This January, Yale University Press will publish The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe by Anders Winroth (Yale University). The publisher’s description follows.
In this book a MacArthur Award-winning scholar argues for a radically new interpretation of the conversion of Scandinavia from paganism to Christianity in the early Middle Ages. Overturning the received narrative of Europe’s military and religious conquest and colonization of the region, Anders Winroth contends that rather than acting as passive recipients, Scandinavians converted to Christianity because it was in individual chieftains’ political, economic, and cultural interests to do so.
Through a painstaking analysis and historical reconstruction of both archeological and literary sources, and drawing on scholarly work that has been unavailable in English, Winroth opens up new avenues for studying European ascendency and the expansion of Christianity in the medieval period.
This month, Palgrave Macmillan releases Religious Conversions in the Mediterranean World, edited by Nadia Marzouki (European University Institute, Italy) and Oliver Roy (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales). The publisher’s description follows.
While globalization and the European construction increasingly undermine the model of the nation-state in the Mediterranean world, conversions reveal the capacity of religion to disrupt, and unsettle previous understandings of political and social relations. Converts’ claims and practice are often met with the hostility of the state and the public while converts can often be perceived either as traitors or as unconscious and weak tools of foreign manipulation.
Based on first-hand ethnographical research from several countries throughout the Mediterranean region, this book is the first of its kind in studying and analyzing contemporary conversions and their impact on recasting ideas of nationalism and citizenship. In doing so, this interdisciplinary study confronts historical, anthropological, political science and sociological approaches which offers an insight into the national, legal and political challenges of legislating for religious minorities that arise from conversions. Moreover, the specific examination of contemporary religious conversion contributes more widely to debates about the delinking of religion and culture, globalization, and secularism.
According to reports in the Arab media and Reuters, Saudi Arabia has convicted a Lebanese man of “evangelism” and sentenced him to six years in prison and 300 lashes. According to reports, the man, an Evangelical Christian, converted a Saudi woman in her 20s to Christianity and spirited her out of the country to Lebanon. The Saudi Gazette notes that the man had the woman’s personal belongings sent ahead of her to Lebanon, thus proving that “he had planned out the whole thing and premeditated the woman’s conversion to Christianity.” Not only conversion, but premeditated conversion! The case has been a cause celebre in Saudi Arabia, where proselytism is illegal and converting from Islam to another religion is a capital offense.
On Tuesday, April 16, Fordham’s Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyer’s Work will host the Martin J. Hertz Lecture in Jewish Law and Culture: “How Concepts of Jewish Peoplehood Inform Legal Rulings.” The lecture will be delivered by Rabbi David Ellenson of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion:
Disputes surrounding the nature of conversion to Judaism are at the center of some of the most contentious legal debates taking place in modern Jewish jurisprudence. In this lecture, diverse rulings issued by Orthodox rabbis on matters related to conversion will be presented and analyzed. In so doing, it will be shown that these decisions do not simply present Jewish legal judgment in an instant case, Rather, these holdings are policy stances that rabbis are advancing in order to define membership in the Jewish people in an era where intermarriage is common and where the borders of the Jewish community are often porous and indeterminate. It will argued that way in which each individual rabbinic decisor views the notion of Jewish peoplehood serves as an independent and often decisive variable in informing the decisions that rabbis issue in these cases.
Details are here.
This past January, University of Pennsylvania Press published The Faith of Remembrance by Nathan Wachtel (Collège de France). The publisher’s description follows.
In a series of intimate and searing portraits, Nathan Wachtel traces the journeys of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Marranos—Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism but secretly retained their own faith. Fleeing persecution in their Iberian homeland, some sought refuge in the Americas, where they established transcontinental networks linking the New World to the Old. The Marranos—at once Jewish and Christian, outsiders and insiders—nurtured their hidden beliefs within their new communities, participating in the economic development of the early Americas while still adhering to some of the rituals and customs of their ancestors. In a testament to the partial assimilation of these new arrivals, their faith became ever more syncretic, mixing elements of Judaism with Christian practice and theology.
