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Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Resonance of Vestigial States

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is RSP stalwart (currently our videos producer), Jonathan Tuckett.

Way back in the early days of the RSP when I did interviews and roundtables I interviewed Naomi Goldenberg on religion as vestigial states. This was also back in the early days of my PhD when I had joined Stirling University and its program of phenomenology“. (Don’t worry this isn’t about phenomenology so much as it is about me).

This was all before I started reading Alfred Schutz who turned my thesis onto an entirely new path and eventually to the heights of “proper phenomenology”. The truth is, back then – when I interviewed Naomi – I couldn’t really say that a I “got” Critical Religion. As David has already explained in his editor’s choice, Timothy Fitzgerald is perhaps the most important scholar of religion of our time for the fact that he has made us change the way we think about religion. But I was stubborn and combative, so I had to come to realise the paradigm shift of Tim’s work by a slightly circuitous route.

And ever since I have made that paradigm shift, ever since I “got” Critical Religion and pronounce myself to be a part of that group, I have returned again and again to Naomi’s work on religion as vestigial states. I’m not saying I fully agree with Naomi’s theory. But the more I develop my proper phenomenology (yes, I am going to hammer that distinction again and again – I am no less stubborn and combative these days), the more I find how similarly my own views on “religion” resonate with hers. And, with potentially fortuitous timing, Naomi will be keynote speaker at this year’s BASR conference so we may well have another interview with her in the near future.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, buckets-o-soldiers, sharpies, and more.

Muslim Superheroes

A. Dave Lewis joins us again for a discussion of representations of Muslims in superhero comics. We talk about some positive representations, like Kamala Khan, Marvel’s new Ms Marvel, and some less-than-positive portrayals, like Frank Millar’s Holy Terror! We talk about American comics as a product of the immigrant experience, and how comics made by Muslims play with the conventions of the genre. And we talk about how to use these texts in the classroom, as a powerful tool for exploring representation, media and religion. And what is the “wormhole sacred”?

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu-Tang comic books, canned tuna, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslim Superheroes

Podcast with A. David Lewis (28 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Lewis- Muslim Superheroes 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Well, it’s my pleasure to welcome A. Dave Lewis to the podcast once again. Dave is one of the few, if not the only one of our regular guests to be both an interviewer and an interviewee. Well I might be the only other one, strangely enough! But it’s certainly . . . it’s been a little while since he’s been on. So it’s my pleasure to welcome him back. So thanks, once again, for joining us!

David Lewis (DL): Alright, ok. It’s good to be here!

DR: Good. Well this time we are going to be talking about Muslim superheroes, partly jumping off your recent edited volume with Martin Lund, called Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam and Representation. Obviously, there’s quite a lot for us to unpack here. So maybe we could start with you just telling us a little bit about why you decided to focus specifically on Muslim superheroes?

DL: Actually it comes from an earlier collection that I did, called Graven Images, with Christine Hoff Kraemer And when we did that collection, we had a number of contributors give us perspectives from religion all over the world, and historically. But to be frank we, as the editors even, found the Islam section to be light. And given that that was growing as a focus of my own studies, given that that was growing as focus in my own personal life, it’s something that I, in part, wanted to remedy. Now there had been some work out there done, particularly on Islam and comics as a medium in general, but not on this hallmark genre. So I approached Martin and said that I was interested in this – not just the dearth of research on Muslim superheroes, but also the increasing number of Muslim superheroes that we were steadily finding in mainstream US comics. And from there we reached out, and put a call for papers out. And I also tapped a few people that we knew had similar interests. And we tried to synthesise the limited information that was out there, in this volume, as well as inject it with new ways in which we could explore the topic.

DR: Great. And as a topic I think there’s a number of really interesting aspects that make Islam and superhero comic, specifically, a particularly rich field for us to explore. We can talk about those in a little bit more depth, then. For a lot of people – and I’m a comic fan so I ‘m playing devil’s advocate a bit here – the idea of the superhero seems to be particularly tied to an American context. It seems to have a lot to do with the American dream of America’s role in the world. So, looking at the way that particularly the American comics have dealt with Muslims is particularly fraught with interesting data.

