Affect, Politics and Religion in Iceland
Religion in politics is a contested field even without taking its affective and emotional dynamics into account. But exactly this was the aim of our workshop “Affect, Politics, and Religion” (held by Ricarda Ameling, Aletta Diefenbach and Antje Kahl) that took place at the end of July 2022, for which a group of young academics from all over the world gathered in the Westfjords of Iceland. In this picturesque and isolated region, we discussed how theories of affect and emotion can help us better understand current forms of religion, populism, racism and other inequalities, and how we can study them empirically.
In this new blog series, two participants of the workshop share their impressions and thoughts on affect, politics and religion.
Part One by Nezihat Bakar
I would like to share some reflections on the workshop “Affect, Politics, and Religion”, drawing on how I experienced racist discourse, traveling from one European country to another (Iceland, Norway, Austria). Even though the workshop intellectually inspired and stimulated me in many ways, it is not comparable to the impression it left on me on a very personal, affective level. This might not be surprising since I am a doctoral candidate researching racism and discrimination. I am also a woman with a Muslim Turkish background, confronted with the racist narrative of Islamization in everyday life, in the Norwegian and other European contexts.
Affect and Emotions
Affect is relational. Without making a distinction, I would argue that both affect and emotions mean immediate bodily reactions to what is happening around us. In the words of Greg Seigworth (2020, p.87), “affect arrives at every moment of contact, of body-world encounters”. It’s a matter of how we come into contact with the world, the bodily registers of affecting and being affected as we come together and connect with each other, and a shared sense or feeling of us that appears.
Affect is also a matter of intensity. The topics presented and discussed during the workshop were all matters of intense societal conflicts: Islamophobia, racism, inequalities, the attack on Charlie Hebdo, secular vs. religious feelings. At the workshop, these matters were discussed along the intersections of affect, religion and politics. It always seems surprising to me that in both academia and public discourse, the role of emotions is often neglected. Therefore, it was all the more enriching and illuminating that the workshop shed light on these often intensely debated topics explicitly from the perspective of emotions and affect.
Affect is, finally, all about impressions as Sara Ahmed (2014) notes in The Cultural Politics of Emotion. According to Ahmed, “forming an impression depends on how objects impress upon us […] or they impress me, and impress upon me” (p.6). We might feel or sense the atmosphere when we enter a room or a place, and I suppose, when we leave the place and the people, they leave an impression on us.
Affective Atmosphere/Affective Landscape
The workshop took place at The Museum of Jón Sigurðsson, in a small historical town called Hrafnseyri with a magnificent landscape, located in the Westfjords of Iceland. We attended the chapel for the lectures, sitting in a circle; some of us also slept there, in the attic of the chapel. I was not only impressed by the fantastic landscape we were surrounded by but also by the chapel as a sacred space. Teresa Brennan (2004) describes affective atmosphere as the feeling one gets when entering a room and feeling a certain mood in the atmosphere. For her, affect refers to energies transmitted through bodily encounters, bridging the boundaries between the individual and the environment and the opposition of the biological and social. It was not only people with diverse backgrounds, their interest of subject, the discussions and small chats that left an impression on me, but also the environment and the non-human inhabitants of the land and the fjord: sheep, birds, and whales.
Mythologies of the Turks in Iceland
The Turkish raid in 1627 and its recent reappearance in the Icelandic media was one of the topics discussed by the Icelandic participants at the workshop. One participant told us about how he experienced this reappearance when he returned to Iceland after being away for twenty years. He was surprised by how the history of the Turkish raid was kept alive, and is still being used to spread the fear of Muslims. To understand these reoccurring narratives, we may turn to the questions that Edward Said asks in Orientalism. (Said 2003, p.15): How does orientalism transmit or reproduce itself from one epoch to another? According to Said, strong ideas, doctrines and trends ruling the culture are those informing Orientalism (p.22). We have been witnessing, for some decades now, how the public debates present Muslims in a way that reproduces Orientalist discourses, not only creating a distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’ but also a perception of Muslims as uncivilized and a threat to Europe, undermining Western values. Consequently, a hierarchy is established, where Muslims are considered different and inferior.
