Sites and Politics of Religious Diversity in Southern Europe: Book Review

May 21, 2014

Mapril, José and Ruy Blanes (eds). 2013. Sites and Politics of Religious Diversity in Southern Europe: The Best of All Gods. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

By: Kim Knibbe (University of Groningen)

The anthropology of religion in the South of Europe is alive and well. That is the resounding conclusion after reading this volume. Furthermore, it has stepped out well beyond the bounds of the classic ‘anthropology of the Mediterranean’. In an important sense, this volume also falls outside the scope of the anthropology of Christianity, since its subject is religious diversity, and it includes studies of Islam, Sikhism, Umbanda and Candomblé, New Age, and neo-paganism. In fact, only a small number of chapters deal with Christianity as their main subject matter. Nevertheless, the volume raises some important questions that are worth discussing in this forum.

The introduction by the editors does a good job of introducing the subject and providing a framework for the very diverse contributions to the volume. It starts out with the question of the religious heritage of Europe that emerged around the issue of a European constitution: can this be thought of only in terms of Christianity (in other discussions, ‘Judeo-’ is sometimes added in front of Christianity, still not self-evidently part of what is thought of as the European heritage)? This volume aims to show that the groups discussed here conceptualize Europe in quite different ways, and create new cartographies of this place called Europe. Each of these cartographies in their own right can be read as a challenge to the ‘secularist hegemony’ of public opinion and, one might add, of Eurocrats (1). Europe, even the south of Europe, which appeared so homogenously Christian in the anthropology of the Mediterranean, is quite diverse in terms of religion.

While religious diversity is not a new phenomenon, in the light of the ‘return of religion’ in public debate (if not in fact, since religion had never really gone away) the editors argue that it is something worth noting and exploring. How do different groups shape the relationship between religion and culture on the one hand, and place on the other hand? How are migrant groups subject to ‘double marginalization,’ as migrants and as ‘religiously other,’ and how do they resist this? The south of Europe is particularly interesting, they argue, because it is at the edges of the Schengen area, the place where boundary work is particularly urgent since it is a gateway for migrants from Africa and the Middle East to Europe.

The chapters themselves are divided between two parts: the first collects chapters describing and analyzing transnational religious imaginaries, while the second part includes those chapters focused on the (re)claiming of space and place. The book ends with a beautiful short epilogue by Ramon Sarro reflecting on the differences between maps and territories and the phenomenology of remote places. In his view, exploring Europe as a remote place in the cartographies of different religious imaginaries should be linked to attention to the concrete politics and territories in which these politics take place. This book combines these two themes, if not in each contribution individually, certainly in the volume as a whole.

So far so good. It is impossible to discuss each of the chapters individually, whatever their merits are, so I would like to discuss how these chapters speak to each other. Here, it is important to note that this book should be considered a first step in the discussion on the ‘sites and politics’ of religious diversity in the south of Europe. The volume explores the topic, shows diversity, and throws up many insights and questions that are innovative, but does not yet bring this all together into a clear research agenda. This is not necessarily a criticism, but more of a challenge to see what the next step could look like. Given this richness, not only in terms of subject matter but also in terms of the research talent gathered together in this book, what themes can be identified for further research?

Given the interest of this particular forum, I will focus on the themes that came to mind that could also contribute to the anthropology of Christianity. One of them is the question of the relationship between the religious dimensions of the majority cultures and the (religious) minorities described here. Several of the chapters zoom in on this relationship, either in terms of politics, or in terms of the dialectics and flows across cultural, class and geographic boundaries. For example, it is very interesting to see the way the backdrop of Christianity (Orthodox or Catholic in most cases) and a ‘secular frame’ significantly shape and produce the ‘religious otherness’ described. This is the case, for example, in the chapters describing neo-pagan pilgrimage to shrines dedicated to Mary Magdalen (Fedele), the engagement of Greek women with New Age (Roussou), women who find a plausible framework for conceptualizing corporeal permeability in a Dominican possession cult (Sanchez Carretero) or the Portuguese engagements with Umbanda and Candomblé (Saraiva).

In each of these cases, one could argue that the religious ‘alternative’ created and offered is to some extent tailored to provide solutions to tensions produced within Christianity and the secular frame, particularly for women. One could conclude that this religious pluralism is produced within the general ‘cultural complex’ (to use that loaded term) of Christian cultures and secularism that is to a great extent shaped by colonial history and shot through with post-colonial engagements (e.g. the connections and cultural overlaps indicated by the term Luso-African).

