The “No true Scotsman” fallacy and the problem of identity

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The philosopher Antony Flew (1923-2010) famously described a fallacy that has become known as the ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy.  It was even published in the (real!) Scotsman newspaper obituary:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”.

This analogy is often used uncritically in thinking about the way in which identity informs understandings of religion. For example, after the 11.9.2001 attacks on New York and Washington many argued that although the aircraft used to crash into the buildings were being flown by Muslims, ‘True Islam is a peaceful religion’ and the perpetrators were therefore not true Muslims. True Muslims would not kill thousands of people in an attack like that – and, of course, the vast majority of Muslims around the world condemned these attacks.  Maybe, therefore, even though they described themselves as Muslims, the attackers were not true Muslims?

In a Christian context, we can see something similar happening. Most Christians would argue that, according to their Scriptures, killing others is prohibited. And yet there are plenty of instances in which Christians kill other people. We don’t even need to look into distant history for that: George Bush and Tony Blair both professed themselves to be Christians, and yet they presided over devastating attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq resulting in hundreds of thousands of people being killed.  But if true Christians do not kill, perhaps neither Bush nor Blair are true Christians?

This way of thinking, as Flew wanted to show, leads us nowhere.  Can we comment on whether someone is a true Scotsman (or Muslim/Christian etc.)?  Perhaps the problem here is the reification of a position into an identity marker.  Hamish McDonald might have a certain idea of what a true Scotsman is, but this idea centres around an abstract imaginary of the concept ‘Scotsman’ (and the Aberdeen sex offender clearly didn’t fit that image).  Using that kind of fixed notion, we will never find agreement on what a true Muslim/Christian (or even Scotsman!) might do.  We clearly need to find other tools.

Neil Smith and Cindi Katz, cited by Sara Ahmed (p12), discuss the difference between ‘location’ as a fixed point and ‘position’ as a relative concept, and perhaps this offers us a helpful way forward: ‘”In geographical terms, ‘location’ fixes a point in space, usually by reference to some abstract co-ordinate systems…” while “‘Position,’ by contrast, implies location vis-à-vis other locations and incorporates a sense of perspective on other places.”‘

If we understand self-descriptions of individuals in terms of positions, rather than fixed locations or identities, we might find it easier to comprehend the 11.9.2001 attackers or the Bush and Blair warriors.  After all, a statement such as ‘I am a Muslim/Christian’ (etc.) is usually made in relation to others: most obviously, perhaps, affirming commonality or marking difference.  It is, to use Smith and Katz, an implied location in relation to other locations, with a sense of perspective on other places.  This kind of positioning changes all the time, relative to our context.  We can perhaps understand this relative positioning better by thinking about Judith Butler’s ‘turning’ when a police officer calls out, ‘hey you!’  We change our position in response to the call: we turn to see if we are the one the police officer is addressing, and our position relative to everyone and everything else around us – not just the police officer – therefore changes as a result of that address, even if the call is not really meant for us.  Our location might not have changed, but our position has.

This kind of imagery can help us in thinking through some of the language used to describe positions.  We can understand the Muslim or Christian attackers and their statements of belief as positions taken in relation to others, rather than as fixed locators or identities.  This does away with the need to understand the true Scotsman problem in contexts such as those described above: we don’t then need to explain that true Muslims or true Christians would never kill others even if these particular Muslims or Christians did so.  Rather, we can look at how others who position themselves as Muslims or Christians (etc.) understand these contexts, and construct an understanding on the totality of these representations, intelligently assessed.

This also helps us to understand the adoption of certain kinds of language in contexts that at first appear to be misplaced; in this sense it is very easy to see how some of the ideas underpinning Critical Religion could lend themselves to a simplistic racism and Orientalism.  For example, it is important to think about how we understand an imam in Timbuktu who says that ‘Since the beginning of time Timbuktu has been secular.  Timbuktu’s scholars have always accepted the other monotheistic religions.  After all, we all believe in the one God, each in our own way.’*  The CR scholar might protest: aren’t terms like ‘secular’ and ‘religions‘ (as opposed to ‘religion’, maybe) concepts that originate in a Western context, with little meaning in Islam?  And yet: essentialising Islam in such a way, as if Islam in Timbuktu were the same as in Mecca, Beirut, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, Detroit, is a failure to understand the positionality of the imam.

We need to take his statement seriously: he knows what he means with this language, and whilst we might understand the interview with the Western journalist as framing his comments, we also need to understand the Butlerian turn here: he is not (just, or even at all) necessarily moulding his language to suit her, the journalist, but is seeking to articulate a position, and in the articulation itself there is also a movement.  Seeking to pursue a constructivist position as far as we can possibly take it enables us to hear the imam and understand his reworking of the terms that we thought we understood – he is repositioning these terms and this language in adopting it and making it his own.  Whilst it might be of historical interest that terms like ‘secular’ and ‘religions‘ originate in the West, understanding the re-positioning and re-use of these terms should enable us to begin to better understand those who might appear to be the Other, leaving the No true Scotsman fallacy and our essentialist historical notions behind.

* “Seit Anbeginn der Zeit war Timbuktu säkular. Die Gelehrten von Timbuktu haben die übrigen monotheistischen Religionen immer schon akzeptiert. Wir glauben schließlich alle an den einen Gott, jeder auf seine Weise.”

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2006.

Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: The Politics of the Performative Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Hegel’s Return

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Stubbornly, Hegel keeps returning. Just when we think this notorious philosopher, or any of the numerous Hegelianisms spawned in his name, have had their day, Hegel keeps coming back. And today he is back with a renaissance as considerable as any. Why is this case?

One might argue it is because Marx keeps coming back. And every time Marx returns, Hegel is always lurking in the shadow, or lurking precisely as the shadow, the negative inverse of what Marx had championed in the name of a dialectical materialism, that is, a direct challenge to capitalism’s political economy by means of a confrontational critique of its ideology and a revolutionary reaction on the ground. Certainly, one need not go far to find a Marxist resurgence somewhere in motion. But Hegel is not Marx. Nor is Hegel always an inverted Marx, or perhaps we should better say, nor is Marx always an inverted Hegel. If Marx keeps returning as some form of a critique, directed against a hegemonic power or against the injustices of an economic system, Hegel is far less outspoken, far less confrontational. In fact, he is still often perceived, politically, as Marx’s very antithesis, a champion of the right and the conservative, or at least of an ideal form of political thinking that favours the establishment.

And yet despite this gross misreading, Hegel keeps returning. One way to think about this insistence of Hegel, before or beyond Marx, is to think about the very driving force behind Hegel’s thought. For many, this has been called the “dialectic”, a kind of triadic movement by which two opposing forces collide with each other to produce a third force, one that keeps elements of the original two oppositions, but raises them to a higher and more productive level, thereby preserving and negating them at the same time, in a new reality that is wholly unique, but also one that fully comprehends what it has just accomplished.

Yet recent thinkers, especially from Continental Europe, have begun, over the last decades, to ask a more fundamental question: what drives this process itself, the process of the dialectic? And here they alight upon something that was previously considered as only one side of the dialectic, or just one of the original oppositions: negation. But how could negation be seen as the driving force of the process in which it is one of the elements? How could it stand both within and without that process simultaneously? Is not this a bit like saying that what makes chess work as a game are the black pieces? They are necessary, to be sure, but not, as the philosophers say, sufficient. Or perhaps less crudely, is it not like contending that the process of pollination for certain plants is driven by bees? The bees are certainly crucial for the process to work, but they hardly impel and determine by themselves the overall process. That role, we say, is taken by “mother nature”, working to unite both sides.

