Dr Adriaan van Klinken is Associate Professor of Religion and African Studies and serves as Director of the Centre for Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
My research broadly focuses on issues of religion, gender and sexuality in contemporary Africa. My interest in this area developed when I was studying for my MA at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and I had a chance to study abroad in South Africa for a few months. I joined an MA programme in Theology, HIV and AIDS at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and ended up writing my MA dissertation on the response of African feminist theologians to the HIV epidemic. From there, I developed the idea for my PhD project, on church-based interventions in gender – specifically masculinity – in the context of HIV, for which I conducted fieldwork in Zambia. Following my PhD, I first continued researching in Zambia, on the role of religion in the politics of homosexuality, and more recently in Kenya, on the role of religion in LGBT activism. The major question running through my research is how religious (mainly Christian) beliefs, practices and institutions in African contexts are part of public and political mobilisations around issues of gender and sexuality.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
My interest in religion in Africa was sparked by one of my lecturers at Utrecht University, who herself had spent considerable time working in West Africa, and who encouraged me to study in South Africa and linked me to relevant networks. Perhaps my interest was also driven unconsciously by my awareness of the fact that I could have been born in Nigeria, if my parents’ plan to go and work there had not been called off because of health-related issues.
My interest in religion, gender and sexuality is partly inspired by my own autobiography: growing up on the conservative Dutch Protestant Bible belt, coming to terms with my own sexuality meant that I had to think critically through religious, social and cultural norms regarding gender and sexuality. While at university, I took advantage of the courses in religion and gender to pursue my personal interest in this area at an academic level. I still remember my first encounter with queer studies in religion, and my fascination by the highly original, creative and radical work in this emergent field. One of my major interests is in the ways in which gender and sexuality constantly appear as sites of conflict and contestation between religious and secular politics in the contemporary world.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
This summer I’m busy finishing two major publishing projects. One is a project I’m working on with two colleagues, as we’re co-authoring an introduction to religions in contemporary Africa – covering indigenous religions, Christianity and Islam, and exploring their roles in African societies. As soon as I started teaching at Leeds, I realized that there is no up to date textbook available in this area, and after some hesitation I decided to take on the challenge.
The second is a monograph based on my research over the past three years in Kenya, where I’ve examined the way in which LGBT activists and communities relate to, and appropriate, religious language, symbols, and beliefs in support of their case. Basically, with this book I aim to go beyond the dominant narratives of religious homophobia in Africa, and to demonstrate the agency and creativity of LGBT communities and the way they engage with religion as a source of empowerment. The journey of undertaking this research and writing the book has been an incredibly enriching experience, both personally and intellectually.
As both projects are reaching completion, I begin developing some new ideas for future research, but these are still at an early stage.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?
With regard to European societies, there has been much talk lately about the “resurgence” of religion in the public sphere. What is fascinating about African societies, is that religion has never disappeared from the public domain in the first place and has always played vital public and political roles. Yet the nature of this public role of religion has of course changed dramatically in recent decades, in relation to dynamics of postcoloniality, urbanisation and globalisation. Much of my research has focused on Pentecostal-Charismatic forms of Christianity in Africa, which over the past thirty years have radically transformed both the nature of Christianity on the continent and the public sphere more generally. For instance, Pentecostalism has contributed significantly to the politicisation of homosexuality in many African societies, framing the matter in a narrative of Christian Africa versus the secular West, and indeed in a narrative of God versus the devil. In my current project in Kenya, I examine how LGBT communities resist such popular narratives and how they develop counter-narratives which, to the surprise of some observers, often make creative use of religion. I’m fascinated by these dynamics in which religion – in this case Christianity – becomes a site of public and political contestation over issues of gender, sexuality, race and African identity, and how different actors engage this site for opposing political ends. Africa as a continent is a site of multiple modernities, yet religion appears to be part and parcel of almost all the competing and conflicting narratives of modernity. As such, I believe that the study of religion in Africa is vital, not just as a form of area studies but for the understanding of religion in the modern world.