By Jamie Hu
Juergensmeyer projected these names in a slideshow at the Davidson Library last week in a workshop called “Thank G@d We’re Not Like Them: The Global Dimensions of Religious Othering.” He let a long list of epithets wash over his silent audience — terms that ranged from ‘hypocrites’ and ‘ignorant’ to ‘infidels,’ ‘pigs,’ and even ‘devils.’ In an instant, the fear that often underlies the process of religious othering was rendered visible to the audience, in glaring words onscreen.
To ‘other’ is to view and treat a person or group as inherently different from oneself or one’s group. According to Juergensmeyer, religious ‘othering’ narrows that further, making the target’s religion the point over which one’s judgment of them changes.
He, and eight other scholars on three different panels, focused on the impact that religious othering has on people all over the world. They covered topics such as Islamophobia, the Big Lie — which is an extreme form of propaganda — and the origins of othering.
“We tried to define the parameters [of the event] around not vilifying religion as the culprit of xenophobia,” said Kathleen Moore, a UC Santa Barbara Religious Studies professor and co-organizer of the event. “We wanted to isolate religion enough to understand why it’s instrumental in the way that people construct the archetypal enemy and use religion as a negative mirror to reflect the values that are positive about oneself.”
Moore says that each culture has changed at its own pace throughout history, but nevertheless defines itself in relation to the cultures around it.
“It’s a sense of how different localities are responding to the process of globalization,” she said of the event’s contemporary focus. “Modernization — the process of becoming industrial and capitalist.”
Religion, then, becomes the lens through which we can learn more about our world.
“It was interesting that they didn’t need to name one religion,” said Diana Thomas, a UC Santa Barbara alum who attended the workshop. “They just found commonalities between different cultures and ethnicities.”
Juergensmeyer focused on the dark side of othering: fear, and particularly how fear has contributed to the rise of extremist groups in the Middle East. He said Sunni Muslims feared that the other dominant Muslim group in Iraq, the Shia, would gain power. ISIS and other groups were able to rally Sunni support with ‘othering’ rhetoric, claiming that the Sunni were special and that those who are not Sunni — namely the Shia — were the cause of their suffering.
“Enemies are produced as a result of war. They are not the cause of it,” Juergensmeyer said. In this case, ISIS needed support to further its agenda of building an Islamist state, so it stoked the Sunni-Shia rift to gain adherents. But when ISIS violence turned on the Sunni themselves, they in turn withdrew their allegiance to the fundamentalist group, Juergensmeyer said. The notion of the ‘other’ faded as soon as it was found to be a lie.
Another speaker, Melissa Wilcox, from UC Riverside, spoke about homoerotic images in a Russian Orthodox calendar. Images, primarily of priests in sexually explicit poses, were published in the 2016 Sancta Paraphilia calendar, an apparent attempt to defy Russia’s religious constraints and serve as an outlet for the queer voice stifled in most of Russia.
She said makers of the calendar wanted purchasers to believe that they were buying the product to support LGBTQ rights. But the appeal of the calendar came from the exoticism of the homoerotic images. “It’s the consumption of bodies, with solidarity as a side of guilt,” Wilcox said — the “side of guilt” being the knowledge that, deep down, the sexy came first and the solidarity second. It was “armchair humanitarian sex tourism,” she added. Wilcox said the calendar wasn’t made for, or by, Russian LGBTQ. It was simply made to sell, so solidarity took a backseat to profit.
Another little known example of religion and ‘otherness’ came from Jamel Velji, of Claremont McKenna College, who discussed how the Muslim-world origins of coffee are erased or sanitized when the bean or drink is marketed in the West. In a talk titled “Sanctified Grounds: Contesting (Islam’s) Coffee Origins,” Velji said Muslims are continually removed from coffee’s origin stories. Faces on coffee brand icons have been slowly “modernized,” or stripped of their Muslim or Arabic qualities in favor of European features. Even cafes that previously celebrated their Arabic heritage have vanished, replaced by more European coffee shops.
Europe and European faces are viewed as marketable, Velji said, while Islam and its followers are not. In a talk littered with refreshingly lighthearted coffee jokes and puns, Velji stressed that ‘othering’ often focuses on profit, which can ignore truth and morality.
The exploration of religious othering will continue this spring in Germany and then come back to UC Santa Barbara in October, 2018, where it will end with a comparative discussion.
Jamie Hu is a UCSB Junior majoring in English, with a minor in Art.