13 July 2017 – CIRIS Graduate Research Associate Tobias Müller recently contributed a chapter in a report on Muslims in the UK and Europe published by the Centre for Islamic Studies at Cambridge University. Müller’s chapter, ‘Constructing Islam and Secularism in the German Islam Conference,’ argues that beyond the intentions expressed by government officials, the aims of the Conference and the expectations towards Muslims prescribe major restructuring measures of the Muslim community, cooperation with security agencies, and alignment with an undetermined set of “German values.” The full report, co-edited by Paul Anderson and Julian Hargreaves, presents papers from a symposium the Centre for Islamic Studies held in May 2016.
2 May 2017 – CIRIS Graduate Research Associate Matthew Rowley recently edited a collection of essays for the journal Transformation. The special issue, coedited with Dr Emma Wild-Wood, focuses on religion, hermeneutics and violence. Central to each essay is the relationship between readers, texts, and killing. Key questions addressed in the volume include:
- What causes religious violence?
- What is the relationship between beliefs, texts and violence done in the name of God?
- How should one respond to historical violence within their own tradition?
- How should one respond to acts of violence performed by those in another faith community?
- How are harmful beliefs formed and what can be done to prevent believers from doing the unbelievable?
Rowley contributed two articles to the collection. The co-authored introductory article summarises ‘the state of modern scholarship on key debates concerning religion and violence, [and] encourages the careful study of how individuals or groups in peculiar historical circumstances interact with their sacred texts and beliefs in a way that facilitates violence or oppression’.
Rowley’s second article examines how people come to ‘inhabit’ a particular sacred text and frame their violence through that text. As case studies, the article looks at individual violence (child sacrifice), communal violence (conquest), and eschatologically oriented violence (cosmic war). It ‘examines one common practice among many who believe their killing pleases or is willed by God—inhabiting biblical texts. Focusing on the Abrahamic and Mosaic narratives and on eschatology, [it explains] part of the process whereby individuals and groups come to believe that they are participating in killing patterned on or prophesied in scripture. Finally, this article [suggests] a scripture-based approach aimed at moving an individual or group away from the harmful habitation of sacred texts’.
- ‘Religion, Hermeneutics and Violence: An Introduction’ (Matthew Patrick Rowley and Emma Wild-Wood).
- ‘The Use of Violent Biblical Texts by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda’ (Helen Nambalirwa Nkabala).
- ‘Early Modern Religious Violence and the Dark Side of Church History’ (John Coffey).
- ‘Christian Responses to Islamism and Violence in the Name of Islam’ (Colin Chapman).
- ‘Child Sacrifice, Conquest and Cosmic War: On the Harmful Habitation of Biblical Texts’ (Matthew Patrick Rowley).
- ‘Christian Hermeneutics and Narratives of War in the Carolingian Empire’ (Robert A.H. Evans).
Sage has made articles 1, 3 and 4 open access.
16 March 2017 – CIRIS Managing Director Judd Birdsall presented a paper this week on ‘Religion, Politics, and Soft Power: Examples from U.S. Diplomacy’ at a conference at Tbilisi State University exploring ‘Religion and Soft Power in the South Caucasus’. The conference was coordinated by the Georgian Institute of Politics (GIP) and the University of Fribourg, and made possible by the financial support of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SCOPES-Program). The conference showcased the publication of a new compendium of policy memos on religion and soft power in the South Caucasus region.
Photo credits: Georgia Institute of Politics
In May 2016 CIRIS hosted a seminar with The Revd Dr James Walters, chaplain and interfaith advisor at the London School of Economics. Here CIRIS research associate and Cambridge Divinity PhD student Chris Moses gets Walters’ thoughts on the challenges and opportunities posed by religious diversity on university campuses.
CIRIS: Can you tell us a bit about your professional trajectory, including your role at the LSE Faith Centre?
The Revd Dr James Walters: What I love about my role at the LSE is that it’s gathered together all strands from my life so far: a love of priestly ministry, academic interests, and experience in politics. And I guess the new thing that was added through this role has been engagement in interfaith relations, which I had some experience of before, but it has really developed in a new way at the LSE.
CIRIS: Can you give some background about the establishment of the LSE Faith Centre?
JW: I think it came out of discussions that began at the LSE after the 7/7 bombings in London, which generated a lot of anxiety about religious cohesion within the city more broadly, and on the LSE campus. That also coincided with the incorporation of religion and belief into the Equality Act, which was passed in 2010. So, there was a perceived need for some kind of facility to make it possible for religious people to express their faith on the campus.
What I have sought to add since I took up post has been the slightly more constructive agenda of seeing the opportunities presented by a very diverse international study body for developing religious understanding and interfaith cohesion as a preparation for graduation into a world where religious conflict is very much on the agenda.
CIRIS: What have been the greatest challenges to date?
JW: There’s often moments of crisis, and they require a constructive response. They might relate to events in the wider world, such as the killing of drummer Lee Rigby or the attack on Gaza, which generate repercussions for the LSE student body.
