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The Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English

Symposium 2024: Minority Identity and Religious Experience

Jews coming in to London, 1902-1903

An illustration from ‘Sweated London’ by George Sims, an essay on the experiences of immigrant Jews when they land in London. (ID no.: LIB5332/MH2). Image: Museum of London Docklands.

14 May 2024

The Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English is delighted to welcome you to an interdisciplinary symposium on religion and identity held at QMUL's Mile End Campus. This symposium on Tuesday 14 May 2024 will take a long view of the place of religion in minoritised identity. It will investigate experiences of migration and mobility, the challenges that geographical or social displacement can pose to structures of belief and religious practices, and ask how these are represented in textual, material and oral culture. By considering a range of different religious cultures and historical epochs, this symposium will compare methods and sources for researching identities and experiences over the long durée and debate whether the past and present can illuminate one another.  Each invited speaker will present for up to 30 minutes and there will be time for open discussion throughout the symposium.

Speakers: Amina Yaqin (Exeter), Katarina Stenke (Greenwich), Daniel Renshaw (Reading), Iman Sheeha (Brunel), Alastair Owens (QMUL)

13.30-15.00 Session 1: Gender, Religion and Politics in Pre-Modern Literature
Iman Sheeha (Brunel), 'Gendered Minority Identity and Religious Experience on the Early Modern Stage: The Case of Muslim Women in Turk Plays'
Katarina Stenke (Greenwich), 'Phillis Wheatley Peters’ Crowded Elegies'

15.15-16.45 Session 2: Urban Religious Experience in the Twentieth Century
Daniel Renshaw (Reading): '‘Hebrew Christians’ in Urban Britain: Persecution, Proselytization and Communal Relations 1900-1930'
Alastair Owens (QMUL), 'All are one in Christ? The Church of England, anti-racism and the crisis of the inner city in the 1980s'

16.50-17.45 Session 3: Islamic Feminism in Contemporary Literature
Amina Yaqin (Exeter), 'The Sufi Aesthetic in Muslim Women's Writing'
The session will close with an informal roundtable for all participants to reflect on the findings of the day.


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Speaker Abstracts and Biographies

Iman Sheeha (Brunel), Gendered Minority Identity and Religious Experience on the Early Modern Stage: The Case of Muslim Women in Turk Plays  
A number of plays in the late sixteenth- and the seventeenth-centuries, known as ‘Turk plays’, engaged with the perceived threat of the Ottoman empire, specifically the Islamic Other, to western Christendom. Prominent in these plays is the fear surrounding conversion to Islam and, by implication, the blurring of boundaries between the Christian, white self and the Muslim Other that conversion brought about. In this paper, I attend to another aspect of the Turk plays’ representation of the religious experience of English men in Muslim lands: the role of Muslim women in conversion narratives. I show that the plays depict Muslim women as doubly dangerous, posing a threat not only to Christian identity, but also to male self-control and supremacy. The plays attempt to assuage these anxieties in different ways, including the staging of the Muslim women’s conversion to Christianity, thus, re-establishing the supremacy of both Christianity and its male proponents.  

Biography: Iman Sheeha is Senior Lecturer in Shakespeare and Early Modern Literature at Brunel University, London. She is co-General Editor of the Bloomsbury New Mermaids series and the author of Household Servants in Early Modern Domestic Tragedy (Routledge, 2020). Her research has appeared in Shakespeare Survey, Early Theatre, Cahiers Élisabéthains, Early Modern Literary Studies, and American Notes and Queries. She contributed a chapter on religious identity to People and Piety: Devotional Writing in Print and Manuscript in Early Modern England (Manchester University Press, 2019) and she is contributing a chapter on domestic service in the interracial household to the Oxford Handbook on Travel, Identity, and Race in Early Modern England, 1550–1700 (OUP, 2023). She is writing the Introduction to the forthcoming Oxford World Classics The Tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham (OUP, 2024) and is working on a project entitled Shakespeare’s Neighbours: Communities of Support and Surveillance. 

Katarina Stenke (Greenwich), Phillis Wheatley Peters’ Crowded Elegies 
This paper explores the politics of voice and address in Boston poet Phillis Wheatley Peters’ elegies. In it I read a selection of her published and unpublished elegies, including a recently-attributed elegy from early in her career, in order to pinpoint ways in which they subvert and fragment gendered, racialized, and class identities via a repertoire of neoclassical vocalizations and figures of address. I argue that death as the elegiac occasion, with its multiple, often overlapping conventions of lyric lament and exhortation, allows Wheatley Peters to multiply both her own rhetorical position as elegist and the implied addressees of her verse. The result is elegies that are crowded with voices, agencies and interpellated addresses, speaking composite, differentiated political truths to their different readers. 

