Tag Archives: Islam

David Emmanuel Singh (ed.), Jesus and the Resurrection: Reflections of Christians from Islamic Contexts (Oxford: Regnum Studies in Global Christianity, 2014)

 

 

The idea behind the book is to look for some common ground between Christianity and Islam to start to build a dialogue. The contributors identify both Jesus and the resurrection as possible bridges between Christians and Muslims. The idea of focusing on Jesus and the resurrection is that both religions see both Jesus and the resurrection as part of their doctrine. Jesus is a key figure for both Christians and Muslims. And some form of resurrection of all linked with the Final Judgment is also present in both religions.

 

The challenge is, though, that the meaning of both Jesus and of the resurrection is different for Christians and Muslims. Christians believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Muslims do not. For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet, a special prophet if you wish, but not the Son of God who died and was raised from the dead. It is not conceivable that God would have a son and that Allah would allow a prophet to be shamed and killed. So God ascended Jesus to heaven alive. He saved him from the death on the cross, by switching Jesus with someone else to die in his place a shameful death by the hands of the Jews.

 

I am not sure the volume achieves what it hopes for. With the exception of Haroon Laldin’s essay about the Church in Pakistan, all the essays leave this reader with some doubts regarding the possibility of a dialogue, or at least they are not clear about what the authors mean by dialogue. Most of the essays present Muslim beliefs as ‘stories’ and ‘legends’, while describing Christians beliefs more like facts. The Muslim interpretations of Jesus’s second coming to rectify Christians’ ‘errors’ is presented with ‘errors’ in quotation marks (e.g. but not only, p. 55) as to indicate that the error is not in the Christians, but in the Muslims who see Christians in ‘error’. In addition, it may be the case that Islam uses legends and stories, but it would have been clearer what such ‘stories’ and ‘legend’ mean, if the authors who use these words offered some explanation of the difference between a legend and a sacred text, between a story and something believed as a truth. Only Katherine Ann Kraft, in her essay “Why do I have to explain the doctrine of the resurrection to my friends?” makes an effort to see stories both in Islam and in Christianity. She describes the content of a parable as a story. But is the gospel, which narrates Jesus telling the parable, also a story? The same kind of story as the parable itself?

 

The categorical and irreconcilable differences are emphasized much more than the potential similarities. So every time Jesus is mentioned the emphasis is on the fact that there would be no Christianity if Jesus did not die on the cross and did not resurrect three days after it, which is what is intensely denied by Muslims (in particular, but not only, in Brent Neely and Peer Riddell’s “Familiar Signs, Altered Concepts”). What kind of dialogue may one have if one of the “bridges”, Jesus, is so that “the Jesus of Christianity is in many way unrecognizable in Islam” (p. 64)? David Grafton”s “He Ascended into Heaven: Samuel Zwemer’S Critique of Ascension and Return of Jesus on the Day of Judgment in Islam” reports Zwemer’s words as: “It is the rock of Chirst’s Sonship which is the stone of stumbling and the rock of offence to the Moslem mind … in fact may we not expect that if there is a nation or race on earth more inaccessible than another, more averse to the gospel, more hardened against its teaching” (p. 97). Given these “barbaric” beliefs, is there anything more than “we share a God that has positive intentions for Humanity” (p. 98-99) as a point of commonality and a spring for dialogue? What kind of dialogue can emerge if one describes the other party in this way?

 

And what is the difference between a dialogue and an attempt to convert? Both Christians and Muslims believe in a form of Hell. But the Muslim hell is described in this book as much worse than the Christian hell. So Christians can (should?) use this point in common to bring Muslims over to Christianity, since Christian Hell is less frightening (Theodore Gabriel’s “Resurrection in Islam”).

 

The volume can be seen as a possibly clumsy attempt by some Christians to initiate a dialogue with Islam on the similarities and the differences in their doctrines. But it feels more like a book written by Christians for Christians on the differences and the similarities of their dogmas. I am not sure the approach is the most effective to establish a genuine dialogue.  Probably because when I think of attempts at dialogues between different religions, I think more of the Dalai Lama’s approach of minimizing the discourse about theological positions in favor of concentrating on the meanings of the messages that the different religions offer to someone’s life.

