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Religion and Society

Examining ‘Authority, Community, and Identity’ through the lens of Contending Modernities

The University of Notre Dame’s Contending Modernities research and education initiative is promoting a new working group on Authority, Community, Identity, that will begin its research in 2014. The working group will explore the ways in which the boundaries between religious and secular authorities, communities and identities, are being re-negotiated in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia under the pressures of globalization, modern transnational flows, and the rise of hybrid identities within a radically pluralized social context.



Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia are among the most pluralistic and religiously populated regions in the world. Their histories incorporate centuries of syncretic encounter between native and immigrant ethno-religious groups, experiences of colonialism and independence movements, and the recurring rise of religious revivalist movements. Today external and internal pressures on traditional communities and networks have accelerated with an unprecedented intensity, placing churches, mosques and indigenous communities into open contestation with one another, and with imperatives of the so-called secular state.


This project was discussed during a meeting in New York with a clarification of the conceptual terms — authority, identity and community — which led to a more nuanced discussion of the range of definitions and connotations that these terms take on within different geographical, religious and secular contexts. For example, Sufi brotherhoods in Sub-Saharan Africa show deference to the spiritually enlightened religious authority — the spiritual virtuosi — while other movements, like Wahhabism, give more deference to ulama espousing the literal authority of the text. The participants argued that each of these types of authority form, and are in turn supported by, different types of communities — be they charismatic, scripturalist, spiritualist or politicized. They also have a direct influence on more practical matters, such as the ordering of the family in society, gender relations, interfaith marriage, and so on. The participants focused these broad themes on a specific issue cutting across regional and religious divides: the contestations over proposed reforms in family law. In Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia debates over the family are often the battleground upon which ongoing debates between revivalists, traditionalists, civil and customary authorities unfold. At times, these battles lead to the forging of unlikely alliances across religious borders, overshadowing inter-religious competition. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the introduction of new Western influenced family codes is seen by most religious groups, both Muslim and Christian, as the first step toward the introduction of what are perceived as licentious Western norms of marriage and sexuality. Hence we witness their contestation of civil laws in favor of traditional family arrangements. In the context of Indonesia a unique battle takes shape over customary matrilineal laws (adat) still in place among the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, among other tribes. These adats are accepted by traditionalist religious groups who have been able to adapt to indigenous lifestyles throughout the past centuries, giving life to hybrid identities. But they are fiercely contested by revivalist movements with “purified” understandings of marriage and family.



The consultation generated a wealth of themes and questions, some of which the Contending Modernities working group on Authority, Community, Identity will attempt to address in the coming years. How are the boundaries between civil, customary and religious laws on marriage negotiated? How do individuals negotiate their multiple senses of belonging to their religious tradition and to modern culture, in matters pertaining to justice in the family, gender and sexuality? What arguments do religious and secular authorities rely upon to support some family patterns and oppose others? To what extent, are they conditioned by socio-economic or political factors? Are there meta-narratives of justice, or extra-traditional criteria, by which these ‘powers’ or ‘reasons’ can be judged? Where might we identify spaces of collaboration across boundaries otherwise separating these embattled communities?



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Scott Appleby


Director, Contending Modernities, University of Notre Dame



Paola Bernardini


Associate Director for Research, Contending Modernities, University of Notre Dame