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Religion and Conflict

The aim of the pathway in Religion and Conflict is to offer students the opportunity to pursue advanced study and introductory research into a vibrant and rapid developing field of considerable contemporary importance. Claims and counterclaims about the causal relationship between religion and conflict appear regularly in scholarly literature, as well as the discourse of religious leaders, the media, and policy-makers, across the globe. Religious motivations are, for example, widely cited as a principal cause of terrorism in the world today, and sacred texts are regularly said to contain the potential to incite hatred, as well as, paradoxically, to be indispensable tools in conflict resolution. The pathway is intended to equip students to critically evaluate such claims and provide them with the knowledge and intellectual skills necessary to become informed, innovative and nuanced contributors to current debates about the place of religion in conflict.

 

Students taking the pathway will have the opportunity to engage with major theoretical approaches and research methods employed in the field as well as the chance to scrutinise a number case studies, textual, historical and contemporary, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. In addition to allowing students a deeper engagement with the specific subjects analysed, and introducing them to the complexity necessarily inherent in the field, the case studies will provide a means of exploring the wider implications of questions raised by the study of religion and conflict more generally. Students will also undertake a sustained piece of research in the form of the dissertation, that will allow them to engage with a topic within the field in depth. The pathway will provide a firm foundation for those who wish to pursue further postgraduate studies within the field but it is also intended to give those that do not, a critical understanding of religion and conflict that will prove extremely valuable in other contexts.

 

Description of Course

 

Modules

Each module of the Religion and Conflict course is taught through four fortnightly two hour seminars and is assessed by a 5,000 word essay due at the end of term. The subject of each essay must be agreed with the supervisor and approved by the Course Co-ordinator and Degree Committee. The essay titles must relate closely to the subject of at least one seminar in each module undertaken in the pathway.

 

The Modules for 2021-2022 are:

 

Michaelmas Term

a. Theories and Issues in the Study of Religion and Conflict (Justin Meggitt)

 

Lent Term

b. Contemporary Religious Conflict: Ethnographic Approaches (Safet HadziMuhamedovic)

 

Students who wish to write a dissertation in the area of Religion and Conflict are required to attend the seminars during Michaelmas Term and complete one Religion and Conflict assessed essay. It is recommended that students continue on to the Lent Term module but it may be possible in certain cases for students to audit these modules to allow them to undertake a module in another subject in the Lent Term. Students wishing to do this must consult with the Course Co-ordinator as early as possible.

 

 

Michaelmas Term

 

Module 1: Theories and Issues in the Study of Religion and Conflict

 

Course Coordinator: Justin J. Meggitt

 

This module will seek to introduce students to the critical study of religion and conflict by scrutinising current theoretical debates about the place of religion in a variety of forms of conflict, from genocide to domestic violence, and by closely analysing indicative and emblematic scriptural, historical, and contemporary case studies.       

 

Module aims

1. To provide a critical overview of the dominant theories of the relationship between religion and conflict.

2. To examine in depth questions raised by the study of the scriptural, historical, and contemporary dimensions of religion and conflict by means of specific case studies.

3. To introduce, analyse and problematise a multi-disciplinary approach to the study of religion and conflict.

 

Module objectives

By the end of the module, students should be able to:

1. Critically evaluate the prevalent theories of the relationship between religion and conflict.

2. Analyse claims about the relationship between religious texts and acts of violence in current scholarship.

3. Understand and critique historiographical and popular-cultural debates about the role religion has played within past conflicts and their contemporary legacies.

4. Gain an informed overview of the ‘religious turn’ in terrorism studies, and be able to evaluate the the constructions of religion evident in literature produced by scholars working in that field.

 

Seminar topics

 

Seminar 1. Theories of Religion and Conflict

This seminar will provide a critical introduction to the prevalent theories in the study of the relationship between religion and conflict. Explanations of the role that religious practices, beliefs, and ideologies play in  inciting, legitimating or ameliorating violence and conflict, from genocide to domestic violence, will be scrutinized. Special attention will be paid to definitional issues and their implications, and claims of different kinds about causality.

Seminar 2. Contemporary Case Study: Terrorism

In this seminar the religious turn in terrorism studies will be examined, and especially the so-called 'New Terrorism' thesis and the 'fourth wave' theory, that emerged subsequent to the sarin attacks by Aum Shinrikyo  in Tokyo in 1995, and also the events of 9/11. The claim that a new, global form of terrorism has emerged, that is unparalleled in its indiscriminate use of violence, and unconstrained by this-wordly strategic goals of previous forms, and that it is characteristically religious, will be critically analysed. We shall look carefully at the constructions of religion evident in terrorism studies literature, and the recurring tropes of apocalyptic and irrationality that typify leading contributions in the field.

