Global Currents article

The Social Fabric of Jerusalem: Memories in the Wake of Christian Exodus

Photo Credit: Stephanie Saldaña. A Palestinian Muslim woman lights candles in front of the icon of St. George at the feast of St. George/al-Khidr in Lod. During the festival, Muslims revere Khidr, who is mentioned in the Quran as a wise guide of Moses, while Christians honor St. George, the patron saint of Palestinians, bringing olive oil down to his tomb beneath the church. The festival is one of the last shared Muslim-Christian festivals in the region, and marks the end of the olive harvest.

Last Easter I set out to explore some of the holiday traditions that are in danger of disappearing in the Old City of Jerusalem, where the local Christian population has been declining so rapidly that it is now estimated to be only around two percent of the city’s total population. Not knowing where to start, I approached someone whom I knew from experience would able to enlighten me: my neighbor of seven years, Mazen Ahram, a Muslim Sheikh and Islamic scholar.

While to someone unfamiliar with Jerusalem it might seem counter-intuitive to ask a Muslim leader for information about Easter, this would not be surprising at all for many old Jerusalemites. Sheikh Mazen’s family traces its lineage to the Prophet Mohammed, and arrived in Jerusalem along with Omar ibn Khattab in the 7th century when Muslims first took control of the city from the Byzantine Empire. As a result, his family had been in contact with the Christians of Jerusalem for more than 13 centuries, passing the stories of those encounters down from generation to generation.

I found Sheikh Mazen Ahram sitting behind the counter of his small shop in East Jerusalem, where he works when he is not at the al-Aqsa Mosque. My question sent him into a long, nostalgic trip to his childhood living outside of the walls of the Old City in the early 1950s. Every year, he and his Christian neighbors dyed Easter eggs together using the peelings of red onions, which naturally colored the eggs. His grandmother was well known for her skill in painting eggs, and she had a collection of painted, blown out eggs on her shelf.

Even I was surprised at how central the Christian Easter holiday was to his childhood as a devout Muslim. The local tradition states that after Muslim armies conquered Jerusalem, Omar ibn Khattab refused to pray inside the city’s main church, insisting that his followers would want to turn it into a mosque if they saw him pray there. He prayed just across from it instead, and today the Mosque of Omar stands across from the Holy Sepulcher commemorating the gesture. Local Palestinians know that two Muslim families keep the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where tradition holds that Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead—those families are still entrusted with opening and closing the church daily.

Sheikh Mazen told me that when he was a boy, every Holy Saturday he went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to wait for the Holy Fire to appear. The tradition among Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem says that a holy fire was lit at the moment of Jesus’ resurrection inside of the tomb each year, and thousands would wait with candles for the flame to emerge from the tomb and to be passed around. As a boy, Mazen couldn’t afford a fancy lantern, and so he would carve out the peeling of a thick Jericho orange, place a candle inside, and wait for the flame. He then carried the fire from the holy tomb back home.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Saldaña. A lantern made with a hollowed out orange and Easter eggs colored with red onion peels.

I took notes. That Holy Saturday, I waited for the Holy Fire like thousands of other Christians, and when it arrived I placed it in a candle inside of the rind of an orange. Sheikh Mazen was right; it worked like a charm. Our eggs that year were painted with onion peels.

I tell these stories because the disappearance of Christian communities in the Middle East, long warned of by local Christians, has become a startling reality. Iraq has lost two thirds of its Christian population since 2003. An estimated one third of Syrian Christians have fled during the country’s civil war, though possibly more. Those outside of the region may view the discussion as alarmist; those in the region, who saw ancient communities of Jews almost entirely vanish from the fabric of life in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in the last decades, know that it is entirely possible for a community to be there and then to be gone.

Yet most discussions of this crisis focus on what this means for Christians. This is understandable; as the community that is leaving, they are obviously the most heavily impacted. Nonetheless, over more than a decade of living in the Middle East, I have noticed how much the disappearance of Christians also impacts many Muslims I know in the region. During Christmas, a Muslim friend commented on Facebook about how much he missed seeing Christmas decorations in Jerusalem in the way he had when he was a child. I recently interviewed a Syrian refugee named Mouiad from the city of Daraa, who spoke of the relationship with Christians that he had before the war, when they would often fast for one another’s holidays. He often visited Christian shrines to Mary with his friends, a practice that was not uncommon. Though he had brought very little with him when he fled to Jordan, he wanted to show me one thing he had: a copy of the Bible in Arabic, kept on his shelf alongside the Quran.

Still, rarely have I come upon a public discussion of what the migration of Christians from the Middle East will mean for the Muslim communities who have lived with them for centuries. Many of these communities have based their identities on what it means to be people of faith living within pluralistic societies, and how they live with Christians has become an integral part of who they are as Muslims. Perhaps we need to talk about the Middle East in the same ways in which we talk about fragile ecosystems. When a plant or an animal disappears, we take it for granted that the entire ecosystem around it will be impacted. Living species come to depend upon one another over time; the disappearance of one can devastate another.

We often forget that human communities form the same deep relationships over centuries, and that what impacts one community cannot be discussed in isolation. This seems to me to be particularly true of Palestinian Muslims and Christians. This summer, two Israeli policemen were shot and killed by two Palestinian citizens of Israel at the entrance to the al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount. Israel installed metal detectors as a response, setting off large scale demonstrations by Palestinians who argued that Israel was disrupting the status quo over who has authority over religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. Palestinians prayed in the streets, refusing to enter the mosque compound as long as metal detectors were in place.

While thousands prayed in the streets that week, it was one photo that was shared repeatedly by Palestinians on Facebook. It was a photo of a Nidal Aboud, a Palestinian Christian who joined the line of prayer, a cross visibly around his neck, and read from his bible as those Muslims around him prayed.

For Palestinian Muslims, sharing that photo was a way for them to express their belief that Palestinians were protesting not due to religious but political objections, and that the issue of status quo was one that concerned all Palestinians, not only Muslims. Though the Palestinian Christian was only one among thousands, he became an essential part of how Muslims told the story of that historical moment.

In the past, there have been many examples of Palestinian Christians serving as an integral part of the telling of Palestinian history, be it literary critic Edward Said, or the prominent politician Hanan Ashrawi. Even today, at a moment in which Christians are fleeing from the Middle East in historic numbers, a Palestinian named Yacoub Shaheen, the son of a Syrian Orthodox Christian carpenter from Bethlehem, won the hugely popular singing competition Arab Idol in 2017, by a landslide. He celebrated by singing a Palestinian nationalistic song; it was not long before he began advocating for Palestinian hunger strikers in prison. He makes a point of sending holiday greetings to Muslims on his social media.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Saldaña. A Muslim woman celebrates the feast of al-Khidr/St. George, while in the background a young boy plays in a costume of St. George. Traditionally, Christian mothers who cannot become pregnant pray to St. George, promising to name their children after him and to bring them to his tomb dressed in costume every year on the feast day.

On a more personal level, Sheikh Mazen told me how much the disappearance of Christians in Jerusalem has pained him, taking the time to mention every former neighbor by name. He has never forgotten the 1967 war, when his father’s tailor shop was located on the front line of the fighting between Israel and Jordan. Fearing he would lose everything, his father stored all of his sewing machines and inventory in the nearby Franciscan convent of the White Sisters for the duration of the fighting. Everything survived: he credits the nuns with saving his family’s livelihood.

What do these small holiday greetings mean, or these stories of candles lit and feast days shared, of holy books carried out of war and a single man who prays among thousands, in the larger scheme of things? As not only Christians, but other minorities disappear from the Middle East, how will it affect the world left behind, which will increasingly lose its diversity? How will the loss of these deep, if sometimes fraught relationships between faiths also affect those who leave?

That remains to be seen. But perhaps it is time to widen the conversation.

Stephanie Saldana
Stephanie Saldaña received a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. Now a resident of Jerusalem, Saldaña teaches at the Honors College for Liberal Arts and Sciences, a partnership of Bard College and Al-Quds University. She has written two books, The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith and A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide, and is the founder of Mosaic Stories, a project to preserve the threatened cultural heritage of the Middle East through research and storytelling. 
Field Notes article

The Tragedy of Otherness

Photo Credit: Alice Treuth. Kathmandu Skyline, July 2017.

A little more than a week into the Madrasa Discourses summer intensive in Kathmandu, I sat on the balcony of our hotel overlooking the Kathmandu Valley while catching up on the readings for the day’s lecture. After eight days of intense material and discussion, I was both mentally and physically exhausted. The students from India and Pakistan, graduates of Islamic instructional schools called madrasas, asked what seemed to be nonstop questions. About the West, about Christianity and Catholicism, about living in such a secular state, about the average American’s opinion of Muslims, about the American political system and our new president, and how I felt about the conflicts in the Middle East. I felt tested in my knowledge of the things I suspected I should know most intuitively: my country, my daily life, and the faith I was raised in for 20 years. As one of the first Americans these madrasa students had ever encountered and conversed with, I felt an enormous pressure to be a positive but accurate representative for the impossible-to-represent demographic of “American.”

I was particularly excited for that morning’s lecture and discussion. Dr. Leela Prasad, a professor of religious studies at Duke University, would be talking about “religion” and the “everyday” in a world of plural cosmologies. I did not yet know exactly what she meant, but I knew I was intrigued. The first reading was a section of a book by Ramchandra Gandhi titled “Advaita: Meditations on the Truth of India,” and as I read through these profound and thoughtful words about the ancient Hindu philosophy, I stopped on one sentence that dwelled in my mind for the remainder of the intensive, and ever since. “Tragedy”, Ramchandra Gandhi writes, “lies in our regarding anything or anyone as ‘other’ than ourselves” (70).

ND students Jebraune Chambers, Maggie Feighery, Nabila Mourad, and Kirsten Hanlon on a field trip to cultural sites in the Kathmandu Valley.

This statement called for immediate reflection. It had been easy, before this point, to see only the things that made the Americans, the Indians, and the Pakistanis different. We preferred to eat at different times; we had different conceptions of punctuality; we had so many questions for each other about the differences in our cultures, our daily lives, our states, and our faiths. But remove this idea of “otherness” and how are we the same? One similarity was readily apparent: we are all students. We all want to learn. As many questions as the Madrasa graduates asked me, I asked them. I learned, in two short weeks, more about India, Pakistan, eastern education, and Islam than I could have hoped or imagined. I thought about how easy it was to talk to them. Despite some difficulty understanding each other’s accents, every single graduate’s English skills impressed me, and they were not in the least bit intimidating. They responded to what seemed like the most basic and naïve questions I asked with patience, genuine warmth, and kindness. We had immense respect for each other, and this was vital for the more difficult or tense conversations we had.

A majority of the time, however, our conversations were lighthearted and humorous. We shared classic jokes from one another’s childhoods with each other, and it was rather refreshing to tell “why did the chicken cross the road” to someone who had never heard it before. We talked about each other’s families and how much we all missed them. We bonded over how new and different Nepali culture was to all of us, and we all took selfies as we toured incredible sites of the beautiful and culturally rich country.

I thought about the first evening, when I met the only non-American female in the program, sporting a face- and form-covering niqab and abaya. She referred to me as her “new sister.” This was the attitude she, and every Madrasa graduate, carried with them throughout the program. So as I sat on that porch, reflecting on how this ancient Hindu concept of Advaita had relevance in the experiences of Americans, Indians, Pakistanis, Christians, Muslims and students in Kathmandu, Nepal, I felt immense gratitude. It became increasingly clear to me that we really were much more similar than different. We are all trying to find our place, and our guiding principles and purpose, in a world that seems plagued with political unrest and senseless violence. In an increasingly secular and pluralistic world, coexistence is the goal for many peace builders. This experience made clear that not only is tolerance possible, so is harmony.

None of this can be achieved, however, if we hold to this idea of “otherness.” The simplest and most effective way to challenge it is to have personal interactions with people from different countries, cultures, and faiths. In these interactions, our similarities seem much stronger than our differences, and as a result it is easier to talk honestly and constructively about the barriers we face on our way to living in a peaceful world. Every person is unique, but we have a shared humanity stronger than our individual identities which makes communication possible. Two short weeks was nowhere near enough time to address any of the problems we faced in a complete manner. But we began conversations about secularism, modernity, “truth,” pluralism, authority, and gender equality that will continue throughout the year. I have already experienced a change in my own thinking and approach to peace building. When we see one another as human, our differences no longer seem insurmountable. I arrived in Kathmandu nervous, unsure of what to expect from 25 strangers of India and Pakistan who lived very different lives and studied and practiced a faith I knew little about. I left two weeks later after saying goodbye to my 25 new brothers and sisters and headed back to Notre Dame with renewed hope in intercultural and interfaith dialogue as a means for peace.

Margaret Feighery
A South Bend native, Maggie is pursuing her studies in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She joined the Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive in Kathmandu in July 2017.
Field Notes article

Sharing Madrasa Discourses at the United Nations

Aadil Affan presents on education in Bihar, India, at the well of the UN General Assembly.

Before joining Notre Dame’s Madrasa Discourses project, Indian madrasa graduate Aadil Affan would have told you that accommodating or accepting other cultures was a heresy (bid’ah) unacceptable to his version of Islam.

Educated in a madrasa, an Islamic religious school, for most of his formative years, Affan is a young religious scholar, a member of the ulama, and his word carries weight in his community. His perspective on Islam’s approach towards different religio-ethnic groups, on scientific innovations, and many other things, may one day guide the position of the co-religionists around him.

