This article was written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board and graduate researcher in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

It’s a term that gets used confidently, like we all know what it means, but the first thing that happens in any theory of religion class is to reveal that, in fact, “religion” has no satisfactory definition. No matter how we may try – and try many do – we cannot figure out what makes a religion a religion.

To break this down:

Many definitions of religion centre on the belief in some superhuman power, like angels and deities, but this is problematic for multiple reasons. Firstly, not all major recognized religions include belief in any kind of superhuman power: Theravadan Buddhism is rather adamant about its lack of inclusion of anything transcendental in its worldview.

Secondly, for many, simple belief in a deity or deities is not enough for a person to be considered “religious.” There are behavioural obligations, dress codes, eating restrictions, and so on and so forth, that are understood to be part and parcel to ‘actually’ believing in G/god(s).

Thirdly, even those that do not believe can still be considered, and consider themselves, religious. If one is an atheist but nevertheless attends religious services, reads sacred texts, eats according to religious laws, and observes sacred holidays, would they be viewed as a non-religious person? Maybe by some, but not by all.

Fourthly, without a concrete definition of “superhuman power,” it is impossible to determine the exact qualities of the being(s) in which a person is expected to believe, and it becomes difficult to explain how belief in folk heroes, monsters, and fairies is different from belief in saints, demons, and angels. This problem becomes even further complicated by the fact that though the belief in certain figures (such as angels and ghosts) may be intrinsic to one religion, the belief in those same beings may be abhorred in another. What kind of definition, then, would be capable of differentiating between the religious and non-religious superhuman powers in light of these difficulties?

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The idea that religion can be defined solely based on belief in superhuman powers, then, is a pipe dream. In light of the shortcomings of one-dimensional definitions, some scholars have suggested outlining a number of different criteria of which religions must fulfill at least a few in order to retain their status as religions. These criteria often include things like:

  • Dietary restrictions
  • Sacred texts
  • Sacred buildings
  • Belief in superhuman powers
  • The existence of religious professionals
  • A particular way of dressing
  • Etc.

There are, again, many problems with this style of definition.

Firstly, the criteria that are normally put in place in these lists are drawn from distinctly Western ideas of what constitutes religion. This is perhaps unsurprising, as it is a distinctly Western pursuit to try to discover what religion is, or even to attempt to separate religion from other kinds of human behaviour. Some languages do not even have a word for religion, and many do not consider religion to be a particular set of behaviours within a culture, but rather as fully integrated and inseparable from the culture itself. What happens, then, is that these attempts at definition ultimately fall short in their attempts to define religion on a worldwide scale. They do not take into the account oral cultures, or the fact that eating restrictions may have multiple justifications beyond “religious concerns,” or that sacred spaces are often ill-defined and can appear spontaneously, or that some cultures do not have or see the need for dedicated religious professionals.

Secondly, it is possible for some patterns of behaviour, institutions, or practices that are not normally considered religious to fulfill the criteria outlined in the above definitions. Sports fandom, for example, is often cited as a modern form of religion: there are designated buildings and particular clothing, people arrive en masse to participate in certain events at the same time every year, there are heroes and legends, it includes devoted professionals, and fans (or adherents) treat their team, the events, and the players with reverence. The same problem can be found in a large number of cases: political ideologies, recreational groups, community centres, even online communities may fulfill the criteria necessary to be considered religious.

Thirdly, it is possible for groups who want to enjoy the privileges offered to religious groups to simply ensure that they tick off the boxes necessary to be considered one. It is not so difficult to write a text, call a building “sacred,” wear particular clothes, elect a leader and then *poof* enjoy tax breaks and extended rights and freedoms. Most recently, scientology has been removed of its religion status in Germany and declared a business – pointing out the power differential when it comes to naming what a religion is and who gets that privilege.

And with this, it starts to become apparent why it is important to define religion. I would like to be able to say that it would be fine to simply allow people to call themselves what they want, and leave labels out of it, but I can’t, because the issues surrounding definitions of religion are larger than self-identification. It is not only that recognized religions enjoy considerable privileges in our society, but also that the term religion is used to make blanket-statement condemnations, promote discrimination, and encourage us-vs-them mentalities. When people say “religion is violent,” or “this religion is violent,” they are glossing over the fact that we have no way of determining what religion even is. The end result of this behaviour is often that millions of people are lumped in with the few, and the only solution proposed is if religion, or that religion, is left behind in favour of a ‘superior’ way of life. Root causes of issues are ignored in favour of blaming a porous, ever-changing, inconsistent, undefinable thing.

So define we must, because the more we recognize the issues inherent in our own categorizations, the less we are able to condone worldviews of us-vs-them.

