- Choreographies of Shared Sacred Sites: Religion, Politics, and Resolution ed. by Elazar Barkan and Karen Barkey
Why does conflict break out among religious communities that have existed side by side for hundreds of years? Why does peaceful sharing exist at some sacred sites, while others become hotspots for discord and violence? Contemporary popular discourse might lead us to believe that inflexible, centuries-old dogma are at the root of religious conflict, but over the past several years, scholars have compiled a body of work that shows religious coexistence to have been stable historically more often than it has been conflictual. Building on this understanding, Choreographies of Shared Sacred Sites, a volume edited by Elazar Barkan and Karen Barkey, goes a step further to probe questions surrounding coexistence. They point out that a spectrum of coexistence can span from what Robert M. Hayden terms “antagonistic tolerance” to a more peaceful state, and they argue that neither is inherently stable nor natural.
In order to illuminate movement from one form of coexistence to another, this volume focuses on the choreography of everyday life by both individual actors and the state. The authors offer a combination of historical and ethnographic analysis of places and events of sharing and conflict throughout past and present-day Anatolia and the Balkans. In choosing choreography as a focus, the scholars call attention to the fluidity of religious meaning and the latitude of various actors to determine it.
In the editors’ introduction, they highlight common topics in scholarship on religious sharing: narrative (of the history and meaning of a site), centrality (of a site to a religion), and indivisibility (of the importance of the site). Throughout the volume, the editors [End Page 135] and contributing authors supply evidence of times and places in which the understanding of each of these has been changed. What they find is that conflicts described as religious are really quite often political in nature.
In chapter 1, Barkey gives an overview of religious pluralism, shared sacred sites, and the Ottoman Empire. She argues that the empire did not have a clear hegemonic project in terms of religion. On the contrary, it set up a variety of institutions that tolerated and supported diversity. This evidence helps in building the case that “religious clashes” have not been carved into destiny. Rather, as many of the authors suggest, conflict has been escalated by state-making projects. For instance, in Cyprus religion has been entangled in ethnonational identity claims used by politicians.
The remainder of the volume is divided into three sections. The first compares sacred sites and coexistence in Cyprus, Bosnia, and Algiers. Most notable is the maintenance of everyday sharing despite fluctuating tensions and conflicts. In the case of Our Lady of Africa, in Algiers, stability has been maintained for almost 150 years, largely because while the state has strictly regulated Muslim participation at the site, it has never restricted access. In Cyprus, the state poses a threat to religious sharing by claiming that Muslims’ use of shared sites or former Christian churches means that Muslims are actually converted Christians rather than a legitimate Turkish-Cypriot minority. Nonetheless, participants at these sites are upholding sharing because of the mutual benefit it poses for their practices.
David Henig writes that national politics and the administration of sacred sites in Bosnia interfere with and affect their use. The ways in which individuals and local communities navigate these barriers and choreograph opportunities to act out the religious events important to them sometimes prompts intercommunal conflict, but other times plays out with relatively little discord.
The second section is devoted to religious sites in Palestine and Israel. Perhaps not surprising to readers, the editors point out that the strongest examples of conflict over the sharing of religious sites are in this region. This is due to what Barkan calls “nationalist manipulation of religious argument.” In a chapter on religious sites in the West Bank, he describes how, despite advisement by the chief rabbis that it...