Tag Archives: Religion and Culture

In the mail: Witte’s “Western Case for Monogamy Over Polygamy”

I was pleased to receive Professor John Witte’s new volume, released earlier this year, The Western Case for Monogamy Over PolygamyWitte, Monogamy and Polygamy, in which, with at least half an eye cocked at the coming legal contests over polygamous marriage, John explores the following questions:

What is the Western tradition’s case for monogamy over polygamy, and is that case still convincing in a post-modern and globalized world? Are there sufficiently compelling reasons to relax Western laws against polygamy, and is this a desirable policy given the global trends away from polygamy and given the social, economic, and psychological conditions that often attend its practice? Or, are there sufficiently compelling reasons, reconstructed in part from the tradition, to maintain and even strengthen these anti-polygamy measures, in part as an effort to hasten the global demise of this practice?

I’ve only had a chance to glance at the book but from that quick scan, it appears that the primary justifications advanced in the book as a historical matter for monogamy over polygamy relate to “joint parental investment in children” and ensuring “that men and women are treated with equal dignity and respect within the domestic sphere,” the latter logic of which, the book claims, “applies to dyadic same-sex couples, who have gained increasing rights in the West in recent years, including the right to marry and to parent in some places.”

The book is immensely and richly detailed and comprehensive, with chapters including “From Polygamy to Monogamy in Judaism,” “The Case for Monogamy Over Polygamy in the Church Fathers,” “Polygamy in the Laws of State and Church in the First Millennium,” “Polygamous Experiments in Early Protestantism,” and “The Liberal Enlightenment Case Against Polygamy.”

Covington-Ward, “Gesture and Power”

In December, Duke University Press will release “Gesture and Power: Religion, Nationalism, and Everyday Performance in Congo,” by Yolanda Covington-Ward (University of Pittsburgh).  The publisher’s description follows:

In Gesture and Power Yolanda Covington-Ward examines the everyday embodied practices and performances of the BisiKongo people of the Lower Congo to show how their gestures, dances, and spirituality are critical in mobilizing social and political action. Conceiving of the body as the center of analysis, a catalyst for social action, and as conduit for the social construction of reality, Covington-Ward focuses on specific flash points in the last ninety years of Congo’s troubled history, when embodied performance was used to stake political claims, foster dissent, and enforce power. In the 1920s Simon Kimbangu started a Christian prophetic movement based on spirit-induced trembling, which swept through the Lower Congo, subverting Belgian colonial authority. Following independence, dictator Mobutu Sese Seko required citizens to dance and sing nationalist songs daily as a means of maintaining political control. More recently, embodied performance has again stoked reform, as nationalist groups such as Bundu dia Kongo advocate for a return to precolonial religious practices and non-Western gestures such as traditional greetings. In exploring these embodied expressions of Congolese agency, Covington-Ward provides a framework for understanding how embodied practices transmit social values, identities, and cultural history throughout Africa and the diaspora.

Ansari, “Islam and Nationalism in India”

In November, Routledge will release “Islam and Nationalism in India: South Indian Contexts” by M.T. Ansari (University of Hyderabad, India). The publisher’s description follows:

Islam in India, as elsewhere, continues to be seen as a remainder in its refusal to “conform” to national and international secular-modern norms. Such a general perception has also had a tremendous impact on the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, who as individuals and communities have been shaped and transformed over centuries of socio-political and historical processes, by eroding their world-view and steadily erasing their life-worlds.

This book traces the spectral presence of Islam across narratives to note that difference and diversity, demographic as well as cultural, can be espoused rather than excised or exorcized. Focusing on Malabar – home to the Mappila Muslim community in Kerala, South India – and drawing mostly on Malayalam sources, the author investigates the question of Islam from various angles by constituting an archive comprising popular, administrative, academic, and literary discourses. The author contends that an uncritical insistence on unity has led to a formation in which “minor” subjects embody an excess of identity, in contrast to the Hindu-citizen whose identity seemingly coincides with the national. This has led to Muslims being the source of a deep-seated anxiety for secular nationalism and the targets of a resurgent Hindutva in that they expose the fault-lines of a geographically and socio-culturally unified nation.

An interdisciplinary study of Islam in India from the South Indian context, this book will be of interest to scholars of modern Indian history, political science, literary and cultural studies, and Islamic studies.

“Beyond Hybridity and Fundamentalism” (Khan, ed.)

