Yoga and the University

Not into Yoga

Not into Yoga (Photo: Ottawa Magazine)

Earlier this month, controversy broke out when a Canadian university canceled a beginners’ yoga class it had offered for years. The reason for the class cancellation at the University of Ottawa is a bit murky, but a student government representative evidently told the instructor that the class showed insufficient sensitivity to foreign cultures. Yoga, after all, comes from India—a country, the concerned student explained, that had suffered oppression and “cultural genocide” as a result of “colonialism and Western supremacy.” The yoga class could be perceived as a slight to Canadians of Indian ancestry and to Indian civilization, and had best be shut down.

Many conservative commentators expressed disbelief. Here’s another example, they complained, of political correctness gone crazy. What could possibly be wrong with a yoga class? It’s just stretching. Moreover, there’s nothing unusual about appropriating positive aspects of other cultures. Aren’t we all supposed to be multiculturalists now? A yoga class is a tribute to Indian culture. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Etc.

We have seen a number of silly episodes on college campuses this fall, and I appreciate that people have grown exasperated. But even a broken clock is right twice a day. In this case, it seems to me, the students who object to the University of Ottawa’s yoga class have a point – though perhaps not the one they think.

The problem is not that a yoga class wrongly appropriates a foreign culture. As critics of the university’s decision rightly point out, there’s nothing necessarily offensive in that. And there’s no indication that the teacher or students in this particular class did anything to mock Indian culture. I imagine most of the students didn’t think about yoga’s cultural roots at all. Probably some of them assumed yoga was a Western invention. American tourists in Italy frequently tell Italians that we invented pizza.

The problem is that yoga, in its essence, is a religious exercise. (In America, in fact, some groups have objected to public school yoga classes as violations of the Establishment Clause). For pious Hindus, yoga is not simply mindful stretching, but a form of worship, as much so as Christian prayer. It’s understandable, then, that many Hindus find it deeply offensive to treat yoga merely as part of a good exercise regime. Indeed, an organization called the Hindu American Foundation has started a campaign, “Take Back Yoga,” which seeks to end the commercialization of yoga and restore the tradition “as a lifelong practice dedicated to achieving moksha, or liberation/union with God.” Think of it as akin to keeping Christ in Christmas.

Of course, the fact that Hindus see yoga as a spiritual practice doesn’t mean that others must do so as well. In a pluralistic society, believers must learn to tolerate many things. Perhaps a Hindu has no more right to object to secular yoga classes than a Christian has to object to SantaCon. (Word to the wise: avoid New York City bars on December 12). To each his own. Still, to my mind, there is something very admirable about fighting to preserve an ancient religious tradition from commercialization, misappropriation and dilution – something very conservative, in fact. Maybe the University of Ottawa should just offer a calisthenics class.

Ozzano & Giorgi, “European Culture Wars and the Italian Case”

In September, Routledge released “European Culture Wars and the Italian Case: Which side are you on?” by Luca Ozzano (University of Turin) and Alberta Giorgi (University of Coimbra).  The publisher’s description follows:

This book aims to understand the European political debate about contentious issues, framed in terms of religious values by religious 9781138840324and/or secular actors in 21st century. It specifically focuses on the Italian case, which, due to its peculiar history and contemporary political landscape, is a paradigmatic case for the study of the relationships between religion and politics.

In recent years, a number of controversies related to religious issues have characterised the European public debate at both the EU and the national level. The ‘affaire du foulard’ in France, the referendum on abortion in Portugal, the recognition of same-sex marriages in many Western European States, the debate over bioethics and the regulation of euthanasia are only a few examples of contentious issues involving religion. This book aims to shed light on the interrelation between these different debates, as well as their broader meaning, through the analysis of the paradigmatic case of Italy. Italy summarizes and sometimes exasperates wider European trends, both because of the peculiar role traditionally played by the Vatican in Italian politics and for the rise, since the 1990s, of new political entrepreneurs eager to exploit ethical and civilizational issues.

This work will be of great interest to scholars and students of a number of fields within the disciplines of political science, sociology and law, and will be useful for courses on religion and politics, political parties, social movements and civil society.