This problem of contradiction (both within and without) gets to the very nub of why Hegel remains such a potent figure for the modernity in which we presently live. If Hegel really taught that negation was a prime motivating force, and that nothing moves or has life without this force – and this is what he is really saying, with all its paradoxical implications – then what does this say about the modernity we have inherited not only from Hegel but from his modern forebears?

The problem is inherent to modernity itself. If we characterise this modernity as a fundamental shift in our understanding about the nature of origin, and origination, then we might better grasp our dilemma. Now why has modernity has been so obsessed with rethinking origin – everyone from Darwin to those working on the Hadron Collider? The pre-modern understanding of origination was grounded upon a Creator God, who brings all things into being, at their origin, and who is thus Origin itself, as eternal origination. This meant that we looked back for the ground and authority of our being. But the origins of modernity are based upon a break from this way of thinking, in an attempt – religiously by the Lutheran reforms and philosophically by Descartes’ revolution – to free us from the abuse or uncertainty such authority was deemed to have institutionalised. This break called us to look forward to the ever new, rather than to the established. (Hence the term “modern”, based on the Latin “modo” – “just now”.)

But in order to free our being to the ever new, a new ground was needed – a ground of freedom. This modernity found in consciousness, and more specifically, in self-consciousness. And here we need to see consciousness not merely as matter of awareness (as it is most generally understood), but also as a matter of origination, originating the very individuality of our selves through the freedom of self-determination.

But in making this move, we instigate an internal split. For self-consciousness requires that we be both subject and object to ourselves at the same time. What I am conscious of, as a subject, is myself, now as an object. If in this process consciousness brings the self into existence through its own internal freedom – no other higher Origin necessitates my being; it is my own freedom that allows me to be who I am, even if I later choose to embrace that higher Origin – then at the heart of this consciousness is a contradiction: I am who I am (subjectively) only by negating myself (turning myself into subject’s opposite – an object). We can see this very phenomenon in a common experience of romance: “I didn’t realise I loved her until she left me!” The realisation is predicated upon its very absence.

Now Hegel, I contend, was the first philosopher to properly seize upon, not this internal contradiction per se, but its most potent solution. Negation must not be seen as a force that, first and foremost, eradicates or takes away (one side of a dialectic). Negation must be seen as a primordial force that brings into existence. And what it brings into existence (just like the new modern self) is, first and foremost, itself!

As long, therefore, as modernity is beholden to a notion of consciousness as freedom and of freedom as consciousness – and this continues to be confirmed to us in virtually every sphere of our contemporary experience, whether political, aesthetic, judicial, relational, etc. – then Hegel will keep returning, because Hegel challenges us to embrace a negation at the very core of our modern self-understanding and self-identity, and, in effect, to negate it, by turning it into something productive. But we can only do that, ironically, through negation.

Negativity is everywhere in our globalised world today. We don’t have to work hard to find it, nor to justify its existence. Modern media incessantly shows us the rampant ills of our present state. But if we want to convert that negativity into something positive, or, dare I say, into something positively negative, then we need to appeal to Hegel. And this is why Hegel returns. But such an appeal is not to invent a new Hegelianism. On the contrary, it is actually to outstrip Hegel, and any system that might be built in his name, by being most consistent to his thought. Paradoxically, we are truest to Hegel when we go beyond him in his own name. This is what keeps Hegel original – and I mean this in the most original sense of the term “original”. The origins of Hegel and his thought are in his own negation, which, Hegel taught, we must now make our own.

Religious education or indoctrination: an evening of lively discussion

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[Picking up on the debate at Stirling University on 23.10.14, the introductory blog to this topic by Alison Jasper and John I’Anson, the contribution by Sarah Clark, and the first comment piece by Russell Hunter, Tim Fitzgerald here offers our final piece on this specific event.  We hope you have found all of these contributions helpful in thinking about the wider debate on RE in schools, and not just in the Scottish context. – Michael Marten, Editor]

The organisers should be thanked and praised as far as the idea of the forum is concerned. Clearly it was a legitimate forum for local teachers, parents, theology professors and Liberal Christian ministers to express their feelings and ideas about the goods and the bads of RE in school. The forum rightly included a representative of secular humanism. The problem for me is that secular humanists talk the binary reverse of what the religionists talk, and thus challenge nothing, because the circularity of the discourse is maintained. This binary discourse centred around ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ ensures the circular rehashing of the same persistent, un-deconstructed discourse whose deadening ubiquity stops us all thinking new thoughts.

Our very own Sarah Clark had something powerful and original to say, but the chair and the other speakers failed to pick it up. Sarah referred to the ‘cognitive dissonance’ she experienced between teaching RE in school and studying critical religion at Stirling University. This led her to make a career change. This significant content seemed to be of no interest to the chairperson or to any of the other speakers, despite the lavish praise and the mutual love-in and prize-winning ceremony at the end.

True, I am more on the academic side of the topic of ‘religion’, but, as a result of the urging of others, I imagined that this might be a forum where I could learn something and perhaps also make some useful connections between what we do in critical religion at Stirling and ideas about how RE in schools might be rethought to give it critical relevance.  However I cannot in all honesty say that anything at all was advanced by this event – from my own perspective at least – and indeed it may have done some damage. I feel disappointed at the way this debate was staged and conducted.

Sarah received loud applause when she went to the podium to speak, yet none of the organisers or other speakers seemed alerted by this that a sizeable number of undergraduates, and several postgraduates and lecturers were present, or that we might have anything worthy to contribute. Two lecturers in particular – Alison Jasper and John I’Anson, have published interesting contributions to the topic of RE, but these do not seem to have been mentioned.

You cannot have everyone on a panel, and the organisers have the right to choose who they want to be there. Yet neither Alison nor John were acknowledged from the platform and nor were the rest of us from the Stirling religion subject area. The many religion students and lecturers in the audience seemed to be invisible and inaudible to those up on the platform and to those of the organisers who were sitting in the front row. I felt that I was intruding into someone else’s private assembly, and I began to wonder why my wife and I were there, and why I had urged my students and postgraduates to attend – some coming from as far away as St Andrews and Edinburgh.

Some people may now want to organise a counter-debate, preferable led by a combination of current RE teachers in schools and critical religion students at Stirling, especially those who, like Sarah, intend – or intended – to teach RE in school. Yes, we need all the constituencies to participate. It seems potentially more creative to try to bring the academic subject area and the school curriculum into some kind of direct, creative tension. After all, that is exactly what Sarah Clark was talking about: the dissonance between the two.

I believe and hope that what we do successfully in the religion subject area at Stirling is to deconstruct the empty and confused rhetoric around religion and secularity, and show how it serves wider power agendas that tend to remain half-hidden in the background.  But I recognise the need for caution. I suspect that many teachers and parents, whose legitimate concerns are with the actualities of the school curriculum, will be puzzled by how we proceed, and slow to recognise the relevance of deconstructing discourses on religion. It would be unhelpful if the ‘lively discussion’ split into a false assumed dichotomy of realists and idealists – the idealists being those supposedly privileged academics like myself who live and teach abstractions that have no bearing on the supposed realities, and the realists being the teachers who do the immensely difficult job working within the externally imposed realities of the curriculum.  This is, I believe, yet another of those either-or binaries that keep us stupefied and ensure that nothing new can be thought. I would not go cold into that forum. It needs to be prepared. A space could be made for what we do at Stirling, even if it is only trying to clear the conceptual rubble so evident that evening.