In August, the Oxford University Press released “Beyond Hybridity and Fundamentalism: Emerging Muslim Identity in Globalized India,” edited by Tabassum Ruhi Khan (University of California, Riverside).  The publisher’s description follows:

The question of identity, and especially its formation among youth, has received significant academic attention as our worlds become intricately and unpredictably connected through satellite televisions, mobile telephones, Internet, and social networking platforms. Marking a distinct addition to such scholarship, this volume is an ethnographic study of the under-investigated issue of Indian Muslim youth’s emergent subjectivity in a media-saturated globalized Indian society.

The author develops the idea of ‘convoluted modernity’ to explain Muslim youth’s reactions to multifarious and divergent influences both from the East as well as the West shaping their everyday life. The concept illustrates how Muslim youths’ ideas about self and community draw equally on MTV as on Peace TV to create a complex truck between consumerist hedonism and globalized Islam.

Introducing a new perspective to studies on globalization, media, and cultural politics, this book shows how interpolation of local and global in the accelerated virtual spheres, and their contextual interpretation within an expanding economy, notwithstanding Muslim youth’s disadvantaged position, shape alternate modernities rife with ambiguities and beyond binaries of progress and regression.

Walther, “Sacred Interests”

This month, the University of North Carolina Press releases “Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921” by Karine V. Walther (School of Foreign Service in Qatar).  The publisher’s description follows:

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Americans increasingly came into contact with the Islamic world, U.S. diplomatic, cultural, political, and religious beliefs about Islam began to shape their responses to world events. In Sacred Interests, Karine V. Walther excavates the deep history of American Islamophobia, showing how negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims shaped U.S. foreign relations from the Early Republic to the end of World War I.

Beginning with the Greek War of Independence in 1821, Walther illuminates reactions to and involvement in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the efforts to protect Jews from Muslim authorities in Morocco, American colonial policies in the Philippines, and American attempts to aid Christians during the Armenian Genocide. Walther examines the American role in the peace negotiations after World War I, support for the Balfour Declaration, and the establishment of the mandate system in the Middle East. The result is a vital exploration of the crucial role the United States played in the Islamic world during the long nineteenth century–an interaction that shaped a historical legacy that remains with us today.

Dispatches from Kabul: Warlords and Takeout

Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 recently moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she works with a team of local and international lawyers at Rosenstock Legal Services, a commercial law firm. In this series of dispatches from Kabul, she will share her insights on issues of law and religion in the context of practicing law in the Islamic Republic. The following personal narrative is an introduction to the series.

Mostly, I was exhausted. There was the packing and repacking, a sleepless night, the flight from Milan to Istanbul, and a four and a half hour layover in the dead of the night. When I arrived at the overcrowded international terminal at Atatürk International, a dark sense of dread came over me. I ordered a venti chai tea latte, bought two bags of Haribo Gold Bears, and sat in front of the lounge monitor watching GO TO GATE flash across the screen for destinations like Najaf, Sulaimaniyah, and Baghdad. When “impoverished, Taliban-infiltrated, suicide-bombed city” is all you have to associate with your destination, it’s hard to rally. KABUL–3:10–WAIT FOR GATE. I wasn’t overcome by the urge to buy a one-way ticket back to Chicago, but as the minutes ticked by slowly I became increasingly angry with myself for having made this decision in the first place.

I couldn’t quite will myself out of the lounge on time, so I ended up sprinting down the terminal to the gate where all but one anxious-looking passenger had been loaded onto the bus that would take us to the outer reaches of the airfield. I remember passing rows of shipping containers and other miscellaneous cargo and wondering if I hadn’t read the fine print well enough.

The flight was full of Westerners. Men with buzz cuts, prominent biceps, and army green t-shirts; tall bespectacled Dutch men with reporter notebooks; women wearing Western tunics and headscarves and speaking the language of project management. A beautiful Afghan girl with kind and vibrant eyes sat next to me. She looked very stylish in her elegant black tunic and hijab, and we struck up a conversation about Islamic dress. She asked me if this would be my first time in Afghanistan – pronounced in a lilting and graceful accent – and then enthusiastically told me all the things she loves about her country. Later, I fell asleep to her conversation with another Afghan woman, the singsong words bale, bale playing in my head. Dari, the Afghan version of Persian and one of the national languages of the country, is really beautiful.

