Religion, Orientalism, and Decolonization
This panel explores the diverse ways in which religious Europeans responded to and thought about decolonization. Since the inception of modern imperialism, religious ideas, individuals, and organizations were crucial for Europeans’ attempt domination of the world’s colonized parts. A rich scholarship has therefore examined the decisive role of theology and religious concepts in supporting and enabling imperial rule, the diverse ways that missionaries connected colonies and the metropole, and the deep influence of religion on the production of European knowledge, particularly orientalism. What, however, were the relationship between religion and the end of empire? How did different religious groups envision decolonization, and what was their response to colonial independence movements? How did the prospect of decolonization shape the production of new knowledge? Finally, how did European religious thought change with the collapse of imperial dominance?
By addressing these questions, this panel seeks to chart new directions and methodologies in the study of European thought, religion, and politics in an era of dramatic international change. Each paper explores a different group – Jews, Protestants, and Catholics – and its thinking about the exhilarating potentials and existential threats they associated with decolonization. Susannah Heschel (Religion, Dartmouth College) examines how German Jews developed a unique understanding of Islam and the Orient, one that resisted widespread orientalist and imperialist attitudes. She shows how the Jewish attempt to dissociate Judaism from Christian orientalism posed a profound challenge to European thinking about non-European religions. Udi Greenberg (History, Dartmouth College) discusses the radical transformation of Protestant missionaries in the interwar era, from ardent support of imperialism to explicit advocates of anti-racism and anti-colonialism. He claims that the rise of anxieties about Europe’s secularization and the spread of new Protestant theology (“theology of crisis”) led many Protestants to embrace a more egalitarian view of non-European Christians. Elizabeth Foster (History, Tufts University) excavates the fierce debates over possibilities of inter-faith dialog and cooperation with African Islam that divided French Catholics during the collapse of France’s empire in West Africa. She demonstrates how the geopolitical earthquakes of the 1950s sparked new thinking about the role of Christianity in Africa and the relationship between Catholicism and other faiths.
The panel will include comments by Naomi Davidson (History, Ottawa University), who has published widely on European religious thinking about Islam and decolonization, and will be chaired by James Chappel (History, Duke University), who specializes in Catholic social and political thought.