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New forms of conversion dealing with inequality


Marc Tabani, Lorenzo Brutti

Session presentation

Conversion to Christianity in the Pacific has resulted from a strong heterogeneity of missiological strategies. Some denominations preached a radical rejection of custom; others were more flexible, while indigenous movements mixed custom and Christian elements to move away from churches. Today, custom and Christianity are deeply interwoven, sharing many cultural and religious syncretistic expressions. However, new dynamics of inequality have engendered reactions to inequitable aspects of development. The outcomes for this session would be: the different positions regarding local traditions and Christianity, from assumed hostility to open acceptance, right through flexible recognition, taken by bureaucratic authorities, new churches, investors, NGOs, Aid agencies and other stakeholders; how “development” is analyzed by local communities as favorable or hostile to local values and/or Christian principles; the identification of custom with Judaism or with Islam and other new forms of moving away from Christianity or giving up custom for expecting better individual economical success. Following the workshop organized in Marseille in June 2017, the growth of Islam in the Pacific shall be a matter of special interest for this session.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Christian Theocracies and Islamic Secularities in Papua and West Papua

Jaap Timmer (Macquarie University)

West Papua is differently situated with respect to Islam than all other Indonesian and Melanesian regions because it is a Christian margin in a Muslim-majority nation. Moreover, demographically, in addition traditional Muslim Papuan communities along the western shores of the region, sizeable migrant communities throughout West Papua bring a distinct religious dynamic. Divisive perspectives on identity and belonging between Papuan and migrant communities tend to receive widespread attention when they turn violent and then get portrayed in terms of a peaceful, innocent and victimised Christian Papuan minority versus dominant and violent Islamic Indonesia supporters. Such conclusions overlook the nature of the complex dynamics and historical background of Islam in Papua. In this paper I will challenge the use of 'political theology' in anthropology by discussing the institutionalistic/legalistic use of religion as being more prominent among Christian Papuans than it is among Muslims. While many Christians are keen to identify Papua as a holy land and themselves as a Lost Tribe, Muslims appear more interested in developing religious infrastructure and producing historiographies that might establish them more clearly in between ‘Indonesia’ and (Christian) ‘Papua’.

Networks and media coverage of Islam & Muslims in Samoa & French Polynesia

Emmanuelle Crane (Sorbonne Paris 4)

In the mid-1980s, Islamic da’wah organizations were active in the Pacific. According to M. Terdiman, the first native Samoan converted in the mid-1985s (due to the efforts of the WAMY – World Assembly of Muslim Youth – director based in New Zealand) while the Fiji Muslim League helped the small Samoan Muslim community to give Islamic education to its children. Yet, according to the FML, Muslim communities in Tonga and Western Samoa are declining “due to migration and lack of support which caused some of these converts to slowly neglect Islam and to convert back to their old religions or are no longer members of any religion”. In neighboring French Polynesia, anti-mosque demonstrations occurred in 2014 in protest at plans to build Tahiti's first mosque. This paper wishes to address the media coverage of Islam in Samoa and French Polynesia and established religious networks in both countries. Samoa and French Polynesia, synchretism and resistance, media coverage of Islam in Samoa and French Polynesia.

Art poietic, Christianity and oneiric worlds among Asmat woodcarvers

Roberto Costa (Macquarie University)

The idea of talent is generally related to what Alfred Gell would call ‘art performance’. In the case of Asmat (West Papua, Indonesia), the talent of woodcarvers (wowipits) partly transcends this idea because of its entanglement with the social context, in particular Christian rituals for engagement with ancestors. Apart from pure aptitude and technical virtuosity of the individual, people recognise talent (bakat) as largely relying on the degree of proximity of artists with their ancestors, which is realised through both traditional and Catholic ceremonies, and it is materialised in dreams. Ancestors are the source and instrument in the poietic process of the producer. This dynamic warrants a broadening of the discussion on ‘talent’ to shed light on the interaction between wowipits and ancestors through Catholic ritual, and the connection between dreaming and woodcarving. To pursue this, I will analyse several woodcarvings as tangible evidence of these associations. I will also look into the dynamics of inequalities that the entwined relations around ‘talent’ engender.