Biography: Katarina Stenke is Senior Lecturer in eighteenth-century literature at the University of Greenwich. Her published research covers poetry and non-fiction prose and includes articles and chapters on Scottish poet James Thomson; seventeenth- and eighteenth-century orientalism; and the work of Particular Baptist poet Anne Steele. She co-chairs a literature and creative writing research seminar on the theme of Narratives at Greenwich, and is co-lead on a collaborative research project on convivial spaces in Architecture and Writing. She's currently writing a monograph on eighteenth-century women's elegy; a co-edited essay collection on Impolite Periodicals will be published later this year with Bucknell University Press. 


Daniel Renshaw (Reading): ‘Hebrew Christians’ in Urban Britain: Persecution, Proselytization and Communal Relations 1900-1930 
This paper will examine the experiences of Jewish converts to Christianity in urban areas of Britain in the early twentieth century, and the treatment of ‘Hebrew Christians’ both by the community they had left and the religious bodies they had embraced. It will consider two overlapping narratives of persecution – firstly that experienced by Jews in the Pale of Settlement that precipitated migration to Britain, and, more problematically, the perceived treatment of Jewish converts by their former co-religionists after a public declaration of Christian faith. British missionary literature, and the accounts of Jewish Christians, stressed the differences between a persecutory form of Christianity in Eastern Europe and a tolerant, ‘truer’ form in Britain. At the same time, British Church responses to and narratives about Jewish communal hostility towards converts verged on explicit antisemitism. The paper will stress the complexities and accompanying trauma of an uncertain and transitory ethno-religious identity formed at a time of wider demographic change.  

Biography: Daniel Renshaw teaches modern British and European history at the University of Reading. His research focuses on migration and identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the relationships formed between different migrant and minority groups sharing geographical or chronological ‘space’. He also looks at the ways in which the Gothic and horror literature of the fin de siècle reflects ideas of difference and ‘othering’. He is currently carrying out research for a monograph examining the relationship between British church institutions and migration in the twentieth century. 


Amina Yaqin (Exeter), The Sufi Aesthetic in Muslim Women's Writing 
My argument will critique notions of feminist universalism and modernity disentangling the woman question and minority identities from a 'coloniality of gender'. Maria Lugones writes about resistance 'not as an endpoint but as adaptive and creatively oppositional' task to decolonise gender underlining praxis as a necessary means to counter theory. Using decolonial and postcolonial feminist thought as a framework I explore ideas of Islamic feminism and its interpretation in Elif Shafak's Forty Rules of Love and Leila Aboulela's Minaret.  

Biography: Amina Yaqin is author of Gender, Sexuality and Feminism in Pakistani Urdu Writing, co-author (with Peter Morey) of Framing Muslims: representation and stereotyping after 9/11. She is co-editor of Contesting Islamophobia: Anti-Muslim prejudice in media, culture and politics; Muslims, Multiculturalism and Trust: New Directions; Culture, Diaspora and Modernity in Muslim Writing. She is Co-I for the AHRC-UKRI project Empathy, Narrative and Cultural Values. 


Alastair Owens (QMUL), All are one in Christ? The Church of England, anti-racism and the crisis of the inner city in the 1980s 
This paper explores the role played by the Church of England in responding to racial injustices in inner-city communities in 1980s Britain. Focusing on the cities of London and Liverpool, it explores this theme from the perspective of the lived experiences of clergy who resided and worked in diverse urban parishes. Looking beyond well-known national pronouncements made in publications like Faith in the City (1985), analysis of the experience of clergy living in vicarages amidst the communities where they ministered offers a different understanding of the Anglican Church’s role in the inner city. The paper demonstrates the Church of England’s complex and ambiguous relationships to race and to the minoritised populations living through dramatic social and economic change – from radical solidarity to what amounted to a form of white paternalism. 

Biography: Alastair Owens is Professor of Historical Geography at Queen Mary University of London. With historian David Geiringer, he is working on a book for Oxford University Press on the Church of England’s response to the so-called crisis of the inner city in late twentieth-century Britain. He also currently holds a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to pursue a different project examining middle-class families, inheritance and ‘wealthfare’ in England between 1850 and 1930. Much of Alastair’s research is collaborative – not only with other scholars but also with organisations outside of the academy, including numerous museums and community heritage groups. 

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