Kathryn Kraft, Searching for Heaven in the Real World: A Sociological Discussion of Conversion in the Arab World (Oxford: Regnum Books International, 2012)

The research question at the heart of this book is: can Muslims in the Arab world leave Islam? And if they can, is leaving the Arab world the only viable way of leaving Islam? The answer provided is, yes, it is possible for Muslims to leave Islam and stay in the Arab world, but it is extremely difficult.

The major difficulty, even if not presented explicitly as such, seems to be that, with the exception of Lebanon, apostasy is illegal in the Arab world. So one cannot legally abandon Islam to convert to another religion. A formal conversion may mean a death sentence. Yet a few do convert. They convert because they reject Islam and because of an intellectual and emotional pull to Christianity.

The question I was left with after reading the book, though, is: is it worth it? The troubles converts go through seem so large that that “pull” becomes unclear; at least it was so in my mind. The problems converts encounter seem to be both internal and external.

Kraft explains that “Islam is a religion defined by unity. Unity in the oneness, or tawhid, of God” (p. 36). It is this tawhid that generates a strong sense of Muslim identity, which many are unwilling or unable to shed when they adopt a different faith. The oneness of God is demonstrated by rituals associated with everyday life activities, such as, say, housecleaning or bathing. “Even Muslims who are largely secular in their beliefs and lifestyle may have a relatively high level of participation in Muslim rituals, both because of the strongly ingrained nature of Muslim values in their upbringing (e.g. not eating pork), and for the sake of family cohesiveness and communal continuity (e.g. fasting during Ramadan as a family event)” (p. 40). The ritualization of daily activities is what converts seem to miss the most and seem unable to give up. They look to their new religion for the same level of rituals present in Islam, and cannot find it. They are therefore at a loss and disoriented. In addition, daily activities are so strongly characterized by their previous identity that it makes it hard for them to separate the activities from their previous faith.

So, we are told, people adopt a different faith, without abandoning their Muslim identity. Somehow, one can convert without actually converting. Legally adopting a different religion is not the same as abandoning Islam and adopting a Christian faith, or better, believing in Christ. So rather than converts, the converts prefer being called Muslim-background believers, or followers of Christ, or something similar (while Kraft has no problem in referring to them as converts). Officially they are not converts, but in practice they feel they are. Kraft argues that for some, Muslimism, just like Christianity, in the Arab world, becomes an ethnicity separable from a religion: “among Arabs of a Muslim background who choose to follow a Christian faith, I argue that Islam becomes their ethnicity, while Christianity becomes their religion” (p.101).

Some converts continue with their Muslim lifestyle, in part also to maintain peace at home and the respect of their umma, their community.  Umma, Kraft tells us, requires that the community takes priority over the individual, which is to say that one individual should sacrifice his/her individuality to the wellbeing and preservation of the community.  Social cohesion is essential and unity is preserved by setting limits on individual expression. Apostasy can be interpreted in this context of umma to promote unity and to suppress dissent, even with death. Kraft draws parallels with the “do not ask, do not tell” attitude. If the conversion is not out in the open, it is as if it was not there. Shame is avoided and honor preserved. Avoiding explicit mention of conversion, it is claimed, is a demonstration of love toward the deviant member of the family and of the deviant member of the family toward his/her family. 

After converting, having not found tawhid, Muslims are looking for umma in their new community, but find mistrust instead. The mutual suspicion between believers of Muslim background and born Christians extends into the Arab churches: “Arab Christians suspect people of a Muslim background of having political or material motivations for converting, or worse, of infiltrating their churches as spies.” (p. 57).

