Westerners misappropriating non-Western religious imagery

A broad-based interfaith coalition, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, and Jews, has targeted a nightclub chain that uses Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain statues for interior decoration. As reported by Religion News Service, the “Foundation Room” night clubs operated by Live Nation Entertainment in U.S. cities including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, and New Orleans uses the following religious imagery as decor: statues of Buddha (Buddhism); statues of Ganesha, Hanuman, Shiva, and Rama (Hinduism); statues of Mahavira and Parshvanatha (Jainism).

Live Nation said in a statement that the Foundation Room clubs are (according to them) all about “promoting unity, peace, and harmony.” Before you cynically respond “Bullshit!” — it may be that Live Nation’s management really did see the misappropriation of these religious images as promoting unity. Since they’re based in the U.S., we can assume that they — consciously or unconsciously — see the “Judeo-Christian tradition” as normative; and while “Judeo” is merely a modifier of “Christian” in this formulation, Judaism is still seen as somehow normative. Since Christianity and Judaism are part of mainstream U.S. culture, Live Nation’s management would never think of putting up a cross or star of David in one of their nightclubs.

Why then is it OK to use religious images from Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism? Well, part of the answer might well be that “religion” as a concept is a Western concept that only dates back to the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, the West did not have a concept that corresponds to our current notion of “religion.” And “religion” as a concept was developed in part as a way to bolster Western colonialist ambitions: “religion” was defined in such a way that only Christianity (and perhaps Judaism, in a debased way) fit the definition; this allowed Western powers to justify domination of non-Western cultures on the grounds Christianizing them. (For more on the link between “religion” and colonialism, see e.g. Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies [Oxford Univ. Press, 2000]; William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict [Oxford Univ. Press, 2009]).

Not surprisingly, colonized peoples are accorded less respect than the colonizers. This might make more sense if I put this in racial terms, since so many of us are thinking about race these days: in the Western worldview, Christianity is seen as the property of the West, which means it’s a white religion; while Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism are generally seen as having adherents who are people of color; while you wouldn’t use white people’s religious symbol in a night club, it would be OK to use the religious symbol belonging to people of color.

However, while colonialism and racism are strongly linked, I find it more helpful to view this dispute over religious imagery in nightclubs as a legacy of colonialism. After all, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism do have white adherents, and there are strong traditions of black and Latinx Christianity. But non-Christian religions are still seen as somehow “primitive” or less advanced than Christianity, and thus may be accorded less respect; and just as in the past, this viewpoint still allows Western nations to see non-Western nations as suitable for colonial domination through both economics and military action.

Maybe I’m making too much out of this. But I do want to explain why Live Nation Entertainment didn’t put crosses or statues of Jesus Christ in their nightclubs; why does Jesus Christ get their respect, but not the Buddha?

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