Yet after six months in the Madrasa Discourses project, this recent MA graduate in Arabic from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India, shared a remarkable about face, in no less an esteemed location than the United Nations (UN). Affan’s essay on global citizenship, language, and cultural understanding was selected among 2,000 submissions to the UN’s “Many Languages, One World” youth competition. He writes in his essay:

There are some religious values and cultural norms that we all share, which are acceptable to all. The contemporary world in its present situation needs dialogue among diverse peoples and communities. Such inter-religious dialogue can help to eradicate hatred between people of different faiths which is spread by evil elements. When people start connecting over common human values it leads to mutual cooperation and understanding.

UN headquarters, New York City.

On July 21st, 2017, he presented at the well of the United Nations General Assembly, proposing a solution to the grave paucity of education in his home state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest and most underdeveloped regions. No less remarkable was the fact that his essay, attached below, is written in Arabic, a second language for the young Indian. After visiting the UN, Affan joined his classmates at the Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive in Kathmandu, Nepal, where his colleagues had been involved in a rigorous exploration of how concepts such as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism intersect with Islamic thought today.

When asked about how the project has influenced him, Affan points to an essay he read in the course by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah on Islam in the United States called, “Islam and the Cultural Imperative”. “Islam is like a “crystal clear river… Its waters [] are pure, sweet, and life-giving but—having no color of their own—reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow” writes Abd-Allah (1). Assigned in a Madrasa Discourses module that shed light on the encounter and exchange between Muslims and other societies, such as Greek philosophy and Persian courtly culture, students explored the flexibility of Islam in welcoming new practices and modes of behavior. The openness that Muslim societies showed to the variety of human experience enabled them to organically plant roots in new places, and humankind has benefitted as a result, not least through the “epoch-making” translation of millions of important Greek texts to Arabic that preserved Aristotelian and other works for posterity (Gutas, 8).

In their second semester of Madrasa Discourses, students read about Islam’s rich intellectual history and its relation to local and international cultures in Dimitri Gutas’s Greek Thought, Arabic Culture; Deborah Tor’s “Islamisation of Iranian Kingly Ideals in the Persianate Fürstenspiegel”; Marshall Hodgson’s Venture of Islam; Michael Cooperson’s essay on “Culture” in Key Themes for the Study of Islam; and Abou El Fadl’s Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam. Experts, including Rashied Omar, as well as others like Gabriel Reynolds, Deborah Tor, and Thomas Burman from Notre Dame visited the online classroom to interact with students and share their knowledge about the material.

Madrasa Discourses course in Kathmandu, July 2017. Here Pakistani student Waqas Khan poses a question to the lecturer.

Channeling what he learned in an online session from Notre Dame’s Professor Rashied Omar, Affan noted that Islam is a “culture friendly” religion, and that many other religions today appreciate diverse forms of good conduct and behavior. This does not mean “blind acceptance,” Dr. Omar notes in a 2015 sermon students also read: “The process of adopting sound customary practices from local cultures was facilitated by Islamic jurisprudence through the technical process known as al-‘urf or al-‘adah” (7).[1] Yet this friendliness and openness is important because “culture governs everything about us, molding our instinctive actions and natural inclinations,” Affan went on. “It’s human nature to love peace and hate disorder.”

Originally taught a strict interpretation of Islamic tradition, which left little if any room to question the authenticity of material, or to consider the possibility of different and equally legitimate perspectives, Affan tells us the Madrasa Discourses program “has changed my way of thinking…. I am now enjoying navigating uncovered areas of Islam that were previously hidden from me.”

In his sermon, Dr. Omar enjoins: “This new reality requires a shift in mindset from an inward-looking disposition that seeks to preserve culture such that it becomes fossilized, to a disposition that is embracing of cultural transformation and growth” (10). Affan took that message to heart and applied it to his role and place in India. Through teaching and service in their respective homelands, many other Madrasa Discourses students are also actively involved in creating and strengthening Muslim identities which are deeply rooted in the Islamic intellectual tradition and influential in shaping positive and relevant Muslim discourses in the modern world. Aadil Affan’s successful essay is but one prominent example.

Congratulations, Aadil!


Biography: Aadil Affan is a graduate of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where he recently completed a Master’s in Arabic Language and Literature. Originally from Katihar Bihar India, Affan learned the value of education early and received his primary and secondary education at Nadwatul Ulama Lucknow. He plans to continue his higher education in the hopes of one day becoming a professor. He is also an avid cricket player and enjoys reading.

[1] Omar, R. (2015). Fostering Inclusive Muslim Cultural Traditions and Practices. ‘Id al-Adha Khutbah’ on 24th September 2015/10th Dhu al-Hijja 1436. Claremont Main Road Masjid, South Africa.


Dania Straughan
Dania is a graduate of the Kroc Institute’s Masters in Peace Studies, where she focused on public policy, monitoring and evaluation, and organizational management. As part of her program she conducted an ethnographic evaluation of a local South Bend organization applying dialogue to intergroup conflict, and benchmarked the use of restorative justice on North American college campuses for the ND Office of Community Standards. She previously served as outreach coordinator at the Millennium Nucleus for the Study of Stateness and Democracy in Latin America, in Santiago, Chile. She has also served as a research assistant at the UN ECLAC, and is trained in mediation in the US and Chile.
Authority, Community & Identity article

The Visceral Politics of Lament: A CM Symposium on “Born from Lament”

A girl stands on the edge of a cemetery for children at a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Photo: Andy Hall/Oxfam.

One of political theorist William Connolly’s challenges to the regulation of public speech by supporters of liberal secularism has been to expose the “visceral register” of political engagement. Rejecting the sequester of the emotional and embodied in the “private sphere,” he investigates how metaphysical commitments appear in our public life often through micro-politics of self-artistry. In other words, though some regulators of our public life seek to limit the conversation, metaphysical commitments often emerge anyway. Furthermore, these commitments often appear in the visceral register, through emotion, ritual, and art.

In his new book Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa, Emmanuel Katongole explores a constellation of manifestations of politics in a visceral register by analyzing the theology and politics of lament in East Africa. Tacking between theological and empirical analysis, Katongole gives an account of the hope that is within him, a hope that is rooted in the embodied and emotionally laden practices of lamentation.

Katongole’s book begins with the contradictions presented by the African encounter with modernity. The originary violence of colonialism produces a pendulum swing between pessimism and optimism. Katongole’s argument is, in part, that a theological account of the relationship between hope and lament can allow the transcendence of this contradictory dialectic. “In the midst of suffering,” Katongole argues, “hope takes the form of arguing and wrestling with God” (xvi). Lament as wrestling with God is not a private, or merely spiritual, matter. Rather, echoing here Connolly’s insight, Katongole argues that the visceral practices of lament are inescapably political.

Katongole’s book proceeds through a method of portraiture, juxtaposing biblical narratives with representations of concrete embodiments of lament in East Africa. This method produces a many sided prism, through which the central argument that lament and hope are irreducibly connected shines through. Katongole takes us episodically through multiple dimensions of lament—cultural, theological, political and more—and with each new episode we learn more about the texture of lamentation and why it is such a necessary practice.

In the following symposium, four commentators offer an insightful collection of observations, affirmations and critiques of Katongole’s work. Contending Modernities collaborator and Professor of Political Science at University of California Irvine Cecelia Lynch writes in her essay appreciatively regarding Katongole’s thick theological exposition. For her, this inescapably metaphysically laden account of politics is what the discourse of political science needs to make sense of the complex dynamics of political and social change in East Africa. She questions, however, whether Katongole has given adequate attention to the complex mix of religious dynamics present in the contexts out of which he writes. While she does not call him to cast off his unapologetic Christian theology, she asks Katongole to consider how Christians as Christians might make sense of the lament of those who don’t share their Christian faith. Whereas Lynch invites Katongole to consider the religious (and nonreligious) diversity of his context, Tinyiko Maluleke, Professor of Theology at the University of Pretoria, critiques Katongole for his lack of engagement with the rich, internally plural theological discourse occurring across Africa. Though Maluleke appreciates Katongole’s scriptural and empirical engagements, he worries that his claims about Africa writ large are too grandiose and in their “descriptive haste” miss important developments that may, ultimately, strengthen Katongole’s argument. Also in the vein of history, Paul Ocobock, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, wonders how the laments featured in Katongole’s work draw upon historical precedents. Ocobock celebrates Katongole’s departure from history, however, insofar as he disrupts the long and lachrymose characterization by the west of Africa as the “Dark Continent.” Finally, Professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University William Cavanaugh pushes an affirmation made by both Ocobock and Lynch further to ask what the West stands to learn from Africa. Cavanaugh turns the gaze back on Western modernity and invites Katongole to critique the shallow optimism that animates late modern politics.

Each of these commentators raise significant questions for Katongole, questions which indicate, ultimately, the strength of his work for shifting the paradigm of our understanding the complex, context-specific ways in which modernity has collided with East Africa.

Kyle Lambelet
Kyle Lambelet, PhD is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Emory University's Candler School of Theology and a Research Associate with Contending Modernities. His research focuses on the intersections of religion, ethics, conflict, and peace with particular attention to the ethics of nonviolence.
Field Notes article

Intersectionality of Religion and Social Identity: The Chinese of Banda Aceh

Photo Credit: Adnan Ali. “Into the Lights.”


Aceh, with its special autonomy and self government model, has a special right to apply shari’a law. The region has attracted frequent media coverage for various reasons: the armed political conflict, the 2004 earthquake and tsunami disaster, and shari’a law cases, among others. While it is known as the stronghold Muslim community in Indonesia, Aceh as a provincial territory is also home to religious and cultural minorities, such as the Chinese, locally known as “Tionghoa” or “orang Cina.” Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, is an interesting area to observe or learn about the Aceh Chinese community’s cultural and religious dynamics. This short article will discuss the case of the Chinese in Banda Aceh area, with some comparison to another Chinese community in Tamiang, a district located in the provincial border between Aceh and North Sumatra (a province that statistically has quite a significant number of non-Muslims). Through this narrative, the essay will address how political, religious, and economic sources of authority affect the social acceptance and rejection of the Chinese community.


Chinese Community in Banda Aceh.

Photo Credit: Adnan Ali. “Red Lanterns.”

Chinese migrants have a long history in several regions in Sumatra, including Aceh. They settled in several areas of Aceh, not only in the big city of Banda Aceh, but also in several sub-districts across Aceh. In terms of religion, most of those Chinese are either Buddhist or Christians. In Banda Aceh, they live predominantly around the area called Peunayong, now referred to as the city’s “Chinatown.” Most of them work as traders or business men/women selling groceries, food, and clothing. There are two notable Chinese temples along Peunayong’s main road. Apart from the Peunayong area and its surroundings, some Chinese in Banda Aceh also live in the Goheng area, across a small river near the Teuku Umar main road, and in the Setui business area nearby. One of the Chinese community leaders in Banda Aceh mentioned that historically the Goheng area was a community of Hokkian Chinese migrants. After the tsunami disaster, some of the Chinese community also moved to the Pantee Riek and Neuheun villages into new homes in the “perumahan Budha Tzu Chi” complexes funded by a “Tionghoa” organization for the people affected by the 2004 tsunami.


Authority and Community: Social Acceptance and Resistance

It has been years since shari’a law was formally instated in Aceh in 2002 and since the conflict between the Indonesian government and Aceh independent movement ended with the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding in 2005. Over the years of armed conflict and its aftermath, the construction of local identity as “Acehnese” (orang Aceh) and Muslim became more dominant. While the Chinese (Buddhist and Christians) and the local people (mostly Muslim) have coexisted relatively peacefully in Banda Aceh since Chinese settlers arrived in the nineteenth century, or even before, in the last 50 years politics and armed conflict have caused many to feel unsafe or flee.

When the armed conflict in Aceh escalated in the late 1970’s, boosted by the establishment in 1976 of the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Aceh Independent Movement), some acts of terror caused members of non-local ethnicities like the Chinese and Javanese (though majority Muslim) to leave Aceh. However, many Chinese returned, especially after the signing of the 2005 peace agreement. Earlier in 1965, the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) resurgence had much the same effect, and many Chinese fled Aceh for security reasons.

Both religious and community leaders as well as state authorities have particular impact on the social acceptance or rejection of, as well as policies that affect, the ‘other’. For example, Chinese Buddhists and Christians practice their cultural and religious observance as minorities. Some of their cultural and religious events, like Chinese New Year (Imlek), are quite well known locally as “uroe raya Cina” (Chinese holiday). When the late Mawardi Nurdin was mayor of Banda Aceh, there was a big public Chinese festival held in the city in 2011. However, this event was discontinued after his death. The acceptance or rejection of a public recognition of this Chinese holiday, in this case, was dependent on the will of state authorities and political leaders. The impact of these leaders is also felt in other ambits, such as with names. The Chinese in Aceh, like other Chinese elsewhere in Indonesia, adopted an Indonesian name apart from their Chinese given and family name. These local names are mostly utilized for special and official purposes. Having an Indonesian name has not always been optional, however; the New Order government of Suharto enforced the taking of local names. The fourth Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid, rescinded this order and additionally allowed the Chinese religion of Confucianism to be officially recognized by the government.


Religious and Social Identity

Most Chinese settlers were Buddhist upon arriving to Aceh. Quite a number of them converted to Christianity around the 1970s. The Chinese now make up a significant portion of the Christian population in Banda Aceh. Some of them are affiliated with the Methodist Church in Kampung Mulia. There are also two Chinese Buddhist temples nearby. The Methodist Church offers primary and secondary education, and most students are Chinese. Meanwhile, there is a Catholic Church near Peunayong, and Catholic Chinese are also part of its congregation.

Photo Credit: Nugraha Kusuma. “Chinese New Year.”