Christian missionaries tend to be funded by Western money.  So there is a strong association between Christianity, the West, and wealth. Kraft claims that the West, its freedom and its wealth, are not among the motivations for conversion, but often form part of the outcome and are often expected. Furthermore, religious deviants, we are told, must be careful about whom they associate with because they can cause serious problems for themselves and others. In addition, Christians are associated with Westerners and with the brutal violence of the Crusades and of the last two centuries of European colonialism. “The emotional distance that Christian born church members maintain from the Muslim-born co-religionists may never be completely surpassed, even by those converts who continue to actively interact with Christians.” (p. 84).

Loneliness becomes a major problem. They are alienated by their Muslim family (or prefer to be such); it is dangerous to associate with foreigners, and Arab Christians are reciprocally suspicious. “They have lost the sense of moral integration which Islam and tawhaid had provided them, and by which they had lived, or been expected to live, before converting. They also lost the structure and routine that members in the umma provided. They have a sense of being stuck between two worlds, wanting the best of both but finding themselves with best of neither” (P. 76). So the solution to the very high level of stress generated by these tensions may become two: returning to Islam or migrating to the West. This is  especially the case when accompanied by the inner torture on how to raise their children.

The account that Kraft offers us opens the door to several questions that I hope will be answered in future research. All the interviews in the book, and therefore the story she tells, come from converts and their perspective. Would the narrative have been different if the interviews included friends and family members, who saw their loved ones abandon what they think is the true religion and live a life they think is a sin? How unique are these stories? How do they differ, if at all, from attempts to convert out of Orthodox Judaism?  Or out of some very conservative Christian communities? How do Muslim converts in the non-Arab world compare to the ones in the Arab world? And how do they compare to converts into Islam both in the Arab world and in the non-Arab world?

A book that raises more questions than the ones it set out to answer is, in my opinion, a good book and is worth reading. This book may not be the best introduction to Islam in the Arab world, or to the tensions present in it, as it takes that context for granted. Yet the experiences that it describes raise interesting questions about religion and society in the Arab world and beyond.

R. Bohlin, De Osynliga. Det Europas fattiga arbetarklass; M. Linton, De hatade. Om radikalhögerns måltavlor; B. Elmbrant, Europas stålbad. Krisen som slukar välfärden och skakar euron (All titles by Atlas, Stockholm, 2012)

 

The feminist journalist Rebecca Bohlin has looked into the working and living conditions of the least paid workers within the service sector, although reminding to us that many other jobs in different sectors meet similar problems. She has met cleaners, kitchen attendants and cashiers in Stockholm, London, Hamburg and at the same time has interviewed scholars and as well politicians and union representatives about the rise in income inequality and the worsening of working conditions, across Europe and in Sweden.

And to Sweden indeed is devoted the first chapter (Hur mår RUT?). The question of rising inequalities has become hot after 2007, when tax deductions for domestic service (RUT) were introduced, with the argument that the black market was to be stopped. In fact, however, according to the unions and to some research, the outcome has been an increasing in the number of workers (often asylum seekers or anyway migrants, very often women) exploited and with no safeguard: their formal job contract is legal, but their actual working conditions are definitely different, and for the worse. Yet in Sweden, as Bohlin acknowledges, living conditions of the low-paid workers are better that in most other countries.

In the second chapter (Så pressas lönerna neråt) Bohlin analyzes, again through witnesses and interviews, migration policy at the EU level and in some of its member States. She insists on the paradox of a rhetoric stressing the need of labour force from outside Europe, in order to face demographic challenges and to make companies more “globalized”, while at the same time the actual policy is based on a military defence of the “fortress Europe”, at the cost of thousands of human lives every year. And those who succeed in reaching Europe are often exploited both economically and, when women, sexually. And that even in a country that is a world master in workers’ rights and gender equality such as Sweden.

How are trade unions tackling this backward trend to a degree of workers’ exploitation similar to that in the 19th century? Around this unavoidable question the third chapter (Facket famlar efter en ny solidaritet) is built. The answer is not at all self-evident; on the contrary, here one goes on attempt by attempt. However, what comes out from the talks that the author has had with union leaders and members, in Sweden and in the UK, as well as with scholars, is that a trade union like the Swedish one, service-oriented, is not well-equipped to face the challenges that labour movements all over the world have to meet. More interesting it seems the experience of the “Social Movement Unionism”, a strategy that has been tested in South America and is made up of a mix of mobilization, learning, dialogue with local society, negotiations – and protest actions. Exactly what many all over Europe – either workers or unemployed, migrant or local – call for.

