ASA06: Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology

Panel 15

Syncretism -- Sharing or Tolerance? The Politics and Pragmatics of Mixed Holy Places – Glenn Bowman

Room: CBA 0.013 x 56

Panel abstract

Robert Hayden, in 2002, opened a debate around the nature of practices at shared shrines with his "Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites in South Asia and the Balkans" (Current Anthropology 43:2, April 2002, pp. 205-231). His thesis - that the sharing of sites is effected by a tenuous balance of power which easily collapses into internecine struggles to banish the presence of the other - prompted considerable critical discussion in the pages of that journal. This panel is being convened to expand - both in temporal and geographical terms - consideration of the nature of interaction at shared holy places while investigating, more widely, the character, and social contexts of, inter-communal 'tolerance'. Hayden's distinction between two senses of tolerance - as either "passive noninterference with" or "active embrace of" the other - calls upon anthropologists, historians and others to consider how people of different religious, ethnic or other communalist identities interact around places members of those different groups consider somehow sacred or significant and how, and under what conditions, such interaction breaks down.

Please note: there will be an evening session on Tuesday which will be a round table discussing the general theoretical and methodological issues pertaining to this panel.

Hayden's full paper is available here.


Glenn Bowman
Department of Social Anthropology
University of Kent at Canterbury


Syncretism in a longue durée perspective

Dionigi Albera, Institut d'Ethnologie Méditerranéenne et comparative, Maison Méditerranéenne des Sciences de l'Homme (MMSH), Aix-en-Provence

This paper proposes a discussion of some issues that emerged in the debate initiated by R.Hayden (2002). According to Hayden, syncretism does not necessarily imply a tolerant attitude. Hayden proposed the concept of "competitive sharing" to characterise situations in which different religious communities share sacred sites and combine practice and beliefs. Yet while Hayden correctly underlined that conflict and sharing are not antithetical, he excessively emphasized the competitive nature of syncretism, as well as its hidden inclination to an exclusivist idea of religious affiliation.

We should follow Hayden in adopting a processual perspective on syncretism and avoiding any essentialist conception of these practices as well as the rhetoric of tolerance. Yet also the identity of religious groups engaged in such sharing should be analysed processually and not necessarily fixed once and for all. By examining some examples of shared shrines in several countries around the Mediterranean (in particular Algeria, Egypt and Lebanon) this paper proposes a more flexible interpretative framework. Religious communities are not as monolithic as Hayden implies: they are inhabited by differences and contain contradictions. The dialectics of conflict and sharing is varied and multifarious in its results. Moreover, a common network of meanings and symbols across monotheisms can substantiate and recreate forms of sharing. By following a longue durée perspective, the history of some sacred sites shows a surprising continuity of sharing and syncretism, which seem able to survive the most difficult moments and re-appear. The example of Matariyeh (Egypt) is particularly significant in this respect. During its long history it was appropriated by Latin Christians, Copts, and Moslems. This did not fail to cause tensions. Nevertheless, the narrow overlap of Christians and Moslems around this site has never been erased, from the Middle Ages to contemporary times.

Rohan Bastin, Anthropology, Deakin University, Australia

Fugitive Scenes from the Convert(ed) Sites of a ‘Cosmopolitan City’, Mardin, Southeast Turkey

Zerrin Ozlem Biner, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge

Drawn from the ethnographic work at the Mardin province, located at Southeast Turkey bordered with Syria, this paper aims to reveal and analyse the polyphonic dialogues of the local subjects, namely Kurds, Syriac Christians, Arabs and Armenians on the historical and political imaginary of the ‘cosmopolitan life’. Historically, Mardin was a multi-cultural city structured through myriad forms of displacements and replacements as the result of the ‘law-making’ and ‘law-preserving violence’ of different sovereign bodies. The social and political demography of the city was dramatically transformed following the events in the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, which in turn resulted in the massive extermination and displacement of the Christian population of the city, namely Armenians and Syriac Christians. The violence of exclusion, iconized in Armenian and Syriac Christian history, was inscribed on the spatial structure of the city. The private properties of the Christian families were either occupied by their neighbours or appropriated by the state before being distributed to leading to the local Muslim families or to the Muslim migrant population. The demolition and /or conversion of the ‘sacred’ public and private sites such as churches, monasteries and private houses continued through different eras of Turkification and homogenisation project of the new Turkish state. In the last two decades, the city has undergone spatial and political transformation due to the effects of the military conflict between the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and the Turkish military forces which in turn led to massive out-migration of the remained Syriac Christians who were replaced with the Kurdish families forced to leave their villages under the rules of the state of emergency. Given this historical and political contingency, this paper aims to uncover the ‘structure of feeling’, in Raymond Williams sense, that underlies the relations between different ethnic and religious communities of Mardin by revealing the memories and historical imaginaries of these ‘converted’ yet ‘sacred’ sites in the city. In conveying the articulations of the daily experience and imaginary of these converted sites, the paper attempts to highlight the desire, fear and fantasy as the psychic effects incited by the materiality and imaginary of these spaces which continue to stand as the (in)visible residues of the cosmopolitan life in Mardin.

