Serpent handlers, like other Christians, have chosen something to emphasize. Over the course of two thousand years, others have chosen the precise nature and identity of Christ, the proper understanding and practice of the Eucharist, the correct way to baptize, the proper way to organize a church, which day of the week to call the Sabbath, and any number of other things as the sine qua non of being a true Christian, and in each case some other Christians have regarded that defining center of faith as ‘adiaphora’ — something indifferent.
—Seth Perry, excerpted from his commentary "Adiaphora and the Dark Extremes of an Eccentric Faith"
How do we respect the depth of a Christian snake handler’s faith — and talk about it without caricaturing or lauding his life?
The Wrong Side of White: Black Mormons in a Presidential Year
by W. Paul Reeve, guest contributor
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism) has consistently found itself on the wrong side of white. In a recent New York Times article, “Black Mormons and the Politics of Identity,” an embedded video begins with a Times reporter commenting “it may come as a surprise to people that there are black Mormons in America.” It is a telling statement that captures the nexus of the LDS Church’s racial past and its efforts to realize a more diverse racial future.
Although few in number, blacks have been a part of the LDS movement from its founding to the present. The first documented African American to join the LDS Church was a former slave known only in the historical record as “Black Pete.” He became a member at Kirtland, Ohio, in 1830, the year of the Church’s founding. More significantly, at least two black men, Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis, were ordained to the Mormon priesthood in the Church’s early years. Abel participated in Mormon temple rituals at Kirtland and was baptized as proxy for a deceased friend and two relatives at Nauvoo, Illinois.
In this regard, it is most accurate to speak of integrated priesthood and temples in Mormonism’s early years, a progressive stance in a charged national racial context. At the same time that the nation moved toward legal segregation in the wake of Reconstruction’s demise, the open space for full black participation in Mormonism gave way in fits and starts. By the first decade of the twentieth century race-based priesthood and temple bans were firmly in place.
It is impossible to understand that trajectory without first understanding the ways in which white Mormons themselves were racialized. The prevailing American fear of interracial mixing played a significant role in that process, especially as outsiders projected their own alarm over race mixing onto Mormons. At Kirtland, outsiders suggested that Black Pete received revelations to marry white women. In Missouri settlers argued that Mormons were inviting free black converts to that state, not only to incite a slave rebellion but to steal white women.
After the Mormons openly announced the practice of polygamy in 1852, the charge of interracial mixing took on a life of its own. One Army doctor filed a report with the United States Senate in which he claimed polygamy was giving rise to a degenerate “race.” Political cartoons depicted interracial polygamous families, sometimes with black, Asian, and Native American wives mixed in among the white. In a variety of ways outsiders constructed Mormons as racially suspect, facilitators of interracial mixing and therefore of racial contamination. As one news account put it, “the days of the white race are numbered in this country.” At the crux of this fearful deterioration was the “American of the future,” “a black Mormon.”
Against such a charged national racial backdrop, Mormons responded with an effort to claim whiteness for themselves. In 1852, Brigham Young drew upon the curses of Cain, Ham, and Canaan, derived from long standing Judeo-Christian Biblical exegeses, to bar black men from the priesthood. Leaders later expanded the policy to include temple worship for black men and women, except for proxy baptisms for their deceased ancestors. In 1908, leaders cemented those policies in place when historical forgetfulness trumped verifiable evidence to misremember that the bans had always been there, divine mandates that only God could rescind.
With that reconstructed memory as the new guiding principle, it took Spencer W. Kimball, the faith’s mild and unassuming prophet, to overturn the ban. In 1978, Kimball announced a revelation which returned Mormonism to its universalistic roots and reintegrated its priesthood and temples.
Since that time, Mormon growth in Africa has been rapid, while the pace among blacks at home has been much slower. The bans and the doctrines that supported them sometimes plague missionary efforts among blacks and make it difficult to retain converts once they join. LDS leaders have yet to repudiate past teachings which shored up the bans, a lingering problem that makes it possible for various iterations of those teachings to live on in the hearts and minds of some members.