What is education and what is indoctrination? Reflections on the RE debate

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[Picking up on the debate at Stirling University on 23.10.14, the introductory blog to this topic by Alison Jasper and John I’Anson, and the contribution by Sarah Clark, Russell Hunter, a Masters student at Stirling University, here offers his thoughts on the debate.  There will be one more comment piece next week. – Michael Marten, Editor]

After discussing with Dr. Fitzgerald the terms and use of education/indoctrination programs, I was excited to attend this panel discussion. I listened intently to the four panelists and came away from each of their presentations wanting to hear a bold statement. Was the current system about education or was it about indoctrination? They tiptoed around this issue.

Professor James Conroy came the closest to addressing it, but what did he mean when he said, “You cannot educate if a culture is not willing to learn, and if indoctrination was the goal, it failed”? He further argued that “there is no link to theological questions” in the Scottish school curriculum. He used statistics from his survey findings to show that religious affiliations are decreasing among schoolchildren today, which is why there is no indoctrination. To conclude that indoctrination does not exist because religious affiliations among schoolchildren are decreasing is questionable. I would be interested to see the survey questions. The teachers surveyed may not have fully supported the presence of Religious Education (RE) in the school curriculum and were so politically correct in their delivery of it that their RE instruction had a counter-effect. Would that not amount to indoctrination?

Reverend Sally Foster-Fulton was passionate but failed to convince me of RE’s future role in Scottish schools or even clarify its future role. “Time for reflection” is a nice catch phrase that she coined. I take it to mean coalescing support for RE by drawing attention to the fact that all religions have the commonality of reflection. Be it prayer, meditation, or just quite time, time for reflection creates a common bond between each faith. She quoted the Scottish government’s policy on RE in the Scottish school curriculum. It would have been more powerful if she had clarified how schools interpret and apply this legislation and what role the church plays in all of this. That was the most confusing issue: what role does the church play? Is the government lobbying for time for reflection? If so, is that indoctrination?

Mr. Douglas McLellan of the Humanist Society of Scotland focused on the 1918 Educational Act and the Catholic schools. He was all about secular education and believed RE has no place in schools. Yet, when pushed, he said yes, we need to learn about religions and have discussions about them. He failed to lay out how this is to be accomplished. He railed against the denominational school system but not against the nondenominational system. From my perspective, his presentation was one-dimensional and unfair. If a parent wants to put a child into a denominational school because of religious beliefs, why should Mr. McLellan object? It is possible I am not sufficiently familiar with the Scottish system, but I must also ask why Mr. McLellan did not talk about the 1980 Educational Act or the 2011 guidelines on RE implementation in the school curriculum? Why was he not challenged on that issue?

Mrs. Sarah Clark spoke from personal experience. Her presentation was based on personal experiences working within the school system and critical religion at the University of Stirling. She provided a different perspective. She took an experiential approach to the subject and discussed values and beliefs that are transmitted through socialization. She talked about what she termed a “dissonance” or conflict in the way the school system addressed RE, brought about by the fact that teachers and the school system take a politically correct approach while students wanted openness. She claimed that religion is interwoven across all educational disciplines, a circumstance that schools must address. Her plan for how this could be done included classroom discussions on the impact of religion on the development of various disciplines. Her realist approach allowed her to offer a framework for the implementation of RE in the school curriculum. At least she had a plan. She was the only panelist who suggested a clear plan for implementing RE in the school curriculum.

I watched the faces and reactions of the panelists as each of them got up to speak. It was immediately obvious that the divide of opinions was wide. When Mr. McLellan was speaking, Reverend Foster-Fulton and Professor Conroy made comments to each other and mouthed words such as “not correct,” or something similar, or they shook their heads in disagreement. This behavior from someone who, just a few minutes earlier, had asked that we should all have a time for reflection seemed very disingenuous. The hard question for everyone on this panel and in the audience is the first question that should have been asked: what is the difference between education and indoctrination? If “education” as a mandated curriculum comes from a hierarchy of power, is that not a form of indoctrination? Is a secular mandate on RE in contention with itself? Or does that even matter to those who can only see from their own point of view? How ironic that the panel all agreed the exchange of ideas and customs, religions and values, is the only way to move forward and yet they were closed-minded during the debate.

Those who advocate inclusiveness don’t always show it. Surveys are only as good as the questions asked. Education and indoctrination are intertwined much as someone’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. When a secular government issues a curriculum mandate, is it not indoctrination? The panel discussion has made me aware of the complications and pitfalls of a discourse that is interwoven across various disciplines, as RE is.  More importantly it has made me question the words education and indoctrination. These words may be more alike than the panel is willing to concede.

Education or indoctrination: the future role of religion in Scotland’s schools – a student view

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[Picking up on the debate at Stirling University on 23.10.14, and the introductory blog to this topic by Alison Jasper and John I’Anson, we’re delighted that Sarah Clark, who presented a student view at the debate, has kindly agreed to provide us with her contribution.  We will also be offering two comment pieces on the debate.  Comments are turned off on this posting, but we look forward to comments on the later postings. – Michael Marten, Editor]

I approach the question of Religion, Education and Indoctrination from the multi faceted perspective of someone who has encountered the process of religion and education from simultaneous and varying viewpoints: as a school student, as a university student, as a teacher (of sorts) and as a mother of two children currently attending a Scottish and supposedly non-denominational school.

I arrived at Stirling University in 2010 with a preconceived notion of religion and religious education that was based on my school experiences. I attended Scottish non-denominational schools throughout my education and while I do not recall encountering religion at primary school I can clearly remember it at secondary school, in particular I recall my first year, when I earned full marks for a class test on world religions. I was met at the gates the following day by a baying crowd of bullies shouting ‘Bible basher’ at me – because in the 1980s there was a common misconception that to study religion equated to ‘being’ religious. Thankfully, from a school perspective, this understanding has diminished. However, and many other students of Critical Religion may identify with this point, I do still meet peers and elders who on hearing I am studying ‘Religion’ at university say things like – ‘oh I didn’t know you were religious’ and ‘what religion are you?’.

I decided after the school incident it would be safer to avoid Religious Education altogether. What I hadn’t recognized at the time was how the school continued to provide me with a Religious Education of sorts. As per the government’s education directive and in recognition of Scotland’s Christian heritage, a particular set of norms values and beliefs were being transmitted to me in the classroom and through the schools social environment. As those of you studying Education will be aware, research has shown that through its socializing function, education inserts individuals into existing ways of doing and being. I don’t like the word indoctrinated or the term ‘hidden curriculum’ as to most of us it represents something pernicious, so I have used the word socialized here instead. However, my point is that I left school all packed up with a knowledge base built around existing ways of doing and being, a knowledge base carefully constructed by the Scottish Education system that had me believe my cultural practices (to which the word ‘Religion’ was never attached) were the status quo and that Religion was something that the others had, and that to know others is possible through knowing their Religion.

I do not suggest that this was the experience of everyone who came through the Scottish Education system but I do believe it was for the majority. How do I know this?   Firstly through the shared experiences I have had with fellow students who, on arriving at Stirling University had their carefully constructed knowledge base examined and unpacked by the department of Critical Religion. A valuable process is that it enables one to study ‘objectively’. Secondly, I know this due to the resistance I feel when attempting to share my new understandings with friends and family enquiring about my studies or passing comment about recent news events and foreign affairs.