I woke in time to see the sun rising ahead of us in the east, and as we approached Kabul, the desert disappeared and the Hindu Kush came into view. I thought about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and his tiny asteroid, and about the surface of Mars and the moon. “Kabul might as well be outer space,” I whispered to myself. From high above, it looked as though you could be stuck forever in this place surrounded by a vast mountain range encased in endless deserts. The city itself appeared brown and dusty and flat, and the rows of concrete buildings gave the impression that we were landing in the middle of a sprawling detention center or military compound. But as we began the descent I felt a rush of adrenaline and excitement. I had finally made it to Kabul and there was no room for panic.

The hot, dry air smelled like summer in Mumbai, but the atmosphere at Hamid Karzai International was more subdued. An Afghan man loaded my suitcases onto a cart, and we exited the building and began the dreaded walk from the international arrivals terminal to the entrance and parking lots. I felt exposed in the open air, but more curious than frightened, and I managed to snap a few pictures of the “gardens” – wilting rosebushes among weeds – as we made our way to the gate. Given the recent airport bombings, I thought I would be sick with fear, but the ten-minute walk felt strangely normal. A coworker greeted me warmly at our meeting point, and we set out to the city with our driver.

The next hours are a blur of checkpoints, armed men, and seemingly perilous moments on a journey through Kabul’s manic “streets.” When we finally arrived at my new house in a quiet residential neighborhood, I met my housemates – journalists, NGO researchers, communications specialists – as well as the very gracious guards, drivers, and cleaners who make life here easier. We have gates and blast walls, 24-hour chakidors, CCTV, a safe room, and a semi-automatic weapon. Even so, we live “outside the wire,” to borrow a military phrase, which means our security approach is to remain under the radar and as out of sight as possible. Our cars have no markers, we wear headscarves and abayas, and we do not keep regular schedules. Consequently, we are able to move around the city with relative ease. I have only felt anxious once or twice when passing a checkpoint or sitting too long in traffic, and for the most part, the days pass by in a normal rhythm. But I guess this is the reality in a conflict zone. Everything’s fine until it isn’t. You’re safe until you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. You forget about the danger until your friends get captured or killed. It’s the vague, speculative fear, I suppose, that looms large.

My first week in Kabul has been filled with takeout dinners at home, all day brunches in private gardens, and bonfires at night. These are things you wouldn’t think possible in Afghanistan. I’m excited about the work – more on that later – and happy to have met many interesting and enthusiastic people. The low-flying helicopters that regularly shake the house still throw me off, as do glimpses of abject poverty seen through the car window. I like hearing the call to prayer five times a day, but the light blue burkas that cover the body with a single piece of cloth, the chadri, are an eerie reminder of the Taliban’s hold on this country.

As we ventured into a different neighborhood a few nights ago, our driver pointed to a newly built, outsized mansion and said, “That is Dostum’s house.” I looked on in awe as I recalled Ahmed Rashid’s description of General Dostum, the Uzbek warlord:

“He wielded power ruthlessly. The first time I arrived at the fort to meet Dostum there were bloodstains and pieces of flesh in the muddy courtyard. I innocently asked the guards if a goat had been slaughtered. They told me that an hour earlier Dostum had punished a soldier for stealing. The man had been tied to the tracks of a Russian-made tank, which then drove around the courtyard crushing his body into mincemeat, as the garrison and Dostum watched. The Uzbeks, the roughest and toughest of all the Central Asian nationalities, are noted for their love of marauding and pillaging – a hangover from their origins as part of Genghis Khan’s hordes and Dostum was an apt leader. Over six feet tall with bulging biceps, Dostum is a bear of a man with a gruff laugh, which, some Uzbeks swear, has on occasion frightened people to death” (Taliban, pg. 56).

Somehow, all of us, even warlords and lawyers, have a role to play in this strange but fascinating place.

Photos by Jessica Wright, September 2015

Mislin, “Saving Faith”

In October, the Cornell University Press will release “Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age,” by David Mislin (Temple University).  The publisher’s description follows:

In Saving Faith, David Mislin chronicles the transformative historical moment when Americans began to reimagine their nation as one strengthened by the diverse faiths of its peoples. Between 1875 and 1925, liberal Protestant leaders abandoned religious exclusivism and leveraged their considerable cultural influence to push others to do the same. This reorientation came about as an ever-growing group of Americans found their religious faith under attack on social, intellectual, and political fronts. A new generation of outspoken agnostics assailed the very foundation of belief, while noted intellectuals embraced novel spiritual practices and claimed that Protestant Christianity had outlived its usefulness.

