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For several years I vowed never to do an edited book again. But the experience of this project compelled me to break that vow. It began with the urge to write something on the changing face of proselytization in our globalizing world, accompanied by the realization that I could not do it alone. So I decided to organize a symposium on the topic for the International Association for the History of Religion's nineteenth World Congress in Tokyo in March 2005. Several of the authors traveled from around the world to participate in this most stimulating academic encounter, and we followed up with more sessions at the 2007 American Academy of Religion and American Anthropological Association meetings in San Diego and Washington, DC respectively. In the interim, the academic communitas was nurtured by various exchanges within the group and among authors, as well as by internet and media postings of stories relating to controversial aspects of proselytizing (Jean-François Mayer and his www.Proselytism.info website were an invaluable resource in this regard).
I am especially gratified that this volume contains chapters from several younger scholars from around the globe. Their work reflects intimate knowledge of the various localities where they reside and/or have conducted recent fieldwork. The project is also enriched by the contributions of several seasoned scholars who have been able to provide analyses of larger social and religious fields. My own interests in religious change and (re)affiliation in Africa date back three decades, but, like many of the authors in the collection, I am struck by how the legal and mass-mediated dimensions of these issues have increased.
The act of converting people to certain beliefs or values is highly controversial in today's postcolonial, multicultural world. Proselytization has been viewed by some as an aggressive act of political domination. Proselytization Revisited offers a comprehensive overview of the many arguments for and against proselytization in different regions and contexts. Proselytization is examined in the context of rights talk, globalisation and culture wars. The volume brings together essays demonstrating the global significance of proselytization, ranging from Christians in India to Turkish Islamic Movements and the Wiccan use of modern media technologies. The cross-cultural and multidisciplinary nature of this collection of essays provides a fresh perspective and the book will be of value to readers interested in the dynamic interaction of beliefs, ideas and cultures.
Contrary to the hopes and expectations of many, the neo-liberal trends of our global era have neither led to free markets for religion everywhere nor always to civility between religions in modern pluralistic states. In fact, the human rights revolution has arguably engendered new conflicts between local and foreign religious groups in a range of settings, not least Russia and India (Witte 2007). One of the most noticeable areas of contention pertains to the propagation of one's religion with the intent to convert others. From French schools to tsunami-affected areas, in Turkish streets and Indian state legislatures, accusations of aggressive or improper proselytizing activity now make global news. Legal scholar John Witte trenchantly describes the problem of proselytizing as “one of the great ironies of the democratic revolution of the modern world” (Witte 2007, 13).
The problems arising over proselytism were significant enough in the late 1990s that the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University—under the leadership of the aforementioned John Witte—embarked on a major project known as the “The Problem and Promise of Proselytism in the New Democratic World Order (1995–2000).” It was described as “an empirical and normative study of the new war for souls breaking out in various new democracies of the world between and among indigenous faiths and foreign proselytizing faiths”.