I started my degree with the intention of becoming an RE teacher but this intention changed after my practice experience in schools. Having worked in various Government institutions (incl. social work, prison service, nursing), I was fully prepared for the disparity between the Governments directive about what will be done, the nice glossy brochure or user friendly website outlining how things will be done, and the harsh reality of what actually happens. What I was not prepared for was the cognitive dissonance I experienced when I realised how badly this disparity impacts on the subject of Religion.

The Scottish Government has issued two papers in relation to Religion in schools – one on provisions for religious observance, the other on religious education. In terms of religious observance the Directorate encourages schools to draw upon the rich resources of Scottish Christianity when planning and to recognise the students of other faiths or with no faith commitment. A challenge indeed. What my experience in my teaching placements and as a mother of two young children attending a Scottish non-denominational school shows is that a kind of P.C. approach is used that involves a complete avoidance of the word Religion, but that includes teaching and singing hymns at assembly (whilst switching the word God for joy).

Alongside but almost in opposition to this, the Directorate states that in relation to religion and class room learning, ‘through an understanding and appreciation of the world’s major religions and views, children and young people can develop responsible attitudes to other people which will assist in counteracting prejudice and intolerance’.

Between the two papers, what is essentially being said is this: ensure pupils are socialised within a Christian context (‘us’) and learn about other people through their religion (‘others’). Creating such a binary division is the backbone of ethnocentrism, in this instance parcelling up knowledge about ‘others’ under the category of Religion whilst reinforcing a ‘Christian identity’ that hasn’t been afforded the same categorisation? The very aims of the Directorate are being undermined by the incompatibility of what I consider to be a dishonest and out-dated approach. How can we acknowledge our Scottish Christian heritage without being honest about what it is we are practicing – religion – whilst categorising others and claiming to know them by applying the term to their practices? Rather than being an antidote to prejudice and racism this practice is adding fuel to the fire!

Thankfully, the glossy brochure, Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, (CfE) offers an opportunity to address this issue through its ‘curriculum areas‘. There are 8 curriculum areas including expressive arts, sciences, languages, one of which is religious and moral education. These are different from subject areas: they are broad umbrella terms, and are not structures for timetabling: the intention is that each curriculum area contributes to student development through its own disciplinary context and through connections with other areas of learning. There is a strong emphasis at Stirling University for student teachers to embrace this feature of the curriculum, to work with other subject areas and find the connections between disciplines, which is wonderful. The sad reality is that many students set sail from University ready for challenges and opportunities of interdisciplinary learning, only to be washed away and drowned in the sea of ‘do as your told’. The relentless drive for improved school performance, statistics and league tables, which, unfortunately is still measured by subject,-driven exam results, means that subject area still outranks curriculum area. So  what this translates to is shoe-horned and token-gesture interdisciplinary learning. And for Religious and Moral Education (RME), the shoe-horning focuses more on issues of sex, relationships, and citizenship than it does on issues of religion and faith.

So. Is there a future for Religion in Scottish non-denominational schools? Is it still relevant?

Yes. And Yes!

Recently the former First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell spoke at Stirling University reminding students of the importance of Arts and Humanities in what he described as an increasingly diverse and deeply complicated world. Speaking just prior to the vote on Scotland’s independence and as tensions were rising in Syria, he noted the importance of having people that can communicate in a global context and share events with others (English, languages and media), who can unravel our past (history), and shape our political future (politics). I was initially frustrated and disappointed that he had not acknowledged the importance of Religion, but then I reminded myself that the subject of Religion need not be separate. Religion is, at its nexus, an ideology, a belief system that is intertwined with and reverberates through literature, through history, through economics, social studies, politics, science and language.

The Bible, as just one example, has been a major influence on artistic themes, scientific inspiration, conflict, intertexuality, economics and political discourse throughout the last few centuries. A lack of knowledge and understanding about the text and its historical context can make teaching what on the surface might be considered an unrelated subject, far more difficult. How should schools successfully approach a subject that is so interwoven into everything we do?

What I suggest is, that to deal with a subject that is so interwoven into everything we do – we interweave the topic teachers! (I don’t mean physically sew them together of course!)

I envisage our specialist teachers working peripatetically from first to third year, moving around the school and integrating into other subject classrooms to help students identify, engage with and contextualise religion and faith issues as they encounter them. Explore the diversity and hybridity of Hinduism whilst engaging with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in English. Discuss what the Shinto tradition has to say about organ donation in Biology. Debate the international basketball association’s ban on religious attire at PE. Pupils will be allowed to focus on the subject more specifically in 4th year and even more critically in 5th and 6th year thereby safeguarding the subject qualification element and ensuring its future. But all pupils will be encouraged to engage with Critical Religion and critical thinking that takes them beyond their own belief system in all subject areas… bearing in mind that we first have to be honest about what our belief system is, instead of blurring the edges so as not to offend others.

I would encourage all RE teachers currently practicing in Scottish schools to take the amazing opportunity that the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence has presented us with before it passes us by: take advantage of the flexibility it allows, take ownership of the curriculum area and the subject of Religion in Scottish Schools and move it forward.

Is RE perhaps a terrorist activity?

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Thursday evening’s discussion at Stirling University ‘Education or Indoctrination:  The future role of religion in Scottish Schools,’ predictably fell, to these writers’ and minds, a little flat. But why?

Debates about RE in UK – and Scottish – schools are frequently characterised by ambivalence– in Scotland skirting around unacknowledged or unmentionable aspects of its social and economic history that come with sectarian and religious labels – and  sometimes what is reflected in them is further retrenchment rather than trenchant thinking. Arguably what emerged here were various familiar themes: the desire of hard-working committed RE teachers to encourage their students to engage with forms of wisdom (not limited to Christianity); the importance of developing  attitudes of respect and tolerance partly at least as a kind of defence against the dark arts of terrorism and fundamentalism; a lament for a lost form of theological and biblical literacy; the claim that  theological and biblical literacy enriches the appreciation of history and literature (a somewhat backhanded legitimation of RE as handmaiden to a range of more acceptable humanities?); a view that the only kind of knowledge relevant within Schools ought to be based on ‘secular’ reason and empirical science; and various attempts to define ‘religion’ as a concern with transcendence, as historical tradition as the commodification of  ‘otherness’.

In respect of this last point, the discussion was enlivened with an elegant critique of the ‘world religions’ paradigm that parcels up knowledge of ‘the other’ whilst schools continue to maintain a ‘hidden curriculum’ – actions and expectations developing a form of ‘our’ subjective, Christianised identity that acts ironically to reinforce a sense of the otherness of what we study ‘objectively’. Sarah Clark addressed the question of a possible future for the subject creatively and optimistically with suggestions for an interdisciplinarity that  would not be subordinated to the demands of a ‘policy assessment culture’ fostering rigid disciplinary boundaries. Based on her enthusiasm for the possibilities of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (2010) she began to flesh this out in terms of an idea that refreshingly, wasn’t constrained by current orderings or assumptions – proposing a more nomadic and less territorialised approach.   However, thinking on this creative level is hard to sustain and gave way for the most part to a more diffuse discussion, for example in terms of parental rights – clearly an important issue, but one with  polarising  effects that closed down rather than opened up possibilities for the exchange of ideas about the future.