DL: Oh, hugely. And not only is it fraught with . . . particularly in a post-September 11 context, or even earlier than that, during the hostage crisis of the ’80s . . . . But, really, so much of this engagement has been passed over and forgotten, not necessarily chronicled. I reached back as far as I could, looking for not the earliest Arab character in superhero comics, nor the earliest Muslim character across all genres, but I was really trying to pinpoint: when did this genre in its infancy begin to engage other religions, other than ostensibly the Christian norm? And I became, actually, rather enamoured with what I found, which was a character in 1944, going back just a few years into the first superhero boom (5:00), called Kismet, Man of Fate . And not only did I start studying this character I found that I took sort-of a shine to him and wanted to start writing further adventures from him, since he had fallen into the public domain.

DR: It would be quite interesting to look and see if there were similar portrayals of Muslim characters in the British wartime comics. There was a lot of those still around when I was a kid, you know, telling these true life World War Two stories. Because, of course, at that time a lot of soldiers would have come into contact with Muslim soldiers, especially those serving in North Africa and places like that.

DL: Absolutely.

DR: Much different contexts than we have now.

DL: Without question. Although I won’t say it’s surprising that it would have entered the British consciousness far earlier than the US popular consciousness, given as you said, you know, colonial engagement and, more widely speaking, the theatre of battle. Whereas, for the US, we have been very slow to become aware of Islamic culture, despite it being not only important in the 20th century – being important historically, classically, without the classic philosophers. But no, it would not surprise me in the least to see more Muslim representation – both good and bad, you know, both fair and then highly stereotypical – in British war genre comics than in US superhero comics, as a latecomer.

DR: Indeed. Of course, superhero comics as a genre – I don’t need to tell you that there’s many other genres of comics of course – but the superhero genre, in particular, seems to be tied to the American immigrant experience, doesn’t it? So, I mean, that’s another resonance.

DL: Very much so. In fact I think it was Danny Fingeroth’s book, Disguised as Clark Kent, where he points out that the American superhero genre really is largely reflective of the immigrant experience. And you can just look at the pantheon of superheroes. You either have aliens of very different varieties, Atlantis like Aquaman, Kryptonians like Superman, Amazonians like Wonder Woman, or you have the dispossessed, sort of orphans in either the literal or the figurative sense- that’s where you get your Batman, your Captain America, your Spider-Man. But the genre – particularly when it was formed in the late 30s – early 40s, here in the US – was absolutely about congealing into a shared American experience, rather than there being one quintessential, pure American experience. And that has gotten, many times, lost in the history of the genre. I think if there’s been any time to best recapture it, it might be now – as superheroes are moving from comics as a fringe medium, largely speaking, to cinematic blockbusters. And people who may never have been caught dead with a comic book are now shelling out however-many-bucks to go see them live on the big screen.

DR: Yes. That’s something which has changed dramatically, even in the time I’ve known you and we’ve been talking about comics. It’s gone from a very fringe interest, as you say, into the biggest genre in cinema right now. And perhaps that’s why we’re seeing a number of very high profile Muslim characters coming into mainstream comics at the moment. Now Ms Marvel is an obvious example. Can we talk about her a little bit, maybe?

DL: Absolutely Kamala Khan Ms Marvel: born and bred Jersey girl, but with a Pakistani background, who is a fan of superheroes – who’s actually a fan fiction writer – finds that she is incredibly imbued with the power of a polymorph, meaning that she can change the size and shape of her body at will (10:00). She has been become, really, the frontline character – I don’t like using the word frontline – maybe the banner character for Muslims, in superhero comics. She certainly caught on with a large section of readers, especially with Marvel attempting this diversity initiative. The problem with her, if there is any problem – it’s a terrific character, and written by a terrific team with G. Willow Wilson – if there’s any problem with the character it’s that most people just know her for being Muslim.

DR: Right, yes.

DL: The character doesn’t come off as often in discussions where religion is not the focus, or where diversity is not the focus. And I only say that’s a problem because that does give her an upper limit, a ceiling of sorts. We can talk about, and generalise, what Captain America does, right, or what Ironman does, or even what Superman does, but we don’t yet have – as popular as Ms Marvel is, or as Simon Baz the new Green Lantern is, or any number of characters – we don’t yet have that Muslim character who is transcending their Muslim-ness, necessarily, into storylines so compelling and so iconic that audiences are keeping up with them. Maybe Ms Marvel is starting to tilt that way. She is a member of The Avengers and The Champions now. But I think the only context a lay person would know about her in, is in this religious and diversity-centred context.

DR: Right. And she reminds me, actually, a lot of Miles Morales. I think there’s a few clear parallels. I mean, Miles Morales is the black Superman

DL: Spider-Man.

