As India hosted the World Environment Day celebrations in 2018, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, addressed the nation through his radio programme:
This is a very important achievement for India and it is also an acknowledgement as well as recognition of India's growing leadership in the direction of tackling climate change. This time, the theme is ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’. I appeal to all of you that while trying to understand the importance of this theme, we should all ensure that we do not use low-grade polythene and low-grade plastics and try to curb the negative impact of plastic pollution on our environment….Our culture, our traditions have never taught us to be at loggerheads with nature.
In his speech, India was projected as a leader in addressing climate change and a putative Indian culture was extolled as being effortlessly ecologically friendly. However, Modi’s claim of an environmentally-friendly Indian tradition is not supported by empirical evidence. For example, notions of civilisation in pre-colonial India– rather than preservation – of forests. Similarly, the intensification of traditional agriculture had detrimental ecological consequences even prior to the commercialisation of agriculture under colonial rule. Nevertheless, this claim of an ecologically sensitive Indian past is widely encountered – and promoted – in India and abroad.
The rise of China is mostly perceived as an economic phenomenon. Yet, there is also the cultural dimension: What are the implications of Chinese leaders proclaiming that Chinese cultural traditions must be endorsed, as they essentially define what it means to be Chinese? The revival of popular religion in China, such as ancestral worship, which was suppressed over decades, but is now even applauded by President Xi Jinping as an expression of cherished core values of the Chinese, family and filial piety.
However, many phenomena related to religious practices in China defy conceptions of ‘religion’ developed in the light of Western historical patterns. Rituals are central in these phenomena, which can also be conceived as local customs and community traditions that express social norms and conceptions of social order without implicating ‘religion’. This ambiguity or even dissociation of ritual and religion is characteristic for East Asian societies and can be also observed in Japan, where ritual practices flourish, yet the majority of Japanese claim that they are ‘not religious’. Our Identities article, ‘Interaction ritual chains and religious economy: explorations on ritual in Shenzhen’, looks at these phenomena in the Shenzhen metropolis.
If we look at it sociologically, we see that blood has been associated with a spectrum of positive and negative qualities, from being a symbol of sacred bonds to outright impurity. Blood represents family ties, contains codes and data about our physical health and wellbeing, and is also pervasive in religious symbolism. The blood of a martyr or Messiah represents some truth about salvation, and the relation between humans and the divine.
My Identities article, ‘Could we use blood donation campaigns as social policy tools?: British Shi’i ritual of giving blood’, investigates the socio-cultural settings behind a nationwide blood donation campaign in the United Kingdom, the Imam Hussain Blood Donation Campaign – or in brief, IHBDC. The IHBDC was founded in Manchester by a few young Shia Muslim university students. Almost fourteen years after its foundation, IHBDC is one of the largest cross-ethnic blood donation campaigns collaborating with NHS Blood and Transplant, in England, as well as the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service (SNBTS). The community activists see this campaign as a way of honouring the sacrifice of their martyr and spiritual leader, Imam Hussain, as well as addressing a health-related social problem. As there is a difference in the frequency of blood types between different ethnic groups, in an increasingly multi-ethnic society, activists are needed to take on the responsibility of assisting with balancing the blood stock level at any given time. The conjunction of religious mythology of blood and donation activism has proved to be effective. Activists are getting more political recognition for their community, while contributing to tackling a social problem. The clearest mark of such recognition is the passing of motions supporting the campaign in both the London and Scottish Parliaments.
Du Bois’ work provides invaluable insights into the nature of reflexivity and self for the racialised 'other', which traditional, classic sociology has often overlooked. Whilst efforts to decolonise sociology continue, such as by including theorists such as Du Bois, there still has not been a sustained effort to dismantle and reconfigure an overwhelmingly white sociological canon still prevalent in European sociology (Meer 2019).
In his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903 ), Du Bois centres discussion of belonging, identity and self-awareness for racialised minorities through concepts of the ‘Veil’ and ‘double consciousness’. Du Bois’ analogy of the Veil is that of a racial barrier which is made of material in the divided experiences and inequality between the white majority and African-American minorities in the USA. For Du Bois, the Veil’s semi-transparency lends itself to the duality experienced by the racialised ‘other’: a double consciousness or a ‘two-ness’ which incorporates a ‘sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others’ (p.8).
In my Identities article, 'Examining BSA Muslim women’s everyday experiences of veiling through concepts of ‘the veil’ and ‘double consciousness’, the focus is on a reflective aspect of living behind the V/veil and the effects of double consciousness on gendered and racialised bodies. Here the capitalisation of the Veil is used to denote Du Bois’ descriptions of a divided world, whilst the non-capitalised use of veil (along with discussion on veiling, veiled) refers to the wearing of the hijab or niqab, as well as ways women discuss veiling practices.
Futures won and lost: personal hopes, utopian aspirations and post-revolutionary disappointment among young Muslim volunteers in Cairo
The 21st century has witnessed a range of mass movements and street protests around the Arab world. In early 2011, an uprising founded on visions for a more just and free Egypt led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, while the following years and the election of Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi proved that the military regime was far from defeated. Nevertheless, both opposition protests and state arrests continue to influence politics and everyday life in the country. For young people, political events are often formative for their images of what the future holds and what possible selves they imagine. The contemporary context of Egypt thus provides an opportunity to analytically explore the dynamics and intertwinement of personal hopes, utopian aspirations and post-revolutionary nostalgia and disappointment.
In my Identities article, ‘Experimenting with alternative futures in Cairo: young Muslim volunteers between god and the nation’, I examine how the personal hopes of young middle-class Egyptians develop into utopian aspirations for an alternative society, and eventually, how such aspirations are both strengthened and shattered in the aftermath of an uprising. Through ethnographic fieldwork among volunteers in Resala, Egypt’s largest Muslim youth NGO, from 2009 to 2015, I followed some of these young people from their first experiences with Muslim volunteer work through their excitement of the 2011 uprising. and finally to post-revolutionary times where they again renegotiate their orientations towards the future.
An outward sign of an inward grace: how African diaspora religious identities shape their understandings of and engagement in international development
Scholarship on the different ways that international development is understood, accessed and engaged by various communities, is often contextualised by analyses of how these complex practices are communicated to (and received by) audiences. This includes established motifs of poverty and social deprivation in visual discourses of ‘charity’ and ‘need’ that abound literature, film, television and the social media of western democracies. Indeed, insights have also been drawn from quantitative and experimental measurements of people’s philanthropic propensities and attitudes towards ‘distant others’. While these are well established, less considered are the broader understandings of development that are informed by religion and faith subjectivities, especially for African diaspora communities engaged in international and local forms of development. Addressing this gulf in knowledge has important implications for the scholarly and programmatic application of development and attendant policy recommendations. This is especially true when recognising African diaspora identities as critical for engendering particular forms of cooperation and alliance with religious members of these communities. So too, how and to what extent their religious orientations shape and determine their different priorities, strategies and traditions of ‘help’ and ‘giving’ in and for their countries and communities of heritage.
As such, are we to assume that religion(s) and faith identifications are inconsequential or secondary to how diasporas participate in and negotiate understandings of international development? Or are they much more significant and constitutive than we think? Is there space for religiously informed interpretations of international development that move beyond its definitional and operational preoccupation with technocratic rationality to allow for new and extended conceptual possibilities? All these speculative questions and theoretical possibilities constitute the intellectual space within which my Identities article: '"An outward sign of an inward grace": how African diaspora religious identities shape their understandings of and engagement in international development’, is concerned.