 

An even darker side of Europe is the subject of Magnus Linton’s work, that he describes in his Introduction as a book on “majorities and minorities, absolutism and relativism, boarders and lack of them, fantasy and reality”. The author, well-known in Sweden for his reports after the carnage in Utøya, has carried out an inquiry about right-wing radicalism in three European countries: Hungary, the Netherlands and Norway, moving from the awareness that the current economic crisis increases its appeal. Linton has met the main targets of xenophobic and neo-nazi groups, respectively Roma people in Hungary, muslims in the Netherlands and left-wing intellectuals in Norway. The first section (Parasiterna), after reminding shortly the persecution of Roma in history (culminating with their, neglected, massacre during World War II) and the recent deportation of Roma in countries such as France, Italy and Sweden, introduces the reader to the disturbing world of the Hungarian neo-fascist party Jobbik (Movement for a better Hungary), whose programme is openly “roma-centered”, so to say, and that in 2010 established itself as one of the main political forces in the country with 17% of votes. Jobbik’s growing influence resulted in a situation that Linton, with reference to what happened in the municipality of Gyöngyöspata, tells in the following way: “in 2011 in the middle of Europe fascists in uniform marched and families belonging to one of the poorest and most persecuted minorities in the continent were forced to escape what otherwise would have turned into a pogrom”. And Gyöngyöspata was only the beginning. However, the political scientist Zsolt Enyedi, interviewed by Linton, points out that these developments in Hungary were at the same time astonishing and predictable. Their roots can be found in a historical process starting from the fall of the Berlin wall; since then, populism has been a constant presence in Hungarian life and in the end has exploded due to the economic crisis. The fact that in 2010 the nationalist and authoritarian party Fidesz won 2/3 of the votes has made the situation even worse and transformed Hungary into a stronghold of radical Right in Europe.

Another country, another scapegoat: in the Netherlands, as it is well-known, the thesis that “our” problems could be solved if only “we” got rid of Muslims has found one of its most prominent champions, i.e. Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party and major pointer for Dutch politics for years (see the section: Ockupanterna). Though making sure to distinguish himself from people like Anders Berg Breivik (who pointed at Wilders as his ideological source of inspiration) by stressing his own democratic attitude, Wilders has steadily run down Islam, equating it with Fascism. Together with Pim Fortuyn (murdered in 2002 by a left-wing extremist), he has personified the idea that multiculturalism is a luxury only the privileged few can afford and has transformed the Netherlands into the headquarters of islamophobia in Europe.

The Dutch historian Thomas von der Dunk, here quoted, urges to take into account that politics’ highest aim is economic security, as well as the capability for society to accept cultural uncertainty; but when the former decreases, then the need for a strong cultural identity rises.

Roma people and Muslims are easy scapegoats in a continent affected by geopolitical and economic turbulences; but how came that in the rich and enlightened Norway a right-wing extremist killed more than 70 young left-wing activists? What Berg Breivik aims at with his double attack (a bomb in Oslo and the carnage on the Utøya island) was, as Linton explains, to murder at the same time three generations of “betrayers” (hence the title of the section, Förrädarna), i.e. three generations of Social Democrats: the forthcoming (the young activists who met in Utøya), the present (the governmental headquarter in the capital), and the former (Gro Harlem Brudtland, former prime minister, who escaped assassination in the island due to a delay in Breivik Berg’s plan).