DR: Spider-Man, yes, sorry. The black Spider-Man, introduced around the same time in Marvel.

DL: Black and Latino, he’s actually . . .

DR: That’s right. Yes, he is. He is similar to Ms Marvel, has become a hugely popular character, is also a superhero fan, interestingly. I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it, just now. But similarly, he has had difficulty crossing . . . has had some success crossing into the mainstream, but is still almost always talked about in terms of his ethnicity, rather than simply his being a compelling character. But that might be starting to change now. I don’t know if you know that when they made “Spider-Man: Homecoming” they were talking about whether they should use Miles Morales, because they were facing the fact that they had to relaunch this character for the third time. And it was decided against it, because: “a black superhero film can’t make any money at the box office, right?”

DL: That’s changed. I think that’s been disproven pretty solidly, recently.

DR: Yes, I think we’ve completely thrown that out the window! But there is now a Miles Morales animated movie coming out.

DL: That’s true and, just going back to “Spiderman: Homecoming” for one minute – not to stray too far from the subject of comics and religion – I do want to point out that they did cast Donald Glover in that movie in a small part, but his part there is actually playing the uncle of Miles Morales. So we haven’t been introduced to his character yet, but they have laid down the groundwork for integrating his character.

DR: Absolutely.

DL: But I think you put your finger on one of the problems there, David, which is that these characters are always becoming known as a subset of another character. I mentioned Simon Baz, he’s now the Muslim Green Lantern; we mentioned Miles Morales, he is the Black or Latino Spider-Man.

DR: We also had the female Thor as well, recently.

DG: Female Thor; there’s the Batman of Paris, a Muslim Batman of Paris, Nightrunner, And even Ms Marvel is inheriting a mantel from the former Ms Marvel, now Captain Marvel – who’s going to get her own movie. So we haven’t quite gotten to the point where we have a Muslim character whose core identity, partly, is Muslim but also is forging a superhero narrative in their own right (15:00). And the reason I keep coming back to superheroes – I feel like this is worth saying: you are absolutely right, there are any number of genres out there when it comes to comics. Almost as limitless as any other medium. However, A: comics are often judged in terms of superheroes, and B: as you mentioned earlier, superheroes are largely an American-made product, or an American-originating product. They’re the closest we have to what Richard Reynolds calls a Modern Mythology. So the reason I keep returning to the superhero is, basically, this has to be the testing space for whatever religious theory or criticism we’re bringing to this medium. Is comics superheroes and superheroes comics? No, absolutely not. And I would never limit either one in that way. But if we can’t talk about the superhero comic in terms of the subject that interests us here, religion and representation, then that challenge is going to keep presenting itself. Until it can be brought into this space it will always be penultimate.

DR: I had a thought, actually, when I was reading the book. You mentioned that . . . most of the examples we’ve given today, in fact, except for the Green Lantern, are Marvel characters. And what you’re saying there, about modern mythology, I think is the reason why. DC characters are harder to represent as having a religion, because DC write more mythologically. DC characters are essentially gods. So it’s much harder to represent religion, ethnicity, gender issues and these kinds of things, because they relate to humans. But the classic argument is that while DC are gods, Marvel are always telling metaphors for being a teenager. So Marvel characters are much better suited to these kinds of discussions about identity and representation, because that is the Marvel style.

DL: And I think that’s true historically, right? DC has been around longer as a unified company. And Batman and Superman reach back further than the Fantastic Four, or Spiderman or the X- Men. But I think there is the opportunity to challenge that just the same. I mean, we could focus on Superman’s alien-ness instead of his godliness. Or we could focus on The Flash – he really is your most mortal and your most human of heroes but he gets elevated to this god-like Hermes status, at least in popular consumption. So I don’t think that either company has to be locked into these positions. And there have been a number of times that Marvel has experimented with sort-of the more godly figure with its characters. But, yes, I think if you had to do a fast summary of each one, you get Marvel with its very human heroes being raised to an elevated status that they may or may not be able to handle, and DC superheroes being sort-of gods – but more gods with feet of clay, or gods with an affection or a tie to humanity. That said, neither approach precludes any spiritual or religious material. I thought it was when . . . . This was a Justice League annual back in the year 2000. It was pre-September 11. But they did try to introduce a Muslim character at that time called The Janissary. And The Janissary, she was a fine character. But the more interesting thing that came out of that particular issue is, does Wonder Woman, an Amazonian, a princess, a goddess-like character – and, at certain times, practically portrayed as a goddess – does she wear a hijab? Is she either subject to the cultural norms of the society she finds herself featured in, or does she transcend that (20:00)? Or does she even find it alien to her? Because she has proof of her own gods and not of an unseen Allah. So these can be engaged in any number of ways, if the companies, frankly, see a profit motive for it.