Fordham’s Institute on Religion, Law & Lawyers’ Work will host a lecture, “‘Who is a Jew’: Israeli Law versus the Press,” on February 19. The speaker, Professor Yifat Holzman-Gazit, will discuss a 2005 Israeli High Court decision on the validity of non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism performed outside Israel. Details are here.
Last Thursday, I attended a meeting of the UN General Assembly’s Social, Humanitarian & Cultural Committee – the so-called “Third Committee” – for presentation of the annual report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Beilefeldt. (Earlier in the day, CLR had co-hosted a briefing with Beilefeldt). It was an interesting experience.
Professor Beilefeldt is a serious, energetic, and well-motivated scholar, and his report, which focuses on protecting the right of conversion in international human rights law, is worth reading. In some respects, the Committee meeting was worthwhile, too. The Third Committee is a huge body, with delegates from all UN member states; it meets in an oversized room that feels like a repurposed Costco. There is a platform at the front, where the Chair and Special Rapporteur sit, and rows and rows of tables with delegates and staff. The Special Rapporteur presents a summary of his report, and delegates are then allowed to respond and ask questions, which they do in the studied, affectless monotone of diplomatic conferences.
About a dozen state delegations responded to Professor Beilefeldt’s report. Some interventions were revealing. For example, Germany and the Netherlands stressed the need for protecting atheism as a belief. The Canadian and Chinese delegates got into a dustup over whether Falun Gong is a religion or a cult; the Continue reading
In New York yesterday, CLR co-hosted a lunch briefing with Professor Heiner Beielefeldt (left), the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Beielefeldt was in New York to present his annual report, “Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance,” to the UN’s General Assembly. (I attended the General Assembly meeting as well; I’ll write more about that in a subsequent post).
Beilefeldt’s report focuses on the right of conversion as an essential component of the freedom of religion or belief. Although international human rights law grants a right to change one’s religion, the right has proved controversial in practice, especially, though not exclusively, in Muslim-majority countries, which often criminalize apostasy from Islam. In his briefing, Beilefeldt explained that his report identifies four versions of the right of conversion, all of which merit protection: (1) the right to change one’s religion; (2) the right not to Continue reading
Good news from Iran this weekend: the government has released Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani from prison. The Iranian government initially had sentenced Nadarkhani, who converted to Christianity from Islam, to death for the crime of apostasy, but later switched the charges to rape and extortion – charges most people dismissed. In response to pressure from religious-freedom advocates in the West, including the White House, Iran now says the conviction was only for “evangelizing Muslims,” not apostasy, and that Nadarkhani can be released for time served. (H/t: First Things).
Conversion is a problematic concept for Muslim-majority societies. Classical Islamic law makes conversion from Islam a capital offense, and many Muslim-majority countries today, even those that do not apply classical fiqh, fail to recognize a right to convert. Turkey’s current draft constitution for the first time grants such a right, although the right’s contours are uncertain. A forthcoming book by Turkish historian Selim Deringil, Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman Empire (Cambridge 2012) situates the subject historically, describing the pressures on Christians to convert in the nineteenth- century Ottoman Empire. These pressures coincided, ironically, with a secularization campaign known as the Tanzimat, which, as a formal matter, made religion irrelevant to Ottoman political identity. Deringil, a professor at Istanbul’s Bogazici University, no doubt deals with the ironies in his forthcoming book, which looks like a very worthwhile read. The publisher’s description follows:
The commonly accepted wisdom is that nationalism replaced religion in the age of modernity. In the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, the focus of Selim Deringil’s book, traditional religious structures crumbled as the empire itself began to fall apart. The state’s answer to schism was regulation and control, administered in the form of a number of edicts in the early part of the century. It is against this background that different religious communities and individuals negotiated survival by converting to Islam when their political interests or their lives were at stake. As the century progressed, however, and as this engaging study illustrates with examples from real-life cases, conversion was no longer sufficient to guarantee citizenship and property rights as the state became increasingly paranoid about its apostates and what it perceived as their “de-nationalization.” The book tells the story of the struggle for the bodies and the souls of people, waged between the Ottoman state, the Great Powers, and a multitude of evangelical organizations. Many of the stories shed light on current flash-points in the Arab world and the Balkans, offering alternative perspectives on national and religious identity and the interconnections between the two.