What has been betrayed are Norwegian culture and identity, quite obviously. Breivik Berg defines “cultural Marxism” what could otherwise be summarized as “politically correct”, in other words the idea that there are some topics that cannot be questioned, above all feminism and multiculturalism. Linton points out that coinciding with the perhaps unstoppable march of right-wing extremism in Europe is the discontent caused by what has been perceived as the hegemony of political correctedness, which has become more and more centered upon universities. After all, right-wing radicalism is not interested in discussing rationally a question (which is supposed to be the academic approach) but, on the contrary, in imposing its own understanding of reality. And it is succeeding in doing this. Linton recalls our attention to the fact that what is striking in Breivik Berg is not his insanity, but how much he reflects stereotypes and plot-syndromes related to Islam that unfortunately are represented in more or less all the European parliaments (as well as in the EU one).     

 

Not even the book by Elmbrant, one of the most prominent Swedish journalists, is intended to bring comfort to the reader. Here as well the impact of the economic downturn is looked into in a European perspective, yet with a particular attention to countries such as Greece (see chapter 1, Ett land faller sönder) and Ireland (chapter 3, Irland på liv och död). In chapter 2 (Hur hamnade vi här?) the author follows the making of the Euro and then compares the faith of two countries, Ireland and Iceland; both hit by the crisis, but the latter (outside the common currency) recovering better. Italy is not at all forgotten in this account: the doubts about its financial soundness have been recurrent amongst EU – and German in particular – leaders, for many years. However, Elmbrant warns (chapter 4, Skenbilden av krisen) against those, in Brussels as well as Berlin and Paris, who blame upon some countries ? the Southern European ones primarily ? the European financial difficulties, as the problem were simply that if one spends too much, then one has to pay back sooner or later. Elmbrant is well aware that Greece, with all the stereotypes surrounding it, has worked as a perfect scapegoat, but insists on the European dimension of the economic crisis. The trouble indeed is not the Greeks’ unreliability, but the EU powerlessness in the face of much bigger transnational financial powers. In this connection, it needs to be said that left-wing parties have definitely not been united and consistent in their (often late) condemnation of the abuse of power from private banks and finance at large.

It cannot miss, in this critical report about the EU state of health, a chapter on Angela Merkel, significantly entitled She who decides (5, Hon som bestämmer) and on Germany’s hegemonic role. The outcome of financial powers’ and Germany’s supremacy are described in chapter 6 (Europas stålbad), again focusing mostly on Southern Europe, but raising a more general question: the changing role of the Nation-State. Here Elmbrant mentions an article on The New Left Review by the German social scientist Wolfgang Streeck as crucial: the dismantlement of Europe’s social policies has restricted the ability of the State as far as mediating between citizens’ rights and Capital’s diktats is concerned, and by this move increased further the latter’s authoritativeness as well. There have been massive demonstrations against budget-restriction policies, at least in Greece, Spain and Portugal (chapter 7, De unga på marsch), but Elmbrant does not forget that up to now it is the Radical Right the political actor who seems to have taken more advantage from the crisis, and not the Left. Are the European Central Bank and Merkel right when presenting austerity as the only way out of the crisis or can young people protesting in Athens, Madrid and Lisbon point out to an alternative? The last two chapters are built around this question. 

After summarizing the different proposals currently discussed in the EU (in the end all related to the dilemma: more or less unity among member States? See chapter 8, Stopp i Brysseltrafiken), Elmbrant closes his report by handling the question of the future of the common currency (chapter 9, Har euron en framtid?). After looking at expert analysis and people’s mood his answer (well reflecting Swedish attitude to the EU) is: the Euro is doomed to collapse ? after all it has been a mistake from the beginning ? with consequences that in some cases will prove to be devastating.  And thinking at what is going on in many European countries we can easily believe that this apocalyptic scenario is not simply a kind of snobbery from the rich Nordic countries.   

Johann P. Arnason & Kurt A. Raaflaub, The Roman Empire in Context: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (Chichester: Wiley & Sons, 2011)

The Editor argues that while much has been written about Rome, relatively less has attempted to analyze Rome comparatively. As a sociologist and not a historian, this reviewer cannot comment on this claim, but I do appreciate the comparative methodology. In fact, Arnason, the primary editor and author of the “Introduction” is a historical sociologist, who discusses the implications of Greco-Roman analyses on sociological and social theory. While the comparative perspective may be useful for drawing out separate variables between civilizations, there is the inverse danger of redefining variables broadly enough to make those comparisons – but at some cost of precision of the terms. There need to be nuances on all sides which weaken the overarching comparisons. It is essentially the qualitative problem of a small “n,” familiar to the social sciences. This methodological problem is noted several times, but does not stifle the writings.