DR: Yes. I’d like to dig into some other examples. Ms Marvel: there’s been a few papers and stuff and people can go and read more widely, and obviously we can point them to your book where there’s a lot of good examples. But I want to bring up a few sort-of perhaps more problematic examples. One that you don’t talk about directly in the book, but was the first time I became aware of this as an issue in comics, was Holy Terror.

DL: Oh, yes.

DR: Which was originally going to be a Batman book.

DL: It was originally going to be Holy Terror Batman, punning on the whole 1960’s television Robin catchphrase: “Holy terror, Batman!” And it was pitched by Frank Miller of “Dark Knight Returns“ and “Sin City“ and “300“ fame, to DC. And DC thought about it and ultimately rejected it. So he reworked it as his own independent book, I believe with Legendary Comics.

DR: Yes. And I don’t know an awful lot about Frank Miller, but I’m guessing his politics must definitely be towards the more right-wing end of the spectrum?

DL: They have absolutely grown that way over the years. I can’t say if he’s always held a right-wing position. But I do recall that shortly after September 11th there were any number of charity relief books that were being published by various companies. And it struck me that he contributed a very militaristic piece. Like: “Get ready for our thunder! Get ready for our power! You’ve woken a sleeping giant!” And since that time his work has turned quite . . . I would almost say radically to the right. And in Holy Terror he reworks a Batman archetype into a character that I believe he calls The Fixer.

DR: That’s right.

DL: And The Fixer is intent on wiping out terrorism. But the only form of terrorism showcased in the book . . . basically terrorism becomes synonymous with radical Islam, with extremist militaristic radical Islam. And having it enjoin us . . . that lens really portrays an Islamophobia that’s concern isn’t terrorism – or else we could look at spots around the world that are unrelated to Islam, where terrorism is being employed. He really takes a turn there towards a xenophobic fearing of “the other” and one that stands, in his view, in opposition to America and the American norms and democracy. It’s worth noting that one of the works that he did which followed this up, which followed up Holy Terror, was that he returned to Dark Knight Returns for a third time. He did Dark Knight Returns, Dark Knight Strikes Back– which happened right as September 2001 struck, and may have actually changed the way he concluded that story. But then he returned with Dark Knight III: The Master Race, which is, in very brief summary, all about basically Kryptonians – Superman’s people – coming to terrorise and dominate humankind. And only Batman and Superman can save us. And it rings the same bells of, basically, this xenophobia against an outside religious group that seems to be, from his perspective, aggressive, and attempting to conquer. So these are things that he has pursued in a rather, I find, distasteful manner – but definitely in a forthright manner. He’s not hiding or being cute about it (25:00). There are a number of other comic creators who are injecting anti-Islamic themes into their content without saying so explicitly. But when we focussed on Muslim Superheroes as a book we said that that’s less our concern, tracking Islamophobia in comics – which is its own tremendous topic, and there has been some great work done it – but more looking at how they’re trying to integrate the heroism and the principles of, frankly, US heroism or Western heroism to interface with what are perceived Islamic ideals.

DR: I would be quite interested to know a little bit about black Muslim superheroes, because obviously that’s another important aspect of Islam in a America, historically speaking. Presumably here we’re going to be mostly talking about the pre-9/11 situation.

DL: One of our chapters is a terrific piece on basically reading earlier black superheroes and we can point to John Stewart as a Green Lantern or point to The Falcon, Captain America’s partner, as I believe our contributor calls them, “crypto-Muslims” or “proto-Muslims”. Basically, if you’re a New York writer of comics, which is where the two – DC and Marvel, the two major superhero companies – were stationed, what you’re seeing of black strengths and black presence, in the news and in your environment, is either the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. Black Panthers being not the superhero Black Panther, but the group.

DR: Although there is a direct connection there. Stan Lee took the name of the character directly from the Black Panthers.