In the meantime, black Mormons, like their coreligionists of all stripes, must decide how they will vote in this historic election year. It is a contest that is poised to pit the nation’s first president of African ancestry against the first Mormon of any color to capture a major party nomination. Mitt Romney’s ascendency to the top of the GOP ticket might signal to some Mormons that their historically pariah faith has finally arrived. In that regard, Romney may very well mark Mormonism’s full racial passage to whiteness. It is an awkwardly-timed if not tepid acceptance that coincides with Mormon attempts to claim a more diverse racial identity for themselves — witness the “I Am a Mormon” national media campaign featuring a heterogeneous group of Latter-day Saints as the faces of modern Mormonism.
Unlike his Mormon ancestors, no one today questions Mitt Romney’s whiteness. One culture critic went so far as to call him “the whitest white man to run for president in recent memory.” It is a designation that Mormons craved a century ago, but one that comes as a liability today. The historical arc of Mormonism’s racial dance is richly ironic. In the nineteenth century they were denigrated as not white enough, by the twenty-first century, as too white.
W. Paul Reeve is Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah. He is writing a book, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, under contract at Oxford University Press.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Who Are Turkish Voices We Can Speak with in Istanbul?
Photo by José Manuel Ríos Valiente via Flick’s Creative Commons license
Our production team will be traveling to Istanbul this Saturday, and we’re looking to speak with some big thinkers for our public radio program. We want to better understand how Turkey carries forward its historical roots in the Ottoman Empire and before, and how its making the transition from a strict, secular democracy to one that allows for a more expression of religious identity and government rule. Who might be able to tease out the nuances of this tension and growth in Turkey as the country becomes a positive model for other burgeoning democracies in the region?
This person who could walk the line between being an expert who lives out these ideas in his or her daily life. Preferably we’d like to speak to someone who is a practicing Muslim and who grew up with a belief in the virtues and values of Ataturk’s secular approach to democracy. Or maybe this person never felt like those two identities fit in Turkey… But now is hopeful that the two can coexist. How does the larger context play out in individual lives of the speaker and other Turks?
And, since we’re a public radio program aired in the U.S., we’ll need them to be able to carry an hour-long conversation in fairly good English.
Offer your suggestions in the comments section here, or even email me at email@example.com. And, if you know others who might have some ideas, please pass our request along. We’d be much indebted to you.
Can Turkey Inspire Egypt as a Religious Role Model?
by Mustafa Abdelhalim, guest contributor
Last week, Egyptians went to the polls to participate in the first presidential election since Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011. Going forward, the new president, who will be elected in the second phase of elections in June, should look to examples from other countries that have undergone successful democratic transitions.
When asked what leader outside their own country they most admired, a recent poll from the University of Maryland found that 63 percent of Egyptians answered Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indicating that Egyptians may be interested in learning from Turkey. Turkey can serve as a relevant model because it has successfully dealt with three key challenges facing Egypt — the relationship of the army to a civilian government, economic growth and fostering positive international relations.
When a Jain Marries a Bengali: An Indian Love Story That Defied Tradition
by Benjamin Gottlieb, guest contributor
On the day of his wedding, Ashok Jain’s parents beat him mercilessly after he told them he married a Hindu woman.
“They didn’t accept my marriage,” said Mr. Jain, whose family practices Jainism, an ancient Indian religion that emphasizes non-violence. “They asked me to walk out of the home without anything… without even a toothbrush.”
Ashok Jain left his parents’ home in New Delhi 34 years ago with nothing but the clothes on this back. His marriage to Neena, a Bengali Hindu, tore his family apart; his parents, completely baffled by their son’s desire to marry outside his Jain religion, disowned him. He would not see his parents until his son’s first birthday, five years later.
