Heritage and interreligious coexistence in the city

Fatih Mosque, Amsterdam

On 17 May 2019 the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities hosted an interdisciplinary workshop on ‘Heritage and Interreligious Coexistence in the City’, organised by Dr Daan Beekers. Created in the context of his Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at IASH, this event brought together anthropologists, religious studies scholars, sociologists and historians to reflect on the role that time, history and heritage play in interreligious interactions in different parts of the world. The workshop was organised by IASH in collaboration with the Alwaleed Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World (with assistance from Alwaleed fellow Giulia Liberatore in particular) and supported by both the IASH Susan Manning workshop fund and the Alwaleed Centre.

Dr Beekers reports on the workshop:

The workshop focused on contemporary conditions of pluralism where people of diverse religious backgrounds live side by side in villages, cities and nation states across the world. These religious groups do not only occasionally encounter one another in their everyday lives, but also engage with each other’s histories, traditions, theologies and bodies of heritage. In the context of prevalent discourses emphasizing cultural and religious difference, it is important to better understand these lived experiences of interreligious coexistence. Yet, detailed qualitative scholarship on these experiences has only recently started to emerge. In much scholarship the analysis of separate religious traditions is still kept apart, something we see reflected in the development of separate sub-fields for the anthropologies of Islam and Christianity.

Our aim in the workshop was to provide a platform to discuss concepts, methods and vantage-points by which everyday interreligious coexistence can be productively studied. We looked specifically at the analytical potential of focusing on questions of heritage and temporality as entry-points to studying mutual perceptions of, and relations between, religious groups in urban contexts. What do we learn when we look at interreligious coexistence through this lens? What conceptual approaches have proven useful for this kind of study and what challenges do we come across in this regard? The event was deliberately devised as a workshop in the sense of creating a space for sharing and developing ideas collaboratively. It consisted of three sessions each with short presentations, a discussant’s response and ample time for discussion.

In the first session, Ammara Maqsood (Anthropology, University College London), Leslie Fesenmyer (African Studies and Anthropology, University of Birmingham) and Giulia Liberatore (Alwaleed/IMES & Sociology, University of Edinburgh) discussed their newly funded ERC project ‘Multi-religious encounters in urban settings’, which is currently in its initial phase. This project looks at interreligious interactions in what Maqsood, Fesenmyer and Liberatore term ‘non-secular contexts’ (by which they mean places where religion constitutes a normative social force) within Pakistan, Kenya and Italy. One of their case studies is set in Sicily, which is characterized not only by a strong Catholic culture, but also by a long history of Muslim presence and the more recent arrival of migrants (many of whom are Muslim or Christian) – a situation that opens up manifold questions about everyday interreligious encounters. The team explained that issues of temporality and heritage play an important role in the project. Thus, Maqsood, Fesenmyer and Liberatore explore how different histories (such as local experiences of encounter but also life-courses and family histories) have shaped interreligious relations. They pay particular attention to the ways in which lasting memories of ‘critical events’ can affect everyday encounters, fostering relations of either conflict or conviviality.

The second session of the workshop focused on the – often overlooked or forgotten – Jewish and Muslim heritages of Europe. In her contribution, Hannah Holtschneider (Divinity, University of Edinburgh) compared the histories of Jews in Germany and Scotland and the roles that these histories play today. She pointed out that the history of Jews in Scotland is shorter than that in Germany and characterized by an absence of violent conflict. Contemporary engagement with Jewish heritage is more pronounced in Germany. Holtschneider noted that today’s reworking of that heritage, which has been strongly affected by violence, has to take the Shoa into account. Delwar Hussain (Anthropology, University of Edinburgh) subsequently discussed new research he is undertaking on Al-Andalus. Looking at European Muslims who visit today’s Andalusia to see its Islamic heritage, he is interested in the ways in which they make sense of Europe’s Islamic past and interpret their lives through that past. More broadly speaking, Hussain reflected on how the legacy of Al-Andalus can work to challenge our fundamental understanding of Islam at the periphery – rather than the core – of Europe.

In the third session our discussion turned to the intersections between religious pluralism, heritage and belonging. In my own presentation I explored interreligious coexistence from the vantage point of reused religious spaces, focusing particularly on the conversion of church buildings into mosques. I argued that these processes of recycling space offer a lens on encounters between contemporary Muslim communities and local Christian histories and legacies. I gave the example of the Fatih Mosque, housed in a former Catholic church in Amsterdam, which struggled with its image as a ‘hidden’ house of worship – a discursive genre that is rooted in local Catholic history and now readily invoked to emphasise the widespread idea that religious communities have a right to public visibility. Subsequently, Liam Sutherland (Divinity, University of Edinburgh) offered a critical analysis of the representation of religious pluralism and heritage in the discourses of the organisation Interfaith Scotland. He described how these discourses construe different religions as essentially benign and essentially alike, by focusing on common denominators such as ‘world religion’ and ‘people of faith’. He further showed how a form of ‘banal nationalism’ (Billig) is at work in aligning religious communities with common symbols of ‘Scottishness’, for example through the creation of ‘minority tartans’. Interfaith Scotland, moreover, emphasises a common religious heritage, for instance through ‘national interfaith pilgrimages’ to iconic Christian sites such as Iona or Buddhist ones such as Holy Isle.

The Centre for World Peace on Holy Isle
Image by Sarah Lionheart and used under a CC-BY SA license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

The presentations in each of the sessions were followed by a lively discussion with the audience, initiated by the day’s discussants Joshua Ralston (Divinity, University of Edinburgh), Jonathan Spencer (Anthropology, University of Edinburgh) and Michael Rosie (Sociology, University of Edinburgh). Among many other issues, they addressed the challenges in conceptualising religion, especially with regard to notions of ‘normative religion’, the relation between religious practices and reified traditions (and the extent to which these can be separated) and the question how the religious spaces we study can be demarcated (where does the space considered as ‘sacred’, or in need of protection, start and where does it stop?).

Our discussions during the day demonstrated that it is important to explore the role that issues of heritage, history and time play in interreligious coexistence. This area of inquiry directs our attention to the ways in which the religious fields we study are developing and changing over time; how claims about the past are mobilized by players in these fields and how past events may have a lasting impact on interreligious relations. It allows us to see that minority religious groups often have longer, but perhaps silenced, histories in the places we study (as is the case for Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe). Likewise, ‘new’ religious actors can be found to share common ground with longer established groups. Notions of religious and national heritage, moreover, may become instrumentalised in attempts at emphasising unity across difference.

The workshop, then, provided a productive space for an exchange of ideas, while opening up stimulating questions for further research. This was made possible by the input of the speakers and discussants, as well as the support of the staff at IASH and the Alwaleed Centre. I thank them all for their valuable contributions to making this such a successful event.