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  • Similarity and difference, context and tradition, in contemporary religious movements in West Africa
  • J. D. Y. Peel (bio)

The position I critique in this paper is really a complex of closely overlapping positions, some more theoretically sophisticated or better grounded empirically than others.1 Their central thrust is to emphasize the similarities rather than the differences between current movements in the world religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, but also to a lesser extent in Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. It appeals more to social scientists than to those working in religious studies, particularly scholars of specific religious traditions. It also taps into a common lay attitude to what might be called a ‘secular common sense’, which feels impatience or distaste for all forms of what it considers religious extremism, while at the same time shying away from regarding any one religion as more prone to extremism than others. This is the kind of interlocutor who will counter an observation about violent militancy in contemporary Islam – in the context, let us say, of a discussion about Boko Haram – with ‘But what about the Crusades’?

The notion of fundamentalism is central to the argument. Originally coined by advocates of a literalist, conservative-evangelical reading of the Bible in contrast to liberal Christianity, it has become the anchor for a widespread view (chiefly held by those unsympathetic to it) of which the journalist Nick Cohen (2012) gives a perfect example: ‘as there is no great difference between Christian and Muslim extremists, why not intervene in this clash of fundamentalisms …?’ The title of a book by Tariq Ali, veteran of the erstwhile New Left, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: crusades, jihads and modernity (2002), shares the same perspective, seeing these movements as being at once homologous and hostile to one another. It also points to a reason for their emergence: they are both responses (albeit perverse ones) to the challenge of ‘modernity’.2 More nuanced and measured accounts, such as those by Bruce (2000) and Ruthven (2007), who approach the range of phenomena respectively from the Christian and the Muslim side, also imply that, whatever cultural dress they wear, all fundamentalisms are homologous responses to a broadly similar set of causal circumstances. [End Page 620]

If the antinomy of similarity versus difference conveys a general orientation in how we are disposed to view the range of religions, a corresponding antinomy of context versus tradition expresses the primary option for their analysis. An emphasis on similarity fits with the conviction that, granted the same conditions, the members of different religions will respond in similar ways. So its perspective is strongly presentist. In terms of anthropology’s history, the sharpest articulation of the presentist perspective was in classic structural-functionalism. This (logically enough) all but dispensed with a notion of culture, which – as Sahlins (1985: 155) succinctly put it – is ‘precisely the organization of the current situation in the terms of a past’. So to emphasize difference is to imply that the specificities inherent within each religion’s tradition themselves make a difference to each fresh context where that religion is received. The cumulative outcome is none other than the history of the religion in question, its tradition constantly inflected by the contexts through which it passes.

Moving from the general picture to West Africa, we at once encounter forceful arguments for the close similarity of recent movements in the two faiths, a point strongly made through such metaphors as their being ‘mirror-images’ or ‘doppelgängers’ of one another (Larkin and Meyer 2006; Marshall 2009). Larkin and Meyer’s comparison is not logically ideal, since it (mainly) contrasts Pentecostal Christianity in Southern Ghana with Salafist Islam in Northern Nigeria, but it serves to make the key points. Some similarities are not to be denied: they both attack local religious traditions, endorse globalism and ‘modernity’, find their primary base among educated urban youth, promote a new kind of religious subjectivity, and make much use of modern media. These similarities are mainly matters of form but there are also two large areas of difference that are candidly acknowledged by Larkin and Meyer, and these concern matters of substance or religious orientation. Let us call these Prosperity – or the more...


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pp. 620-627
Launched on MUSE
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