In a traditional Indian marriage, partners are arranged for children by their parents, often at very young ages. The idea of wedding for love — let alone outside of one’s community — is seen historically as taboo. But Mr. Jain’s story of breaking conventional attitudes toward marriage constitutes a growing trend in India’s urban communities that rejects arranged marriages as the only acceptable union.
“The more important thing which spoke to me — above love and all that — was that I had to live for my own identity,” Mr. Jain, who works as a tour guide based in Delhi, said. “I wanted to stand on my own two feet and do what was right, regardless of any social pressure.”
A Complex System of Class in Castes
Strict laws concerning marriage in India are fortified by caste, a complex system of social stratification indigenous to the subcontinent. The system is demarcated by four major groupings, known as the varnas, and further stratified into subcastes or jati.
Mr. Jain’s family is from the third caste, known as the Vaishyas, which make up the merchant class of India. His wife, on the other hand, comes from a Brahman family, the highest caste.
“Surprisingly, the resistance came from my family, even though I was marrying up, so to speak, and she was marrying down,” Mr. Jain said.
Ashok and Neena met in Buenos Aires in mid-1970s while both of their fathers worked in India’s foreign service. At first, their families accepted Ashok and Neena’s friendship because, “we needed a fourth person for bridge,” Neena joked.
But when things became serious, Mr. Jain’s family, which he describes as more traditional, became very reticent to the prospect of them getting married. The thought of ripping apart their families forced the two to separate.
“We had decided that she would go her way and see boys and I would go my ways and see other girls,” Mr. Jain recalled. “We agreed to call each other when we decided to get married to someone else.”
After numerous failed attempts by their parents to arrange a marriage for each of them, Ashok and Neena decided to forego tradition.
“When we made the phone call, I said ‘I’m not getting married to anybody’ and she said the same thing,” Mr. Jain said. “And so we said, ‘What the hell?’”
Back in Delhi, the two wed at an Arya Samaj temple, a small sect in Hinduism that, among other progressive ideas, denounced the caste system in 1978. Unlike the typical Indian wedding, which boasts hundreds of guests and lavish party decor, Ashok and Neena’s marriage only included a few close friends; their wedding attendance, or lack thereof, would later exemplify the first few years of their lives together.
“Looking back, I was satisfied with whatever we had,” Neena, who works in Argentina’s New Delhi embassy, said. “It was hard to bring the kids up alone, especially the first year with my eldest son. Not having anyone to help me out, the frustration at times of taking care of our kids… that was hard.”
Intercaste Marriage in Rural and Urban Areas of India
In Mr. Jain’s India — which he describes as urban, educated, and modern — intercaste and interfaith marriages are becoming more commonplace. His two sons married sisters from the same Punjabi-Hindu family, and his close friends are made up of those who have either married outside of their faith or have progressive ideas about marriage.
“But my India is not the real India,” Mr. Jain said. “Changing norms, changing traditions, breaking traditions. This is not happening for a large part of the country.”
While India continues to modernize rapidly, more than 70 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion people still live in rural areas. Attitudes toward intercaste or interfaith marriage in these rural areas continue to be traditional.
“Intercaste marriage is confined mostly to society’s elite,” said Sohail Hashmi, a writer and historian living in Delhi. “In [India’s] major cities, if you fall in love with someone from the wrong caste, it’s not so bad. But in rural parts of the country, marrying outside your caste could spell banishment or, in extreme cases, death.”
The killings Mr. Hashmi references stem from well-known horror stories in Indian khaps, or social councils in rural villages.
A common afterthought in an interfaith or intercaste marriage is the identity of the couple’s children. In a society that places great importance on one’s caste and religion for the purpose of identity, the children of interfaith marriages run the risk of being ostracized by society.
But that was never a concern for Mr. Jain and his two sons. When asked what his children’s caste or religion is, he responded emphatically, “No caste. No religion.”