What then, by way of post script to this event, do we have to contribute to this discussion?  We have previously identified the Official Account of Religious Studies  (OARS, see I’Anson & Jasper, 2006) in British Schools and Universities as one that is built on a late modernist ethos of rationality, objectivity and neutrality reflecting a substantive ontology and a rhetorics (within RE and society more broadly) characterised  by openness to multiculturalism as a social good. It seemed to us that this OARS was very much in evidence in yesterday’s discussion. (By ‘substantive ontology’ we mean the kind of normative, western and masculinist discourse which is still widely believed to be neutral whereas it is arguably a highly privileged construction.) Scholars like Smart and the organisation of RE teachers with which he was closely involved in the 1970s (the SHAP working party) took advantage of a move observable at that time, away from older confessional or narrowly moral certainties that had characterised ‘Religious Instruction’ or ‘Scripture’ before the 1980s. The approach (at secondary and higher levels) they developed was in tune with this rhetorics and substantive approach. Yet what was key here, was that this dominant approach – still detectable today – remained, at the same time as it appeared rhetorically open to difference/s, intellectually aligned within the quite rigid categorisations of what we’ve referred to here as substantive ontologies – for example in relation to the familiar western notion of ‘beliefs’.

In the academy, things have changed. There has been movement – mediated through a diffusion of broadly post structuralist approaches – towards the recognition of much more relational ontologies (Irigaray, 2004; Wildman, 2010) and this has shifted understanding from a basis in essentialised towards contextualised knowledge. Yet as a number of the speakers noted in the course of yesterday’s discussion, at the same time schools, universities and educational research more generally has  been required increasingly to conform to  structures whereby education is seen as a means to achieve measurable economic or socio-economic benefits with students and stakeholders configured as customers. At the same time there has also been a clear cooling of popular enthusiasm for differences/multiculturalism that could be associated with pressures from economic migration and the fear of international terrorism (after 9/11) in a time of austerity (after 2008). (A recent document produced in England even suggested that teachers should be wary of  students who betray too great an interest in issues of cultural difference (Coppock, 2014).) In the light of these changes, it was entirely appropriate to be having yesterday’s discussion and to be pointing to the need for new creative ideas for the future although it was clear that the framing of the event largely assumed all participants would be more or less aligned with a certain common vocabulary and disappointingly, made little allowance for the kinds of ‘interruptions’ from different perspectives that might have opened the discussion up.

The contradictions between these forces – substantive and relational ontologies – has clearly now led to a crisis of plausibility in relation to the language of RE – a fundamental failure on the part of policy makers particularly but perhaps also on the part of academics to think through the implications of the newer relational ontologies as they have revolutionised thinking about identity and difference/s in relation to lived experience as this exceeds the limited categories and essentialised knowledges produced by the substantive ontologies of the past. And this, arguably, is to some extent exemplified in  the evident disconnections between RE at primary and secondary level and many forms of theology and critical religion at higher education levels.

We do need some new thinking – perhaps an AAR (Alternative Account of Religion?) – that proposes more robustly educational rather than ideological or neoliberal justifications for maintaining space for Religion in the curriculum – perhaps as a space for critical  attentiveness to genuine and challenging difference/s and a response to ‘learnification’ (Biesta, 2008). In other words, we need to acknowledge the ways in which engaging with cultural differences will inevitably lead to, and call forth, changes to our characteristic ways of carrying on.  This will interrupt the prevailing discourse that assumes we can encounter knowledge in general and knowledge of religion in particular in purely ‘neutral’ terms.

As we envision it, we could perhaps say that the implication for yesterday evening’s discussants (and listeners), is the need for all of us to acknowledge the imbrication of religion, cultural difference/s and education and to recognise that at present the current framing at policy level remains in/different; difference/s is/are continually resolved/translated into familiar polarities that are fundamentally impoverishing.  We argue that we need then to engage urgently with the question of what is educationally desirable – to broaden the understanding of socialisation and genuinely to consider the implications for present day cultural horizons.

Alison Jasper & John I’Anson

Spirit worship, Tibetan Buddhism and the West

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While waiting in the rain for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to arrive for his public lecture in Rotterdam this year, alongside the long rows of Tibetans holding ceremonial katas and singing mantras, a louder and visibly much better organized group was catching the attention of visitors through banners, flyers and slogans shouted over a sound reinforcement device. This group was by and large formed by members of the New Kadampa tradition, also known as ‘the Shugden followers’, who since the mid 70’s have made a visible presence at more events such as the one I have witnessed.

The followers of Dorje Shugden started protesting in the summer of 1996, as the Dalai Lama was visiting England. They complain about religious discrimination, the suppression of religious dissent within the Tibetan community and the persecution of those who practice the protector Dorje Shugden, the latter a matter of religious freedom. This was in response to the Dalai Lama’s repeated public stance against the practice of Shugden. The Dalai Lama’s reasons to ‘ban’ this practice were that it encourages sectarianism, that being essentially a form of spirit worship it has nothing to do with Buddhism and because this practice on the whole is not beneficial for the Tibetan community. This post discusses the dynamics of divergent opinions that lie at the core of the ‘Shugden affair’ and critically contributes to the contextualization of this controversy in global terms.

The root of the conflict centers on interpretative questions about religious practice and institutionalization (Dreyfus 1998). Dorje Shugden has the status of Dharma protector or dharmapala in Tibetan Buddhism. The history of Shugden is interwoven with that of one of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelugpa, and with the institution of the Dalai Lamas, who are also part of (but are not ‘head’ of, as often erroneously stated) the same Gelugpa school. The 5th Damai Lama is thought to be causally related to the very existence of Shugden: the premature death of Drakba Gyeltsen, who as a boy was not chosen as the reincarnation of the 4th Dalai Lama, transformed the latter into a spirit seeking revenge (Dreyfus 1998). This spirit was incorporated into the colourful pantheon of Tibetan Buddhism and has become especially important for what is considered a fundamentalist lineage within the Gelugpa school (Hilton, 2000). The practice and propitiation of Shugden are especially associated with Pabongka (1878-1941) and his claims of Gelugpa supremacy above the other Tibetan Buddhist schools. He was trying to uphold Gelugpa purity as a countermeasure to the then already popular Rime movement that emphasized an eclectic religious approach based on practices predominantly attributed to the Nyingmapa school (Lohrer 2009). However, the tension between this dharmapala and his followers resurfaced when the 13th Dalai Lama restricted the worship of Shugden. Only after the 13th Dalai Lama’s death in 1933 could Pabongka promote freely the practice of Shugden in order to revive the Gelug monastic order (Lohrer 2009). Pabongka’s disciple, Trijang Rinpoche (1901-1983) one of the main teachers of the present Dalai Lama, passed on the Shugden practice to him and most of the Gelugpa establishment as a ‘mainstream practice’ (Dreyfus, 1998). However, the present Dalai Lama took personal distance from this after 1975 and started to publicly advise against it after discovering its historical background. From 2008 onwards, through a referendum, Shugden devotees were separated from the rest of the Gelugpa establishment and were allocated land to build their own monasteries.

These steps have been interpreted by Shugden followers as a ban and form the basis of their claims of discrimination on the basis of ‘religion’.