The first section analyzes Rome’s growth through three essays. Raaflaub looks at Rome’s growth from city state to Mediterranean empire, through a thorough discussion of the particular components of the axial age in Rome. Flaig argues that the ruling elite in Rome eventually become powerful and detached enough that traditional forms of accountability and control waned, and with it their legitimacy among the ruled. The sets up the revolutionary crisis Flaig discusses in relation to other Roman scholars. Cohen and Lendon discuss the relationship of communication and authority between the center and the periphery in Rome. Their comparator is medieval kingships and the authors are seeking to understand the strength or weakness of the political structure as evidenced through these communications.

The volume then traces through the transformation and “decline” of Rome. Ziolowski’s chapter discusses the final crisis faced by Rome – the “Total Crisis.” His argument is that the crisis was more a catalyst to longer building internal problems, individually which would be mere nuisances. These internal problems fell under the rubric of an institutional trap created by the specifically Roman interpretation of ruling legitimacy. Stroumsa argues that among the cultural transformations at the end of the Roman era, the very concept of religion changed. Not simply from pagan to Christian or from poly- to monotheism, but also the rise of religious intolerance which melded violence with state power which made imperial tolerance impossible. Fowden draws an illustration of the larger world of late Rome, showing how Islam as well fits into the picture. His argument contextualizes not just the world of late Rome, but also of contemporary academic understandings of the era, not the least of which is the discussion of “transformation” versus “decline.”

The following section focuses on three of Rome’s successor civilizations. Becher discusses the Franks, Haldon the Eastern Empire, and Robinson Islam. The chapter analyzing Islam makes the argument that at least some of Rome’s developments such as urbanization, epistemologies, and philosophical reflection, were adopted by the growing Islamic civilization. An interesting comparison also exists with the role of religion and politics in the growth of civilization.

The Fourth section includes explicit comparisons with Assyria, China, and Iran. Liverani discusses the Assyrian case to contrast the relationship of the urban center to the empire. Lowe looks to China for the role of its internal administration and penal policies, with some focus on the higher prevalence of bureaucracy in the Chinese case. McDonough studies the Sassanid Empire as a comparator despite being a contemporary rival to Rome. Similarities include rule over several centuries and over a disparate variety of geographies. Fibiger-Bang makes the final comparisons to the Ottoman Empire and the Mughals seeks to discuss vast empires underneath a single ruler – but in distinct contrast to the European examples which were all much smaller states. There may have been a ruler in the European cases, but these were all much more local monarchies.

The final section discusses theoretical implications of the volume, trying to sort out the elements of state, empire, and civilization in Rome. Arnason argues that these three elements form a unique constellation in the Roman case, but the singular uniqueness of Rome is exactly what methodologically requires a comparative perspective. Without a comparative perspective, these variables are not going to be adequately isolated. The Wagner essay that closes the volume addresses the question of whether there is sufficient connection between ancient Rome and modern Europe to draw a continuous line of civilization from the former to the latter.

The appeal of the volume for this reviewer lies in the breadth of the chapters included and with the attempt to include sociologically relevant comparative methodologies. These chapters start with Rome’s transition from city state to empire and its expansion, through its decline, and into its successor regimes, with comparative and theoretical discussions finishing the volume. As a work of comparative sociology, it is interesting to see rigorous sociological methodologies applied to a historical case so easily popularized. As a work of sociology, it is refreshing to go beyond the identity politics which comprise so much of the discipline as of late. It may be the case that this comparative methodology will be less interesting to traditional historians, and it is most definitely the case that this volume is too advanced for anything like an introduction to Roman history.