During Abdurrahman Wahid’s presidency, the Chinese cultural performance of Barongsai (a dragon dance dating from fourth century China) was recognized officially by the government, together with other aspects of Chinese culture, after having been banned for years, especially during the New Order regime. In 2011, the Barongsai was performed at a Peunayong festival and attracted the attention of many Acehnese people and visitors. This Barongsai was at once contested and later prohibited, especially through municipal government policy. More recently, from 2014 until the present, the Barongsai has been performed again. Recognizing the potential for polemic and resistance, the Chinese have tried to avoid further rejection by combining the Barongsai performance with the seudati, a local Acehnese dance. Now when the Barongsai is held, seudati dancers perform around the Barongsai dragon dancer.


Conversion to Islam: Muallaf and Muallaf Organizations

In addition to those who converted to Christianity, a few Chinese also converted to Islam. A village leader (keuchik) from the area near Peunayong noted that three Chinese people from his village had converted to Islam within the last decade. They converted for a number of reasons, include marriage. Mixed marriages between Chinese and locals occur mostly in the second or the third generation, with almost none in the first generation.  There is no clear statistical data from formal sources about the number of Chinese who have converted to Islam. One Chinese leader interviewed estimates that around 200 Chinese have converted to Islam in Aceh. Newly converted Chinese are referred as “muallaf,” or more specifically “Cina muallaf.” On the Aceh border with North Sumatra, in areas like Tamiang, there are said to be many more converts to Islam, not only from Chinese community, but also from other ethnicities, such as the Batak (some of whom migrated from across the provincial border to Tamiang). Converts to another religion are often expelled from their extended family. This exclusion normally persists for years, sometimes for two generations. This research has recorded several personal stories of struggle from converts to Islam, and their situation can be quite difficult, socially. On the one hand, these converts were expelled from their family and ethnic groups, but on the other hand, they are not yet fully accepted by their converted religious community.

This situation has led to initiatives by Chinese converts in Banda Aceh like Mr. R, a business man affiliated with the Aceh Independent Movement. He helped found Formula (Forum Muallaf Aceh, or Forum for Aceh Converts) in 2010 and received support from the provincial government. However, the organization split due to internal conflict, and PMAS (Persatuan Muallaf Aceh Sejahtera, or Unity of Converts for a Prosperous Aceh) was founded, led by Ms. F. The branch of PMAS in Tamiang actively advocates for the betterment of muallaf, economically and socially. One of the interesting phenomena observed during interviews with [muallaf] Chinese was the way they affiliated themselves to local identity. For instance, a Chinese [muallaf] leader claimed that she is more native than another Chinese Indonesian: “I am more native than him, he is from Medan, and I am locally from Goheng Banda Aceh” (“…Saya ini lebih asoe lhok (penduduk asli) dari pada…, dia itu Cina Medan, saya keturunan Go Heng. Asli Banda Aceh, saya…”). She was, in essence, arguing that being more ‘local’ as someone who was born in Aceh supported and provided her with particular privilege and status. That is, the status of being closer to “native,” and as such less rejected because of commonalities with the Muslim Acehnese majority.

The process of social co-existence between majority and minority occurs is dynamic, not stable. Several other factors apart from religion or ethnicity also play a part in the process, such as politics, power and economics. Nevertheless, in the overall public space in Aceh with its special case of shari’a law, violent conflict has not re-emerged, nor have there been public conflicts or contestations. This is in line with the findings from the research and development unit of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in which Aceh is categorized as a “passively tolerant and low violence” community with regards to interreligious relations in Indonesia. In the case of Aceh, [contemporary] narratives fed the formation of “local” identity, when the notion of who is/was “local” (which is apparently based on racial/ethnic identity), and who is/was “other” became stronger, especially during and after the Aceh armed conflict (1976-2005). These insider/outsider contestations as usual influence the notion of whose culture is dominant and whose is lesser.


Some references:

Suryadinata, Leo, Ethnic Chinese in Contemporary Indonesia, Singapore: ISEAS, 2008

Syafi’eh, “Terang Lampion di Serambi Mekkah: Relasi-Muslim Tionghoa di Aceh Timur in Noviandi dan Muhammad Alkaf”, Pembentukan Kesalehan dan Artikulasi Islam di Aceh, Langsa: Zawiyah Serambi Ilmu Pengetahuan, 2015.

Usman, Rani, Etnis Cina Perantauan di Aceh, Jakarta: Yayasan Obor, 2009.

“Cerita warga etnis Tionghoa tinggal di negeri Syariah”, Harian Merdeka online (, retrieved on 14 March, 2016.

Eka Srimulyani
Professor of Sociology at the Department of Social and Political Science, State Islamic University of Ar-Raniry, Banda Aceh. Among her latest publications is “Teungku Inong Dayah: Female Religious Leaders’ Authority and Agency in Contemporary Aceh”, in Feener, Michael R. et al., Islam and the Limits of the State: Reconfigurations of Ritual, Doctrine, Community and Authority in Contemporary Aceh, Leiden: Brill, 2016.
Global Currents article

The Portland Samaritans and Politics Moving Forward

Photo Credit: Joe A. Kunzler Photo, AvgeekJoe Productions, growlernoise-AT-gmail-DOT-com. “#Trimet MAX Blue Line at Beaverton TC”

A man is spewing racist and anti-Muslim invective against two young women, one of whom is wearing a hijab. It’s Friday afternoon—rush-hour in Portland, OR—and the train is crowded. Three men move to quiet him. They are pleading with him to settle down, to get off the train. One is making concessions, saying that yes, the man is a taxpayer, but he’s scaring people and he needs to get off. As the train glides towards the next stop, the man pulls a knife. In a flash, he cuts the throats of the three men. Two of them die. The third is still recovering.

It is unimaginable. I’ve ridden that train countless times, jostling with others, happy to be part of the city’s life and, at the same time, looking forward to getting back to my leafy backyard. The reality of it presses into me. The story runs off the page, escaping the banality that envelopes the news. I feel it, the horror of it and the astounding, shining bravery of those who rose to shield the young women.

The suffering of those close to the event is the part that is truly impossible to grasp: the parents and friends of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a recent Reed College graduate; those surrounding Rick Best, a veteran and father of four; the long recovery of Micah Fletcher and his people; the pain endured by the women who were harassed and the fear felt by their families; and the trauma experienced by others on the train. Their story is theirs to tell. Namkai-Meche’s mother, Asha Deliverance, is telling hers with astounding eloquence and humanity. She is imploring us to reflect and to work for change. We must heed her call to think about the future we want. It’s a political question, but only because politics refers to our communal life, to the life of a group of people, moving together through the world, hoping to make it home safe.

Photo Credit: Tony. “Empty Car”

It hardly bears mentioning that these deaths were part of a pattern of rising white nationalist, anti-Muslim fervor connected to the candidacy and election of Donald Trump to the presidency. The killer’s track record of hate speech makes that much clear. His actions on the train were part of a chain of death threats, mosque burnings, and murders that has snaked across the country since Trump first got on the campaign trail. These events have led some to ask if liberalism—defined roughly as a concern with individual freedom and tolerance—is in its death throes or if it was always unable to live up to the promise of incorporating real difference, cultural, ethnic, or religious.

Somehow, Islam has been tied up in this question for a long time, at least as a theoretical matter. In her masterful book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, the scholar of Islam, Denise A. Spellberg, unwinds the story of how the founders of the United States understood Islam. For Jefferson, Islam was a litmus test of values. More than a reality, it was an ideal through which one could test the boundaries of toleration. Jefferson supported the tolerance of Islam as proof of his own. Sadly, he does not appear to have imagined that the existence of Muslims in the republic was not just a theoretical future. He likely lived amongst Muslims, or their decedents, who were enslaved on his plantation. Spellberg also writes of a curious figure, John Leland. A friend of Jefferson and a Baptist minister, Leland squinted at tolerance as an inadequate sentiment and argued for fuller bodied embrace of Islam and other religions.

Leland’s is a sentiment I hear with some frequency these days. In my own field of Islamic studies, some scholars hold up Islam as a retort to liberal tolerance and secularism. Often drawing on the work of the Catholic philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, these Islamicists point to the Muslim tradition as an alternative to shallow and callow liberalism. For them, a tradition, such as Islam or Catholicism, animates people at the core of their being. They argue that liberals dilute themselves and deceive others when they claim that our deeper needs and identities can be bracketed, allowing us to enter into the public sphere as equal, rational agents, tolerant of difference but only inasmuch as it doesn’t encumber public life. Really, these scholars argue, this “go along to get along” philosophy is always a cypher for the cruel imposition of European and American values on others. The historian and literary critic, Joseph Massad, goes so far as to claim that liberalism must castigate Islam, which it paints in its funhouse mirror image, to constitute itself. Islam, in Massad’s telling, will always be excluded from liberalism.

The reality is that Muslims have participated in liberal societies, including the United States, for a very long time. Anglo-American philosophers may have used tolerance as a hypothetical test to see who could live within the polity. But tolerance also has historicity outside of these theories: it was shaped by the encounters of people over the centuries. In this sense, tolerance isn’t the purview of John Locke and other dead white philosophers. It is one of the evolving ways that people have worked out, amongst themselves, to live and travel side-by-side.

Neither can Islam made into a simple retort to liberalism. Namkai-Meche took the same Introduction to Islam course that I did more than a decade later. The course was taught by Kambiz GhaneaBassiri at Reed College. As GhaneaBassiri said in a recent radio interview, those of us, like Namkai-Meche and myself, who came to the class looking for easy rejoinders to anti-Muslim hate were bound to be frustrated. The course delved deeper than that. By illuminating the nuances of the dizzyingly diverse array of people, ideas, and practices that associate with Islam, the course showed us, implicitly, how small modern American Islamophobia is. We began to understand that Islam is infinitely more complex and the world infinitely bigger than any stereotype would allow.

Today, with tolerance threatening to slip from view, we may wonder if liberalism wasn’t so bad after all. Liberal tolerance certainly has been used as a cover for some of the world’s greatest brutalities, as its critics claim. And, they are right to remind liberals of this. But this doesn’t mean liberalism can’t be separated from fascist and colonial violence. Even in liberal philosophy, to tolerate may not be only to ignore. Tolerance might also be an active coming together of three men of different backgrounds to uphold the common good. It is tempting, anyway, to tell that story when thinking of Namkai-Meche, Best, and Fletcher on the train. Of course, that event was more than the unfolding of a pre-determined political philosophy.

Like the spontaneous protests at airports after the Trump administration released its executive order on immigration, the acts of these courageous men were a demonstration that the political exists not in the halls of Congress, the White House, or the writings of theorists. Politics unfold in spaces of transfer and traffic, where people come together for discrete moments. In such transits, new and shared understandings emerge, sustained by the collective desire to continue moving together.

Namkai-Meche’s last words—reported by a woman who pulled off her shirt to tourniquet his wound—were, “Tell everyone on this train that I love them.” We love you, too.

Sam Kigar
Samuel Kigar is a Ph.D. candidate in the Islamic studies track of Duke University's Graduate Program in Religion. His research areas include Islam in the Maghreb, modern Muslim thought, pre-modern Muslim political philosophy, and religion and law. He is currently writing a dissertation entitled, "Islamic Land: Muslim Genealogies of Territorial Sovereignty in Modern Morocco, 1930-1990.” He tweets at @sam_kigar
Theorizing Modernities article

Hospitality and Empire

Photo Credit: European Commission DG Echo. “Kawergosk 1” Refugee Camp, with Syrian Refugees. 2014.

By publishing Hospitality and Islam: Welcoming in God’s Name, the University of Edinburgh theologian Mona Siddiqui has made available a rich resource for thinking about hospitality from within the Islamic tradition. Moreover, using a comparative framework, the book connects her skillful readings of Islamic texts to the Jewish and Christian traditions, underlining important congruencies and contentions. In many ways, the book itself is premised on a rhetoric of hospitality. As she puts it in the interview, “It’s not really a social-political comment; it’s more an invitation to think about the various concepts around hospitality.” In the concluding paragraph of the book, Siddiqui writes, “The stranger and the traveller [sic] are still there in the form of refugees and migrants, except now they are identified through the political language of our age” (242-3). Hospitality and Islam aims to offer a new theological resource to these debates without claiming an explicitly political position.

The interview has mitigated some of that bet-hedging, clarifying at least two arguments that promise to bridge theology and policy, without demonstrating how exactly to build that bridge or proving its necessity. The first argument is that hospitality is not meant to be easy and immediately beneficial to the host, but it is “a sacred duty.” As Siddiqui notes in the introduction to her book, this is neither an entirely new assertion nor one that is immediately practically applicable (7). Second is that the guest must “behave” in a manner becoming of the guest/host relationship. This is where Siddiqui pivots outward from Al Ghazali’s prescriptions about the guest/host relationship, gesturing from the micro-level towards the macro, from adab literature on “manners and virtuous behavior” (34) to issues of “integration” within so-called host societies. This is also where the how and why questions become inescapable, at the risk of making us pesky guests of her generous scholarship.

Consider her use of the language of reciprocity, matching rights with responsibilities: “Well, if you go to visit a country, or if you become accepted by a country as a refugee or through asylum, there are obligations as well as to how you integrate into that society, because the host has done their bit in welcoming you.” It is troubling to think of tethering universal human rights to civic responsibilities to specific nation-states or, worse yet, to assimilation to imagined communities through such moralizing rhetoric. Of course, the international system of asylum applications, the criminal justice system, and whatever remains of the beleaguered welfare state all already operate in a similar logic, demanding that the needy demonstrate that they are “deserving.” The compensatory benefits of adding a further religious dimension to moral narratives of benevolent “hosts” under the threat of unscrupulous “guests” are not clear. Will calling hospitality a “sacred duty” and urging societies to shoulder its burdens “in the name of God” make up for the dangers of delineating duties for those brutalized by the same systems that have made the “hosts” at home in capitalist modernity? Or does it merely replicate and update Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”: “No tawdry rule of kings, But toil of serf and sweeper, The tale of common things.” Except this time, within this new muscular, postcolonial hospitality, the erstwhile settler gets to play gracious host.