However, if we follow this historical overview we can see that the apparently religious part of the controversy is tightly interwoven with its political part, which concerns the struggle of power within a religious group (fundamentalist towards modernist Gelugpas) and in relationship to other groups (Gelugpas as related to other Tibetan Buddhism schools). The core of this tension is the position and authority of the Dalai Lamas and the character of Tibetan national identity, in which Buddhism presently plays a central role. These two being interrelated, the relationship between ‘religion’ as an expression of private autonomy and its performance as ‘a symbol of national unity holds considerable potential for conflict for the institution of the Dalai Lama’ (Kollmar-Paulenz, 2009). The Dalai Lama’s preference for promoting Tibetan Buddhism in general instead of promoting the Gelugpa school can be seen as a form of betrayal by the latter (Hilton, 2000). Furthermore, the present Dalai Lama is a person with many roles: he is simultaneously a ‘simple Buddhist monk’ as he loves to talk about himself, the reincarnation of Chenrezig – the bodhisattva of compassion – a Nobel peace laureate, an internationally renown advocate of the Tibetan cause and a person who until quite recently has held important positions in the Tibetan Government in Exile. Although there is no contradiction between these different roles, there is certainly tension arising at some junctures.

However, neither the tension between the different roles of the Dalai Lama, nor the unusual balance between religion and politics in the Tibetan context form the core of the Shugden controversy. Rather it is the new global context that makes the issue explosive. It is not historical tensions which feed controversies such as the ‘Shugden Affair’ rather it is the context of western values, which are taken over at a fast pace through a growing global community and a wide and opinionated and interested public, which now co-define what is truly Tibetan, who has authority and which are the worthy problems in the Tibetan community. ‘The Shugden dispute represents a battleground of views on what is meant by religious and cultural freedom’, but a dispute framed in western terms. The present Buddhist modernism, to use the words of Dreyfus, has greatly transformed both the content and the form of Tibetan Buddhism and is not an expression of its ‘timeless essence’ (Dreyfus, 2005). In this specific case the modernization of faith meant taking distance from ‘spirit-worship’ as to better portray Buddhism as a religion based on reason, contemplation and experience, having a strongly ethical basis, a non-violent approach and being a valuable resource for social action. This modernization allows forms of religious administration and institutionalization to be ethicalized through the use of elements such as lack of discrimination, equal opportunity, religious freedom, but also invites critique through the same avenues. The translation of Tibetan ideas in ‘modern’ terms make possible a distinction between cultural expressions and the essence of Buddhism, but also ensures the loss of unique cultural and religious characteristics. Maybe it is also worth mentioning here that although many Shugden followers are Tibetans, many more are westerners with a good sense of how to catch the attention of the public and media, but maybe with a less thorough understanding of the real issues at stake.

The Discourse on Good and Bad ‘Secularism’ in France

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In this blog-posting I will take the opportunity to share some thoughts from a article that I am currently working on. In the article I discuss the rise of what I call the discourse on good and bad ‘secularism’ in France.

In a recent book the eminent scholar of French ‘‘secularism’’ (laïcité), Jean Baubérot, expresses concern for what he considers to be a falsified ‘secularism’ (La laïcité falsifiée, Paris, La Découverte, 2012). Baubérot’s concern is similar to that of Western political leaders who portray Islam as a ‘religion’ that can be hijacked and used by fundamentalists for political and mischievous purposes, which has been analyzed by authors like Mahmood Mamdani and Rapahël Liogier.

However, to Baubérot it is not Islamic fundamentalists that are the perpetrators. Instead, as Baubérot suggests, the perpetrators are the French conservatives and the far-right; like the former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP) and the new far right icon Marine Le Pen’s Front nationale (FN). ‘Secularism’ has been UMPLepinized, as Baubérot has it (a neologism of UMP and Le Pen). Baubérot informs us how these parties have managed to twist ‘secularism’ into something hostile towards Islam and Muslims, which would be contrary to its original meaning.

These falsifications have occurred during the many ‘Islamic Affairs’ that have been occupying the media and the political center in France the last 25 years or so; e.g. the 1989 Islamic Veil Affair, the 2004 law banning the Islamic veil in public schools, the 2010 law banning the full face veil in public space, and Le Pen’s statement that France is suffering under an Islamic occupation in 2011. Baubérot is far from alone in this analysis and I do agree on the matter that the conservatives and far-right has appropriated ‘secularism’ in a seemingly new manner. But what I find curious is that this supposed falsification is portrayed as a rupture in an otherwise liberating historical unfolding of ‘secularism’.

Just to explain the logic in play let us consider a similar case. In the 2014 European Parliament Election special by the leftist daily La Libération the journalists Jonathan Bouchet-Petersen and Antoine Guiral analyze the success of Marine Le Pen. They state: “Pour la France, pays des droits de l’homme, le symbole d’un FN en tête fait tache. (To France, country of human rights, the symbol of FN in the lead is a blot)”. As if France, the country of the colonial civilizing mission par excellence, the Dreyfus Affair, the Vichy Régime, the recent illiberal laws against Muslims, the extra-legal detention centers for third country nationals, the violent Roma expulsions, and so on, only finally, betrayed the imagined and glorified heritage of human rights?

Now, to put ‘secularism’ back on tracks, to stop its falsification, Baubérot urges us to go back to its roots and fully apply the famous Law of 1905 separating church and state; or, as I understand it from Baubérot’s writings, the foundational Law of ‘Secularism’. However, as Baubérot himself has pointed out, as has many other scholars, the Law of 1905 separating the church from the state was unequally applied in the French colonial empire. In French Algeria its non application on the Muslim population led to a state-gallican model, or, a tutelage role of the state in relation to Muslims and practiced Islam, meaning that the state could keep Algerian mosques on a tight leash. Moreover, Muslims were not given the status of full citizens and were deemed incapable of being ‘secular’. Not only did this contribute to making ‘Muslim’ into an ethnic marker, it also rendered ‘secular’ into a marker for Christian Europeans.

Thus, if ‘secularism’ has a proper history as a particular phenomena (as I understand Baubérot’s writings), I wonder what the differences are between contemporary and historical ‘secularism’? For sure, in metropolitan France the Law of 1905 targeted the Catholic Church’s influence on the French Republic, however, Muslim Algeria was also a part of France. This makes me wonder, if a historical continuity can be ascribed to ‘secularism’, does not ‘secularism’ from its very birth have to have been a marker of identity for the ‘secular’, the non-‘secular’, and the potentially ‘secular’ as well as a political technique to police and govern the borders in-between?

I will develop these arguments in the text, but here I want to point to a potential problem of ideology. The desire to find an untainted historical ‘secularism’ leads to an idealized and normative analysis blind to power and ideology. Instead of properly understanding how ‘secularism’ functions and what power relations it is part in creating and sustaining, one easily slips into an anachronistic discussion on the should-and-should-nots of ‘secularism’; i.e. into a discourse on good and bad ‘secularism’ all too reminiscent of the discourse on good and bad ‘religion’. The category of ‘secularism’ becomes an a-historical and an a-political truth and the battle of who is the most ‘secular’ or the mostly correct ‘secular’ casts a shadow over the exercise of violence it legitimates.

Religious Rituals and the Spectres of Poverty and Mining Among Indigenous Highlanders of the Peruvian Andes

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Based on my own fieldwork, I will examine Andean indigenous religious rituals and folkloric contests of Cañaris in Northern Peru in order to unpack the terms in which their unequal relationships with the outside world are considered. I suggest that these Cañarenses rituals are particularly concerned with the label of poverty used by Peruvian society to depict them and that the invisibility of this indigenous society is in fact what allows this depiction. Rituals and contests are considered here as expressing an indigenous comment on the label of poverty used by the national state to describe ethnic groups.