“Indigenous Evangelists and Questions of Authority in the British Empire 1750-1940” (eds. Brock, Etherington et al)

In September, Brill released “Indigenous Evangelists and Questions of Authority in the British Empire 1750-1940,” edited by Peggy Brock (Edith Cowan University), Norman Etherington (University of Western Australia), Gareth Griffiths (University of Western Australia), and Jacqueline Van Gent (University of Western Australia). The publisher’s description follow:

This is the first full-length historical study of indigenous evangelists across a range of societies, geographical regions and colonial regimes 510hh54hzql-_sx325_bo1204203200_and the first to focus on the complex issues of authority surrounding the evangelists. It answers a need frequently voiced in recent studies of Christian missions. Most scholars now acknowledge that the remarkable expansion of Christianity in Africa, Asia and the Pacific in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries owed far more to the efforts of indigenous preachers than to the foreign missionaries who loom so large in publications. This book addresses that concern making an excellent introduction to the role of indigenous evangelists in the spread of Christianity, and the many countervailing pressures with which these individuals had to contend. It also includes in the introductory discussions useful statements of the current state of scholarship and theoretical debates in this field.

Around the Web This Week

Some interesting law and religion news stories from around the web this week:

Keck, “British Burma in the New Century, 1895-1918”

In October, Palgrave Macmillan released “British Burma in the New Century, 1895-1918” by Stephen L. Keck (Emirates Diplomatic Academy).  The publisher’s description follows:

British Burma in the New Century, 1895 – 1918 draws upon neglected but very talented colonial authors to portray Burma between 1895 and 51pbustr2wl-_sx316_bo1204203200_1918, which was the apogee of British governance. These writers, most of them ‘Burmaphiles’, wrote against widespread misperceptions about Burma. They sought to separate Burma from India, recover the country’s recent and ancient past, understand Buddhism and revere the land, all while supporting the imperial mission. Between 1895 and 1918, Burma experienced a period of profound social and economic transformation. Burma would be challenged by bubonic plague, the persistence of crime, multiple forms of corruption and rising ethnic tensions. The Burmaphiles wrote during a dynamic period in which the foundations for much of modern Myanmar were established. New Century Burma proved to be a formative moment in the subsequent development of the country.


“Muslim Minority-State Relations: Violence, Integration, and Policy” (Mason, ed.)

In January, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Muslim Minority-State Relations: Violence, Integration, and Policy” edited by Robert Mason (London School of Economics and Political Science, UK). The publisher’s description follows:

This volume explores the dominant types of relationships between Muslim minorities and states in different parts of the world, the challenges each side faces, and the cases and reasons for exemplary integration, religious tolerance, and freedom of expression. By bringing together diverse case studies from Europe, Africa, and Asia, this book offers insight into the nature of state engagement with Muslim communities and Muslim community responses towards the state, in turn. This collection offers readers the opportunity to learn more about what drives government policy on Muslim minority communities, Muslim community policies and responses in turn, and where common ground lies in building religious tolerance, greater community cohesion and enhancing Muslim community-state relations.

Stolz, et. al., “(Un)Believing in Modern Society: Religion, Spirituality, and Religious-Secular Competition”

In January, Ashgate will release “(Un)Believing in Modern Society: Religion, Spirituality, and Religious-Secular Competition” by Jörg Stolz (University of Lausanne, Switzerland), Mallory Schneuwly Purdie (University of Lausanne, Switzerland),  Thomas Englberger (University of Lausanne, Switzerland), Judith Könemann (University of Münster, Germany), and Michael Krüggeler (University of Münster, Germany). The publisher’s description follows:

This landmark study in the sociology of religion sheds new light on the Unknownquestion of what has happened to religion and spirituality since the 1960s in modern societies. Exposing several analytical weaknesses of today’s sociology of religion, (Un)Believing in Modern Society presents a new theory of religious-secular competition and a new typology of ways of being religious/secular. The authors draw on a specific European society (Switzerland) as their test case, using both quantitative and qualitative methodologies to show how the theory can be applied. Identifying four ways of being religious/secular in a modern society: ‘institutional’, ‘alternative’, ‘distanced’ and ‘secular’ they show how and why these forms have emerged as a result of religious-secular competition and describe in what ways all four forms are adapted to the current, individualized society.

Whatever is destroyed is regretted

Theseus at war

Theseus and the Theban herald part; the outbreak of war is imminent.  As he leaves, the herald taunts Theseus, who refuses to be angered.  One who holds himself out as the “punisher of injustice” cannot undertake to wage war from the passion of anger.  Euripides models Theseus as a self-disciplined, as well as a just, warrior.  And as Theseus sets out, he invokes the aid of “all those gods/Who respect justice.”  His piety complements his justice and his moderation.