Seminar 3. Historical Case Study: 'Barbary' Slaving in the Early Modern World

This seminar will consider the contested role of religion in so-called 'Barbary' slavery and the dominant historiographical and popular cultural debates about its interpretation. This phenomenon, part of a much broader and longer lasting experience of slaving in the Mediterranean, drew large numbers of Christians, Muslims and Jews into sustained, violent conflict, as well as acts of cooperation.

Through the scrutiny of popular captivity narratives, and other primary sources, from chapbooks to plays, we shall the examine the religious framing of this conflict, and its cultural uses in the early modern period, paying particular attention to the themes of conversion, holy war and sexual violence. The session will also examine current debates within historical writing about this conflict, notably the roles of colonialism and orientalism, and the racialisation of the conflict, as well as contemporary disputes about its legacy and memorialisation, notably its place in past and present constructions of Islamophobia.

Seminar 4. Scriptural Case Study: Book of Revelation

This lecture/seminar will focus on the contextual and interpretative history of the Book of Revelation, and hermeneutical approaches associated with its implication in violence. It will explore contested readings of the themes of persecution, suffering, martyrdom, judgement and vengeance found in current critical literature on Revelation, and debates about their real, metaphorical and mythic qualities, as well as the gendered representations of violence and victimhood. The reception history of Revelation, as it relates to acts of violence - and anti-violence - will also be examined.

 

 

Assessment

The module is assessed by a 5,000 word essay due at the end of term. The subject of each essay must be agreed with the supervisor and approved by the Course Co-ordinator and Degree Committee. The essay titles must relate closely to the subject of at least one seminar in the module.

 

Sample essay questions

Students can choose to focus on specific religious texts, traditions, or historical events in formulating their question but the following suggestions may prove helpful.

Seminar 1: Theories of Religion and Conflict

What are the failings of current theories of the relationship between religion and conflict?

Can religious violence be considered a secularist ‘myth’?

 

Seminar 2. Contemporary Case Study: Terrorism

Does religion cause terrorism?

What are the critical problems raised by the ‘religious turn’ in terrorism studies?

 

Seminar 3. Historical Case Study: 'Barbary' Slaving in the Early Modern World

How can the memorialisation of religious conflicts of the past affect those in the present?

Were slaves in the early modern Mediterranean victims of a religious conflict?

 

Seminar 4. Scriptural Case Study: Book of Revelation

Can sacred texts incite violence?

Does the eschatological hope of the Book of Revelation ameliorate or accentuate conflict?

 

Lent Term

 

Module 2. Contemporary Religious Conflict: Ethnographic Approaches

 

Course Coordinator: Dr Safet HadžiMuhamedović (sh639@cam.ac.uk

This module introduces students to the anthropology of religion and conflict through a critical examination of ethnographic case studies and methodologies, as well as the key contemporary anthropological debates and theories. It raises questions about the role of religion in the production and justification of conflict, the various contestations over religious heritage during and after war, and the place of religious traditions and the supernatural in the aftermath of violence. Although speaking to the global entanglements of religion and violence, the module uses ethnographies to highlight the local repercussions of conflict in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria, Vietnam and a number of other polities around the world.   

 

Module Aims 

  1. to provide a critical overview of anthropological methods and theories relevant to the study of religious conflict; 

  1. to critically examine several key ethnographic case studies to better understand the contemporary dynamics of religion during and after conflict, considered within specific and grounded contexts, namely the entanglements of religion and conflict in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria, and Vietnam; 

  1. to examine the co-optation of religion into colonial, nationalist and neo-colonial projects;  

  1. to provide a critical understanding of the role of religious heritage during and after conflict.   

 

Module Objectives 

By the end of the module, students should be able to: 

  1. understand what anthropological theory, methods and ethnographic case studies bring to the study of religion during and after conflict;  

  1. critically evaluate a range of ethnographies of religious conflict to assess their theoretical insights, as well as their methodological strengths and weaknesses; 

  1. understand and evaluate the intellectual worth of the broader anthropological approach to religion and conflict, as related to moral and cultural relativism, an empirical focus on particularism and cultural difference, and a commitment to reflexivity and self-critique;  

  1. critically discuss the processes and objectives of the destruction of religious heritage and evaluate its impact on local communities;  

  1. critically discuss the entanglements of race, ethnicity and gender with religion during and after conflict.  