Invisibility and poverty

Despite of their remarkable cultural differences, the Cañaris should also be defined by its ‘invisibility’. As in other regions of Peru, little is known about these highlanders by the national and regional (they are certainly not even included in the formulation of their region’s identities) political centres of Peru, where the label of poverty is used as a way to continue ignoring their rights as an indigenous group. This label is built upon the fact that the Cañarenses, whose wealth mainly depends on land tenure, agriculture and reciprocal exchanges of labour and services, are not able to access the world of Peruvian national society as are those who have a highly monetised form of livelihood. I suggest that Cañarenses religious rituals and folkloric contests do not only express this interrelation of ‘poverty’ and invisibility, but also make a collective non-verbal reflection on it through two contrasting but complementary strategies. One is to perform a religious ritual in which land ownership and agricultural work are claimed as the most important sources of wealth. The other strategy is to perform a folkloric contest that claims monetary richness.¹ In sum, religious rituals and folkloric contests both allow Cañarenses to collectively enact and evaluate their invisibility and “poverty”.

Indigenous rituals dealing with the label of poverty

The religious ritual concerned here is the main annual celebration, linked to the most venerated statue kept in the main churches of the Cañarenses. The celebrations of each image are the responsibility of a specific land owner of the community. The main communities of the Cañarenses are Incahuasi and Cañaris. In Incahuasi, the same ritual is dedicated to ‘Our Lady of Mercy’, which is the most venerated image and substitutes the official male patron. In Cañaris, this ritual is dedicated to a male image, Saint John the Baptist, who is its eponymous and most venerated patron and is split into two images that have slightly different prerogatives and powers. Despite their differences, the participants in these both rituals reclaim the dependency of their livelihood to work on the land. This claim corresponds to one of the most important objectives of this ritual: improved land and cattle fertility. In Cañaris, Saint John is directly associated not only with healing but overall with water. Ritual participants devoutly moisten their hair and napes with the water taken from the marsh where Saint John turns around at dawn. They also bring this water to their land and give it to their animals. In Incahuasi, ritual participants leave fleece from their livestock after kneeling, praying, lighting a candle and giving a monetary donation to Our Lady of Mercy. Doing so, they assure the fertility and health of their animals.

The dynamics and goals of these religious rituals intend to contest the label of poverty, which is viewed as the predominance (in a context in which commodities and money are increasingly important) of reciprocal exchange of services and products linked to agriculture over monetary payments and access to manufactured commodities. This correspondence between work on the land and the he stigmatisation as ‘poor’ (which in turn is used to deprive the Cañarenses of their rights to be consulted as indigenous people about the use of their lands by, for instance, multinational mining companies) is what is being debated by these religious rituals. Reacting to the association between land work, the externally ascribed label of poverty and the denying of their rights, these religious rituals claim land ownership and exchanges of labour and services as the most important sources of wealth, and reassert the need to increase the fertility of their land and livestock. In sum, if being poor is discursively labelled by the national society as being attached to the land, it is instead ritually claimed by the Cañarenses precisely as being deprived of it, as not having enough crops or enough cattle.

Folkloric contests and the disclaiming of poverty: confrontations and disregards

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There is still another local form of dealing with the label of poverty (and the fear of its consequences): the folkloric contests that take place at the same time and compete for almost the same scenarios used by the religious rituals described above.² Both in Incahuasi and Cañaris, the main annual religious ritual is accompanied by a folkloric festival that is independently organized by their municipal authorities using external funding. The ‘folkloric festival’ -called Inkawasi Takin- was created in the seventies by a group of rural school teachers, probably under a nationalistic ideology thatreacted against the influence of the nearby Republic of Ecuador. Today, its nationalism seems replaced by the promotion of urban music, quite different from the local indigenous music played during religious rituals. Later on (and until nowadays), this folkloric contest has been financially supported by the municipality. In contrast, religious rituals have never been funded by public money but by the wealth of specific families.

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Since its first edition, the folkloric festival has increased its participants, funding, and duration and has also been replicated by other communities of the Cañarenses. Nowadays, in the town of Cañaris, a similar folkloric festival is also organized by two externally-funded organizations: the municipality and a Catholic order, founded by a German priest (‘Misioneras de Jesús, verbo y víctima’), that is seen as linked to the foreign mining company interested in the region. It can be said that those who get involved in the folkloric contests in Cañaris and Incahuasi do so partially because of the monetary or commodity compensations offered by the organizers of these top-down initiatives. Nevertheless, participants are also seduced by being exposed to the modernity of the urban world, whose inaccessibility is one of the most feared aspects of the label of poverty.

Let us now contrast religious rituals and folkloric contests among the Cañarenses. Firstly, the second ones follow an urban pattern taken from the cities in the lowlands, in which competitions on dancing, singing and playing are observed by a jury (and a public that does not vote but loudly show its particular support), while the first ones do not have neither a jury neither a public at its centre. In second place, folkloric contests make a constant and strong use of electrical devices, while religious rituals that have never resorted to any other devices apart from the local handmade musical instruments. Thirdly, while folkloric contests take place on just one main stage, the main phases of religious rituals happen in different places simultaneously or consecutively. In fourth place, if those farmers actively engaging in religious rituals are usually considered to correspond to the label of ‘poor’ used by national authorities and agencies, those who participate in folkloric contests are called the ‘rich’: those wealthy enough to move comfortably and frequently between the lowlands’ cities and the highlands’ indigenous communities, which enables them to establish businesses and to monopolise political power and funding attached to a municipality.

In fifth place, those involved in rituals and contests actually belong to or support different key political organisations in the region. On the one hand, those who are directly involved in religious rituals are joined together in a group of land owners which is the main form of political organisation for indigenous people all over the Andes. On the other hand, those who participate in and support folkloric contests have the municipality as their economic and political axis. The municipality depends only on the external funding assigned to them by the national or regional governments, while the activities and power of the comunidad is mostly based on farming activities and on land tenure. These differences are taken into account by the members and supporters of each organisation and surely permeate the decisions concerning which one would be supported on what occasion. Nevertheless and in general terms, the municipality attracts those more interested in access to the urban world of the lowlands while the comunidad tends to join those whose income originates from land tenure.

Finally, the simultaneity of religious rituals and folkloric contests acquires not only a sense of a tacit confrontation but also a meaning of explicit disregard between both groups. Once a year, contests spectators and ritual participants, ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, shop-keepers or wage-earners and peasants, dramatize what defines them and what distinguishes them; and they do it even occupying the same places. The religious ritual may occupy the side of the main square where the church is located. In contrast, the folkloric contest takes place next to the municipality. Even in marginal ritual places like those out of the main square, this confrontation and disregard seems to be the rule. For example, before, during and after the procession of Saint John in the marshes, the municipality organises football matches in a stadium located on the route taken by the participants in the ritual.

Final thoughts

I have intended to show how religious practices can express local views that respond to the way these communities are perceived in a broader society. Religious rituals (along with folkloric contests and precisely for what distinguishes from them) are then quite relevant not only for the study of indigenous cosmologies (as has been the usual case in the Andean studies) but also for issues like the confrontation over a multinational mining project to take place in the lands of Cañaris. The study of religion among the indigenous societies of the Andes can help us understand phenomena like stigmatizations that do not only differ from the indigenous point of view but which legitimize sets of symbolic statements that tacitly undermine their participation in politics. Religious rituals here actually constitute non-verbal forms of dealing with such external identifications, ascribing their participants to specific symbolic strategies and situating them in a particular political and economic cartography which contends the national narratives on indigenous peoples.