“If you were to break it down, I’d say geographically I’m from Delhi but do I follow religion? No, I don’t,” said Sunny, Mr. Jain’s second son. “I had a very secular education as well, so until the end of high school I never really gave this a thought about ‘who is who’.”
When asked how he self-identifies, Sunny, a 30-year-old software entrepreneur, replied with a smile, “I don’t.”
Despite all turmoil associated with Ashok’s decision to marry outside his community, he admitted he now holds a more favorable opinion of arranged marriage.
“There have been cases when young people have come to my wife and I and said, ‘Oh uncle, you did this… so let us know what do you think?’ I tell them that it is not an easy decision, but it’s your decision,” he said.
“You have to decide what you want, decide what is right and wrong… and then, you have to face the baby.”
Benjamin Max Gottlieb is a multimedia journalist and photographer from Los Angeles, California. He is currently a web producer at The Washington Post and the art director of InTheFray.org. Follow him on Twitter at @benjamin_max.
The End of Racial and Religious Profiling in America?
by Nadia S. Mohammad, guest conributor
As the American public reads of yet another report released on governmental surveillance of Muslim American communities, it is refreshing to know that for the first time since the 9/11 attacks, the US Senate Judiciary Committee, along with various state legislatures and federal agencies, are directly addressing long-held public concerns about racial and religious profiling — a practice within law enforcement that relies solely on race, religion or ethnicity to determine possible criminal activity. With these recent developments, could we finally be seeing the beginning of the end of racial and religious profiling in America?
The Senate hearing on racial profiling, initiated by Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, took place in conjunction with Durbin’s co-sponsored bill, the “End Racial Profiling Act of 2011” (ERPA), on April 17. Racial and religious profiling has become a particularly sensitive issue for Muslim Americans in the past decade, although it affects multiple racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups in the United States. In the United States, some assume that all individuals of South Asian or Arab descent are Muslim, and that being Muslim is somehow dangerous — which has led to members of these ethnic groups being profiled. Such practices violate the constitutional right to equal treatment under the law; moreover, racial and religious profiling is ineffective as it is based on unreliable assumptions about minority groups, rather than criminal behaviour profiles.
ERPA would also provide for additional training to help law enforcement, government officials, and neighborhood watch groups avoid using such tactics.
The political debate on the effectiveness of racial and religious profiling by law enforcement goes back several decades. Interestingly enough, when it last garnered high-profile political attention, it was former President George W. Bush who proclaimed, in a February 2001 address, that racial profiling is “wrong and we will end it in America.” He went even further to say that ending racial profiling practices would not compromise security.
Then came the attacks of 9/11 and what Bush once dubbed as “wrong” became an excusable right, in the name of national security. “In the national trauma that followed 9/11, civil liberties came face to face with national security”, said Senator Durbin, and all too often the promise of national security won, at the expense of Muslim Americans and other Americans who appeared to be Muslim.
The ERPA hearing comes at a time when racial and religious profiling is being actively challenged across the nation. Numerous civil-rights advocates and legislative officials have called for an investigation and independent nonpartisan oversight of the New York Police Department (NYPD), after it was reported that the NYPD systematically surveilled Muslim Americans and certain ethnic minorities in the area without probable cause.
After several police officers were arrested for illegally targeting and harassing Hispanic Americans in Connecticut, state legislators passed a definitive bill prohibiting “the stopping, detention, or search of any person” due solely to “race, color, ethnicity, age, gender or sexual orientation.”
The decades of grassroots organizing have also allowed civil-rights groups to provide the public with better tools and technology to empower themselves when faced with harassment by law enforcement. The Sikh Coalition, for example, recently launched a mobile application that allows travellers to file direct complaints with the government if they feel they have been unfairly profiled. In turn, these groups have been able to provide advocacy organisations and legislators with better assessments of the extent and the overall ineffectiveness of racial and religious profiling.
