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Research Area 4 — Religious spaces : Genealogies, textualities, materialities

This research area spans the polysemy of religious movements in Africa : their political dimension (Islamic ideologies, nation-building by religions, etc.) as well as their expression through conflicts and violence, or through rites and texts, and their circulation and reconfiguration in the context of migrations.

The politics of religion : Building nations, ideologies and categories
This first theme focuses on Islamic ideologies in West Africa, in particular Mali, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast. “Islam” and “Africa” are considered to be operators of meaning for gathering and reformulating ideological resources that are circulate worldwide : Islamic Afrocentrism as an emancipation from the West and the Arab world ; new meaning given to Salafism through a strategy of modernity in French-speaking countries ; a critique of liberal democracy’s laissez-faire to the profit of a reification of the republic as a regulator of the commonweal ; the reconquest of the state bureaucracy and the ethics of efficiency ; sharia law and the moral economy of development. This research analyzes the profiles of these new Muslim intellectuals who are reconfiguring and fragmenting religious authority by producing new forms of “textuality”, both oral and digital.
An ethnological approach to the practice of Islam in contemporary Algeria seeks to understand how Muslims live, see themselves and display their religion — ranging from the internalization of (and submission to) locally dominant norms or from stern forms of militancy for or against Islam to a deconstruction of the categories related to these positions (Salafism, puritanism, etc.). Other studies focus on how Sufism is being turned into a heritage (Algeria, Morocco and Chad). Public claims are made to the continuing legacy of a “Sufi philosophy of brotherhoods” as part of a strategy for occupying political space and combating religious radicalism. Sufi brotherhoods are now major religious, social and economic institutions whereas they used to be treated like a minority, trivialized as folklore or forced underground. They are now being asked to intervene as political and social brokers in the effort to cope with the upsurge of radical Islam.
Stepping back from the present, this research will revisit the history of religions and anthropology in the Ivory Coast and Central Africa. Studies will analyze the religious dimension of the making of the Ivorian nation and state over the long period from the pre-colonial 19th century to the globalized 21st. This entails a comparative study of all religions, their reciprocal influences and rivalries. For Central Africa, missionary and administrative archives from the former Ubangi-Shari region are used to trace the notions and categories that the population and scholars have appropriated.

Conflicts, violence, pacification
Research is continuing on the displaced and refugees from the Central African Republic now in neighboring Chad. How are religious categories used by the families and communities involved in murderous actions ? Attention is also paid to the emergence in this region of persons and groups who advocate policies of pardon or reconciliation, or even call for the intervention of a supranational or customary justice, which, unrelated to the nation-state, brings to mind the policies implemented in other postconflict situations (South Africa, Rwanda, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast) where religious actors have often played a leading role. Another aspect of this theme is how memories are put to use in the making of a documentary, which films the actions and reactions related to programs for rehabilitating vestiges of the past and ancient artefacts in Chad and Central Africa.

Theories and practices of rites : Textuality, conceptions, experiences
A multidisciplinary study of the anthropological function of rites and ceremonies raises questions about the relevance, in the African context, of the distinction made by Marcel Granet between government by positive law and by ritual in classical China. The investigation of this theme has started with a critical reinterpretation of the structuralist approach to taboos and rites. By missing a discriminating difference between the regime of prohibitions and the empire of positive land, this approach fostered a theoretical indifference about the censuring function of prohibitions and, more broadly, about the anthropology of law. The “textuality” of rites is explored, i.e., the constitutive properties of the oral “texts” uttered during ceremonies. The three main guidelines for this exploration are : identify these properties ; measure their tangible effects in the experiences of the persons participating in rites and ceremonies ; and build a theory about how this textuality is part of a process for creating social bonds.

The circulation, encounter and transformation of religious movements
Religions circulate through migrations and deterritorialized transnational processes. In the case of migrations, religions offer disoriented migrants access to basic services (health, education, social programs), especially in urban zones. Not only are historical migratory routes in West Africa (such as the Ivorian-Burkinabe axis) studied but also other areas, such as the South Atlantic, the Gulf of Guinea, the circulation of religions between Africa and Asia or in contemporary Western societies (ritual practices related to New Age, neopaganism and schools of personal development).
This circulation of religions leads to works of culture and to new meetings and patterns that help us understand the dynamics of African societies. It is studied by borrowing concepts such as syncretism, mimesis or conversion that offer us insight into the porosity of identity-based boundaries and religious affiliations.