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[1] This analytical distinction between religious rituals and folkloric contests do not intend to make the argument that the former are connected to the more formal church structures while the latter are not. It is just a form to distinguish between some performances that are linked to an older agrarian structure that focus on the devotion of specific images kept inside a church (“religious rituals”) and other ones that are related to a newer monetized economy that focus on the public display of urban signs of status and wealth (“folkloric contest”).

[2] Before continuing, it might be worth more detail on the kind of perspective I am using here. This approach takes both folkloric contests and religious rituals as cultural scenarios where a group reflects on current issues that affect their society. Moreover, I propose that this reflection is made more collectively than individually, and more through embodied practices than narrative discourses.

‘Religion’ and the study of ‘religious leadership’: some observations from Lebanon

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The distinctive thing about religious leadership is that it is religious. The clue is in the name. Nor do religious leaders themselves let us forget it, setting themselves apart from non-religious leaders and the general public by means of their outlandish dress, their publicly pious practices, their religious expressions and references, and even their personal grooming habits. The very obviousness of this religious nature leads to assumptions of a difference between religious and non-religious leaders that goes far deeper than appearances. In the case of Lebanon, where religious leaders of various Muslim and Christian stripes wield a great deal of power, such assumptions have become so essential to the expression of secular modernist ideals that I devoted my doctoral research to exploring them. Here I will outline a few of the misconceptions I have encountered, some or all of which may be familiar in other contexts.

‘Religious leadership’ is one of several categories of actor treated regularly in general works on politics in Lebanon. One recent book, for instance, includes this conventional section in a chapter on non-state elites: ‘Whereas state elites act directly within the political arena… these unelected elites’ influence politicians from ‘the shadows’ [El-Husseini 2012: 122]. Lebanon’s religious leaders are introduced as follows:

The clergy has always had an impact on political life in Lebanon owing to the confessional nature of the country’s political allegiances. Indeed, the concept of national citizenship has not taken hold in Lebanon in the same way that it has in Western nations. Loyalty to the family, the clan, and the religious community overrides other allegiances, leaving little room for national patriotism [140]

Here the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘religious leadership’ are taken to be self-explanatory, a natural and permanent feature of the social universe. Further, religious phenomena are contrasted with modern structures and concepts of nation, state and citizenship, as both their precursors and their presumed opponents.

Framing ‘religious leadership’ in this way prompts certain kinds of questions: Why, for instance, has the rise of secular leadership in a modernising state like Lebanon not resulted in the decline of religious leadership, as the secularisation thesis would have us expect? Under what conditions do these religious leaders become politicised? Attempts to answer such questions serve only to obscure the origins of ‘religious’ institutions and merge their various historical dynamics.

Several general theories have been proposed to explain the ‘persistence’ of Lebanon’s powerful religious leadership. One is that Oriental religions – both Islam and Eastern branches of Christianity – are by nature more resistant to secularisation. Another links the failure of secularisation to the weakness of the Lebanese state: if people do not find security in the modern state, they look to their traditional leaders instead. A third refers to a religious resurgence that is part of a reaction against globalisation. Sometimes one or other of these theories appears to fit a particular religious institution or community at a particular time, but they all fail to give the kind of generalizable explanation that they claim to provide. Part of the problem is in the way research projects are formulated. The category of religion, while encouraging analyses of religion as a discrete phenomenon, has in practice led researchers to focus on individual religious communities as independent spheres of action.

The tendency to circumscribe scholarship on each religion has also produced an alternative approach that uses the particularities of different religions or sects to explain the roles of their religious leaders. For example, Sunni Islam is characterised by the overlap of umma and state, so the Lebanese Mufti, who is paid from the state budget, is considered a relic of the privileged place of Sunnis in the Ottoman Empire. The Shi‘ite Council, by contrast, was only set up in the late 1960s by populist Imam Musa al-Sadr, and tends to be linked to a global ‘Shi‘ite awakening’ and a latent revolutionary tendency in Shi‘ism. And the Druze Sheikh al-‘Aql has always had a central role, it is said, because of the insular, tribal character of Druze religion, which has clung to its traditions despite centuries of persecution. Such explanations often lead, in my view, to an uncritical reproduction of clichés, which risks feeding prejudices.

These conventional narratives – whether of religious particularism or of religion in general – project essentialised images of religion(s) onto actual social formations, and in doing so obscure the modern historical context. So going back to the three examples above: it was only in the 1930s and 40s that the Mufti of Beirut was elevated above other clerics and turned into a national figurehead for a newly defined Sunni community. The Shi‘ite Council and its authoritative presidency may have been created later, but they were designed to match the model of the Sunni Islamic Council and its president, the Mufti. Thus the Shi‘ite leaders are paid by the state in much the same way. The title of Sheikh al-‘Aql had long existed among the Druzes, but at the time Lebanon’s borders were drawn there were two Sheikhs in the area, not one. Two were finally reduced to one only in 1970, in order to bring Druze religious leadership into line with the other Lebanese communities.

Once viewed comparatively, it becomes clear that these various institutions have been shaped into their modern forms by the context of the Lebanese state and its new multi-confessional public space, in which ‘religious leadership’ has acquired the meaning we now take for granted. Yet explanations of their contemporary prominence continue to hinge on their supposed natural connection with ‘primordial’ allegiances among the population.

An essential distinction is conventionally drawn between the Lebanese communities’ ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ spokesmen. Ironically, it has not been uncommon for commentators to judge the ‘religious’ leaders more representative than their ‘secular’ counterparts. A classic text of the 1960s popularised the idea that religious leaders comprised a ‘shadow parliament’ able to express sectarian viewpoints that were excluded from Parliament by the moderating effect of the electoral process [Meo 1965: 55]. A more recent article by a popular blogger refers to ‘the various religious bodies’ as a ‘de facto Senate’, whose members ‘traditionally get up in arms’ in defence of their communities [Hamoui 2012].

Confused perceptions of an organic connection between religious leadership and religious community result in these figures being linked to sectarianism as both a product and a cause. On one hand they are assumed to ‘resonate’ [Rabbath 1986: 93] in some mystical way with their coreligionists; on the other, they are accused of retarding Lebanon’s development from sectarianism to nationalism through their undemocratic interference in politics.

My own study finds that the official ‘religious leaders’ of each sect are sustained above all by the state’s recognition and legislation of their roles. Indeed, taking a closer look at the way they actually use this public platform, we see a discourse heavily imbued with national patriotism, aimed not at inciting sectarian hatreds but responsible citizenship and submission to a strong central state. One of the reasons their role is so misunderstood is that commentators dismiss what they have to say because it is delivered in ‘religious’ terms, couched in the preaching of moral values. Whether the clerics’ pacific ‘religious’ discourse is suspected of insincerity – public platitudes covering for private support of militancy – or considered naïvely well-intentioned, the assumption being made is that such discourse is ineffective, detached from real power politics. We need to be reminded, as Lynn Staeheli puts it, that ‘the invocation of responsibility, care and ethics does not deny or obviate politics’ [2008: 17]. Once again the isolation of religion as a category obscures very real power dynamics, especially the negotiation of knowledge across the imaginary religious-secular divide. Religious leaders are no less part of the contemporary systems of meaning that define the salience of leadership, citizenship, and national belonging; their own roles are articulated in these terms, and like others they participate in the interpretation of the language that shapes the Lebanese public sphere.

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