Faced with these grave challenges, Protestant clergy and their allies realized that the successful defense of religion against secularism required a defense of all religious traditions. They affirmed the social value—and ultimately the religious truth—of Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. They also came to view doubt and uncertainty as expressions of faith. Ultimately, the reexamination of religious difference paved the way for Protestant elites to reconsider ethnic, racial, and cultural difference. Using the manuscript collections and correspondence of leading American Protestants, as well the institutional records of various churches and religious organizations, Mislin offers insight into the historical constructions of faith and doubt, the interconnected relationship of secularism and pluralism, and the enormous influence of liberal Protestant thought on the political, cultural, and spiritual values of the twentieth-century United States.

Bueno, “Defining Heresy”

In October, Brill Publishing will release “Defining Heresy: Inquisition, Theology, and Papal Policy in the Time of Jacques Fournier” by Irene Bueno (European University Institute). The publisher’s description follows:

In Defining Heresy, Irene Bueno investigates the theories and practices of anti-heretical repression in the first half of the fourteenth century, focusing on the figure of Jacques Fournier/Benedict XII (c.1284-1342). Throughout his career as a bishop-inquisitor in Languedoc, theologian, and, eventually, pope at Avignon, Fournier made a multi-faceted contribution to the fight against religious dissent. Making use of judicial, theological, and diplomatic sources, the book sheds light on the multiplicity of methods, discourses, and textual practices mobilized to define the bounds of heresy at the end of the Middle Ages. The integration of these commonly unrelated areas of evidence reveals the intellectual and political pressures that inflected the repression of heretics and dissidents in the peculiar context of the Avignon papacy.

“Crescent Over Another Horizon” (eds. del Mar Logroño Narbona et al)

This month, the University of Texas Press releases “Crescent Over Another Horizon: Islam in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Latino USA,” edited by Maria del Mar Logroño Narbona (Florida International University), Paulo G. Pinto (Universidade Federal Fluminense), and John Tofik Karam (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).  The publisher’s description follows:

Muslims have been shaping the Americas for more than five hundred years, yet this interplay is frequently overlooked or misconstrued. Brimming with revelations that synthesize area and ethnic studies, Crescent over Another Horizon presents a portrait of Islam’s unity as it evolved through plural formulations of identity, power, and belonging. Offering a Latino American perspective on a wider Islamic world, the editors overturn the conventional perception of Muslim communities in the New World, arguing that their characterization as “minorities” obscures the interplay of ethnicity and religion that continues to foster transnational ties.

Bringing together studies of Iberian colonists, enslaved Africans, indentured South Asians, migrant Arabs, and Latino and Latin American converts, the volume captures the power-laden processes at work in religious conversion or resistance. Throughout each analysis—spanning times of inquisition, conquest, repressive nationalism, and anti-terror security protocols—the authors offer innovative frameworks to probe the ways in which racialized Islam has facilitated the building of new national identities while fostering a double-edged marginalization. The subjects of the essays transition from imperialism (with studies of morisco converts to Christianity, West African slave uprisings, and Muslim and Hindu South Asian indentured laborers in Dutch Suriname) to the contemporary Muslim presence in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Trinidad, completed by a timely examination of the United States, including Muslim communities in “Hispanicized” South Florida and the agency of Latina conversion. The result is a fresh perspective that opens new horizons for a vibrant range of fields.

Beckwith, “Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith”

In October, Cambridge University Press will release “Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith” by Francis J. Beckwith (Baylor University). The publisher’s description follows:

Taking Rites Seriously is about how religious beliefs and religious believers are assessed by judges and legal scholars and are sometimes mischaracterized and misunderstood by those who are critical of the influence of religion in politics or in the formation of law. Covering three general topics – reason and motive, dignity and personhood, nature and sex – philosopher and legal theorist Francis J. Beckwith carefully addresses several contentious legal and cultural questions over which religious and non-religious citizens often disagree: the rationality of religious belief, religiously motivated legislation, human dignity in bioethics, abortion and embryonic stem cell research, reproductive rights and religious liberty, evolutionary theory, and the nature of marriage. In the process, he responds to some well-known critics of public faith – including Brian Leiter, Steven Pinker, Suzanna Sherry, Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, and Richard Dawkins – as well as to some religiously conservative critics of secularism such as the advocates for intelligent design.