But I would say the more ongoing challenge has been the cultural shift in terms of LSE’s engagement with religion, and particularly those who were concerned that a secular institution was being made ‘religious’ through the creation of this Centre. What I’ve sought to do is explain that if there’s been a shift it’s been in our understanding of secularism, moved from a programmatic secularism which has sought to say, ‘We don’t want to engage with religion in any way at LSE’, towards a procedural secularism, which acknowledges the fact that we are not a confessional university and there is no privilege according to one religious faith, but we can seek to negotiate provision and opportunity for all the different religious and non-religious perspectives within the student body.
CIRIS: How do you reach out to those espousing exclusivist accounts of religion, and would not ordinarily be interested in something like the LSE Faith Centre?
JW: We’re very explicit about our agenda. We do not want to get everybody to agree, as if we could distill all these religious perspectives into something we can all share. That was the old agenda of interfaith relations, which is fortunately no longer in vogue.
Being the LSE, we’re trying to be quite pragmatic about it. We’re looking at a world where there is an escalation in religious violence, and we’re saying, ‘We want to reduce this, and we think an important way to do this is simply understand what other people believe, and to deepen respect people have for other positions’. And to say that, we need to do that in honesty, so we want people to bring the fullness of their beliefs and their perspectives to the table.
CIRIS: How does the Faith Centre balance its positive perspective on faith with a meaningful engagement with the many problems associated with religion?
JW: The Centre is founded upon a positive vision of the kind of the world of religious coexistence and understanding that we want to see, and everything we do is working towards that. But, if we don’t open up some cans of worms along the way, then we’re not being honest about how to realise the vision. That includes asking the difficult questions about the treatment of women in faith communities, attitudes towards lesbian gay bisexual transgender people, uses and abuses of scripture, and of course, religious violence. So we’re seeking to have those kinds of conversations respectfully, and without the judgement of secular assumptions, but pursuing the agenda of this positive vision.
CIRIS: You’ve had experience of both Cambridge and the LSE. How would you compare the place of chaplaincy in these institutions?
JW: I sometimes feel very grateful that I am chaplain in a secular university, where the engagement with religion is quite a new development. So, we’ve been able to do that without some of the baggage that other confessional universities will have, such as how we stay faithful to our traditions while also expanding. There have been questions for us but of a different order because we are a secular university.
I suppose that for a university with a church heritage like Cambridge the task is different, but there are also advantages. There is already a discourse around religion present, and there are already resources around campus for engaging in a broader conversation about religious pluralism and conflict.
But I think the challenge must be how to develop and expand a Christian heritage that has itself been contested in various ways over the years into something that is responsive to both a more religiously diverse student body and a world where we have to take the non-Christian religions more seriously. And that’s a challenge not just for Oxbridge chapels and chaplains, but for the Church of England more broadly.
CIRIS: What is the future trajectory of interfaith relations on campus?
JW: All the evidence points to a more difficult situation. Religion seems to be increasingly contentious in the politics of the National Union of Students, and within universities themselves in many places. But, I hope that we’re modeling something constructive that can at least contextualise those disagreements, and put some energy into a more constructive engagement with religious difference on campus.
Note: this article by Judd Birdsall was originally published by Georgetown University’s Cornerstone blog on 6 June 2016.
In May the House passed a bipartisan bill that would bring America’s global religious freedom advocacy into the twenty-first century. The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1150) provides a number of critical updates and upgrades to the existing International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. The new bill—or Marco Rubio’s nearly identical Senate version (S. 2878)—merits the Senate’s prompt approval.
In its day the 1998 IRFA was an innovative, landmark piece of legislation. It created a vast architecture—an ambassador-at-large, State Department office, independent commission, reports, lists, sanctions, and other tools—for advancing religious freedom abroad. It became a model for other liberal democracies as they joined the fight for freedom of religion and belief worldwide.
But in the intervening 18 years, as scholarship on religion in global affairs has raced forward and the dynamics of religious persecution have morphed and complexified, the legislative mandate of U.S. IRF policy has remained stuck in the ’90s.
I served in the State Department’s IRF Office during the Bush and Obama administrations and experienced first-hand how the 1998 act created both important opportunities and conceptual, bureaucratic, and practical obstacles to a more effective U.S. promotion of religious liberty.
CIRIS research associate Arthur Ghins was in Brussels at the time of the recent terrorist attacks on the airport and subway. In this interview with CIRIS managing director Judd Birdsall he reflects on the religious and political dynamics of contemporary Belgium from his vantage point as both as a resident of Brussels and as a scholar of 19th century European political thought.
CIRIS: What was your immediate reaction when you heard the news about the attacks?
Ghins: I was stunned, of course. I think the psychological impact of a terrorist attack is far greater when it happens in the town where you grew up, in places you have been to hundreds of times. Even though I had already been deeply shocked by the Paris attacks, the geographical distance had also been somehow a symbolic distance. When the attacks happened in Brussels, I thought: this is happening here and now, it’s going to have a massive impact on our daily lives.