Photo Credit: Jonathan McIntosh. “Caution Economic Migrants”. At the US-Mexican border near Tijuana.

All this brings two further questions. First, and perhaps the most obvious: how useful can “hospitality” be as a concept with which to think through contemporary crises of immigration and statelessness? Here the answer is complicated not just by the gap between the logic of “the moral person” and the logic of “the legal person” as Siddiqui underlines in the book (7), but also by the historical purchases of “home-making,” the right of return, and what Anzaldúa has called the “fear of going home” in the postcolonial world (Anzaldúa, 42; see also Stoler; Kaplan; Le Espiritu). Given the extensive transnational feminist literature on the imbrications of the imperial with the domestic, the host/guest and host/stranger relationships and the very concept of home must be deeply historicized and problematized before they can operate as more than mere metaphors naturalizing global inequality.

The second, and perhaps more interesting, question relates to the impulse in the contemporary Western milieu that has made scholars mine the concept of hospitality in this way. Siddiqui, after all, is offering resources in part as a response to the proliferation of discourses on “hospitality” and “tolerance” in Europe during the most recent refugee crisis. Perhaps the rhetorical operations performed around such concepts with pre-modern, sacred roots and echoes tell us about Europe’s own identity crises as “the empire comes home” (Webster). At the very least, these discourses mark a panic regarding the perceived and real failures of the “secular” language of human rights, the rule of international law, and the system of nation-states—failures that are hardly news to the average denizen of the so-called “developing world.” This then is a story of contending modernities indeed: the new scholarly life of “hospitality” is a way station on the search for “pre-modern” knowledges that must be made to serve the present. Siddiqui’s offering from within the Islamic tradition is gracious indeed. What will the intellectual wayfarers do with it?

Perin Gurel
Perin Gürel is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Concurrent Assistant Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her first book, The Limits of Westernization: A Cultural History of America in Turkey (Columbia University Press, 2017), explores how gendered stock figures and tropes associated with the concept of “westernization” in Turkey have intersected with U.S.-Turkish relations in the twentieth century. Her work has also appeared in American Quarterly, the Journal of Transnational American Studies, Journal of Turkish Literature, American Literary History (forthcoming), and elsewhere. Gürel is currently working on a new manuscript that will examine humor and conspiracy theories about political Islam from a transnational perspective.
Field Notes article

Madrasa Graduates: Children of Abraham and Aristotle

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. “School of Athens” by Rafael at the Vatican. The fresco features Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, the Andalusian Muslim polymath.

Have you ever wondered how your everyday Muslim connects with the Islamic tradition today? The connection takes place as it always has: at the feet of scholars. More precisely, it happens in air-conditioned auditoriums at knowledge retreats in universities and hotels around the world. These gatherings typically consist of teachings in Islamic jurisprudence, ethics, and theology, offering theories of the soul, temperaments and humors, and virtue ethics that originate in ancient Hellenistic philosophy.

However, these teachings are credited to scholars like Raghib al-Isfahani and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali instead of Aristotle or Plato. This is because by the eleventh century of the Common Era, ancient learning had been completely assimilated into Islamic thought. So deep and thorough was the influence of Greek, Indian, and Persian communities on Islamic intellectual and political life that the different strands became virtually indistinguishable.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. “Ottoman astronomers at work around Taqī al-Dīn at the Istanbul Observatory.”

The fusion of “foreign” learning with Arabic revelation in the formation of classical Islamic thought cannot be overstated. It is vital to recognize the debt to foreign influences for two reasons: 1) it precludes naïve and even irresponsible appeals to adhere to some kind of “pure” Islam that existed in the past, and 2) it encourages openness in religious thought that is necessary for religion’s continued relevance through changing times. If the essence of “tradition” is to be found not in its content but in its dynamism, then fealty to tradition can be redefined, shifting it from an emphasis on “transmission” to an emphasis on “openness” to new ideas.

The Templeton-funded project to “advance theological and scientific literacy in madrasa discourses” is designed to bring about this very shift. Tradition, we argue, is not the mere repetition of the creativity of past scholars. Tradition is active participation in ongoing creative syntheses, keeping in mind shifts in human understanding. The project is guided by an “elicitive” pedagogical method that draws on resources that are already present in Islamic thought. The purpose of an elicitive approach is to preserve authenticity and legitimacy: the encounter with new knowledge comes as an extension of, rather than rupture with, the inherited Islamic scholarly tradition.

Throughout the course of human history, philosophers, scientists, and mystics have offered competing cosmologies to describe the universe we inhabit and experience. Before the mesmerizing advance of science and technology that we see today, competing views of the structure and composition of the universe could not only be internally coherent but also equally good at explaining things around us. Today, premodern cosmologies must contend with the reality of modern science if they are to remain relevant. This does not mean that everyone must become a materialist or succumb to scientism; however, it does mean that the knowledge systems and philsophical presuppositions that propel and sustain science must be intelligently grappled with.

Take the following as an example of unintelligent grappling. In one of my undergraduate courses, we read Rachel Carson’s argument against the use of pesticides. Reading from one of her environmental essays in Silent Spring, an eager student quickly bought her argument hook, line, and sinker. He proceeded to extend Carson’s compelling argument in our classroom discussion without realizing that it relies on the scientific theory of biological evolution. When I asked the student what he thought of that, he was taken aback because, as a traditional Muslim, he had not yet come to terms with evolution.

This kind of an incoherent intellectual framework is neither compelling nor sustainable. It will not only continue to alienate future generations of thinking Muslims from their tradition, it will also keep Muslim thought ossified and irrelevant in the modern world. One of my Quran teachers used to love to repeat this story: “Once I asked a colleague of mine—who was a medical doctor—what he thought about evolution. He replied without batting an eye: ‘Why, it’s disbelief!’ When I told him I was not seeking a fatwa but rather a scientific perspective, he changed his tune: ‘Well, the evidence is very compelling!’” (I can still hear the story in an endearing lilting South Asian English accent!)

If Islam is to thrive as a religious and intellectual tradition that cultivates healthy individuals and communities in the age of modern techno-science, it is imperative for traditional Muslim theology to come to terms with the ontological worldview, epistemological assumptions, and sociological implications of modern science. This does not mean that Muslim theology should surrender unconditionally to science’s terms. It does mean, however, that Muslim thought needs to understand and contend with these terms with integrity and sophistication, not with off-hand dismissal or asystematic appropriation. I suspect that real intellectual engagement will lead to new syntheses in a creative process of knowledge assimilation and appropriation which was a hallmark of the classical Islamic scholarly tradition.

An exemplar for the “madrasa discourses” project is none other than the celebrated Ghazali, mentioned above. In his reflections on his own intellectual journey as recorded in his autobiographical Deliverance from Error, Ghazali lambasts the religious fool who refutes his intellectual opponent with strawman arguments or with naïve understandings of his own tradition. Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Islamic Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, draws inspiration from Ghazali in his work on Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination: “Frustrated by the violation of common sense demonstrated by some implacable theologians, Ghazali reminds us of the wise dictum that ‘a rational foe is better than an ignorant friend.’ With bruising sarcasm, he said elsewhere: ‘To shun an ignoramous is to make an offering to God!’” (p. 181). An essential prerequisite to critique, says Ghazali, is to first not only understand but also to articulate the opposing point of view sympathetically. Ghazali, who has been widely recognized as an intellectual “renewer” of tradition, serves as a model for us in this respect.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. “Illustration by Al-Biruni (973-1048) of different phases of the moon, from Kitab al-Tafhim (in Persian).”

The notion that tradition needs constant updating or renewal is embedded within Islamic teachings, and it fits right in with our elicitive pedagogical approach. Renewal takes place when two sources of knowledge—of the world and of scripture—collide. There is only one requisite for the success of an endeavor that brings different intellectual systems into conversation: the use of common terms that are intelligible to both. As in the case of translation from one language to another, seamless communication is only possible when another language is mastered. In our case, the language that madrasa graduates must begin to learn is the language of modern science and contemporary academic frames for the study of nature, society, and history.

Our hope is that the intimate intellectual encounter that we facilitate will lead to greater respect, understanding, and even trust, across cultures and civilizations. Trust lays the foundation for mutual enrichment, reconciliation, and enduring peace. Given that the intellectual heritage of Catholicism shares so much in common with the Islamic past, as children of both Abraham and Aristotle, it is no coincidence that a project of this kind is located at the University of Notre Dame, one of the world’s premier Catholic institutions of higher learning.

Mahan Mirza
Dr. Mahan Mirza PhD (Yale University, 2010) is Professor of the Practice in the Contending Modernities program at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, housed in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Having spent several years working with religious groups around issues of social justice before earning an MA from Hartford Seminary in the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations and a PhD from Yale University’s program in religious studies, Dr. Mahan Mirza comes to the practice and study of Islam from a diverse set of perspectives. Prior to joining Notre Dame in fall 2016, Dr. Mirza contributed to the establishment of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college to be accredited in the United States, serving as the college’s Dean of Faculty from 2013-2016.
Field Notes article

Identity and Truth as Tools for Peacebuilding

Photo Credit: Kirsten Hanlon. Madrasa Discourses students join Notre Dame undergraduates in a walk through Kathmandu, Nepal. L-R: Md Zeeshan, Nabila Mourad, Kirsten Hanlon, Molly Burton, Margaret Feighery, Ghulam Rasool, and Alaina Anderson.

As I entered the Yatri Hotel conference room, the site of the Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive program, I was taken aback by the unique environment I was about to inhabit for the next fifteen days. Here I was, a female nineteen-year-old Catholic undergraduate student, surrounded by Indian and Pakistani men, and one Pakistani woman, each possessing advanced degrees in Islamic Studies. How would we bridge our interfaith and intercultural divides to engage in meaningful conversation?  How could I be an active participant in discussions about Islamic theological renewal when I had so little experience with the subject?  I feared I was in over my head.

Little did I know these religious and cultural differences would enrich the program rather than hamper it. The more divergent our views were on a topic, the more we learned from one another. Slowly but surely, friendship and trust replaced wariness and doubt. As each day passed conversations grew in complexity, and the significance of personal identity and “truth” became increasingly apparent.

Photo Credit: Kirsten Hanlon. Dr. Leela Prasad lectures at the Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive.

The concept of identity in the modern world implies intersectionality. We are defined by our genders, nationalities, religions, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, sexual orientations, castes, and many other aspects of our lives. The interactions I had with the madrasa graduates clearly displayed the varying weights that these identity markers hold for different individuals. For most of these students, religion is at the core of their identities. It impacts how they view current events, structure their family lives, make moral decisions, and interact with others. Their common Muslim identity is more important than their distinct Indian and Pakistani nationalities, allowing them greater understanding in these intercultural dialogues. While my Catholic faith is a part of my identity, it plays a less significant role in how I approach the world. My code of ethics is more informed by my life experiences than the Bible, and I would likely connect more easily with a Protestant American than a Catholic Argentinian. The centrality of religion in how these students define themselves influences their views on politics, gender roles, and scientific findings.

The importance of Muslim identity was most apparent in our discussions of social inclusion in Nepal. Towards the end of our first week in Kathmandu, we had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Prakash Bhattarai about his work with the Centre for Social Change and the Association of Youth Organizations in Nepal. During a question and answer session, I was surprised by how focused the madrasa graduates were on delineating the role of Muslims in Nepali society. Although Dr. Bhattarai, a graduate of the Kroc Institute’s Masters in Peace Studies, had mentioned how Muslims fit into the caste system in Nepal, often as members of the oppressed Dalit caste, it was far from the heart of his presentation. In any case, students responded with questions about Muslim persecution, whether seats are reserved for Muslims in the Parliament of Nepal, and Nepal’s Muslim population.

The movement of conversation away from policy changes that promote gender equality, improved literacy, and communal harmony towards the current state of affairs for the Muslim minority in Nepal seemed counterintuitive to me. With all the knowledge that Dr. Bhattarai had to share about effective political and social change to bring about greater religious coexistence, why limit the conversation to a discussion of one faith’s prosperity? As a female Peace Studies major, I would not have thought to direct my attention to the welfare of the Catholic minority in Nepal when this lecture could teach me so much about a broader successful social inclusion movement. However, my faith is not at the center of my identity, as it is for many of the madrasa graduates. This experience attuned me to the impact that our identities can have on how we approach opportunities for learning and which narratives we are drawn towards hearing and telling.

The greatest conceptual and cultural challenge I faced during this intensive program stemmed from our differing ideas about “truth.”  On our first day of the program, both the madrasa graduates and Notre Dame students were given the opportunity to pose a question towards the group. One madrasa graduate said, “As Muslims, we believe the Qur’an is the Divine Truth, what do you think it is?”  This difference in perspective was the greatest stumbling block for me in many of the critical conversations we had over the course of the summer intensive. How could I convey my confidence in scientific truths without dismissing their adherence to the Qur’anic texts?  For example, I discussed the importance of natural science education with one student who shared that he had chosen to study biology as part of his secondary education. We bonded over our fascination with genetics and discussed the theory of evolution. To my surprise, he said that despite his knowledge of the subject, he could not accept evolution as truth because it directly contradicts the creation story in the Qur’an. I asked whether he could accept evolution as the means by which God created the first humans, as many Christians now believe, rather than a negation of God’s involvement in the process, but he insisted that the Qur’an is clear and literal in its explanation of the creation of Adam, the first human being. I struggled to come to terms with this standpoint considering the personal experience that this student had with the surmounting evidence supporting evolution. Our disagreement on this issue could not be resolved without one of us adjusting our opposing views on the literal interpretation and infallibility of the Qur’anic verses.

