01: The International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society devotes its current issue (No. 28) to Muslim chaplaincy in prisons in several countries of Europe—an issue closely linked to Islamic extremism in recent years. Reports that prisons have served as breeding grounds for jihadist Muslims has led various European governments and law officials to view chaplains as agents for security and de-radicalization, especially in a case such as France, write Kristina Stoeckl and Olivier Roy in issue’s introduction. They note that all the contributors find growing rates of accommodation and acceptance of Muslim chaplains in prison, but the “main motive for accommodation . . . notwithstanding lip-service being paid to religious pluralism, is security.”
An article on Muslim chaplains in French prisons finds that even with the push for chaplain involvement in counteracting radicalism, there are insufficient numbers of chaplains (allowing for radical and “fundamentalist” inmates to become spokesmen for Islam in prisons) and that they can serve as sources of conflict and contention among both prison officials and prisoners.
Some groups of Muslim inmates accuse chaplains of being government “lackeys,” even though the drive to encourage “moderate Islam” leads to tense relationships with prison officials, which often includes rules against encouraging conversions. Researcher Fahad Khosrokhavar finds that jihadists in French prisons are outnumbered by Salafist Muslims, who stress pure Islamic teachings and strict practice.
But chaplains are more likely to stress a ritual-based faith that doesn’t reach the emotional needs and sense of desperation that young prisoners face. An article comparing Muslim chaplains in Switzerland, Germany and Italy finds that the prison administrations tend to use Christianity as a “lingua franca” in shaping prison chaplaincies, creating a “professional figure on demand.”
For more information on this issue, visit: http://www.springer.com/social+sciences/journal/10767
02: The growth of anti-Islamic sentiment and activity comes under sociological scrutiny in the new book Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream (Princeton University Press, $35) by Christopher Bail. The author traces the rise of such groups as Jihad Watch and the Middle East Forum and efforts including anti-sharia bills, to the anti-Islamic sentiment that started after 9/11. To study the media messages about Islam before and after 9/11, Bail uses big data including plagiarism detection analysis programs, which show how the press releases sent out by these organizations are cited by the media.
The findings indicate that Muslim and non-Muslim “civil society organizations” lost influence to fringe groups propagating anti-Islamism in the years since the attack. The scope of this activity is vast, with an estimate of 245 million donated to these organizations. The discourse of such groups often travels rapidly to Muslim societies, such as the publicized case of the U.S. pastor Terry Jones burning the Koran, and confirms the views of extremists that the U.S. is at war with Islam.
The author studies 120 religious and other civil society organizations that are “currently struggling to shape shared understandings of Islam within the United States.” He tends to categorize religious-based anti-Muslim groups and efforts (such as Christian groups opposing Islam on theological grounds) in the same camp as the more secular conservative political organizations that have had the most influence. He argues that these groups were better able to attract media attention by their sensationalist approach, which helped them develop new networks to raise funds and gain acceptance as “terrorism experts.”
By achieving such expert status, these organizations have had considerable political clout, which could be seen by the number of states adopting anti-sharia bills, as well as shaping public opinion. Even the Bush administration, which had stressed pro-Muslim messages and connections to mainstream Muslim organizations, moved closer to the anti-Muslim groups by 2008. Bail concludes that in effect, these groups and their discourse have become mainstream.
03: Hans Joas, a leading German sociologist, focuses on the contention questions of secularization and the future of religion in Europe in his new book Faith As An Option (Stanford University Press, $22.95). In the first part of the book Joas seeks to show how the misconceptions of both secularists and believers that “non-believers [are] at the cutting edge of progress and, conversely, the holier-than-thou self-certainty of being a morally better human beings by virtue of being a believer” have been disproven. Joas holds that the process of secularization has taken place in “waves”—the most recent in the 1960s—that have been shaped by the actions of secularists and believers rather than by the pervasive process of modernization. Unlike many sociologists, Joas does not see growing pluralism as weakening religious faith, arguing instead that religions may show more vitality with the growth of other religious and ideological options.
The book is especially interesting in discussing changes in Germany. For instance, Joas argues that while confessional milieus (Catholic and Protestant) may well be eroding in Germany, there is the “emergence of a supraconfessional Christian life world” through increased ecumenical marriages and friendships that is more vital than the older ones based on territory and tradition.
Today the dividing line runs between Christian and non-Christian rather than between different kinds of Christians. In the rest of the book, Joas looks at religion and politics, ecumenism and specific challenges facing Christianity, stressing that both the religious and secularist share a “universalism” that can counter nationalist and racist currents.
04: Despite their mythic image as bearers of ancient Christianity upholding a strong tie between nationhood and faith, the new book Armenian Christianity Today (Ashgate, $98.96), edited by Alexander Agadjanian, suggests that Armenians hold a range of religious identities, including strong secularists and fervent evangelicals. The Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) has been considered a leading example of an “ethno-religion” in that Armenian ethnicity is seen as inseparable to membership in the church. Church leaders regularly invoke their lineage going back to the arrival of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries and even further in time to Noah’s Ark and even the Garden of Eden. The AAC’s claim that it stands at the foundation of the Armenian nation has given it wide legitimacy and privileges in society, even if most Armenians are nominal in participation and even widely anti-clerical in their attitudes, according to Agadjanian.
Other churches and denominations are highly restricted, backed by public support, but the contributors note that pluralism has made strong inroads in the country. For starters, the AAC is itself divided, as its ecclesial authorities have two separate seats of authority—the Etchmiadzin and Cilician Patriarchates—and it contains movements that are distant from the church hierarchy, such as a brotherhood that has Protestant features like revival meetings.
Another chapter finds that evangelical and Pentecostal churches have grown fairly rapidly. But even among some of these churches there is a tendency to link Armenian nationality and its ancient Christian roots to church identity. Traditional Armenian hymns and poems, even if they are mystical and quasi-Christian or part of the AAC, are put to use in many evangelical and charismatic services. Even those newer charismatic and evangelical churches rejecting the AAC heritage may accept the traditional role of the godfather during baptism. The far-flung and numerous Armenian Diasporas—from Lebanon to St. Petersburg, Russia to Southern California—are the subject of the last part of the book.
In most cases, Armenian identity is closely linked to religious identity. Even in California, according to a survey by contributors Dyron Daughrity and Nicholas Cumming, 80 percent of Armenian Americans viewed religion as either “somewhat important” or “very important” with 85 percent agreeing that their Armenian identity is equally or more important than their American identity. Yet on other measures, the respondents shared more commonalities with the West; 15.5 percent of the Armenian Americans, especially younger ones, viewed religion as unimportant in their lives, which is somewhat similar to the 16.1 percent of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated.