Apostasy and nationalism

I recently found out about Selim Deringli’s book Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman Empire (2012). In the book he lays out the complex history and geograhical and cultural diversity that was Ottoman Empire. This mosaic of ethnicities and identities was emphasized in the retreat of the Empire. Both internal forces (serbians, greeks, turkish, orthodox, muslims etc.) and external forces (like Russia and orthodox church) played parts in this crumbling puzzle.

What is interesting in my professional perspective, is the tie between nationalism and religions. According to Deringli, nationalism enforced religious identities, and leaving religion was very often seen as de-nationalization. By switching religious camps or accentuating one’s religion, individuals did not so much express their interest in religious dogmatics and creeds but shouted out their relation to certain identity. Although we can not dismiss conversion-apostasy as hypocricity and scape-coat, means to some different end – they were still religious in some sense after all -, cases of leaving religion and adopting a new one reveal that choices of religious identification and expression had much more complicated causes and wider consequences than just subjective inner change of mind.

This tie between nationalism and conversion-apostasy brought into my mind the religious-cultural field of Finland in the early 1900’s. Since the late 19th century, nationalism and national identity had risen in Finland. Nationalism was made stronger due actions from Russian government, which was accused of “russianization” of Finland. The government had a nation-wide policy of doing just that, but Finns interpreted that they had given a special status in the empire, and were at least partly correct. When the Russian Empire declined, after war with Japan and during and after the First World War, nationalism got stronger and led to founding of the republic of Finland in 1917. It was during these years of strong societal tensions when a new religion, or mode of christianity, Pentecostalism, started to spread in the country.

Finland, almost entirely Lutheran country (with substantial Orthodox minority), shaped finnish-ness, national identity was strongly shaped around Lutheran religion, culture and history. Although the largest political party, social democrats SDP, encouraged the separation between church and state, Finnish-ness included being at least culturally Lutheran with practices such as baptism of children. Foremost Lutheranism meant continuation of culture, tradition, and historical ethnic identity. In the 19th century a famous Finnish figure and writer, Zacharias Topelius, even created a myth how Finns were civilized with the spread of Lutheranism. This was naturally directed against paganism and Catholic church, but also separated Finns from Russians.

Pentecostals interfered with the Lutheran traditions and habits, foremost by rejecting the baptism of children. When a person converted to Pentecostalism, he was seen as an apostate of Lutheranism and in many cases also from Finnishness. Pentecostal revivalists clashed not only with Lutheran priests, but also with local communities. I have noted this cultural disruption previously in my research and publications. However, I haven’t thought this disruption as de-nationalization, until now. Even though we can argue that Pentecostals themselves did not see their conversion-apostasy as changing national identity, that was how it appeared for many Finns. In a time when national unity was called for to create a nation-state, deviant cultural practices and traditions were seen also in the light of breaking this imagined unity.

The relation between religious identification and creating new national identities is interesting. It seems to accentuate in times of nationalistic uprisings and revivals. The connection can work in many ways, for example to strenghten previous identies with ‘original’ religion and past, or distance oneself from unwanted upheavals with newly constructed religious identity. Assertions of what is ‘true’ and ‘original’ are often heard in these circumstances. With these stories people create belongings and new beginnings. Doctrinal purity is not the main concern for converts-apostates. Instead, they seek for a sense of acceptable identity and stability in his or her life, a place and status they feel comfortable and at home.


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