Photo Credit: Kirsten Hanlon. Discussions on identity, religion, politics, and gender continued long past class times. Here Hanlon and Ghulam Rasool  discuss over dinner.

As I sought explanations for this unswaying faith in Scripture over the course of the program, one common justification came to light: The Qur’an is constant, but science and modernity are always changing. Many of these students believe that the Qur’an and Sunnah are the only certain sources of truth, given directly to man by God, and that any other source of knowledge is prone to human error. The verses of Scripture will never change, but researchers will update theories and make new findings on a regular basis. Why should Muslims doubt their stable sacred texts when there is already so much flux in the theories of the modern world? I found this point difficult to debate without challenging the literal inerrancy of the Qur’an, but perhaps that challenge is exactly what I was there to provide. The Madrasa Discourses program aims to facilitate harmony and understanding between traditional Islamic thought and modern scientific and social realities. This goal cannot be accomplished without difficult conversations and confrontations with contrasting perspectives of truth. I hope that presenting my simultaneous belief in modern science and Catholicism allowed the madrasa graduates to reconsider their interpretations of Scripture and recognize the consistency that can exist between modernity and religion.

I left Kathmandu with an intense appreciation for the conversations I had with peers, scholars, and professors. As excited as I was to continue our interfaith and intercultural dialogue throughout the coming year through the Madrasa Discourses Research Lab, I felt that the future of this theological renewal project was largely out of my hands. It was the responsibility of the madrasa graduates to bring the changes we discussed back to their communities to bring about conciliation between tradition and modernity.

Just a week after returning from Nepal, my perception that I played only a supporting role in this journey was challenged by a homily given at my local parish. The priest spoke about how we must stay on the straight and narrow path given to us by God in the face of changing social realities, stating that we may not agree with Church teachings, but we do not get to decide what is right in this world. I was amazed by the similarities between this homily and the Islamic viewpoints, as expressed by the madrasa graduates, that we had been discussing during the intensive. I realized that theological renewal is not limited to the Islamic faith. While there may be more contentions between Islam and modernity, Catholicism certainly has room to grow in its acceptance of modern realities and updating of Scriptural interpretation. In fact, strictly literal readings of the Bible still occur within certain sects of Christianity, so this issue of renewal extends beyond the Islamic faith. As my peers in India and Pakistan are working towards updating their tradition, I will do the same in my faith community. I am confident that the Madrasa Discourses project will play a major role in relieving the tension between religion and modernity, and I am so grateful to the Madrasa Discourses team, Notre Dame International, and the John Templeton Foundation for the opportunity I was given to take part in this work.

Kirsten Hanlon
Kirsten Hanlon is a Neuroscience and Behavior major at the University of Notre Dame, with a minor in Peace Studies. She joined the Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive in Kathmandu in July of 2017.
Theorizing Modernities article

The Dangerous Hope of Visceral Lament: A Response to Lynch, Ocobock, Cavanaugh and Maluleke

Photo Credit: Josep Casas. An abandoned building near Bukavu, DRC.

My gratitude to Kyle Lambelet, for organizing this CM book symposium and for inviting professors Bill Cavanaugh, Cecelia Lynch, Tinyiko Maluleke, and Paul Ocobock to review and comment on my Born from Lament. To them I am extremely grateful for having taken the time to read and to respond to Born from Lament. I am very much humbled by the generosity of their reviews and for the many positive comments and sentiments of praise for the book’s argument, style and structure. That all the commentators praised the book as providing a fresh, provocative and unique contribution to scholarship in general and African theological scholarship in particular is in great part due, I think, to its the methodology of portraiture, which as Maluleke notes, lends “the narrative of the book the correct cadence, the right density of argument, as well as the necessary depth of inquiry.” While on the whole the reviews are celebratory, they also raise a number of critical issues. Maluleke, in particular, questioned whether the text engaged with the rich plurality of theological discourses across Africa. Instead of responding to each of the critical elements one by one, I thought it might be best for me to highlight five key features of Born from Lament. Doing so allows me not only to rehearse some conclusions regarding the book’s unique contribution, but also to respond to the critical issues raised by the reviewers.

1. Beyond dichotomies

Both Cecelia Lynch and Bill Cavanaugh are right that attending to the visceral register of lament allows one to glimpse the possibilities of a new form of sociality (politics) that disrupts the conceptual dichotomies imposed by “modernity”: politics/religion, public/private, secular/religious, state/church, and to these binaries, I would add ‘individual/community’, ‘modern/traditional,’ male/female, and Catholic/Protestant. What is reflected in the lives of the individuals whose portraits I develop is a politics of excess (“excess of love”) that is neither modern nor traditional, Catholic nor Protestant. In this connection, Maluleke is wrong both factually (to claim that I attend only to Catholic actors and neglect non-Catholic actors: Angelina Atyam is a born again Evangelical; David Kasali is a Pentecostal pastor of the Africa Inland Church), but also conceptually, to imagine that the politics of this ‘excess of love’ can still be defined through the traditional registers of denominational confines. It is this excess that also partly provides a response to Lynch’s question (whether the excess of love is for Christians alone or also for non-Christians), and to Ocobock’s question as to whether lament is a personal experience with God alone, or something performed within the expansive community network. What I hope is revealed through the different portraits is not only how suffering and violence shatters communities, but also how lament (as resistance to this shattering) generates a community of compassion and an agency of advocacy on behalf of suffering others. In this way, the expansive community generated by lament disrupts the usual binaries individual/community, Christian/non-Christian. Accordingly, what I find particularly telling of the different portraits is that precisely because they are grounded within their particular convictions, the communities they form display a radical sense of hospitality and inclusiveness that explodes and reconstitutes the boundaries of ‘who are my people.’

2. Redefining politics beyond Denmark

In Born from Lament, I argue that what the visceral experience of lament (Jeremiah, Jesus and Munziriwa) is about is the very heart of politics. The goal of their lament and protest is not simply to call politics to make room for the visceral (to appear now and again); it is not simply for politics to become more just, more caring or more democratic; they call for a re-definition (re-invention) of politics itself. Lynch is thus right to note that my project is far more radical than that of William Connolly, in that I am concerned about the ontological and epistemological foundations of a non-violent society. What Born from Lament seeks, and to a great measure succeeds in doing, is to reveal that the “foundation” of this politics of non-violence lies in unfathomable depth of human suffering and the solidarity (with God and with others) that this experience of can generate. This is where my project is fundamentally at odds with Paul Gifford’s celebration of Denmark as the telos of Africa history. Gifford’s Denmark is the epitome of the “officially optimistic society” (Douglas Halls), whose optimism is grounded in a refusal to embrace/accept suffering and thus the political possibilities that could, as Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa would put it, be seen only by eyes that have cried. Cavanaugh is right: my trouble with Gifford’s Denmark (as telos) is that it lacks eschatology. The latter would not celebrate the kind of disenchantment that Gifford proposes; but rather for a re-enchantment of our political imaginations so as to connect our mundane efforts to something deeper, something beyond and outside us.

3. The necessity of the theological

This might be the reason, and this is my third point, why a theological register might be necessary to attend to the visceral lament in our lives. If the portraits of lament in Born from Lament serve as critique of the forms of politics that are grounded on violence, which in Africa takes the form of the wanton sacrificing of the poor and weak in the self-aggrandizing libido dominandi of Africa’s political elites, they also point to the limits of secular politics, which is driven by technology and seeks to deny the experience of human suffering (thinking here again of Gifford’s “Denmark”). Embracing the reality of suffering as part of our creaturely existence and basis of our sociality also involves recognition that Africa, indeed the world, needs salvation, which lies beyond even our best efforts. Often enough it takes the visceral shattering of lament to realize this simple, but profound (i.e. saving) truth. Writing as a theologian, I was interested to trace the logic of this claim in the lives of those individuals who claim to be Christian. But if the portraits helped to confirm that only God can save, they also confirmed that not any type of God, but a particulate kind of God—an intimate, vulnerable God, a God who is born in the gash of human history—has come to dwell among us, revealing not only the depths of God’s love, but also new possibilities out of suffering with us. These new possibilities, born from suffering, include a politics of com-passion and non-violent solidarity. Whereas I am not qualified enough to make a claim that it is similar logic that is underway in the painful journeys of the non-Christian or non-religious, I am concerned that abstracted from this rich ontology, this theological matrix, lament can easily turn into a strategy (similar to ‘mediation’ and ‘reconciliation’). This, I suspect, is the same worry that Ocobock is voicing in noting the danger of  ‘stripping’ lament of its theological mooring and making it an item in the toolbox of peacebuilding strategies created by states and nongovernmental organizations. Pointing to the theological grammar of lament and attending to the inner logic of the experience of pain and suffering in the world might be one unique contribution of the theologian-peacebuilder.

4. Descriptive haste or descriptive attention?

While Maluleke credits Born from Lament for coming “close to adding a wholly new dimension of theology in Africa” (he particularly finds my use of poetry, poetic prose and metaphor riveting, and my biblical exegesis impressive and commendable), he nevertheless raises two critical concerns, which I want to respond to in these last two paragraphs. In the first place, he accuses me of ‘descriptive haste’ in claiming that no theological account of hope exists in Africa. Such a claim, he notes, overlooks the rich history (75 years) of published modern African theology, particularly the impressive contributions of African women theologians. Maluleke is right to note that I do not engage or cite African women scholars on the topic of lament. It is not that I am not familiar with the impressive work of African Women Theologians coming from the Circle and beyond. Elsewhere, I have noted that one of the hopeful developments of African theological exploration is the work of women theologians who ‘with passion and compassion’ protest and resist the forms of patriarchy and oppression within both church and society (see my Stories from Bethany). In hindsight, though, I should have engaged some of their literature, especially in my discussion on the need and urgency of hope in Africa, if only to acknowledge their theological quest grounded in lament. Moreover, there are many elements that I share with the likes of Mercy Oduyoye, Nyambura Njoroge and other members of the Circle, notably the attention to story, and the use of poetry, song and metaphor—all of which call for a more explicit connection between my work and the work of African Women theologians. But where I think that my work not only provides a much needed complement to the work of African Women theologians, but also goes deeper, is in the portraits of women that I provide (Atyam, Barankitse, Nyirumbe) which allow the reader to glimpse the liberative internal logic of their faith commitments and the agency that results from this. My work also makes explicit the theology of hope that is at work in the struggles of women like Barankitse, in ways that Oduyoye, Njoroge, and others that call for women’s voice to be heard do not. It is the method of portraiture that allows for this explication of hope, which by allowing me to attend to thick, irreducible particularities of the individual character, ironically also make it possible to make generalizations.

5. East Africa and beyond

Finally, this last point is connected to another criticism from Maluleke, who accuses me of making grandiose claims and generalizations about the continent. Since the portraits I paint are all drawn from the East African region, he suggests that a more appropriate subtitle for the book should be “The Theology and Politics of Hope in Selected Countries of East Africa and of the Great Lakes Region.” I am aware of the ideological and philosophical problems (thanks to Mudimbe and others) associated with the label “Africa”, but I do not see how modifying the title would change much, for even Maluleke’s suggested title involves generalizations about “countries” and the “Great Lakes Region.” Atyam is located in Lira, which does not represent Uganda. Nor is Kasali a representative of the DRC; he operates in Beni, which is very different from Kinshasha. All is to say that generalizations are inevitable. But this is where the true gift of portraiture lies, namely, in allowing one to attend to the historical and contingent details of a story, in a manner that reveals broad themes and general patterns. Portraits are not case studies. Rather, portraiture provides a method of investigation that allows the researcher to listen not only to the story of the individual portrait, but for a story beyond that. Thus, while my portraits are embedded in particular geographical and historical locales in the East African sub region, the story and theology that they reveal is beyond East Africa, in fact, beyond Africa. What the portraits of Born from Lament reveal is a theology and through that theology the possibility of a non-violent politics of solidarity and compassion born out of the deep experience of suffering in the world.

Emmanuel Katongole
Katongole, a Catholic priest ordained by the Archdiocese of Kampala, is a core faculty member of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He has served as associate professor of theology and world Christianity at Duke University, where he was the founding co-director of the Duke Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation. He is the author of books on the Christian social imagination, the crisis of faith following the genocide in Rwanda, and Christian approaches to justice, peace, and reconciliation. His most recent books are The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa (Eerdmans, 2010) and Born of Lament: On the Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa (Eerdmans, 2016).
Authority, Community & Identity article

Something Rotten in the State of Denmark: Katongole on Africa’s Gifts for the West

In this 1906 cartoon “In The Rubber Coils” Linley Sambourne depicts King Leopold of Belgium attacking a congolese rubber collector.

Emmanuel Katongole’s brilliant new book features significant African individuals and movements that disrupt the conceptual dichotomies imposed by “modernity”: politics/religion, public/private, secular/religious, state/church, and so on.  By examining such examples, Katongole not only sketches the contours of a new type of politics in Africa, but implies that this model might be of relevance to Christians and others in the West as well.  The last general conclusion that Katongole draws in the book is that “the African church is a unique gift to world Christianity” (264).  Given his blurring of lines between religion and politics, it may be that Katongole thinks Africa has something to say to the West about the viability of its own structures of modernity.

