical getting along. They are important as a political and legal matter. And they are important inasmuch as an irenic state of affairs is generally welcome.

But I do not think that bridge-building is the only activity that needs pursuing. There are other projects too. Because of the depth and complexity of the conflicts at issue in many of the contemporary controversies addressed by the conference — indeed, because of the central importance of conflict — it seems to me that some study of the conflicts themselves is worthwhile — a study which would be undertaken without the self-conscious and more specifically practical aim of “solving” them. The project would be simply to understand them, and if that were accomplished, it’d be a good day’s work. It also might be the case that taking the measure of a conflict can be achieved more effectively and more deeply without an underlying impulse or motivation to reach a state of harmony, and without the conviction that harmony must somehow be possible.

Perhaps it might be useful to offer some concrete examples of the beginnings of an agenda for the study of conflict as applicable to some of the specific controversies swirling about today. The list surely is not and is not intended to be complete. The main point of this post is methodological. It is about what projects are worth pursuing.

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