Sharing and Exclusion: Ambivalent Tolerance in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Aleksandar Boković, Institute of Social Sciences, Belgrade

The paper examines the ambivalent notions of tolerance centered around the Highland Guatemalan town of Chichicastenango. Chichicastenango has been the site of religious pilgrimages from the early Colonial period (the Dominican monastery being established there in the mid-16th century). However, it is also essential for understanding “traditional” Ki’che Maya history, as one of its most important documents, Popol Wuj, was recorded there in the early 18th century. Finally, the current situation cannot be properly understood without taking into account both the shared religious symbolism of the central church, Santo Tomás, and the healing ritual of Pascual Abaj that takes place on a hill some 300 meters from it.

Identification and Identity Formations around Shared Shrines in Western Macedonia and West Bank Palestine

Glenn Bowman, Anthropology, University of Kent, Canterbury

Popular assumptions about the fundamental exclusiveness of religious identities, practices and communities are thrown into question by shared shrines. In the Balkans and the Middle East these have brought Muslims, Christians and Jews together around object s, tombs and sites believed to deliver boons or spiritual protection. Drawing on archival and field-gathered materials, this paper will present beliefs and practices related to such sites in southwestern regions of Former Yugoslavia and along Israel-Palestine's Jerusalem-Bethlehem-Hebron axis to assess the impact of such 'cohabitation' on cultural and political identities and understand the forces which work to undermine it.

The recent wars in Yugoslavia, in which religious identities were foregrounded in ethno-nationalist confrontations, fixed the region's reputation as a 'fracture zone' between East and West (Islam and Christianity, Catholicism and Orthodoxy). Analogously, the 'Holy Land' - already viewed as a setting for religious warfare - has become, with the establishment of a Jewish State in a demographically-mixed territory, an icon of inter-religious antagonism enduring since 'time immemorial'. These developments support popular discourse, already legitimated by some academics, contending that persons' religious identities are fundamental and fundamentally antagonistic to other religions. However both regions, in living memory (and at some sites until the present day), have seen intensive inter-communal activities around both urban and rural religious sites. Such commingling was opposed by the religious authorities which 'owned' some of these sites; it was encouraged at others by, for instance, the Sufic Bektashi. Although both regions were part of the Ottoman Empire, the different systems of religious and secular authority in the two areas during the Ottoman Empire, the different forms of religious activity fostered or suppressed by post-Ottoman states, and the development of ethno-religious nationalisms provides grounds for comparative analysis of the development of religious communalisms in different contexts. The recent destruction, disbanding or exclusive expropriation of many of these shared sites has made vital the chronicling of their disappearance and the documentation of their former character.

Efficacy over Confessionality: Ritual Jamming in Chinese Religious Culture

Adam Yuet Chau, University of Oxford

One of the most interesting and revealing phenomena in Chinese religious practice is the frequent hiring of ritualists of multiple religious traditions for the same ritual occasion (e.g., funeral, exorcism, petitions for blessing), which means that Confucian ritualists, Daoist priests, Buddhist monks/nuns, and spirit mediums are sometimes invited to perform in the same space and sometimes even simultaneously. This practice has been quite common for a few hundred years and almost evokes the contemporary Western practice of "inter-faith" religious services (with major differences of course). The impulse of such spatial convergence of ritual service providers stems from the clients’ opportunistic concern for the maximization of efficacy as well as a general acceptance since the late imperial times of the “three teachings” (Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism) as parallel, complementary traditions. (There was even a syncretic sect called the Three-in-One that consciously merged elements of the three traditions.) This "ritual jamming" is possible partly because most Chinese are not members of any of these "religions" in terms of confessionality, and their cultural and sub-ethnic identities do not co-vary or overlap with their "religious identities" (because they hardly have any of the latter), in sharp contrast with the situation with most Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Theravada Buddhists in South and Southeast Asia. Historically and today many temples and sacred sites in China operate with a similar “jamming” (note not syncretic) principle. There have been sectarian movements historically and today that demand a more confessionary identification, though these are minor strands within the larger pattern of religious practice. (And of course there are Christians and Muslims in China.) This paper, among other things, can help us reflect on the divergent paths of the development of ritual efficacy and religious identity in China and the West: why in China ordinary people only need to pay ritual specialists for ritual efficacy (i.e., safe passage through hell, arriving at Western Paradise, expulsion of demons or evil forces, etc.) whereas in the West ordinary people have to be fellow co-believers of the ritualists. In a way the Chinese have long been religious cosmopolitans avant la lettre.