The dominant narrative suggests that the West has successfully modernized, and thus the debate over Africa revolves around whether or not Africa must follow the West’s model or seek its own indigenous path toward success.  An example of the former opinion is Catholic political scientist Paul Gifford’s 2015 book Christianity, Development and Modernity in Africa.  Gifford traces the root of Africa’s problems to its neo-patrimonial system of clientelism, which he contrasts with the West’s rational-legal form of governance.  Gifford acknowledges that colonialism was problematic, but identifies the “dysfunctional neo-patrimonial political culture that is primarily responsible for Africa’s present plight.”[i]  Unlike Katongole, Gifford does not explore the link between colonialism and neo-patrimonialism, and so he treats neo-patrimonialism as cause rather than effect.  The solution, according to Gifford, is Western-style modernity, and he dismisses the idea that there are multiple competing modernities, just as he dismisses the idea of multiple scientific methods.  “The challenge is surely for Nigeria, Congo, Zimbabwe etc. to move themselves ‘towards Denmark’.  Their route will not be the same route that Denmark took, but the destination is the same.”[ii]  Denmark represents the ideal of good nation-state governance, an impersonal provider of goods and services defined by public law. According to Gifford, “Denmark is the destination to which Africa’s Catholic Church in general is nudging Africa.”[iii]

Katongole clearly would disagree with both Gifford’s diagnosis and his cure.  In Born from Lament, Katongole extends his argument in The Sacrifice of Africa that neo-patrimonial corruption and violence are essentially a continuation of colonial politics; the implosion of African states happens not despite but because of the West’s best efforts.  He does not think the cure, therefore, is simply more Western nation-state politics, though presumably he would applaud Gifford’s calls for more transparent and honest government.  But neither does Katongole think that the cure is simply the rejection of the West in favor of indigenous African culture.  He has elsewhere critiqued the “inculturation” model, and here he criticizes the traditional African cosmology that makes a weak and suffering God hard to grasp (120).  The choice for Katongole is not simply the choice between Africa and the West, in part because their histories have been so densely intertwined.  More determinately, though, Katongole sees his exemplars in the book as offering something really new for Africa.  The cure for Africa’s problems does indeed need to come from outside of Africa, but not from Denmark.  It needs to come from God.  Re-creation requires the Creator, which is precisely why hope differs from resilience, optimism, a can-do spirit, or well-intentioned attempts to fix the world.

While the achievements of Denmark in providing security for its people deserve admiration, Katongole wants a politics that aims higher. The problem with Denmark as destination goes beyond the fact that it is a foreign, non-indigenous cure for Africa.   The problem is that it excludes the kind of eschatology that Katongole thinks provides real hope for Africa.  Denmark (as an ideal type, not necessarily in empirical reality) represents the “end of history,” a state of stasis in which the army, police, and state bureaucracy keep order while consumers’ desires are addressed by the market. God is unnecessary. There are no more ruptures in history, because everyone’s needs are met, and everyone’s desires are entertained.  There is no need to care for one another, because the state provides.  Suffering has been erased, so there is no basis for hope.  People are free to desire anything but hope for nothing.  The whole drama of sin, lament, redemption, and reconciliation is necessary only for the unlucky many who live in poor countries.  Again, “Denmark” here indicates not so much a real place but an aspiration, and the aspiration is not simply wrong.  Alleviating material suffering is of course a worthy goal, one that Katongole wholly embraces.  But he aspires to something higher, a true reconciliation of all in God.

Gifford predicts that the church will wither in Africa as it has in Denmark precisely to the extent that Africa is successful in following the Danish model.  He criticizes the Catholic Church in Africa (“Oxfam with Incense”) for neglecting its “religious” mission while concentrating on “secular” services like health care, education, and poverty alleviation. When the state steps in to provide these services, the church will surely shrink.[iv]  Katongole, as I read him, is trying to address this problem by refusing to choose between “religion” on the one hand and “secular” development projects on the other.  In so doing he is refusing one of the fundamental building blocks of modernity, the religious/secular binary.  What he hopes for Africa is a society that lives from the hand of God, who opens up fresh and previously undreamt possibilities.  Katongole hopes for a politics that is not fully captured by the nation-state imagination of order through coercion.  He hopes for a practice of peace that conforms people to the nonviolence of a God who chooses to suffer rather than resort to violence.  Katongole hopes for an economy of gratuity that has more to offer than the entertainment of desire in the market.

Although his primary concern in this book is Africa, Katongole seems to think that Africa has gifts to offer us in the West. Although Katongole uses Douglas John Hall’s analysis of the West’s inability to lament to support his analysis of Africa, the two analyses are intertwined.  Hall clearly implies that the West’s inability to face suffering, and its aspirations toward limitless accumulation and freedom, have been murder on the rest of the world through colonization, slavery, and economic exploitation.  “’The whole world,’ Hall writes, ‘suffers today because its most powerful societies desperately retain expectations that can no longer stand the test of experience’” (181). But this pathology is not just a problem for Africa; it is a problem for the West.  The West’s inability to think of hope as anything other than technical progress in the avoidance of suffering leads to the kind of desperation to which Hall refers.  Christianity in the West has failed to be anything other than a purveyor of shallow optimism.  The African Christian exemplars that Katongole portrays, on the other hand, bear witness to a God that absorbs suffering and transforms it, rather than trying to avoid it or shift it onto someone else.  Katongole, it seems to me, is raising the question of a politics of solidarity for both Africa and the West.  What would it look like to have a body politic in which “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (I Cor. 12:26)?

[i] Paul Gifford, Christianity, Development and Modernity in Africa (London: Hurst, 2015), 10.

[ii] Ibid., 154.

[iii] Ibid., 155.

[iv] Ibid., 159-61.

William Cavanaugh
William Cavanaugh is the director of Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology (CWCIT) and professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. His areas of specialization are in political theology, economic ethics, and ecclesiology. His latest book *Field Hospital: The Church's Engagement in Markets, Politics, and Conflict* examines the intersection of theology with themes of religious freedom, economic injustice, and religious violence.
Authority, Community & Identity article

The “Dark Continent” is Dead

A slide produced by the Church of Scotland Foreign Missions Committee from the 19th century.

Emmanuel Katongole’s book gave me hope. After reading Born from Lament, I want to shout from the mountaintop that the “Dark Continent is dead!” Or at least the awful way we in the West describe Africa is dead. Historically, the version of Africa peddled by the West since the 19th Century, though long before, is anomalous. After all, the Greeks referred to their southern neighbors as aphrike, or ‘without cold. The Romans referred to the continent as aprica, a land of sunshine. Instead, the West lingers on darkness; a phrase inherited from Henry Morton Stanley, journalist-turned explorer who dynamited his way through Congo in 1866 to find David Livingstone and then fame. He explored central Africa for over a decade more until he returned home and published Through the Dark Continent in 1878. The West has never seen Africa the same way since. Even Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which struggles to awaken Europeans to the degenerative effects of colonization in the Congo, still cannot escape the racism of the era.

Nearly a century and a half later, serious scholarly efforts are underway to reconceptualize the idea of Africa, not as a place of lightless oblivion but of vibrant creativity and hopefulness. Katongole’s book joins Dayo Olopade’s The Bright Continent, Stephen Ellis’ Season of Rains, and even a much older literature from scholars like V.Y. Mudimbe. And Katongole’s focus on religion and hope is welcome, as authors like Olopade have already written on African innovations in family life, technology, trade, and the environment. The value of religion, and more specifically theology, is that it provides Africans with the vocabulary and the conceptual framework to find and express hope.

In Born from Lament, Katongole argues that suffering begets hope and that lament becomes a disciplinary device by which Africans can exert some power over their trials. The people he has met and worked with in the Congo, Northern Uganda, and Burundi stand in the debris left behind by long histories of unimaginable violence. And amidst the ruin, as Katongole beautifully puts it, they find themselves arguing with God. And it is through argument and lament that Africans are able to express mourning, outrage, protest, and ultimately, hope.

He sets out to tell this story of hope found through lament in several ways. First, he draws heavily on Jason Stearn’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters to fully explain just how devastating years of war have been in Congo and Northern Uganda. He then moves on to show that the Bible, especially 1 Peter 3:15 offers Christian Africans the ecclesiological and theological framework to see suffering and death as part of a larger process of resurrection and renewal. He goes on to locate “the strange gift” of hope through lamentation. Using the Book of Lamentations, Katongole nicely argues that lamentation brings comfort through its performance and its revelation of a vulnerable God who suffers with us rather than vanquishes the world’s ills for us. While I am no theologian, I found these insights fascinating and profoundly moving.

Katongole saves some of his most interesting insights for the second half of the book when he considers the value of lament to peace-building and creation of nonviolent social ethics and politics. Embedded in this is the possibility that only the peoples of Congo and Northern Uganda can ever really understand what has happened to them—only they have cried, as Katongole argues. And therefore only Africans can build the peace and hope needed to resurrect their lives; there is the potential for incredible empowerment in Katongole’s analysis. The book wraps up with three beautiful and evocative case studies of Christopher Munzihirwa, archbishop of Bukavu in the mid-1990s during the Rwandan genocide and the origins of the Congo wars; David Kasalis’ work at the Université Chrétienne Bilingue du Congo; and Maggy Baranktise’s work with displaced and orphaned children.

What unfolds is an engrossing, heartfelt exploration of how suffering in Africa can result in a powerful, or empowering sense of hopefulness when steeped in Christian faith. This historian of East Africa certainly learned a great deal. I was also left with many questions, some I hope Katongole will continue to explore in the future.

In 1939, Aimé Césaire wrote that negritude, or blackness, could be “measured by the compass of suffering.”[1] Blackness arose out of the horrors of the slave trade, plantation work in the New World, and colonialism in Africa. Drawing from that shared suffering, the Diaspora could remake itself, reclaiming its history and dictating its own future. As Katongole rightly notes throughout his book, suffering is not new to Africa or the Diaspora, made evident by its presence in African-American spirituals and the civil rights movement. Yet I would like to see in more concrete ways how lament might have been shaped by the memories of and emotions surrounding historic suffering. Do Maggy, Christopher, and David see their lamentations drawn from a wellspring of historic struggle, or are they focused firmly on the heartaches of the moment? If they are aware of and place themselves on a much longer journey of suffering, then how has lament been used at different times and in response to different horrors? From those changes can you see any changes to the theology and politics at play? And perhaps most interesting, is lament a particular cultural practice used – and therefore only truly understood – by Africans and the Diaspora?

Moving away from history to the present, I wonder what impact lament might have on not only peace-building but truth and reconciliation. So much of peace-building in Africa these days seems focused on tightly controlled moments of hard truth-telling and then quite literal requirements for reconciliation, sometimes with the promise of economic incentives in return. But perhaps peacebuilders need to allow those who have experienced incredible violence to work through their grief—to argue with God, their community, and their assailants? Might the discipline of lament become an institutionalized practice, or does that strip the journey, as Maggy Baranktise might say, of its meaning? And if it becomes part of secular practices created by states and nongovernmental organizations, what might robbing suffering of its theological and spiritual roots mean for lamentation?

Third, Katongole creates the very stark image of suffering amid the rubble. In these moments, it almost seems as if people have no one else to turn to except God and therefore lament occurs at the individual level, between sufferer and God. And so it begs the question: is lament and healing individualized processes carried out by people who are alone, or who feel alone? Or might the sufferer find someone, some kin, left in the rubble with whom to share their suffering and grief? Put another way, is lament a personal experience with God alone, or is it something performed within the expansive kinship networks Africans weave for themselves? This leads to a much broader question: all too often scholars pinpoint Christianity, capitalism, and often the blending of the two, as socioeconomic forces that atomized Africans and weakened kinship. Does the discipline of lament mean that Africans suffer alone with God? Or do they suffer together communally?

Of course, these are all questions for another book. What Emmanuel Katongole has given us is a gripping and thoughtful account of the hopefulness in religion in Africa; one that is sorely overdue.

[1] Aimé Césaire, The Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, eds. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2013), 47, (accessed July 25, 2017).

Paul Ocobock
Paul Ocobock, assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, is a historian of twentieth century Africa with a special focus on East Africa. His book, An Uncertain Age: The Politics of Manhood in Kenya, was recently published in the New African Histories series of Ohio University Press. He is currently working on coffee farming in Kenya and how farmers have engaged with shifts in global capitalism over the past century.
Field Notes article

Madrasa Discourses in the Shade of the Himalayas

Mahan Mirza in search of the secret temple of Kamar-Taj from Doctor Strange in Patan, Nepal.

CNN headlines flashed in the background as I sat down to lunch with Scott Appleby and his spouse Barbara Lockwood in the shadow of the Himalayas in Kathmandu, Nepal. On the screen was the usual: a smorgasbord of Trump, immigration, ISIS, Russia, “Muslim Ban.” We had just checked into Yatri Suites & Spa, a hotel in Thamel, the tourist ghetto deep in the heart of Kathmandu. Appleby, Dean of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs and expert in religion, was here to teach graduates of madrasas (Islamic seminaries) from India and Pakistan along with undergraduates from Notre Dame (ND) as part of the Madrasa Discourses project. The groups of students were meeting for the first time. Over two weeks the madrasa and Notre Dame students were exposed to intensive teaching and dialogue on citizenship, religion, and society in a pluralistic and changing world, sensitive to the oppositional narratives of Islam versus West. Even in the narrow winding streets of Nepal, drenched daily with monsoon rains, there was no escape from the news media which equate the word “madrasa” with everything toxic in Islam.

“In popular western media parlance,” writes Notre Dame Professor Ebrahim Moosa in his book What is a Madrasa?, “the mere mention of the word ‘madrasa’ conjures up an ‘us vs. them’ dynamic” (2). In light of the charged media rhetoric vis-à-vis Islam, it was natural for the seven Notre Dame students to feel apprehensive about their encounter with participants from entirely different cultural backgrounds. But it was surprising to find that even the Indian participants—who live as minorities in a pluralistic and secular society—were unsure of what to expect from their counterparts from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Would the Pakistanis be open to secularism and alternative conceptions of faith and the good life? Would they be dangerous? All the participants with a madrasa background were male, except for one female from Pakistan, clad in a traditional black flowing gown (abaya) with a face-veil (niqab). The Notre Dame undergraduates, by contrast, were all female, selected from a pool of applicants not for their gender, but on merit. The stage was set.