To Talk about Racism
The case of Muslims and racism in Iceland stuck with me. I remember one of the organizers asking: “But what about when the culture is racist?” Hearing that out loud left me with an astonishment. Wow. This was my bodily reaction, and later on, when I reflected on this experience of astonishment, that comes first as an affective experience, I wondered why it astonished me so strongly. Maybe because it was breaking the taboos and silences surrounding the topic of racism as I had experienced them so far? Acknowledging that a culture is racist reveals the colonial power and all the damages it has done, and still continues doing. It might be the first step toward healing the colonial wound. I think, acknowledging that aculture is racist, is therefore a good starting point to decolonize our knowledge we are seeing and understanding the world through. Otherwise we continue seeing the world through the truth or the knowledge that colonial power built for some centuries: The West and its other.
Furthermore, Tamar Blickstein, one of the lecturers at the workshop, pointed out that racialization is an affective process. It is therefore important to inquire race in order to understand affect. This occurs to me as something interesting since in my Ph.D. project, I want to employ affect and emotions as a conceptual framework to understand experiences with racism and racialization that might very often manifest in a subtle manner and thus, leave us with uncertainty: not knowing for sure what it is or was. The crucial question then becomes how one may talk about the experiences of racism when they are hard to name. What happens if race does not even exist in our vocabulary as a relevant category of difference?
In the Norwegian context, it is claimed that race is an analytically problematized term, as it is replaced by “concepts such as ethnicity, culture, multiculturalism, diversity, or Muslims, which indirectly signify racialization” (Dankertsen & Kristiansen, 2021, p.2). Racism, after all, is a controversial, emotionally laden topic. For some, as is often claimed, it has the following logic: Race as a category does not exist, so it is irrelevant in our modern world, especially in Europe. Yet, it becomes problematic when dismissing the category of race as relevant to the discourse around injustices leads to the assumption that racism does not exist. Anyway, the way I see it, race exists as a social construction and a framework for how we perceive the world.
Circulation of Racist Narratives
As we were talking about the Turkish raid, somebody mentioned a rumor that the killing of Turks was legal until the 1970s. Without knowing whether it was true, it made me feel like I was shrinking in the chair I was sitting in: maybe I should not shout out that I am from Turkey when I am around here in Iceland. It felt like the discourse about Muslims sounds even more hostile than in Norway, where I have lived for the last ten years. At the same time, while discussing these topics with a friend of mine with East-Asian/American background, she pointed out my appearance, saying that I would pass for a German. I don’t know exactly what makes her say that, yet I recall a memory from when I lived as an exchange student in Austria some years ago. I remembered the reaction I often got when I said I am from Turkey: But you look modern. What does that mean? I wonder what women, who do not look “modern”, look like.
According to these interactions, I may pass as white or in-between, but in my experience, whiteness is not just about skin color; it is more than that. For instance, in Norway, I feel like, each time I am asked where I am from, I am being placed in the generalized category of a “Turkish Muslim” with all the associations it evokes, regarding me as different and inferior. Because the discourses on both Muslims and Turks are still so intensely negative, it is extremely hard to stand against it, and I am being affected by it adversely.
Sneak-Islamization, a Norwegian expression used by the Norwegian Progress Party, a right-wing liberal party, is an example of a racist narrative expressing their concern for an alleged Islamization of the country. As the party leader once claimed: “The reality is that people are now in the process of allowing a form of sneak-Islamization in this society, and we must put a stop to that”. For this political party, I can be one of the Muslims who works undercover for this process in Norway. What an imagination with a polarizing logic! As a woman with Muslim background, I don’t know how to relate myself to the racist narrative of sneak-Islamization. I can try to ignore it, close my eyes and ears. But these allegations have consequences, with their capacity to affect and be affected. They bring some bodies and objects together while moving other bodies away, as Ahmed (2014) points out, circulating love for some while hate for other bodies.
When I ask how it feels to hear all the negativities in the Norwegian media, one of the participants of my own study, Saima, whom I interviewed for my Ph.D. project, says: “(It makes me) [s]ad, nothing nice… that they are not telling the truth… that we are like ordinary people…”
Ahmed, S. (2014). The Cultural Politics of Emotion (NED-New edition, 2). Edinburgh University Press.
Brennan, T. (2004). The Transmission of Affect. Cornell University Press.
Dankertsen, A., & Kristiansen, T. G. S. (2021). “Whiteness Isn’t about Skin Color.” Challenges to Analyzing Racial Practices in a Norwegian Context. Societies (Basel, Switzerland), 11(2), 46.
Said, W. Edward (2019). Orientalism (Reissued). Penguin Books.
Seigworth, G. (2020). Affect’s First Lesson. In L. Dernikos B., N., & S. D. McCall, Niccolini A. (Eds.), Mapping the Affective Turn in Education.