Maybe this will sound a bit naïve, but I was also all the more astonished because I did not seriously think that Brussels was a genuine target. Perhaps in part because I thought quite cynically that terrorists would not decide to strike their “headquarters” in Europe. Sadly enough, Belgium is indeed the country in Europe that proportionally has sent the highest number of youngsters to fight for ISIS in Syria.
CIRIS: So why would the terrorists attack their own country of residence?
In November 2015 Birkbeck University’s Dr Ben Gidley gave a lecture at CIRIS on Christian, Muslim, and Jewish diaspora communities in London. Here CIRIS research associates Margot Dazey and Chris Moses ask Gidley about the state of diasporic research, his own research on diaspora groups within London’s famously diverse East End, and the policy implications of such research.
CIRIS: Can you tell us about the main aims of the Oxford Diasporas Programme, as well as those of your specific project?
Gidley: I think there’s been a big turning towards the concept of diaspora across a number of disciplines recently and the term had sort of spiraled off into all sorts of different meanings. So, part of the intention of the Oxford Diasporas Programme—which has been running for almost five years now—was to take stock of the state of play and have a bit of conceptual clarity around the concept.
Another part was to take a number of different disciplinary and methodological approaches—ethnographic in particular but many others—and to develop case studies of diaspora in a number of different contexts, in particular ones which have been less researched or which have pushed the concept a little bit. Within that, our project at COMPAS was about East London, and diasporic associational politics, looking at three faiths from 1880 to the present.
CIRIS: Why did you start in 1880?
Gidley: 1880 is a significant moment. The last two decades of the Victorian period are when the East End as we know it now really came into being. In the 1880s we saw the Jack the Ripper killings, a whole series of investigative reports on white slaving and child labour and so on in the East End. And that coincides with mass Jewish migration, which began at the very end of the 1870s and picked up rapidly through the 1880s. By the end of the 1880s, the East End was seen as a kind of Jewish quarter.
CIRIS: What would you say have been the main religious trajectories of the East End since 1880?
Note: This article by Afeefa Syeed was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on 8 December 2015.
It’s toughest for the young ones who look at pictures of the bad guys and say, “But Mama, he looks like me.”
Our American Muslim children are growing up in a world of warped lunacy that takes what they know about a beloved prophet or God and turns it into reasons for anguish. And the frustrations are even greater when young ones watch the news or are witness to confrontations that end with their asking, “Daddy, why does that man say I’m going to hell?”
As Muslim parents and teachers, we feel a heaviness in our hearts about the world and because of this hopelessness and helplessness, we are stripped of the superpowers usually assigned to us in those little eyes. Nevertheless, our children are an amana, a trust for us to keep safe while we have them in our care. Being present with them and understanding their feelings is the heart of parenting in this complex and difficult time.
In order to be conscientious and responsive parents, American Muslims might think of the following elements that are becoming part of our new normal:
Continue reading at the LA Times
Click here to read Syeed’s article for Patheos on ‘Supporting Ourselves and Each Other – A Spiritual Response to these Times’
This is a transcript of Judd Birdsall’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, at the 2015 Warsaw Dialogue for Democracy.
I would like to offer a few thoughts on the relationship between religious freedom and democracy.
Poland is a great place to discuss both of these issues because Poland provides a model of how religious freedom and democracy go hand in hand, reinforcing each other.
Poland has a long tradition of religious tolerance, going back to the Warsaw Confederation of the 16th century, and perhaps earlier. Thus the Polish tradition of religious tolerance is far than the United States itself. So, I’m humbled to be here as an American discussing these issues today.
And in contemporary Poland there is a very high level of religious freedom. The U.S. State Department, where I used to work, just released its annual Report on International Religious Freedom last week, and you’ll see that the chapter on Poland is very complimentary of the Polish government and society.
On Wednesday many of us went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, and I want to thank the conference organizers for including that in the agenda. It was a sobering and instructive experience. I was struck by the many elements of faith throughout the museum, reminders that the church helped to sustain the Polish people through very difficult times. And there’s a video playing of the Pope’s visit to Warsaw in 1979. Throughout the 1980s and 90s Catholics in Poland used their expanding religious freedom to push for democratic reforms.
So, Poland shows that religious freedom and democracy can go hand-in-hand.
But we often still talk about them quite separately. We treat them in isolation.
In the West it seems to me that there are two unhelpful ways of divorcing religious freedom from democracy.
On 19 June 2015 CIRIS hosted Amb. David Saperstein for a roundtable discussion with Cambridge academics on religious freedom in international affairs. Saperstein is the fourth U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. He leads the State Department’s Office on International Religious Freedom and serves as the principal advisor to President Obama and Secretary Kerry on religious freedom issues. Prior to his current appointment, Saperstein serves for 40 years as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC).
Here CIRIS research associate Chris Moses gets Saperstein’s views on the mission of his office and how it can advance religious freedom in challenging places—including in the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
CIRIS: Why was your office established?