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The winner and honorable mention of the SAR Student Paper Prize discuss their essays.

This conversation draws on Randeep Hothi’s essay, “The Massacre and Martyr(dom)s of Oak Creek,” and Justin Harumaya’s essay, “History Written in Advance,” winner and honorable mention of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion’s 2022 Student Paper Prize. Hothi’s essay focuses on debates within an American Sikh community about how to respond to the 2012 shooting at a Wisconsin gurdwara. Harumaya’s paper details how the biblical concept of history invoked in a Zambian Mandarin-language Jehovah’s Witness congregation can disrupt secular temporalities. Find out more about this annual graduate student award and the nomination process on the SAR website.

Sawyer Martin French: How did you each come to the research projects that inform your essays? In what ways did your experiences in fieldwork reorient your interests?

Randeep Hothi: The essay investigates diasporic responses to racial violence, focusing specifically on the aftermath of the Oak Creek shooting, in which, on August 5, 2012, a white supremacist descended on a gurdwara in Wisconsin, leaving seven killed and several injured. At the time, I had proceeded to a local gurdwara community on the West Coast of the United States, in which Sikhs debated about how best to mobilize in response to the unfolding event. The essay is an ethnographic investigation into the subtle stakes of this debate, which, I argue, reveal disjointed scalar orientations to the real.

The essay initially seemed unwritable, due to my overwhelming frustration with routinized responses to white supremacist violence. Diasporic Sikh institutions have long resorted the promised prophylaxis of respectability politics in their desperate attempts to ward off anti-Sikh violence, harassment, and other forms of psychic torture. I owe it to my colleagues Anneeth Hundle and Puninder Jaitla, who, in helping organize a teach-in at the University of Michigan addressing the Oak Creek Massacre, had encouraged me to pursue my critique of respectability politics, which, until then, I did not realize could become a focus for inquiry.

The essay has since germinated through retroaction, and in two ways. First, I only decided to compose the essay, and therefore confront head-on my frustrations with Sikh diasporic political routines, in 2020, perhaps nudged by the ongoing uprisings occurring at the time. Second, as the essay explains, its central ethnographic scene only became formal “fieldwork” in the process of writing.

Credit: Randeep Hothi
A portrait of Randeep Hothi
Randeep Hothi is a PhD student in Asian Languages and Cultures and in Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is author of “The Massacre and Martyr(dom)s of Oak Creek: The Scale of Violence, Articulation of Agonisms, and Problem of Diaspora.”

Justin Harumaya: As in many ethnographic encounters, my initial exposure to the research topic I explore in this paper was serendipitous. I had already been living in Zambia for about a year and half studying the range of social and cultural relations between Chinese migrants and Zambians at a coal mine in southern Zambia. Up to this time, I thought that issues of religion were quite peripheral to my overall research project. However, one day I was taking a taxi and the driver, who happened to be a Jehovah’s Witness, began telling me about the many different “foreign-language congregations” the Witnesses were establishing around Zambia.

The driver belonged to a sign-language congregation and was learning to communicate in sign language, but when he told me that there were also Mandarin-language congregations my ears perked up. For context, excepting a few university students, I had never before encountered Zambians who had achieved competency, much less fluency, in any variety of Chinese. The driver offered to drive me to the weekly Mandarin-language meetings for free, and suddenly I had a new ethnographic field site. After that I learned a huge amount about the Bible from the Mandarin-speaking Zambian Witnesses!

Credit: Justin Haruyama
A portrait of Justin Haruyama
Justin Haruyama is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of “History Written in Advance: Christian Prophecy, Chinese-Zambian Relations, and Diffracted Modernity.”

SMF: Both projects deal with diasporic communities. How do different orientations towards space color the projects of your interlocutors?

RH: The essay poses what I call the problem of diaspora, the felt need to calibrate to and between homeland and sites of dispersion. Diasporas are characteristically fractured, their existential investments being differentially oriented to several sites, both spatial and temporal. However, though the unstable relations thereof are not only not always obvious, even to social actors themselves, they are nevertheless key sites wherein politics are worked out. In tending to the problem of diaspora, I offer analytic and ethnographic sensitivities to competing orientations towards space and time. At stake is “where and when the action is,” the spatiotemporal character of the real.

By posing on the problem of diaspora, I probe the stakes motivating debates about political form. Sikh political subjectivity is predominantly probed in its responses to two seemingly distinct orders of violence: Indian/Hindu supremacist state violence systematically targeting Sikhs in India during the 1980s and 90s and white supremacist violence targeting Sikhs in the United States—especially since but by no means limited to the aftermath of 9/11. The ethnography at the center of this article shows that competing models of political action are grounded in psychosocial investments in homeland and sites of dispersion, respectively, which I probe ethnographically through the memorialization of martyr(dom)s.

