“Repercussions of colonial pasts still causing problems for populations today”

An interdisciplinary lecture series organized by the Cluster of Excellence examines the influence of imperial legacies on social, cultural and religious affiliations – examples ranging from the Jews in Ancient Rome, to the multi-confessional Fatimid dynasty in the Middle Ages, and to West Africans soldiers employed in the French army – with lectures by Herfried Münkler, Brigitte Reinwald, Lora Wildenthal, Wolfgang Reinhard – as a prelude to the first annual theme “Belonging and Demarcation”

Press release of the Cluster of Excellence from 29 October 2020

© exc

The Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics” at the University of Münster will focus in the winter term on the implications of colonial legacies for social, cultural and religious affiliations and identity contructions of subject populations, past and present. “Societies in the Global South are still shaped today by their colonial past: throughout the postcolonial world, people, regardless of their religious affiliations, live in nation states based on the European model, and speak French, Spanish or English”, explain anthropologist Dorothea E. Schulz and legal historian and Cluster speaker Nils Jansen at the start of the lecture series “Empires, Identities and Belonging”. “Current debates on racism and colonial monuments cannot be understood without a consideration of colonial history. This also applies to many other religious, political and cultural conflicts in the post-colonial world that cause problems – for example, conflicts over participation in national wealth and the rights of women and minorities”. Colonial empires encompassed subject populations of different linguistic background and with different religious affiliations and social traditions, and thus laid the ground for subsequent conflicts over communal affiliations and particularistic identities. To make sense of these historical processes and their present-day implications for issues ranging from identity politics to international Human Rights controversy, scholars need to critically reflect on the concepts and epistemological assumptions that informed conventional analyses of empires and of state formation processes in the Western world, say Jansen and Schulz.

Featuring speakers such as the political scientist Herfried Münkler and the historians Brigitte Reinwald and Lora Wildenthal, the lecture series will deal with case studies from antiquity to the 20th century, including the history of the Jews in Ancient Rome, the multi-confessional Fatimid dynasty in the Middle Ages, and the life of West African soldiers deployed in the French army in Europe during the two world wars. All these empires were marked by a highly asymmetrical structure of rule, and exploited their colonies from a self-image of superiority. The lectures will shed light on the complex processes by which social affiliations and cultural and religious identities were forged within imperial societies, among those who represented the center of the empire and within the subject populations.

The lecture series is the prelude to the Cluster of Excellence’s first annual theme, “Belonging and Demarcation. Dynamics of social formation”, which deals with social identity formations and related cultural and religious dynamics and struggles. The first lecture will be given on Tuesday, 3 November by the Freiburg historian Wolfgang Reinhard on the “Sensitivity of cultures to resonance”. Those interested in participating via Zoom can register at veranstaltungenEXC@uni-muenster.de by 30 October.

Multiple identities or the pressure for unambiguity

According to anthropologist Dorothea Schulz, historical dynamics in African colonies illustrate the complex and often paradoxical nature of the affiliations and sense of identities forged through colonial imperial domination. “Here, new elites formed as a social group that played a leading role in the independence movements from the 1940s”. They appealed to the promise of political equality and universal civilization and citizenship by which European powers justified their imperial endeavour. “At the same time, newly emerging African elites responded to their de facto denial of the status of equal membership and political rights, and distanced themselves from the racist ideology of the colonial powers, who justified murder and genocide by reference to a divine mission of modernization”.

The expectations that empires had of their populations differed from case to case, as Jansen and Schulz explain: “In some cases, people with ‘imperial biographies’ could develop multiple affiliations, while in other cases they had to assume unambiguous identities”. One example is Prussia in the 18th and 19th centuries: “Prussia ruled over different populations, including those with different languages, such as East Prussians, Poles, Brandenburgers, and Rhinelanders, with expectations of identity that affected the militaristic and cultural aspects of Prussianness. At the same time, the different populations were allowed their own religious identities: Prussian citizens could be Lutherans, Catholics, or even Jews”. The situation was different under the Austrian monarchy: “It would have been inconceivable to integrate this multi-ethnic empire through a common language and political culture”. This was one of the reasons why the Catholic House of Habsburg insisted on religious unity within the realm.

“Just as the ancient Romans thought of the world of their time from Rome, so many people in the Euro-American West continue to look at the world through categories and values tied to Western scholarship and culture, and make the emergence of Western modernity the yardstick to measure modern life in other areas of the world”, Jansen and Schulz explain. But this “certainly does not match how subject populations of the former colonies lived these historical developments”. The background to the lecture series are debates in global history and postcolonial theory, and new perspectives on globalization.

Start of the annual theme “Belonging and Demarcation”

The first annual theme of the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics” is entitled “Belonging and Demarcation. Dynamics of social formation”. The annual programme 2020/21 addresses the question of how different social groups live together in plural societies, how membership of groups and ideas of identity emerge, and how conflicts are regulated and temporary agreement is attained. Participants of the various events and media formats will include Cluster members drawn from many disciplines and research projects, and guests from other research institutions and from the political domain. Involved are disciplines such as sociology, law, history and political science, as well as psychology, philosophy, theology and anthropology. (sca/vvm)


Lecture series “Empires, Identities and Belonging”
Time: 3 November-15 December 2020, always Tuesdays, 18.15 to 19.45
Location: Video platform “Zoom”

Registration at veranstaltungenEXC@uni-muenster.de by the Friday prior to each lecture date. A Zoom link will be sent to your e-mail address.


Die Resonanzsensibilität von Kulturen
Wolfgang Reinhard, Freiburg

Zwischen Zugehörigkeit und Abgrenzung. Juden im Imperium Romanum
Lutz Doering, Münster

Was ist ein Imperium? Die Differenz zwischen Imperialismus- und Imperiumstheorien
Herfried Münkler, HU Berlin

CANCELLED: Imperiale Grenzgänge/r – Erfahrungsmuster und Gruppenprofile westafrikanischer Soldaten und Veteranen der französischen Kolonialarmee
Brigitte Reinwald, Hannover

Multiple Zugehörigkeiten? Die Vielschichtigkeit von belonging in einem Vielvölkerreich (Russland ca. 1850–1917)
Malte Rolf, Oldenburg

CANCELLED: Imperium und Religion im multikonfessionellen Fatimidenreich: Die Experimente des Kalifen al-Hakim (996-1021) in Kairo
Almut Höfert, Oldenburg

Germany and the Idea of Belonging in Colonialism and Human Rights Activism
Lora Wildenthal, Houston, Texas (USA)