ReligionWordleWhiteRound

 

The Drawing Board is pleased to announce that our very own, Nakita Valerio, has been selected as a recipient for the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship (SSHRC) and Walter H. Johns Graduate Fellowship. These awards are highly competitive, and are issued by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council based on excellent academic standing, research potential and contributions to society. The award comes with significant funding which will be used to fund her studies in Edmonton and research abroad. Join us in celebrating this monumental honour.

nakita036The tentative title of her thesis is: Remembering Al-Yehud Through the Shoah: Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching the Holocaust and Jewishness Among Contemporary Moroccan Muslims

Nakita’s research topic can be read about below:

Prior to the Second World War, Morocco’s Jewish community numbered 240,000 and was one of the largest and oldest populations of Jews in the Arab world. Today, less than 3,000 Moroccan Jews remain and the memory of them is rapidly fading among the younger generations of Muslims. Historians focused on Moroccan Jewish-Muslim relations have been preoccupied with the internal politics of nationalism and Zionism. (Boum,2011; Baida,2011; Maddy-Weitzman & Ben-Layashi,2010) The historiographical silence on the role of the Holocaust in raising fear among Moroccan Jews, possibly stimulating their unprecedented exodus, is the result of current Holocaust “amnesia” among Muslims today – on whom these authors tend to rely for their ethnographic research.

Given my experience teaching in Morocco for three years, I found that Holocaust denial in private schools was a recurring phenomenon across the country – something corroborated by the Anne Frank House working towards tolerance and Holocaust education in Morocco. (Polak,2010) The current, widespread denial among Moroccan Muslim youth is at odds with growing Jewish-Muslim communication in online forums (Boum,2014), growing cultural representations of Jews (Kosansky, Boum,2012) and especially, the stance of the Moroccan State, which is vocal about distinguishing between the Holocaust and “the tragedy of the Middle East” – meaning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as stated by Jewish advisor to the King, Andre Azoulay (Daily Herald,2009).

The State is focused on reintegrating Jewishness into the national narrative, establishing festivals of Jewish-Muslim interaction and issuing a call for the Jewish diaspora to return home. (Boum,2010; Bruneau,2015) However, until private education programs which allow for Holocaust denial are assessed and addressed, the project of reviving Moroccan Jewishness will be unlikely to have the effect desired by the monarchy. For youth, the reasons to deny the Holocaust are influenced by their lack of direct experience with Jews: it is perceived as part of a Jewish world conspiracy, which they find in widely circulated translations of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I found that my own students had acquired copies of this text from their private-school history teachers who had also taught the children that The Diary of Anne Frank was fabricated. One of Boum’s interviewees, Said, affirms that the number of Holocaust deaths and the event as a whole were openly questioned by his private school teachers. (Boum, 2013)

The Holocaust, for Moroccan youth, can be imagined as a false commodity employed by Jewish conspirers to gain geopolitical favours for Israel from Western powers. The degree to which denial-legitimizing narratives are coming out of Moroccan schools (especially private ones, which are growing in number, and where programs are unregulated) remains to be explored. Thus, I ask: How is the Holocaust remembered by Moroccan Muslims today? How is this memory affected by private education and politics? How does this memory affect the overall remembering of Jews and ongoing relations between the two groups?

This research will contribute to ongoing debates on the memory of the Holocaust in general, the memory of Jews among Muslims, the role of education in shaping social memory, and the continuous rewriting of Muslim-Jewish relations in Morocco. Additionally, I anticipate that this will spark more scholarly debate regarding the representation of the Holocaust in the Islamic world and its use as a political-social tool in the era of conflict.

 

Alhambra-in-GranadaThe Drawing Board is pleased to announce that our very own, Nakita Valerio, has been selected as a recipient for the 2015 State of Kuwait Graduate Student award in Islamic Studies. After an intense competition among applicants, Nakita was announced as a winner on June 15, 2015. The award comes with significant financial assistance which will be used to fund her ethnographic and archival research in Morocco and Egypt for her thesis.

The tentative title of her thesis is: Remembering Al-Yehud Through the Shoah: Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching the Holocaust and Jewishness Among Contemporary Moroccan Muslims

A summary of her research is what follows:

The Holocnakita036aust is a provocative measure of the Muslim memory of Jews. Though it isconsidered the starting point in Critical Memory studies, there is yet to be much scholarship devoted to its memory in the Islamic world. An intimate history of relatively peaceful coexistence between Moroccan Jews and Muslims has been challenged in a comparatively short time by narratives of nationalism and diaspora, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, their economic-trade policy, the rhetoric regarding normalization of Israel, and educational protocols surrounding the constructed memory of Jews in Morocco.  My working research questions are as follows: How is the Holocaust remembered by self-identified Moroccan Muslims? How is this affected by education, politics and self-prescribed ideas about the “Islamic and Jewish religions”? How does this affect overall remembering of Jews in Morocco? These questions are situated in the context of Memory literature and are used to understand how societies reconcile multi-layered cognitive dissonance.

