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When Worlds Collide

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Anna Nguyen/New University

Humanities Gateway 1030 held an intellectual dialogue and pursuit  last Thursday and Friday, May 17 and 18. UC Irvine’s Program in Religious Studies held a conference on Religion and Nationalism.

The conference covered the effects of religion on nationalistic movements inChina,Iran,Israel,Russia, and theUnited States, and featured a presentation byUCIProfessor Mark Levine on the Arab Spring. The conference was attended by scholars fromUCI, UCSD,UCR, UCLA, CSULA,StanfordUniversity, UCSB, UC Berkeley, CSUF and CSULB.

Speakers dove into a variety of topics, but all discussions centered around the tensions produced when religion and nationalism interact in unexpected ways.

The conference began on Thursday with a presentation onIsraeland Zionism by Deborah Hertz, professor of history and Herman Wouk, Chair in modern Jewish studies at UCSD.

During his presentation on the Arab Spring, Mark Levine, professor of history atUCI, noted that the media focus onEgyptandTunisiahas clouded the conventional understanding of the true forces governing the Arab and North African world.

Levine pointed out that 19th century Muslim thinkers were confronted with the encroachment of their lands by Europeans. Arab and Muslim nationalism emerged as a response to this force, and as Muslim activists lost hope, they stopped trying to modernize Islam and began to Islamize modernity.

He commented on the confusing mix of religion and nationalism in the Muslim world, usingBahrainas an example.

“You saw American APCs (armored personnel carriers) sent in by Saudis, driven by Pakistanis with pictures of the Bahraini King on the front,” Levine said. “Where’s the religion in that […] While we like to think of the rise of the modern nation state as being secular, that’s simply not true. We’re still caught up in the trap of secularism versus religion.”

In his commentary of Professor Levine’s presentation, UCLA history Professor James Gelvin elaborated on the unique tensions in theMiddle East.

“We tend to focus onEgyptandTunisia,” he said. “This is a mistake. Both countries have experienced at least 200 years of state building […] the [Egyptian and Tunisian] template doesn’t give us the full story […] studying religion is problematic because of Enlightenment ideals. We have this post-modern edge that you can fall over, and we pull back at the last second.”

Yuhan Vevaina, a lecturer atStanfordUniversity, presented after Levine on the effects of Zoroastrianism on modernIran. He described a “cultural schizophrenia” inIranbetween Persian and Arab culture. He described how Zoroastrian revivalist groups have presented an idealized version ofIran’s pre-Islamic past, a utopian vision that is anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic. This revivalist vision presents ancientPersiaas the seat of Aryan civilization.

However, he noted a few positive aspects of the Zoroastian revival — a reinvented, de-ethnicized religion.

“[Zoroastrianism] is potentially an alternative for modern Iranians to the theocratic regime,” Vevaina said.

During Friday’s portion of the conference, the guest speakers included Professor Jack Miles of UC Irvine, who talked about the paradigm and conceptual metamorphosis of religion through American history since the frontier days.

The talk shifted toChinawith Professor Perry Anderson of UCLA and UC Irvine’s Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom, who both discussed the formation of modernChinaas an empire following the political ideology of its historic predecessors. Their presentation concentrated on the dissenting religious strongholds such asTibet.

“If given a free choice, Tibetans and Hui populations today would vote overwhelmingly for independence,”Andersonsaid. “Equally, few doubt that the Han population is unanimous in holding thatTibetis and always has been since time immemorial, part ofChina.”

Wasserstrom responded toAnderson’s discussion by analogizingTibetasChina’sHawaii, stating that to the Chinese majority of Han descent,Tibetstands as a natural and spiritual haven, despite being the stronghold of an intractably defiant minority culture and religion. Both professors asserted thatChinastands as a nation that spreads its imperial domains overland rather than oversea, allowing them the option to influence and claim territorial as well as cultural capital by way of expansion. Wasserstrom and Anderson also referenced the centuries-old movement by the Han majority to unite against diverse cultural diversion from within.

“To some extent, this notion of Han unity has been a central part of the ideological project of Chinese leaders for the last 150 years on up to the present,”  Wasserstrom explained.

Succeeding Anderson’s discussion were talks from independent scholar Dr. Chaohua Wang and Professor Richard Madsen of UC San Diego, who continued on the subject of China, followed by a discussion of nationalism and religion in Russia by UC Riverside professor Ivan Strenski and a a commentary by Dr. Lynn Sargeant fromCSUFullerton.

The conference was organized by Keith Nelson, Director of Religious Studies, and was supported by grants from the UCIHumanities Collective, the UCIProgram in International Studies and the Center for
Global Peace and Conflict Studies atUCI.