Chtonian spirits and shared shrines: the dynamics of place among Christians and Muslims in Anatolia

Maria Couroucli, Research Officer, CNRS-Universite Paris X-Nanterre

This paper questions the notion of 'sharing' as regards religious shrines through the critical examination of Greek narratives concerning relations between Muslim Turks and orthodox Christian Greeks in Anatolia in late ottoman times and in Istanbul today. More precisely, it has to do with narratives about shrines associated with the cult of Saint George/Hidirellez, which has often been proposed as a typical example of syncretism in Asia Minor/Anatolia. These shared shrines tend to be outside villages and towns, they are often visited by groups celebrating Saint George's day on April 23d and are said to be miraculous. This paper wishes to explore the relation between miraculous saints and place, that is between orthodox religious tradition and symbolism as expressed in syncretic practices in Turkey, where national identity is more related to 'turkik' culture than to muslim tradition, while on the other hand 'Rum' (i.e. Greek) identity is that of a religious minority within a secular state.

Secularism, Sacrilege and (De)Sanctified Space

Robert M. Hayden, University of Pittsburgh

In a political environment premised on the neutrality of government towards religion, it is generally regarded as not permissible for the state to punish heresy, sacrilege and blasphemy. Without questioning this philosophical position, this paper shows how state secularism may facilitate practices intentionally meant to be insulting to religious believers and which would, if practiced in the name of any competing religion, be condemned by the same secularists who see it as impermissible to punish sacrilege. Examples are drawn from socialist and post-socialist Europe and from the contemporary United States.

The Ghriba pilgrimage in the island of Jerba (Tunisia).

Dr Dora Carpenter Latiri, University of Brighton

Each year the pilgrimage to the Ghriba synagogue in the island of Jerba (or Djerba) in Tunisia attracts pilgrims from the local Jewish Tunisian community and from the expatriate Jewish community. The name El Ghriba designates the synagogue and the female saint after whom the synagogue is named. The saint is venerated by Jews and Muslims.

There are a number of versions of the myth of El Ghriba with differences between the Jewish and the Muslim versions. In Tunisia – as in the rest of the Maghreb – the cult of saints is a practice shared by Muslims and Jews. The festival of El Ghriba takes place in spring, shortly after the Jewish Passover. It has become a big media opportunity for the Tunisian government to advertise its religious tolerance and to attract tourists. In 2002, there was an al Qaïda attack against the synagogue before the festival. For security reasons after the al Qaida attack and before that with the increase of tensions in the Middle East, it has become more difficult for Muslims to join in the celebrations.

For this conference, I propose to analyse the myths of El Ghriba focusing on the differences between the Jewish and Muslim versions.

I propose also to explore the semantism of the name of El Ghriba, in particular the semantic transformation from the ‘strange one ‘ to the ‘miraculous one’. The name Ghriba is polysemic in Arabic and can be translated as 'the strange one', 'the stranger', 'the mysterious one' or even ‘ the miraculous one’. The Ghriba has the reputation of helping barren women give birth to boys and is said to help unmarried women find a husband.

Finally, I propose to deconstruct the rituals of the pilgrimage to show the experience of otherness that it provides, to explore notions of motherland and identity for the Jewish expatriate community, and to analyse the relation between the Muslim majority and the shrinking Jewish minority in Jerba.

My methodology will be a semantic methodology. My corpus will be the various versions of the Ghriba myth, the songs of the festival, and the literature around it including the stories posted on the Tunisian Jewish website

Sacred Places: a diachronic perspective from Anatolia

David Shankland, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Bristol

Based on fieldwork in Anatolia in Turkey, in the province of Konya, this paper attempts to offer an overview as to the way the contemporary Muslim villagers interact with the remains of the past within their territory. Largely, these remains consist of prehistoric mounds, which are incorporated into the villagers' religious cosmology in a predominantly tolerant way. At the heart of this incorporation is a readiness to view other religious cultures as being part of a shared humanity with whom access to the sacred may be shared if so favoured by God. Yet, such a willing incorporation does not take place at all times: relations do break down in various different ways, some violent, others less so. This paper concludes with an attempt at sketching parameters that might be taken into account at such problematic occasions.

Ethnic boundaries and potential for contention in an ancient Himalayan shrine

Will Tuladhar-Douglas, Scottish Centre for Himalayan Research, University of Aberdeen

The shrine of Vajrayogini in Pharping is one of four such shrines that encircle the Kathmandu Valley. Along with the Sankhu Vajrayogini it can be traced back to at least 700 CE and has been sharedas a Vajrayana Buddhist shrineamonmong Tibetans, Indians and Newars for that entire time. In the present day, however, its major annual festival is comprised of largely non-Buddhist participants, although the shrine and the festival are controlled by a Buddhist priest. Compared to Sankhu which has a similar festival, the Newar Buddhist institutions of Pharping have been largely lost; only one monastery remains of the ten that are remembered, and very few inhabitants would now characterise themselves as Buddhist.

Recent Tibetan incomers have built no fewer than 25 monasteries in Pharping, and their presence in the town and at the shrine is a source of friction. Thus the historical identity of Vajrayogini as a sign of co-operation among ethnically diverse Buddhists appears to have been replaced by a sense of ethnic solidarity and the identification of Vajrayogini as the deity of a Newar place.

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