Indian student Manzar Imam makes a point to American student Jebraune Chambers, Pakistani students Abdul Ghani, Sumera Rabia, Muhammad Shahzad, and fellow Indian Maquabool Alam.

I am the faculty and program manager for the three-year Templeton Foundation-funded project aimed at advancing the theological and scientific literacy of madrasa students, a project directed by Ebrahim Moosa. Housed in a research initiative within the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, a part of the Keough School of Global Affairs, the project launched in January of this year, and the trip to Kathmandu was the first international component. The summer intensive would either be a dream or a nightmare for the Keough School, which aims to “advance integral human development through transformative educational programs.” It would be a dream if everyone got along, engaged in deep conversations, and ended up transformed. It would be a nightmare if gender dynamics grew tense, language barriers could not be overcome, and frustrations solidified stereotypes. Instructors and mentors on all sides had done their best to prepare the participants for the encounter, but no amount of preparation could eliminate the unpredictability inherent in human interpersonal relations in entirely new contexts. The program was a living laboratory for Contending Modernities initiative, whose goal is to “generate new knowledge and greater understanding of the ways in which religious and secular forces interact in the modern world.”

Scott Appleby led discussions for the first three days on secularism, modernity, and fundamentalism. Armed with new conceptual tools, students engaged in small group discussions in the late afternoons to address specially crafted prompts: “I would prefer to live in a religious rather than secular society”; “Does a madrasa education form students to lean towards fundamentalism or are they open to modernity?”; “As a woman or minority, do you think that you can flourish in a society where Sharia norms prevail?” These questions invited madrasa graduates to explain the meaning of Sharia, its sources, and how it is to be applied today, to an audience that, for the most part, carried conceptions of Islam shaped by the media and popular culture in the West. At the same time, the participants from the United States could voice their alternative perspectives on human flourishing and “the good” that might be at odds with Sharia-driven norms as articulated by the madrasa graduates.

These conversations spilled over into the field trips, the dining hall, cafes and restaurants, and the daily walks through the streets of the Thamel district. The outcome was no less than miraculous. “I am amazed at how quickly we were able to form friendships and find common ground,” wrote Kirsten Hanlon, a rising ND junior in neurology, adding: “This program has inspired me to think more carefully about my faith, scholarly interests, and unwarranted perceptions about others.” Molly Burton, a triple major in philosophy, gender studies, and peace studies, found her interactions with a highly-educated woman from Pakistan eye-opening: the summer experience helped her understand “why women cover themselves,” why an “amazingly strong pious woman” would wish to maintain a lifestyle, by free choice, “that few Americans understand.” Nabila Mourad, a Brazilian student at Notre Dame of Lebanese Muslim heritage, discovered the need to consider more deeply her own narrative and purpose in life.

The Pakistani delegation poses inside a museum in Patan Durbar Square, surrounded by ornate wood, brick, stone, and metal fixtures.

Muhammad Furqan, the youngest participant from among the Madrasa scholars in Delhi, said: “Although it was my first encounter with American students, it was a beautiful experience for me which I never want to forget.” Waqas Ahmad, hailing from Khayber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, called the program a turning point in his life: “Someone who is born in the subcontinent and raised in a typical Islamic environment can never expect that he will be honored someday with an opportunity of learning from multi-lingual scholars and an opportunity of interaction with multi-lingual students.” Sumera Rabia, the sole female participant from the group of madrasa graduates, spoke admiringly about her counterparts from the United States, whom she referred to on the very first day as her seven sisters: “The interaction with Notre Dame was an amazing experience…Their toleration and respect of other’s opinions is a thing which we should have.”

An interactive series of lectures and workshops exposed students to the new social and political realities of our age that contemporary formulations of Sharia often have to contend with. Local activists based in Nepal, including Prakash Bhattarai and Shubham Amatya, both Master’s alumni of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, discussed gender equality and social change in light of UN mandates and global norms on human rights. Ebrahim Moosa emphasized the need to view Sharia not as a collection of ahistorical rules and commandments, but rather as attempts by well-meaning yet fallible humans to draw on divine revelation to articulate historically contingent expressions of the common good. Leela Prasad, professor of religious studies at Duke University, drew on Hindu Advaita philosophy and the concept of “co-being” to invite students to think about the complex ways in which humans draw on diverse religious traditions to heal the world and live ethical lives.

The program culminated with Mohammad Fadel, a renowned legal scholar at the University of Toronto, who discussed strategies to reconcile Sharia norms with the evolving international consensus on human rights. Drawing on the political philosopher John Rawls, Fadel argued that it is theoretically possible to forge an overlapping consensus between historical Islam and political liberalism without violating the principles or integrity of either. Bringing the summer intensive full circle, Fadel maintained the thesis that Islamic law, contrary to popular understanding, was inherently secular in its conception in that it provided formal rules to allow humans to flourish and live ethically in this world. He responded effortlessly to challenges by students with historical examples, highlighting Moosa’s point that Sharia norms must be understood historically in pursuit of the common good. Professor Fadel’s intervention was especially poignant given that he drew on scholars from the West African Maliki madhhab (school of thought) represented by scholars like al-Qarafi and al-Shatibi to impress a South Asian audience that is entirely Hanafi (another school of jurisprudence) in training and formation. Ammar Khan Nasir and Waris Mazhari, the lead faculty from Pakistan and India respectively, by contrast, led students through classical Arabic texts authored by Hanafis such as Abu Bakr al-Jassas and Ibn ʿAbidin al-Shami to reinforce the hermeneutics of Fadel and historicism of Moosa. Mazhari and Nasir also drew on the rich tradition of ethics in Islamic thought in matters related to human dignity, advocating the need to once again make human dignity central in matters of jurisprudence.

From a cafe overlooking Boudhanath in Kathmandu, Professor Mahan Mirza caught a glimpse of some of our American, Pakistani, and Indian students making ritual circuits of the stupa.

The summer intensive in Nepal is the first of many that students will participate in over the next three years. Yet even if the program had ended here, it would still be considered a resounding success for the deep reflection and personal transformation it engendered in participants. If anything, such programs indicate the power of human interaction to effect change, if the conditions are ripe. Take intelligent and well-trained students, prepare them well, put them together with other students, equally bright and eager, from an entirely different background, invite scholars who are experts in their field, and let the magic happen.

Making magic of this kind is precisely the vision of Ebrahim Moosa, himself a madrasa graduate and the architect of Madrasa Discourses: “I remain a friendly critic of madrasa education, acknowledging its inability to provide the big picture of Islamic ideas and its failure to effect the intellectual transformation of contemporary Muslim societies, especially in the sphere of religious thought. Yet madrasas can offer something of enormous value—provided they are effectively upgraded in the knowledge stakes” (29). In the shade of the Himalayas, one thing was clear: we have mountains to climb, but we have taken our first steps.


Contending Modernities is grateful to the John Templeton Foundation and Notre Dame International for providing us the resources to embark on this ambitious project.

Mahan Mirza
Dr. Mahan Mirza PhD (Yale University, 2010) is Professor of the Practice in the Contending Modernities program at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, housed in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Having spent several years working with religious groups around issues of social justice before earning an MA from Hartford Seminary in the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations and a PhD from Yale University’s program in religious studies, Dr. Mahan Mirza comes to the practice and study of Islam from a diverse set of perspectives. Prior to joining Notre Dame in fall 2016, Dr. Mirza contributed to the establishment of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college to be accredited in the United States, serving as the college’s Dean of Faculty from 2013-2016.
Authority, Community & Identity article

Between ‘Descriptive Haste’ and ‘Prescriptive Haste’

Maggie Barankitse, one of the exemplars featured in Katongole’s book, speaks at a UN summit on Burundi. Photo: Eric Bridiers / U.S. Mission

The central thesis of Emmanuel Katongole’s Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa is that lament is the boat in which African victims and survivors navigate the turbulent waters of hatred and violence in which they could drown at every turn. Lament is the language they use to make sense out of senselessness, meaning out of suffering, humanity out of inhumanity and hope out of hopelessness. Katongole describes lament as “a way of naming what is going on, of standing and of hoping in the midst of ruins” (48).

Through this book, Katongole intends, to respond to “the most pressing theological task [which] is to give an account of Africa’s hope” (19), because according to him, “no such theological account exists” in Africa today (20). He also argues that the few theological attempts available tend to issue premature and blanket prescriptions of hope while displaying blindness to grassroots practices of hope. This is what he calls ‘prescriptive haste’.

1. Book Strengths

The focus on East Africa and Great Lakes Region makes this a clearly delimited and grounded book. While the book contains a number of extravagant and general references to the African continent, (a matter to which we will return below) the geographical delimitation anchors the book firmly. This approach provides tremendous scope both for the author’s narrative portraiture approach and his desire to probe deep into the everyday practices of lament. It also lends the narrative of book the correct cadence, the right density of argument, as well as the necessary depth of inquiry.

At the heart of this book are a number of true stories, what Katongole refers to as portraits, of resilience, faith and hope in the middle of ruins. These stories of lament refute the popular and repeated trope of Africa as a place of hopelessness and no agency. The stories of Christophe Munzihirwa (later assassinated) and Emmanuel Kataliko (probably poisoned to his death), successive Archbishops of Bukavu in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and that of Sr. Rosemary Nyirumbe of Gulu in Northen Uganda are offered as portraits of impactful leaders who met  violence and hatred with ‘excess love’ which inspired a sense of agency. Other compelling portraits given are that of David Kasali, founder of a Christian University in the town of Beni (Eastern DRC) and that of Maggy Barankitse (pictured above), whose faith activism in Burundi sent her into exile but also earned her the accolade of being called ‘mother of Burundi’.

Following the work of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffman Davis on portraiture, Katongole attempts to deploy the arts of the portraitist in the exploration of his theme – that is, he proceeds as one who, in an effort to fathom complexity, nuance and subtlety, proceeds by means of blending aesthetics with empiricism, story-telling and the explicit intention not merely to inform but also to inspire. Crucially, Katongole relies heavily on poetry, poetic prose and metaphor in order to dig deep into the nature of hope and lament. His use of lamentation poetry from the Great Lakes Region is especially riveting. Katongole handles the gruesome circumstances with which his faith activists are saddled gracefully, insightfully and sensitively.

He builds his admirable foray into portraiture upon biblical exegesis. Spurred on by the biblical motif of ‘giving an account of the hope’, he proceeds to offer impressive exegetical work on the Book of Lamentations. Katongole comes close to adding a wholly new dimension of theology in Africa. But there are serious shortcomings, to be discussed below. Still, Katongole’s book is one of the best responses to the 1971 call by Kenyan theologian John Mbiti, who warned that whatever else African Christian theology may become, it does not deserve the name if it does not put biblical exegesis at the center. In this regard, Mbiti warned fellow African theologians against the risk of becoming mere ‘anthropological theology’.

2. On Descriptive Haste: Comment and Critique

The book contains many strengths worth celebrating, yet a number of serious problems remain. If Katongole accuses other African theologians of ‘prescriptive haste’, he himself could be accused of ‘descriptive haste’. This shortcoming shows up in more ways than we can list here. Firstly, he issues a summary, hasty and unsubstantiated dismissal of the theological output emanating from the largest single continent on earth, home to more than a billion human beings. It is rather precipitate to suggest that all of the theological literature coming out of Africa provides no account of the hope in that continent.

Nor is it helpful to suggest, albeit not in so many words, that Katongole’s approach to hope and lament analysis is the only fitting approach for the theological community of the entire continent. As if 75 years of published modern African Theology—not to speak of the much earlier contribution of African church fathers like Augustine, Tertullian, Tatian and Clement of Alexandria—could be completely blind to the theme of hope and suffering! By claiming that no account of the hope that is in Africa currently exists, Katongole, by deduction, suggests that only his method makes such an account possible. The truth is that while not many theologians may have used his specific language of hope and lament, they have been dealing with hope and lament nevertheless. In fact two women theologians who have specifically used the notion of lament in their work are Nyambura Njoroge and Denise Ackermann. But what is African Theology if it is not also a theology hope in the face of massive de-culturation and de-racination? What is Black Theology if it is not also a theology of lament in the light of church and state practices that equate blackness with curse in order to justify racial oppression and dispossession? What is African Women’s Theology if it is not also a theology of lament in the face of global patriarchy, African patriarchy and Christian patriarchy?

The second manifestation of the descriptive haste is in Katongole’s insistence that although the research material with which he interacts emanate “from East Africa Great Lakes Region” he will nevertheless retain ‘Africa’ in the title of the book (xvi). This is not an argument, only an assertion. Why pretend to be writing about all of Africa when the book has a clearly delimited geographical locus? The subtitle of this book might have been more truthful if it was: “The Theology and Politics of Hope in Selected Countries of East Africa and the Great Lakes Region”.

Incoherently and rather strangely, Katongole seems to think that his “use of portraiture as a theological method” allows for the reader to “discover general themes and patterns that resonate across much of sub-Saharan Africa” (p.xvi). But how is this possible? Is the Sudanese conflict exactly the same as the conflict in the Central African Republic? Are the so-called faith activists in the DRC deploying the exact same tactics and strategies as those of faith activists operating in Northern Zululand? Even a cursory reading of Katongole’s own attempt to summarize the essence of the method of portraiture (33), it is clear that while this method may help with digging deeper and with finer nuancing, it is neither intended to or especially suited for the deduction of patterns and the making of generalizations.

