Report on Workshop on the First World War and Global religions

Global Religions and the First World War: Catholicism and Islam (1 November 2014)
Chair: Adrian Gregory
Participants: Gearoid Barry, Nicolas Bianchi, Pavlina Bobic, Faisal Devji, Clothilde Houot, Justin Jones, Caitriona McCartney, Claire Morelon (rapporteur), Gajendra Singh, Michael Snape, Faridah Zaman, Jeanette Atkinson (administrator)

Adrian Gregory introduced this first workshop on global religions during the First World War by explaining how the coupling of Islam and Catholicism could help thinking transnationally about the conflict. Religion appears as a pre-eminently transnational phenomenon of the First World War. Islam and Catholicism were universal religions both in their geographic reach and their ambition to embrace the entire humanity.

The morning session on the social and cultural aspects of religions in wartime started with a discussion of the role of chaplaincies during the war. Chaplaincies did not have the same importance in different armies: they were more important in the British context than in the German army, for example. Overall, a more comparative picture of chaplaincies is needed because the different armies have been unevenly studied. The reliance on more informal forms of religious support (like the YMCA or the Salvation Army) was also underlined. The role of the war in the revival of religiosity remains difficult to assess. In the French case, there was a revival of religious sensibility during the war, but the actual impact on practice was not enormous.

The internationalism of Islam and Catholicism was then debated. There were limits to the feelings of belonging to a Catholic community in contact with other Catholic groups. Specific cults had a very national dimension (Sacred Heart, for example). In the case of Islam, a form of solidarity could exist with the Ottoman Empire in India (funds were raised for the Ottoman war effort) but it would be difficult to quantify these feelings. People at the time were also arguing that Shia and Sunni Muslims should put their differences aside. However, here also, the local dimension of religion played an essential role, for instance the cult of martyrdom in Punjab.

Religious practices constitute a new direction of research. It is essential to examine daily practices in a world where most religions were more closely practiced than nowadays. In the Muslim context, maintaining practices like body cleanliness was a major concern for soldiers. They wrote home to receive instructions on Ramadan. Dietary restrictions constitute a great point of divergence between the two religions. In the Indian Army, there was an emphasis on separate kitchens to cater for religious needs. In an attempt of Protestantisation, the religious leaders were used by the British to speak to the troops and perceived as loyal princely figures of authority. In the Catholic world, the role of intercessory saints became very prominent during the war.

The discussion of practices raised the question of the gender dimension of religion in wartime. The Catholic Church increasingly policed female behaviour. The loss of male authority often meant that the priest would replace it. Women in Islam were viewed as a repository of the community. In the Khilafat movement, women were encouraged to donate their jewellery. Bi Amman also promoted the movement unveiled and she pleaded to the audience as a mother, reinforcing this link between motherhood and the community. However, other researchers pointed out that the systematic gendering of religion was problematic. In the Catholic case, for instance, the increase of Marian devotion during the war was a constant between men and women.

The religious dimension of charitable and humanitarian activity was visible in established charitable organizations (Red Crescent, Indian Soldiers’ Fund) but it is less clear to what extent religious solidarity functioned in wartime. In the case of Belgian refugees in Britain, the Catholics worried that evangelicals would take care of the Catholic refugees. Ethno-national cleavages remained very strong in the Muslim example.

Religion represented a common trope to deal with trauma that soldiers resorted to. There was a familiarity with scriptures which provided a language to interpret the war experience. The inscription on war graves could constitute an interesting source in this respect. After the war, religion could also help in creating a different meaning of the sacrifices (in Ireland or in the successor states of Austria-Hungary). In India, memorials for martyrs were constructed in villages after the war.

During the afternoon session of the workshop, the political and intellectual dimensions of religion were discussed. The reaction of many religious leaders around the world was to present the war as a punishment for sin. In the papal encyclical of November 1914, Benedict XV voiced his concern. Later that month, the Ottoman Empire declared jihad against the Entente. It has long been believed that Constantinople acted under German pressure but new research shows that the belief that Pius X had declared war in Libya (1911-1912) as a holy war was widespread in the region at the time. The traditional chronology does not accurately reflect the Muslim understanding of the war. The First World War was seen as the most spectacular version of anti-Muslim conflicts in the region, placing it in a longer chronology (1911-1924).

Locating religious authority in wartime proves difficult. Even in the Catholic case, Benedict XV was elected right at the start of the war and only had a very short time to get settled in the position. In the Muslim world, the authority was highly fragmented and religious figures only had a local importance.

The issue of religious subversion shows the danger of reducing religion to politics. It is important to differentiate between the actual role of Islam or Catholicism in subversive movements and the fear of subversion. For example, the British always feared an international Islam conspiracy and there were supposed links between different perceived conspiracies at the time (German, Bolshevik, and Muslim).

At the end of the afternoon, several terms were proposed to characterize the new role of religion after the First World War. The concept of revivalism seems mostly useful in the American context. South Asians viewed the caliphate as a reestablishment not a revival. Finally, the term religious reinvention or resetting could describe the renewed engagement of Catholicism in French society.

In the concluding remarks, Adrian Gregory suggested the limits of the comparison between Islam and Catholicism and the risk of running two parallel discussions. Some points of direct connections between the two religions (several individuals, regions of the Russian or Habsburg Empire) could provide interesting topics for further research. The workshop closed with a discussion of the sources available to historians to explore all these new themes.