DL: Yes, I’d heard different reports on that. I’ve heard that it either entered his consciousness, or he did conspicuously think . . . I don’t know the exact details, there. But yes, you can read a lot of black characters in comics, in the 60s as well as the 70s, as what we call crypto-Muslims. But then you can go forward and find actual black Muslims in a number of comics, particularly around the 1990s. Milestone comics had Wise Son. Marvel comics featured Josiah X who was a Muslim, a black Muslim preacher who also had a family member experimented on in Captain America’s super soldier programme. So they definitely exist. But even here, they did not have yet the nuance or just the enjoyability of characters like Simon Baz; like Kamala Khan, Ms Marvel; like Excalibur; and a number of others. These were very serious, angry, severe characters. And being included is terrific; being represented is important. But often their full humanity wasn’t portrayed, I dare say. And that could be because they were not being written by black creators, or minority creators. They were white – usually male – creators’ imagination of the black man and of the black Islamic man, rather than a more authentic experience. I don’t want to be mischaracterised as saying that only black writers can write black characters, only Muslim writers can write Muslim characters. That’s not what I’m suggesting at all. But I am suggesting that when you have a gulf, and a conspicuous gulf, between such characters and their creators that’s something that has to be examined and looked at cautiously.

DR: Yes. Absolutely. It’s actually quite a good link, then, into my next question which was (30:00):foundationsuperhero comics which come out of the Islamic world, and which perhaps play with and reframe some of the American context, in the creation of their own superheroes and superhero teams. Can you give us a couple of quick examples of those?

DL: Yes, absolutely. And, again, we dedicate at least two, if not three, chapters in the book to this topic. The most notable of them – the Ms Marvel equivalent, the most well-known – would be The 99, which came out of Kuwait. And this was actually spearheaded by a professional psychologist, Naif Al-Mutawa. And the issue they ran into – at least according to our contributor in the book – is that there were any number of superhero genre elements that they could reproduce with Muslim characters, except for two. And that was the hyper-sexualised nature of the superhero – and you could start with the skin-tight costumes if you like, but you can also look at their physique and physicality and go from there. The other thing that they were cautious about – other companies were less cautious, but this was a challenge for The 99 – was their resolving everything, or nearly everything, with violence, which was very much an image that Dr Al-Mutawa wanted to move away from. He wanted these comics to be inspirational of solving conflicts with other powers, with other abilities, with conflict resolution or with building and such. So they struggled with that. Other companies like AK Comics – which were admittedly less successful – out of Egypt, they were more embracing of those two additional elements, but they did not last nearly as long as The 99. So we don’t yet have . . . now there are more publishers, even today. One that comes to mind is Youneek Studios, and that’s spelled Y-O-U-N-E-E-K, which is an African company. And I think they’re doing a terrific job of sort-of trying to thread the needle in the way that the Black Panther movie does: being genuinely African, right, but also still delivering on narrative elements that audiences have come to expect, rather than being some weak copy of an American superhero or diverging into its own sub-genre. This is a challenge because the American superhero has characteristics not only that may not translate into other cultures and religions, but may have ones that the American superhero industry itself doesn’t want to fix: again referring back to the issues of violence and sexuality; also looking at misogyny, patriarchy, heteronormativity. How much it can be changed by a non-white and non-Christian group, before it becomes unrecognisable, is the challenge of the day.

DR: Indeed. We’ve been talking a while now and we could go on quite a while more, I’m sure. But I’ve got a couple of questions to wrap up, then. One is: I particularly liked the little chapter at the end of the book that you and Martin Lund contributed, which talks about the idea of using these in schools. I absolutely love the idea of using an issue of Ms Marvel, for instance, as a text for students to engage with these issues.

DL: It seems like not only the natural outgrowth of these things, but also the raison d’être, you know, the whole: are we just studying these things for our amusement? And just as an exercise? Or is there something to be done here? Can we include a call to action? And, as I said, the most natural call to action is to bring this into the classroom, and let students have a foundation where they can engage with it (35:00). And I think, as we know in the final chapter, this doesn’t have to be head-on. We’re not proposing that we need Muslim superhero classes, and we need Muslim superhero curriculum and degrees given out on Muslim superheroes. We’re actually suggesting that instead this genre, and this religious interaction with the genre, can be a powerful way to explore historical events, to explore cultural differences, to explore media bias and media studies. So we really just want to open this to the educator, who may not be an expert in comics, or may not be an expert in Islam – and certainly not the two combined – but will see the inherent value of working on materials that access student’s attention in a novel way.