Clearly, Katongole is rendering unto portraiture what does not belong to portraiture, attributing to the methodology what it is incapable of accomplishing. Seemingly, the clearly delimited geographic and thematic focus of the book are insufficient and unable to restrain the author from repeatedly foraging into grandiose claims and generalizations about the entire continent which go way beyond the limits suggested by his focus.

The centering of an African theology of hope within a biblical framework is especially important for Katongole as noted in the section on biblical theology above. And yet one of the most deafening silences in this book is the lack of engagement with African Biblical scholarship. Had Katongole interacted, however minimally, with the likes of Teresa Okure, Lovemore Togarasei, Dorothy Okoto, Musa Dube, Sarojini Nadar, Tuesday Adamo, Jonathan Draper, Elelwani Farisani, Madipoane Masenya, John Mbiti, Itumeleng Mosala, Justin Ukpong, to mention but a few, perhaps he might not have been as hasty as to conclude that there is no theological accounting for the hope that lives in Africa.  This conclusion is only possible in a book that reduces the work of the likes of Desmond Tutu, with four new books since the year 2010, to an extended footnote (218).

More importantly, in his references to the Bible, Katongole seems to ignore totally the decades old exegetical, methodological and hermeneutical toils of fellow African theologians. This might explain the almost total absence of engagement with the contentious issues in biblical hermeneutics, one of the most abiding themes in African biblical scholarship. African biblical scholarship has wrestled not only with the contents of the Bible but its symbolic meaning and its insertion into the African political, cultural and ideological worlds. These themes are absent in Katongole. In this regard, Katongole’s biblical exegesis comes close to an attempt to reinvent a wheel that has long been hard at work. More importantly, in his exegetical work, Katongole is clearly susceptible to the ideological pitfalls long identified and long debated among African biblical scholars. Nearly thirty years ago, Itumeleng Mosala published, with Eerdmans, his book on biblical hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa. This book is not in Katongole’s bibliography. Nor does Katongole seem aware of the fruit of years of scholarly collaboration between African and African American scholars.

As well as the notion of lament, Katongole repeatedly invokes the notion of agency. However, he does this without reference either to postcolonial theory or to African postcolonial theology whose forté is biblical scholarship. As a result, Katongole tends to depict agency as straightforward, uncomplicated and unproblematic – except perhaps in a philosophical kind of way. But subaltern and postcolonial scholars have long pointed out how complex agency is so that some distinguish between survival, resilience and agency. Others have sought to distinguish between various faces and phases of agency. Nor does Katongole problematize his notion of martyrdom much beyond Catholic canonization of martyrs. When a poorly built church building collapsed and killed more than a hundred worshippers at the church of televangelist TB Joshua in Lagos Nigeria in 2014, he immediately conferred martyrdom on the deceased. Which kinds of martyrs are more authentic and why?

Agency – of the straightforward and one-size-fits-all type – tends to be thrust upon Katongole’s chosen faith activists without much interrogation or nuance. This reflects both the limitation of his particular take on portraiture and his neglect of insights from African postcolonial theology. This neglect extends to one of the most prolific African theologies of our time, namely African Women’s Theology produced and sponsored mainly, but not exclusively by the CIRCLE for Concerned African women theologians. I do not recall seeing a single reference to the work of a single member of the CIRCLE. How can an African male theologian expect to analyze the stories of female victims of violence in Africa, including doing justice to the biblical notion of ‘daughter of Zion’, to the total exclusion on the voices of African women theologians?

While it is understandable and even commendable that Katongole centers his theology around the amazing work of his native Catholic Church in Africa, the truth is that the fastest growing and the largest African churches today are of the Pentecostal, Independent and Charismatic churches. Like the African biblical scholarship and African women theologians, these churches are conspicuously absent in this book. This is not to say that the portraiture of Catholic Archbishops, bishops and Sisters is not instructive. This is rather to suggest that within and between the youthful charismatic churches of Africa, a new thing is being born. It is a thing to which Katongole may not be fully awake.

My sense therefore is that the practices of hope and lament in Africa are probably more complicated than Katangole’s mainly Catholic template allows for. While Katongole’s book offers a captivating engagement with the practices of hope and lament in selected areas of East Africa and the Great Lakes region, he makes himself guilty of what I call ‘descriptive haste’ which, amongst others, ignores the complex and fruitful scholarship by African theologians, especially women and non-Catholics, on this very topic.

Tinyiko Maluleke
Tinyiko Maluleke is Professor of Theology in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. In addition to his scholarship on African theology he is a prominent public intellectual on South African, African and global socio-politics.
Authority, Community & Identity article

The Many Faces of Lament

Somali women stand at Mogadishu International Airport during a ceremony held to receive the casket containing the body of former Somali president Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. Photo: Stuart Price / AU-UN

Emmanuel Katongole’s recent book is a profound examination and analysis of lament as peacebuilding method, theologically-driven epistemology, and politics of renewal in several specific East African contexts. This book follows on his previous work, The Sacrifice of Africa, in exploring in an extraordinarily moving way both the problems Christianity has wrought and the unique gifts that it has to offer the continent.

My reading of Katongole’s book took the form of a particular kind of call and response to his claim that lament and hope are each other’s “spine”—that they go hand in hand. That is to say, each time he began a new theme and chapter in this gracefully crafted exposition, I began to absorb, appreciate, ponder, but also challenge and question—“but what about…?,” only to find that he had almost always already prefigured my query to address it head-on in the next section of the book. (I will come to the “almost” later.)

For example, in articulating some of the contours and experiences of lament in the Bible (Old and New Testaments) as well as among his interlocutors in Africa, Katongole first compels us to examine with him the Book of Lamentations, and in so doing, he demonstrates how lament, in that Book, becomes an anguished cry from the depths of suffering, and moreover one to which God never responds. How can this have anything at all to do with hope, one might ask, as I did? Katongole moves from the acknowledgement of unbearable pain—both individual and communal—to de- and re-constructing God as suffering with the people, especially those who suffer the most.  But how can we have any confidence that a silent God suffers with us? God, in this rendering, becomes an intimate and vulnerable rather than an all-powerful and hence somewhat distant deity. But does God-as-sufferer-with-us help, politically or theologically? Yes, because the very practice of lament—including the wailing plea for help, the critique of God for forsaking the sufferer, the demand that God hear and do something—requires risk; the risk that God is not what one thought, the risk of loss and grief of all that is known. All of this brings us to the risk of being called to help in the creation of something new. The new creation brings both hope and terror of the unknown. It also may never be fully realized, or realized much at all, before new reasons for lament occur. (This last point is something that Katongole could emphasize more, although he demonstrates it through the story of Maggie Barankitse, who is currently in exile from Burundi, thus demonstrating the ups and downs of deepening one’s faith in a “new creation.”)

The suffering with on the part of God, of course, finds its ultimate expression for Christians in the crucifixion of Christ. The passages in which Katongole’s interlocutors discover Christ’s solidarity with them and “excess of love” in their depths of hopelessness are extremely moving, but Katongole does not move to anything like comfort too quickly. Instead, he lets the reader linger with his interlocutors in the anguish, anger and even despair that they experience before—and eventually in tandem with—the rays of hope and the glimpses of new possibilities.

In Katongole’s telling, the Christ who suffers with us is the incarnation of God’s unbounded love for humanity, both individually and in covenant relationship with the “people.” Christianity, therefore, has something critically important as well as unique to offer: the God who, through suffering with, loves unconditionally and to excess. This in turn is what enables hope. The emergence into hope is also an emergence into something new—new political, social, theological and ethical constructs of being in the world.

What does this profoundly theological understanding of the politics of crisis in East Africa have to do with the political? Everything, in Katongole’s telling, because the book is also political exhortation, providing an ontology, epistemology and methodology that fuses politics and faith. I should note here that Katongole draws deeply on a wide, impressive and extremely inclusive range of theological and political sources (African, Asian, Latin American and western, female and male) to develop his unsettling and necessary challenge to political and spiritual complacency. He shows that, most of the time, neither the Church or Christians themselves—either within or outside of Africa—actually enact the love and willingness to walk the way of those who suffer on the continent that fully entering into the process of lament makes possible. Quite the contrary: there are too many who preach comfort through the prosperity gospel, or are content to be self-satisfied in their claims of faith. Katongole’s examples of lament and hope thus pose a critical, political as well as theological challenge to Christians, even as he finds the central promise of hope within the Christian message. His passages on how too many Christians have created a religion of self-gratification rather than risk are all too true of those living in the global north as well as those living in Africa.

One way of understanding Katongole’s work on the critical importance of lament is through William Connolly’s concept of “visceral register.” Yet, while important in some ways, I submit that Katongole shows that it is extremely limiting in others. Connolly’s work on the constant emergence of the metaphysical is necessary to acknowledge, but we should also recognize that it primarily works vis-à-vis a particular kind of Enlightenment mind whose ontological and epistemological orientations regarding human experience have become impoverished. Indeed, as Katongole shows, the lament/hope axis is much more than visceral. The forms of knowledge that derive from the at least partially unbidden insights and experiences of Christopher Munzihirwa, Maggie Barankitse, the poets and musicians of the DRC, and David Kasali, among others, are indicative of the constitutive nature of what Connolly might include under the visceral, but what Katongole deepens as the ontological and epistemological connection between suffering, love and indeed life itself. Whereas Connolly advocates the inclusion of the visceral in a discourse that has difficulty accommodating the metaphysical, Katongole’s point of departure is a practice – and politics – of lament that is fundamentally and simultaneously visceral, metaphysical and rational. This practice is part of the political ontology that the impoverished discourse still struggles to grasp.

Herein also, however, lies a considerable challenge for a rather large component of those who should be part of Katongole’s audience: humanitarians, peacebuilders, scholars of Africa, conflict, peace, and religion, who may or may not be Christians. This challenge recurred to me frequently while reading Born from Lament. It is a work that might suggest some (understandable) impatience with those who would reject out of hand the constitutive nature of the theological and the political—in Africa as well as in many other parts of the world.  Listening to people’s stories—especially including their theological constructs—is absolutely required, Katongole seems to say, to reach depths of understanding and insight about the ways out of conflict that one could never achieve by, for example, social scientific models alone.

Here, however, questions arise regarding the vast political differences within and across the African continent, the richly multi-religious nature of African societies, and the role of Christians and Christianity amidst the wide range of sufferings and non-sufferings present in the world. First, Katongole focuses on suffering and conflict, while rightly stating at the outset that it is imperative to transcend two simplistic narratives about Africa: that it is hopeless, or that it is “rising.” The first focuses on the need for others to intervene where Africans themselves allegedly cannot; the second resorts too quickly to neoliberal fixes for deeply colonial and post-colonial structural issues. Despite this extremely important insight, Katongole himself focuses more on the first narrative in his exploration, largely because of his long-term focus on the Eastern Congo/Northern Ugandan/Rwandan nexus. There are plenty of places on the continent, however, in which struggles occur but do not fit either the hopeless or rising narratives, and the suffering with hope of Katongole’s interlocutors may also not comprehend the daily lives of millions who get by with joy as well as problems, love and family and friends as well as suffering. The question is how we can develop theopolitical expressions of lives—within as well as outside of Africa—without replicating extremes of any kind.

Second, this wide range of experiences in Africa provokes the question of how widely Katongole’s deeply Christian message can resonate across the continent and beyond. The East African nations of Congo and Uganda are, perhaps, some of the more religiously homogeneous places on the continent, compared to, for example, Ghana or South Africa or Kenya or Tanzania or Cameroon. Moreover, the role of African or “traditional” religions and beliefs is frequently an integral part of the peacebuilding work done in Katongole’s narratives, yet it becomes subsumed as background to the Christian promise rather than fully interrogated. It is not only Christians who lament and hope.

If the excess love of the suffering Christ is what Christianity uniquely has to offer, is this knowledge for Christians alone, or should it be for non-Christians as well? And if the latter, what exactly is the message for non-Christians, including African Muslims, Hindus, those rejecting any of these as religions of the colonizers, and those practicing some form of African religious tradition, either as part of Christianity or Islam, or separate from them? It is not enough, perhaps, to engage in either apologetics or (even gentle) proselytism to promote Katongole’s message: we must also draw out the ontological and epistemological contributions of these different traditions of faith, worship, and practice, precisely because of the rich, active, and dynamic religious landscape of the continent.

I make this perhaps controversial assertion not because I “blame” religious “difference” for conflict, or because I see religious traditions as hermetically-sealed and neatly divisible. Quite the contrary. Following the spirit and example of Katongole, I want to know how Christians who have experienced the indescribable love of God in and through their suffering, and from it draw out unfathomable hope, can and should relate equally deeply with those who want the same things but are not and do not want to become Christian, or those who navigate their lives through a range of syncretic (for lack of a better term) practices and commitments. I want to know what understanding their processes of lament looks like.

At the end of the book, Katongole makes the assertion that the world has much to learn from African Christianity, and I heartily agree. I would enlarge this assertion, however, with and through the exploration above, to insist on how much African Christianity as well as African religiosity—through and in spite of the experiences of colonialism and both domestic and global structural inequities—have to teach the rest of the world, about commitment, solidarity, and hope, in the midst of both crisis and daily life.

These thoughts represent my own wrestling with Katongole’s impressive and challenging work, as well as my ongoing wrestling with humanitarian, neoliberal, and Christian presumptions. Katongole has taught us a great deal in this volume and has pointed the way to our learning even more, if only we open ourselves to the risks and challenges necessary to that process.

Cecelia Lynch
Cecelia Lynch is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. She is an expert on international relations, religion and ethics, social movements, and civil society, and has researched and published extensively on topics related to peace, security, international organization, globalization, humanitarianism, and religion. She co-edits the Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa (CIHA) Blog, at