These particular contributions also problematize the automatic association of religion with migrants, and this is more innovative than the editors claim credit for. The book as a whole shows that it is too simplistic to associate religion with migrants and ethnic minorities and to study this in terms of the question whether religion is a ‘ help’ or a hindrance to ‘integration’. As ever, the question to be asked is, Integration into what exactly? These contributions and the ways the authors approach their subject matter show that a new conceptualization of Europe, of what kind of place it is, is also necessary for anthropology. Consequently we could ask, How do we develop an anthropology of Christianity in Europe in recognition of Europe as a plural, post-colonial space? What can the study of neo-paganism, possession cults, and New Age contribute to the anthropology of Christianity?

If nothing else, this also leads (again) to the recognition that the anthropology of Christianity has to problematize the tendency of many forms of Christianity to present itself as clear-cut and distinct, whether from local culture or from other ‘religions’. Therefore, it could be interesting to more explicitly thematize the dialectics and continuities between these ‘ religious/spiritual others’ and forms of historical Christianity in Europe. This is not only important in terms of exploring the relationship between hegemonic and historical forms of Christianity and religious diversity, but also because these new movements in turn inspire Christian movements. For example, together with some colleagues I am currently engaged in a study of images of masculinity in popular evangelical literature. One of the more surprising findings is that in legitimizing their call to let men be ‘real men’ again, they all refer (indirectly) to publications that have directly inspired many neo-pagan and New Age practitioners (e.g. Joseph Campbell, Robert Bly) (Meulen et al. in preparation).

Another theme that comes to mind is the extent to which Islam and Christianity (but also other ‘religions’) interact and copy each other. For example, the chapter by José Mapril conceptualizes and discusses the subject matter (transnational Islam in Lisbon) in ways that can be applied (and have been applied) equally well to Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism. Is this only because the theoretical concepts he uses, based heavily on Asad, Mahmood and Hirschkind, work so well? Or is this because the category of ‘religion’ works so well and encourages the development of similar practices, use of media, dispositions and institutions?

Finally, let me return to the question raised in the introduction: What does this religious diversity mean for conceptualizations of Europe in public debate? The fact that it is entirely possible that it does not mean much to the majority of Europeans, that it will not make a dent in the hegemonic conceptualizations of Europe, is ever present but only sporadically addressed (for example in the chapter aptly titled ‘Allah’s place in Madrid’ by Delgado). It is something that struck me when I started working on Nigerian Pentecostals in Europe: most Europeans are either completely unaware of or entirely indifferent to the ways Nigerian missionaries conceptualize Europe as a dark continent. If they care at all, it is to wonder whether this is not a case of history repeating itself as a farce (Knibbe 2011). But then, why should they care? There is no economic or geopolitical motive to actually be interested. Unlike colonial times, when mission and colonization often came together, power relations between Europe and other parts of the world are not (yet) reversed. This is something that I think should be addressed much more explicitly: the disjunctures between the different ‘ cartographies’ of Europe in terms of the difference in resources that these maps can mobilize, in short, the differences in power (Knibbe 2009).

There are many other questions to be asked, and interesting insights to be elaborated on, but this would be a poor substitute to actually reading the volume. Let me conclude by saying that this edited volume is wonderful contribution to the anthropology of religion in the south of Europe, and by extension, to the anthropology of Christianity. Unfortunately, the economic crisis is also hitting the academic world hard, particularly in Portgual where Mapril and Blanes are based. Many of the researchers with chapters in this book are now employed elsewhere or are in precarious positions. Let us hope that the talent and research developed here will find its way into the world and that this is not a one-time flowering.

José Mapril and Ruy Blanes have done a good job of bringing together this diversity of scholarship to showcase the diversity of religious expressions in the south of Europe, the ways this diversity challenges claims to belonging, as well as definitions of what Europe is and is not.

Works Cited:

Knibbe, Kim. 2009. “‘We Did Not Come Here as Tenants, but as Landlords’: Nigerian Pentecostals and the Power of Maps.” African Diaspora 2 (2): 133–58.

———. 2011. “Nigerian Missionaries in Europe: History Repeating Itself or a Meeting of Modernities?” Journal of Religion in Europe 4 (3): 471–87.

Meulen, Marten van der, Miranda Klaver, Kim Esther Knibbe, Johan Roeland, Hijme Stoffels, and Peter Versteeg. in preparation. “Becoming a Real Man. Evangelical Discourses on Masculinity.”

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