Some federal agencies, after public pressure, are taking measures to prevent organisational discriminatory practices. Both the military and FBI have initiated steps to review their training materials, due to recent reports of their use of severely Islamophobic materials. Last month the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the US armed forces ordered a review of the military’s training material in its entirety to ensure it does not contain Islamophobic content. This month, the FBI is holding workshops titled “Combating Islamophobia: Truths and Myths about Islam.”
While it is difficult to tell, at this point, what the standards of either the military or the FBI are in determining what constitutes Islamophobic material, the attempt to instill better standards is a small step forward.
The passing of ERPA would be a significant achievement at the federal level, but undoing the damage of decades of racial and religious profiling will be a lengthy process. This is only the beginning — in going forward, more legislators and law enforcement agencies will also need to critically examine their discriminatory practices and materials while allowing for greater transparency. Local and federal law enforcement officers will need training to better understand and spot possible criminal behavior using more effective practices than racial profiling.
In ending racial and religious profiling and ensuring our civil-rights are protected, it is important to remember that we are not compromising our security; instead, we are enhancing our safety and building stronger working relationships between law enforcement and community members.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on May 15, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Secularism, Nationalism, and Christian Minorities in Turkey
by Ramazan Kılınç, guest contributor
Halki Monastery and Seminary (photo by ©Nectarios Eben Trevino/Flickr)
In a recent New York Times article Susanne Güsten described the difficulties that Syriac Christians faced throughout the history of Republican Turkey. This story reflects the traumatic consequences of the nation-building process that modern Turkey has experienced since the 1920s and 1930s. The Turkish official national identity was based on the ideology of Kemalism, which idealized a homogenous society defined by secularism and nationalism. This ideal, which has been alien to diversity, made life very difficult for ethnic and religious minorities.
Turkish secularism, in contrast to the American experience of secularism that separated religion and the state, excluded religion from the public sphere and aimed to keep it under state control. In an aim to distance itself from the Ottoman Muslim past, the state took a hostile position against religion. It banned organizing around religion. Even today, all religious associations, including Muslim ones, do not exist legally. Related to this, the state does not allow religious education outside of the state domain. The state itself took the responsibility to teach a Hanefi/Sunni interpretation of Islam. The motive of the “secular” state was to institute an “official Islam.” Only a limited number of non-Muslims, excluding Syriacs, were given the right to open religious schools.
Turkish nationalism perceived ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, as a threat to the ideal of a homogeneous Turkish nation. In the early years of the Republic, Turkey and Greece had large-scale population exchanges in an effort to homogenize their respective societies. Turkish Muslims in Western Thrace moved to Turkey while Greek Christians in Istanbul moved to Greece. In later years when nationalism peaked, the status of minorities including Christians worsened. For example, in the late 1960s, when Turkey had international problems with Greece over the Cyprus conflict, the state expropriated land and properties owned by Christian community foundations by using simple legal technicalities. Again when Turkey had problems with Greece, Turkey closed down the historical Theological School of Halki, which was opened to train Greek Orthodox clergy under Ottoman rule in 1844. Additionally, due mostly to the nationalist security perceptions of the state, religious minorities faced restrictions in opening up spaces for religious practice.
Only after Turkish secularism and nationalism started to weaken in recent years, the Turkish government implemented new reforms enhancing the religious freedoms of Christian minorities in Turkey. Although many significant problems still exist, the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party has passed several laws to enhance religious liberties for minorities over the last decade. The state passed new laws to return all expropriated properties to non-Muslim community foundations or to compensate the community foundations for properties transferred to third parties. The new laws made it easy to open houses of worship even though some local authorities still keep creating bureaucratic hurdles for non-Muslim minorities.
However, the recent reforms are far from satisfactory. They have not yet offered a solution to many problems that Christian minorities face. Religious communities still do not exist legally and they cannot establish religion-based associations and organizations. Similarly, religious groups cannot open educational institutions to teach religion. The Theological School of Halki, for example, is still closed.