One of the most important aspects of being a good writer is also being a good reader. Both characteristics require consistency and practice as one continues to evolve their craft. Both Nakita and Michele of The Drawing Board are avid readers that have a perpetually evolving reading list. It’s often hard to nail down just what we are reading at any given time because it changes daily, but here is a list of current books, open to varying degrees, on Nakita’s desk. Let’s hope they inspire and feel free to share your reading list too!

patterns-culture-ruth-benedict-paperback-cover-artPatterns of Culture: Ruth Benedict – In Patterns of Culture, Benedict presents sketches of three cultures, the Zuni, the Dobu, and the Kwakiutl, and uses these cultures to elaborate her theory of ‘culture as personality-writ-large.’ Before introducing the ethnographies, Benedict includes two theoretical chapters and introduces the term ‘pattern,’ which she interchanges with similar phrases in the rest of the text.

9780300085242Introduction to Metaphysics: Martin Heidegger – This is the published version of a lecture course he gave in the Summer of 1935 at the University of Freiburg. The book is famous for its powerful reinterpretation of Greek thought. The content of these lectures was not published in Germany until 1953.

maaloufIn the Name of Identity: Amin Maalouf – In this work, Maalouf discusses the identity crisis which Arabs have experienced since the establishment of continuous relationships with the west, adding his personal dimension as a Christian Arab. The book is intended for both Arabs and Westerners (as well as for people with mixed heritage). This work is divided into five major chapters, “Identity and Belonging”, “When Modernity Comes From the Other”, “The Era of Cosmic Tribals”, “Taming the Shrew” and a glossary. He begins with universal values of identity, which he dissects, describes the extremes, then applies them to the Levant. He tries to describe how the average modern Arab feels, along a wide spectrum of ideologies in practice throughout the Arab world…from religious beliefs and traditional practices to total secularism. The book also sheds light on recent events in the Arab world, from civil wars to relations with the west.

0226285111Islam Observed: Clifford Geertz – “In four brief chapters,” writes Clifford Geertz in his preface, “I have attempted both to lay out a general framework for the comparative analysis of religion and to apply it to a study of the development of a supposedly single creed, Islam, in two quite contrasting civilizations, the Indonesian and the Moroccan.”

Genealogie_der_Moral_coverOn the Genealogy of Morals: Friedrich Nietzsche – An1887 book by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It consists of a preface and three interrelated essays that expand and follow through on doctrines Nietzsche sketched out in Beyond Good and Evil (1886). The three Abhandlungen trace episodes in the evolution of moral concepts with a view to undermining “moral prejudices”, specifically those of Christianity and Judaism.Some Nietzsche scholars consider Genealogy to be a work of sustained brilliance and power as well as his masterpiece. Since its publication, it has influenced many authors and philosophers.

816RGvGUV0LThe Yacoubian Building: Alaa-Al-Aswany – Published in Arabic in 2002 and in an English translation in 2004, the book, ostensibly set in 1990 at about the time of the first Gulf War, is a roman à clef and scathing portrayal of modern Egyptian society since the Revolution of 1952. The locale of the novel is downtown Cairo, with the titular apartment building (which actually exists) serving as both a metaphor for contemporary Egypt and a unifying location in which most of the primary characters either live or work and in which much of the novel’s action takes place. The author, a dentist by profession, had his first office in the Yacoubian Building in Cairo.The Yacoubian Building was the best-selling Arabic novel for 2002 and 2003, and was voted Best Novel for 2003 by listeners to Egypt’s Middle East Broadcasting Service. It has been translated into 23 languages worldwide.

41JlIxpjNuLArchaeology of Knowledge: Michel Foucault – The premise of the book is that systems of thought and knowledge (“epistemes” or “discursive formations”) are governed by rules (beyond those of grammar and logic) which operate beneath the consciousness of individual subjects and define a system of conceptual possibilities that determines the boundaries of thought and language use in a given domain and period. Most prominently in its Introduction and Conclusion, the book also becomes a philosophical treatment and critique of phenomenological and dogmatic structural readings of history and philosophy, portraying continuous narratives as naïve ways of projecting our own consciousness onto the past, thus being exclusive and excluding. Characteristically, Foucault demonstrates his political motivations, personal projects and preoccupations, and, explicitly and implicitly, the many influences that inform the discourse of the time.