JH: Mandarin-speaking Zambian Witnesses’ orientations towards space is an interesting case, since in effect they are shaping transnational religious circulations right from their (figurative) backyard. Probably the most conspicuous aspect of Witness practice, which sets them apart from other Zambian Christians, is Witnesses’ intense devotion to proselytization, which they understand as their duty in following Jesus’s call to take up his example and evangelize the peoples of all nations. For the global Witness movement, this means that China presents a problem, since the Chinese government heavily restricts religious evangelization of any kind within its borders.

In a way, Zambian Witnesses who master Mandarin Chinese and evangelize Chinese migrants (who then inevitably return to China) are thus bringing the truth of Witness teachings to China without ever having to travel to China itself. They thus harness the special circulations of contemporary transnational capitalism in a way that fulfills their ethical obligations to Jehovah God and at the same time brings additional people to the Truth before the rapidly approaching end of the current system of things.

SMF: Your essays take the ethical-temporal commitments of religious traditions seriously. What audiences do you see your work as speaking to? What academic or popular discourses do you see yourselves as intervening in?

RH: I see the essay speaking to readers alive to the radical world-making possibilities of tradition, especially the Sikh tradition, but who also seek to go beyond a relatively ritualized confessional politics overdetermined by so-called identity politics (itself an overdetermined signifier). I relatedly offer the essay to both Sikh reading publics and professionally trained academics—acknowledging, of course, the chance, unknowability, and unpredictability inherent in speaking to any recipient.

The essay brings into focus the translation between moral idioms of social justice and teachings of (the Sikh) tradition, the compatibility of which are not obvious to me, but the achievement can be wrought through semiotic labor. Denise Feirrera da Silva suggests the insidious role of “the text of social justice” in reifying the power-laden capture of modern subjectivity. Meanwhile, the tradition is also being translated under the rubrics of cultural war, with all of the vulgarity that implies.

JH: One intervention I see my work making is explaining the ethical importance and cogency of Witness teachings to a non-Witness audience. People steeped in Euromerican-style secularism often tend to portray the ethical teachings of contemporary religious communities, especially particularly devout and pious ones such as the Witnesses I did research with, as backwards and irrelevant to present-day concerns. There’s a lot of focus in non-Witness media, for example, on Witnesses as a “cult” or as dangerous to national polities because they refuse to recognize the foundational legitimacy of those polities. But less attention gets paid to how Witnesses’ ethical-temporal commitments also allow them to articulate an alternative to many of the most problematic elements of secular, liberal “modernity,” such as the division of the world into constantly warring states or the racism and xenophobia that results when humans imagine themselves as many different peoples instead of, fundamentally, one people.

SMF: What work can we expect to see from you two in the future?

RH: My overarching research asks how diasporic media operate as crucial sites in the transregional (re)production of tradition. The project specifically focuses on British-based Sikh television stations, which have become globally influential precisely in their attempts to call a dispersed diaspora to practice their tradition. These nonprofit community-operated institutions issue variegated programming twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presenting an opportunity to examine how diasporas resist cultural domination and produce counter-public media ecologies. I find that mass media is crucial for globally dispersed diasporas vested in building community against the centrifugal forces of geographic diffusion, political boundaries, and cultural heterogeneity.

JH: The research in this paper on the ethical-temporal practices of Mandarin-speaking Zambian Witnesses forms a part of my larger book manuscript, Mining for Coal and Souls: Modes of Relationality in Emerging Chinese-Zambian Worlds, which examines the controversial presence of Chinese migrants and investors in Zambia today. This book manuscript brings together the study of racialized conflict and labor migration, neocolonialism and resource extraction, Christianity and new religious movements, new language formations, and emerging transformations in gendered racial capitalism.

I also have an article entitled “African Critiques of Liberalism: The Curse of Ham, Biblical Kinship, and Hierarchy in and Beyond Zambia,” currently under review in Cultural Anthropology, in which I recount how the biblical story of the Curse of Ham is referenced by Zambian miners to insist on a reciprocal moral obligation between races. This story gives rise to a religiously inflected political discourse that reimagines the basis for labor rights under regimes of neoliberal capitalism. To take seriously this nonsecular challenge, I experiment with creative ethnographic prose that dwells in epistemic and ethical disconcertment as a methodological provocation. Being attuned to disconcertment is a technique for attending to my interlocutors’ modes of relationality—even when these are incommensurable with the liberal, secular assumptions subtending the discipline of anthropology.


Sawyer Martin French

Sawyer Martin French is a PhD student in the Divinity School and Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. His research explores traditions of left-Islamic thought and action in Indonesia. Sawyer also helps manage The Suryakanta, which publishes Indonesian-language reviews of English- and other foreign-language academic books in the social sciences and humanities.

Cite as

French, Sawyer Martin. 2023. “Responding to Massacre in Oak Creek, Invoking History in a Zambian Congregation.” Anthropology News website, July 7, 2023.