The only comprehensive solution to these problems is to redefine Turkish secularism to make it more inclusive. Secularism in its current form is used as an ideological tool to guarantee state control of religion. For religious freedoms to thrive, Turkish secularism should be transformed into a constitutional principle that guarantees religious freedoms while keeping religion out of the control of the state. This change will prevent the state from intervening in the internal affairs of religious communities including Christian minorities. A change that allows an autonomous sphere to religious minorities would also bring them legal guarantees. While it is true that the current government in Turkey is more tolerant of Christian minorities than its predecessors, Turkey still needs a legal framework that protects the freedoms of Christian minorities. Only a transformation of Turkish secularism could make such a legal framework possible.
Ramazan Kılınç is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
The Photos Used in Foreign Policy’s ‘Sex Issue’ May Be a Test Case for Cultural Insensitivity
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The "Sex Issue" recently published by Foreign Policy magazine has received a fair amount of publicity this past week. And, from the responses I’ve read, it’s Mona Eltahawy’s article "Why Do They Hate Us? The War on Women in the Middle East" that’s been greeted with fanfare by some Western media outlets, as in this response by Newsweek:
"Some powerful photo illustrations come with Foreign Policy’s stunning cover feature on the real war unfolding on women in the middle east, written by the awesome and oh-so-brave Egyptian revolutionary Mona Eltahawy. Read it.”
I’m unsure of why Newsweek refers to these images as “photo illustrations” but I think they miss out on the complexities of the issues at hand when they frame it in this way. To be sure, I can understand why many people like these photos. They are stunning images; the article’s title is gripping. But, most of us in the U.S. lack an understanding of the history and the cultural context of using such provocative imagery. For many Arab and Muslim women, these images are offensive. The pictures represent a problem that dates back centuries: the hypersexualization of the veil and the women who wear them. Perhaps we should tread more lightly upon this sensitive ground.
For Samia Errazzouki, these are images of “a nude woman covered in a black body-painted niqab.” In her Al-Monitor rebuttal, ”Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent Us,” she writes:
"All of the women close to me who wear the niqab do so for different reasons. One friend only wears the niqab when she attends protests because she feels comfortable in it. Another friend has chosen to wear the niqab, against the will of her family since she was 14. The representation of the niqab as splattered body paint on a naked woman degrades the decision of women who wear the niqab as a choice. …
The monolithic representation of women in the region, illustrated by an over-sexualized image of splattered black paint over a nude body, however, does nothing to rectify the position of women in any society.”
Leila Ahmed, a revered and oft-cited scholar of women and gender issues in Islam and the Arab world, takes issue not so much with the choice of photos used but with Ms. Eltahawy’s “sweepingly dismissive views of prayer and religion” finding “almost every paragraph of Eltahawy’s essay similarly troubling as, again and again, broad brushstrokes and sweeping generalizations erased subtle nuances and garbled and swept aside important differences.”
If you’re interested in reading more responses, I recommend Muslimah Media Watch’s excellent survey of other female voices appearing in various posts and articles. The opinions vary widely. And, I’d definitely read their round-table discussion with five women who reflect on the larger issue at and and the Foreign Policy issue itself. You’ll gain a better sense of the range of opinions on the issue and the really smart women who wrestle with these issues every day.
An Islamic State in Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood and the Presidential Elections
by Barbara Zollner, guest contributor
A composite photograph of Egyptian Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail (left), Khayrat al-Shater (center), and former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Egypt’s election commission said on April 14, 2012 that the three men were among ten candidates barred from running for president. (Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
The battle over Egypt’s democratic future is at a significant crossroads. But while the fight for succession to Mubarak’s throne is fully under way, the rules of the competition seem to be constantly changing.
Only two weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) announced their decision to field a candidate for the May presidential elections. They nominated businessman and multi-millionaire Khayrat al-Shater. Fostering deep-seated fears about Islamist regimes, the Washington Post expressed concern that, should Shater win the elections, Islamic law would be enforced.