Differences that Don't Make (much of) a Difference: A Critique of Mosko's "Partible Penitents" Thesis

John Barker (University of British Columbia)

In a series of ethnographic and theoretical publications, Mark Mosko has vigorously argued that Christian conversion in Melanesian societies is founded upon dynamics of personal partibility and spiritual dividuality. Mosko charges students of Melanesian Christianity with projecting ethnocentric notions of individualism into their analyses that misconstrue not only Melanesian realities but the nature of Christianity itself. In this presentation, I demonstrate that instead of reconciling divergent approaches, Mosko engages in polemics that misrepresent current scholarship while over-promising the potential of an approach based primarily upon a model of dividuality to explain social change associated with Christian conversion. In practice, Mosko's model accords closely with contemporary liberal missionary notions of "inculturation" by identifying and emphasizing local adaptations of Christianity while neglecting ways that Christian institutions, ideologies, and practices simultaneously challenge, disrupt, and dispossess Melanesian societies.

Islam as kastom in Tanna (Vanuatu)

Marc Tabani (CNRS - Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique)

Twenty years ago, in the Island of Tanna (Vanuatu), the historical opposition between 'man blong skul' (Christian convert) and 'man blong kastom' (custom follower) was still alive, although more complex after a century of Christianization. Whatever the individual denomination of Tannese, the social groups to which they belong are positioned on a syncretistic scale between the 'ful kastom' and 'stret kristian' poles, even if everybody agree that both kastom and Christianity are good as creations of God. The sole mention to a non Christian people of the book was for the little Baha’i community usually known as man jiu or man Abraham. Some Tannese already discovered Islam in the capital Port-Vila, but on Tanna it was totally absent in the imaginary of local grass-roots. Things radically changed after the 9/11. Beside a frequent appraisal of Ben Laden and what was considered as his legitimate defense of the kastom of the 'man muslam', more islanders turned to Islam. Tanna today has thus become a coveted destination for Muslim missionaries. I will firstly focus in my paper on the main religious, political and economical aspects of that phenomenon, on the way Islam has been largely converted to local cultural realities and adapted to the island political game, while the Muslim community also became one of the wealthiest in the island. This success story will be examined through the explanations given by Tannese Muslim themselves and those given by members of other denominations.


Lorenzo Brutti (Aix-Marseille University, CNRS, EHESS)

The evangelization of the Min region (Oksapmin, Telefomin and the others "Min” groups of Papua New Guinea) began in the 1960s and consolidated in the 1970s with the rebaibal charismatic rebirth movement. In the proselytes action the foreign and native christian missionaries used images of the Bible advocating the soteriological angelism by idyllic images of beatified Jesus and showing the mystical ecstasy in the heavenly cosmological conception of the afterlife Christian. At the extreme opposite, a rich infernal iconography was used by Christian evangelizers as a warning about the kind of punishments hitting the sinners in the afterlife. In the proselytism implemented in recent years by Muslims activists however, given the prohibitions on the use of images in theological representations, the iconography is rather focused on "earthly", "presents" and "real" applications of the conversion to the doctrine of the Prophet: the return to polyginy and the distribution of wealth are the main issues seducing the believers of this second wave of conversion who switch from Christianity to Islam.

Soufism and the old melanesian saying about the presence of North africans

Melica Ouennoughi (University Vincennes Paris VIII)

First of all, we shall bring the scientific effects on the historic presence of North African in New Caledonia during the 19th century. The inventory of Ined in 1996 don’t state their origin nor even their religion. Thus they would mainly be christian or would have no religion. Nevertheless, my first field interviews in 1998 had observed a North Africain religiosity introduced from the construction of a patron saint in 1891 with pits of dates issue from palm trees, a symbolism oasan tradition giving birth to a mix various population. My communication will discuss first of all the history hiddent from the sufism of islam, which was present at this time. How the patron saint was abble to by-pass the anchoring of the dominant colonial christianity, nevertheless solidly anchored indeed in the Pacific. The old custom of the nomads created a religiosity through particular rites recomposed from intangible assets derived from the bush Kanak. Our additional inquiries with the cooperation of the saharan agronomic research emit the hypothesis that old cores of dates (palm) were scattered in Australian aboriginal ground during the end of the 19th century, one gesture ancestral introduced at the origin of the old kanak saying. Secondly, we shall pursue towards forms of associative organization of one « Islam global » more protester than customary since the 1980s formed by foreign private funds trawling for new recruits, Melanesian, Indonesian, Fidjian, Yemenite but also native saying.