This forum explores a set of interlocking questions concerning how we approach the study of public religion. How and when, above all, is it “public”? What are the conditions and qualities of religious publicity? And what becomes of “religion” when our focus falls more squarely on its modes of publication, presence, and circulation?
Contributions to the forum are drawn from scholars working in Africa and South Asia, all of whom are participating in conversations and events at Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life (IRCPL). In September 2018, IRCPL, in conjunction with the Institute for African Studies and the South Asia Institute, launched a new project on “Rethinking Public Religion.” Supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, the project partners are, until June 2021, running a series of lectures and workshops, offering new courses, and funding student research.
The focus on Africa and South Asia is prompted by a number of factors. One is simply that scholars working in these two regions ought to be in dialogue with one another more frequently. Despite the praise commonly heard for interdisciplinarity and comparative considerations, the silo effects of both scholarly and institutional structures make it difficult for scholars working in Nigeria to think through what those working in Pakistan have to offer them, and vice versa. Some of the work in the project will be comparative, but even more, we hope, simply contemplative in new manners.
Another factor is that, for all the ways in which scholars speak freely now of something called “public religion,” what we mean by this term does not always make sense outside the framings of liberal modernity in which it first came to prominence. The issue here is not only the significance of “public” as a term marking some difference from the normative expectations—there is no self-conscious literature on “private religion,” of course. It is also that the parameters of what constitutes publicity need careful consideration.
Let me illustrate this second factor with a reflection on an example from Zimbabwe. During my fieldwork there, on apostolic churches, I was often struck by the paradoxical position of the white-robed Christians who made up their ranks. There are dozens of these churches throughout the country, many with histories and lineages that overlap, even as each maintains a distinctive position. What many share, though, is the condition of being so private in public. What makes a church is the gathering of bodies, grouped in open fields by the sides of roads, or set amidst vacant urban lots. Everyone can see them, yet they sit apart. What is more, everyone can hear them, for apostolics are often in song, as loud—and as late into the night—as they can be.
The sensory presence of these churches stands in contrast to faith-driven commitments to privacy, and in some cases even forms of secrecy. Certainly for the Masowe Church, which I focused upon, the vast majority of congregations shunned media and other forms of public attention. The sight and sound notwithstanding, it would be difficult to call Masowe Christianity a public religion. We have to hesitate, despite the obvious ways in which what they do is public.
Sometimes such hesitance is prompted more by redundancy than irrelevance; while the Masowe Church often turns away from the public square, many other churches in Zimbabwe clamor to its heart. And there they find plenty of room—plenty of takers. From their points of view, certainly, calling religion “public” is akin to calling water “wet.” It is an unnecessary modifier. What does it add, other than concession to a certain Western and liberal framing? This, then, may well be the question posed by an anthropologist working on other cases in Zimbabwe, to say nothing of colleagues focused on Ghana or India—each contexts in which religious publicity is not defined primarily against the backdrop of the secularization thesis.
Other times the hesitance to ascribe publicity is prompted by the impulses of a genealogical sensibility. In these same places—Zimbabwe, Ghana, India—“religion” is a term that tells us as much about colonial encounters, court rulings, and secular statecraft as it does about anything else. And this is before turning to consider how the conceptual residue of the term “religion” marks its place within the histories of modern European thought.
Oh, that noise! Or, more positively: What a striking sight! These are the kinds of things one can hear in Zimbabwe from those unfamiliar with the apostolic traditions. Just so, another aspect of the Rethinking Public Religion project is a focus on modes of publicity; hence the emphasis in this forum (as throughout the project’s events during the 2018-19 academic year) on word, image, sound.
The contributors here reflect the diverse and creative ways in which the project’s questions can be addressed. As Arsalan Khan writes, for example, Pakistan’s landscapes and cityscapes are saturated with “Islam,” yet for members of the Tablighi Jamaat, such publicity cuts against what they believe really matters for piety, which are intimate, face-to-face relations. In Zambia, by contrast, as Naomi Haynes explains, presidential mausoleums become part of a sacral semiotics, the potency of which is meant to be felt even in the act of passing by.
Passing by is harnessed in still others ways in India, in terms of both sight and sound. Kajri Jain’s contribution is all about the politics of monumentality, through which the Bharatiya Janata Party, and Narendra Modi’s pet projects, aim to link the great size of a statue with the greatness of Hinduism. Meanwhile, on the streets of Mumbai, as Patrick Eisenlohr relates, a Muslim minority uses Muharram processions, and their sonic affordances, to articulate a particular kind of religious atmosphere—one largely uncontainable. In New Delhi we find something else distinct, as Anand Taneja, drawing on fresh fieldwork, reports. Urdu poetry is flourishing, laced with critiques of Modi, yet sung and recited not only by Shia Muslims, but also those with Brahmin names. Together these voices are, Taneja tells us, transforming elite public spaces.
“Sonic privilege,” though—one of Eisenlohr’s key terms—is not only about making noise, or being heard, but, as Andrea Grant reminds us in her contribution on Rwanda, remaining silent. Pentecostals, who are often quite noisy, and seeped in sound, have made real inroads in that country since the genocide. Yet the Catholic Church remains dominant, and Catholics often hold deep suspicions over the charismatic din, even as theological commitments to silence frame the Church’s complicities in the atrocities of 1994.
Screens also command the attention of the contributors, prompting considerations of interface and connection. In Katherine Ewing’s contribution, we get an excellent sense of the ways in which Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms are utilized—and not—by Sufis and their publics. Here, though, technology’s limits become apparent; while such social and user-driven media provide a kind of publicity, and wide circulation, smartphone video footage is hardly ideal when it comes to getting a clear sense of the rituals captured. The Pentecostals in Myanmar, studied by Michael Edwards, have had better results on this front—at least in some respects. While the train passengers in Yangon seem largely indifferent to public preaching, capturing this preaching on Facebook becomes a way for the Pentecostals to, in a sense, publicize their publicity, with the addressee being as much other churchgoers as the stoic commuters.
The authors here are developing oblique approaches to the articulation of public religion, and, in so doing, underscoring the centrality of religious publicity. Taken together, they allow for newly comparative angles on a well-developed subject of interest, putting the public into motion, into the air, and, quite literally in some cases, into the concrete.