The chorus of Argive women awaits news of the battle anxiously.  Suddenly, an Argive messenger arrives.  He had been taken prisoner in the Argive campaign against Thebes, having served under Capaneus, one of the seven Argive leaders, “whom Zeus blasted with a lightning-flash.”  (More on Capaneus later.)  Now he has escaped in the confusion of battle.  He brings the Argive women news of Theseus’ victory.  (Note that he does not address Adrastus, his king.)  The women are elated, hailing Theseus as a demi-god:  he is not only the son of Aegus, but also “the son of Zeus.”  (Perhaps the latter description is meant to tells us something about the tyrannical constitution of Argos:  Athens is a republic of equals, and denies the possibility of semi-divine leaders; if they did exist, they would be dangerous to the city.  See Walker, Theseus and Athens).

The messenger gives a detailed account of the battle.  He says that once the two opposing armies faced off, Theseus made a final bid for peace.  The Athenian herald announced to the Thebans “We have come to bring/Those bodies home for burial, in accordance with/The law of all Hellenic states.  We have no wish/For further bloodshed.”  Theseus goes to war only as a last resort.  The Theban King Creon remains silent.  Then battle is joined.

It is a hard and bitter struggle.  The messenger’s descriptions of the horrors of the battle is reminiscent of The Iliad in its unsparing and gruesome detail.  At a critical moment, Theseus demonstrates his generalship.  He rallies his troops: at his call, “[c]ourage flared up in every heart.”  The Athenians break the Theban line.

Athens buries the dead

The population of Thebes is in despair.  Thousands expect Theseus to capture their city. “But Theseus,/With the way clear before him, would not enter the gates.  ‘I have not marched from Athens to destroy this town,’/He said, ‘but to demand the dead for burial.’”  The campaign ends with the recovery of the Argive bodies, not with the sacking of Thebes.  The requirement that if a war is to be just it must be “proportionate” is plainly met.  See Christopher Greenwood, The Relationship between jus ad bellum and jus in bello (1983).

Theseus buries most of the recovered Argive bodies on the high cliff of Eleutherae, on Athenian soil, just across the border from Theban Boeotia.  Athens had annexed Eleutherae, which had once been part of Boeotia, in the sixth century. But this borderland site seems to have been contested between Athens and Thebes, and perhaps changed hands from time to time.  By burying Argive soldiers there, Theseus reinforces Athens’ claim to it.  See John Camp, The Archaeology of Athens (2004).

But Theseus does not bury the remains of the Argive leaders who were the “Seven against Thebes.”  He brings those bodies (or such as are still near Thebes) back to Athens for a ceremonial funeral.  Who has taken those bodies, Adrastus asks the messenger; surely a slave would be reluctant even to lift them?  To Adrastus’ astonishment, the messenger answers that Theseus has tended to the bodies himself, washing away the blood-stains of their wounds, preparing their Continue reading

Abdel-Samad, “Islamic Fascism”

In January, Prometheus Books will release “Islamic Fascism,” by Hamed Abdel-Samad.  The publisher’s description follows:

This polemic against Islamic extremism highlights the striking parallels between contemporary Islamism — as exemplified by ISIS, islamicfasicism_coverBoko Haram, al Qaeda, and others — and the twentieth-century fascism embodied by Hitler and Mussolini. Like those infamous European ideologies, Islamism today touts imperialist dreams of world domination, belief in its inherent superiority, contempt for the rest of humanity, and often a murderous agenda. Author Hamed Abdel-Samad, born and raised in Egypt, not only explains the historical connections between early twentieth-century fascist movements in Europe and extremist factions in Islam but also traces the fascist tendencies in mainstream Islam that have existed throughout its history.

Examining key individuals and episodes from centuries past, the book shows the influence of Islam’s earliest exploits on current politics in the Islamic world. The author’s incisive analysis exposes the fascist underpinnings of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Shia regime in Iran, ISIS, Salafi and Jihadist ideologies, and more.

Forcefully argued and well-researched, this book grew out of a lecture on Islamic fascism that the author gave in Cairo, which resulted in a call for his death by three prominent Egyptian clerics. This American edition contains two new chapters, one on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and one on the Charlie Hebdo massacre.