 

Seminar topics 

 

Seminar 1. Articulating Power: Religion, Racism and Empire  

In this lecture/seminar, we consider the entanglements of religion with imperial violence and its institution of racism to raise questions about contemporary geopolitical constellations and ordinary lives in the shadow of the colonial project. We start by looking into epistemic violence, the production of domination through or against knowledge, with attention to the constructions of otherness, the role of religion in European ‘civilising missions’ and the patterns of ethical justification of oppression. We ask whether there is a link between colonial self-entitlement and impunity in contemporary interventionist foreign policy. We are particularly concerned with the many ways imperial power occupies the present. Our discussion partly turns to the reverberations of colonial discourses regarding contemporary Afghanistan. Finally, we ask what might be necessary to decolonise the anthropology of religion and conflict. 

 

Seminar 2. From Designation to Erasure: Religion and the Making of Genocide  

In this lecture/seminar, we think about the epistemic grounds for the implementation of genocide and ethnic cleansing, the role of religious institutions and themes in the sacralisation of mass violence, the strategies for the reification and erasure of religious Other, as well as the reverberations of the politics of erasure in the lives of affected communities. We ask what the designation of mass violence as genocide entails in legal terms, why it matters to affected communities and why some states are so invested in genocide denial. Our primary case study is the destruction of religiously plural communities and nationalism in 1990s Bosnia, but we also consider the role of religion in projects of erasure across the world. Finally, we think about religion and violence through the question of scale and watch Patricio Guzmán’s (2010) anthropological film Nostalgia for the Light, which addresses the search for human remains and the effects of military dictatorship in Chile. 

 

Seminar 3. Ghosts of War: Historical Imagination, Memory and Supernatural Encounters  

In this lecture/seminar, we ask what ritual actions and supernatural encounters can tell us about the histories of mass violence. Building on Heonik Kwon’s ethnographic work, we discuss the critical place of ghosts in contemporary Vietnamese society, at once postcolonial, postwar, postsocialist and post-Cold War. We ask how the encounters with ghosts construct historical narratives of conflict. Are spiritual beings – able to cross the domains of life/death, past/present/future and conflict/peace – useful interlocutors in the processes of transitional justice? How might anthropologists access these extra-sensory interlocutors? We compare Kwon’s ethnographies to Jay Winter’s work on the séances of the Spiritualist movement during and after WWI. Our broader aim is to take ghosts (real and metaphoric) as heuristics to critically investigate recent scholarship on memory after conflict, as well the anthropological discussions of history as historical imagination.  

 

Seminar 4. Contested Past: Religious Heritage During and After Conflict 

In this lecture/seminar, we consider the political rearticulation, looting, destruction and restoration of material religious heritage during and after conflict. We ask what the contestations over sacred architecture, landscapes and artefacts can tell us about systematic violence, notions of authenticity and belonging, or about the processes of refugee return and reconciliation. We complicate this discussion with the introduction of intangible heritage, to understand how pasts travel along the routes of exile and survival, attaining new layers of meaning along the way. Our empirical focus includes studies of heritage in Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Iraq. In the end, we ask what the ethnographies of heritage and conflict can contribute to the evolving heritage policy.  

 

 

Sample essay questions 

To facilitate ethnographic comparison, students must choose to focus on two or more ethnographic case studies covered in the module when formulating their question, with at least one being taken from the list of required and further readings provided at the bottom of each seminar description. Other ethnographies can be selected by the student, in consultation with the Course Coordinator. When selecting ethnographies, the following sample essay questions may prove helpful: 

 

Seminar 1: Articulating Power: Religion, Racism and Empire 

  • How do colonial projects of religion linger in the present? 

  • What are the links between colonialism and the constitution of the religious Other in contemporary conflicts? 

  • Are racism and nationalism intersecting projects?  

  

Seminar 2. From Designation to Erasure: Religion and the Making of Genocide 

  • What is the role of religious representatives in the making of genocide and ethnic cleansing?  

  • What is the relationship between the symbolic repertoires of nationalism and religion? 

  • How does mass violence affect the lives of religiously plural communities?   

 

Seminar 3. Historical Imagination, Memory and Supernatural Encounters 

  • What can ritual actions and supernatural encounters tell us about violence and conflict?  

  • Can post-conflict spiritual experiences be useful in reconfiguring historical writing about violence?  

  • Can the memory of religious life counter violence?  

 

Seminar 4. Religious Heritage During and After Conflict 

  • What is the role of religious heritage in conflict? 

  • Why might the restoration of religious heritage affected by conflict be important for the process of refugee return?  

  • How does the cultural heritage of religiously plural communities complicate the nationalist history production?