Ruy Blanes & Ramon Sarro: What conditions make religious violence possible?

Great to be getting back some responses to “Citizen Kane’s” questions, posed to those making up the conference panels at HERA  ”Cultural Encounters” in Dubrovnik (the full conference agenda is here, and the summaries of the research themes here – the latter is especially fascinating reading for non-attendees).

I sent these lines to those involved in the panel, “Religious and Moral Encounters”:

“I hear the great cries to defend the forces of secularism against the forces of religious fundamentalism – and the first sound as strident as the second. Can the humanities tell me about spaces, places and times where a diversity of faiths (and non-faiths) have peacefully, even dynamically co-existed?”

I received an answer from  Ruy Blanes and Ramon Sarró, who are running the HERA Joint Research Project “Currents of faith, places of history”:

“Secularism” and “religious fundamentalism” are the two extreme poles of a spectrum, two “ideal types” so to speak, and both of them can be, as you so rightly put it, quite strident when they cry at each other (“coincidentia oppositorum”).

In reality, more often than not, what we find is a myriad of intermediate situations, many of which could be examples of situations where religious pluralism and coexistence emerge.

Africa and its diasporas have given us many examples of peaceful possibilities of coexistence, cross-overs and mutual inspirations between different faiths (though of course there are sad exceptions, such as Nigeria, where faiths are becoming fiercely antagonistic).

As it happens, several of the contexts we intend to study in our own JRP “Currents of Faith, Places of History” reveal continuities and transitions between Christianity and African traditional cults (e.g. Candomblé in Brazil, Palo Monte in Cuba, syncretic prophetism in Congo and Angola) as well as multiple attachments to specific “heritagized” sites that work as mementoes of these religious encounters (e.g. Mbanza Kongo in Angola).

In West Africa, it is not unusual (rather the opposite) to find families in which one sibling is, say, Muslim and another one is, say, Christian, or animistic, or Bah’ai. On Muslim feasts the Christian fellow will be invited to have a meal with their Muslim sister or brother, and vice-versa, and both will participate in their annual ancestor cult with their animistic cousin.

This co-existence takes place, in some places it has been taking place during centuries, but we know that under some specific conditions it can break down and a polarized violence take its place instead.

What needs to be explored and, if possible, explained is, precisely, the nature of such conditions. What are the conditions of possibility for religious violence? How come in places where religions co-exist some people take extreme views about their neighbors and decide to “kill’em all”?

This is not the object of our study, but we hope to certainly contribute to the understanding of religious encounters across the Atlantic and provide more data about the dynamics of religious and cultural osmosis.

The “networked citizen’s” response to such a lucid and interest-packed note is to hit the search engines, and find out more.

It takes a few minutes to find a web-documentary entitled ‘Hip Deep Angola: A Spiritual Journey to  Mbanza-Kongo‘, where I’ll watch an account of “the simbi, the spirits that Martínez Ruiz describes as ‘the multiple power of god’”, and “hear Antonio Madiata play thelungoyi-ngoyi, the two-stringed viola of the Kongo court”. It takes a few minutes more to find an NPR show and article about“Candomble” believers in Sao Paolo.

The point being that a searching question to the humanities from an intelligent citizen, answered concisely and clearly, can – in the age of the Net, and its ever-expanding archive and ambit – drive her or him to create their own media diet: a hour or so kept away from format television and advertorial static. Knowledge exchanged – but almost certainly, a media ecology made that bit less polluted.