DR: Right, and using popular cultural texts – be they comic, or television, or films, or whatever – I think, actually, can be a more powerful way of introducing the students, and teaching the students the critical skills. If we start with academic texts then getting the students to be able to read the biases and the positionality of the papers can be quite tricky, because academic language is very qualified and very specific. But using popular texts to start with, and teaching them to read them as media texts, we can do a lot to train them in that way of critical reading that they can then take on and apply to more obviously academic texts.

DL: And this has long been true. Educators have tried to incorporate music in the classroom, and incorporate film in the classroom. And really, any medium that isn’t a text book that can sort-of take these students unawares into learning, or into critical thought, is always welcome. We highlight the comic book because of our fascination with comics in its dual-channel delivery system: its verbal, visual, creative engagement with the reader that will work for a number of students in particular, who don’t have to be comic book fans themselves but may be looking to light up different hemispheres of their brain at the same time. That, a lecture, or a strictly prose textbook, would not be able to do.

DR: Absolutely. As a final closing kind-of point here: is there any further thought on how the work that you’re doing in the book and elsewhere . . . what can it tell RS? How can these kinds of analyses, then, enhance Religious Studies more broadly?

DL: Well, I think that a particular area . . . two come to mind. The first is that we talk often about lived religion, right? And we often want to explore how religions are either evolving or being expressed in a modern context, and then tracking that against the religion, historically or classically. And I want to point out that comics are a relatively cheap and very evocative space in which to track that sort of lived religious experience. Whereas television is highly scripted and highly censored in many cases. And film, while perhaps less censored, is again driven by a huge profit motive. Comics, while a business and while a business that wants to sustain itself, has a greater freedom with the most reach. So, that would be my first response. That if we’re trying to do a present-day lived anthropological read of religion in popular culture or interpretation, comics is an ideal space. One further argument to have – and this is a little more radical on my part . . .

DR: OK, we like that.

DL: I wrote about this for an up-coming book (40:00). This is going to sound wonky, but I have the perspective that comics, when read intensely, when read seriously, when read genuinely, can lead to their own transcendent experience. Now, this is going to make me sound like someone who’s drunk the Kool-Aid . . .

DR: (Laughs).

DL: Inasmuch as we say frescos, and tapestries, and stained glass windows, and sculpture can all really unlock, as arts, the human mind to some spiritual dimension, I want to suggest that there are comics out there that could do similar. That can actually, by their . . . . And I think the way I phrase it in this up-coming text is that, by basically going down into the mundane, down into the print, and the ink, and the paper of the comic, it can actually trip us and flip us towards the sacred, towards what lies behind it: the “real real” – and here I’m being very Eliade in my language. But I’m exploring that more and more. I’m not necessarily saying you’re going to get that from your average Superman comic off the rack, right? And I’m not saying it’s better to read Ms Marvel than go to a Mosque. I’m not saying anything of that sort. But I am suggesting that we can’t rule out this medium as having its own access to potentially transcendent experience. And in the chapter that’ll be coming out I think later this year, I make the argument for why it’s not just legitimate but actually might be favourable to view them in this way.

DR: There are some inklings of that in Graven Images. We can maybe pick this conversation up in a year’s time, when I interview you the next time. It does sound a bit wonky – but as somebody who reads The Invisibles every year, you know you’re not going to get an argument from me!

DL: That actually is a terrific example of precisely the sort of comic that you can deal with. And, actually, I came up with a fantastic, really out-there, crazy term for it! We’ll talk about it next year.

DR: Yes. We’ll pick it up next time.

DL: I call it the “wormhole sacred”. So, be sure to ask me next year about the wormhole sacred!

DR: Excellent. I will do that. Let’s put it in the diary already! Until then, though, I would urge listeners who’ve enjoyed the conversation to check out Muslim Superheroes. And I’ll just say thanks, A. Dave Lewis, for joining us again!

DL: I love coming back. Thank you so much for having me!

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Lewis, A. David and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Muslim Superheroes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslim-superheroes/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

Produced by R. Michael Feener

The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratization and drawn attention to some aggressively un-civil sectors of this Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch, we will talk about her recent research on Myanmar’s Muslim population and about the role played by the international community – and by religious NGOs in particular – in relation to the escalation of violence targeting the Rohingyas.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, canned peas, apple juice, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar

Podcast with Melissa Crouch (13 November 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Crouch-_Muslims,_NGOs_and_the_Future_of_Democratic_Space_in_Myanmar

 

Catherine Scheer (CS): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Catherine Scheer

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): And Giuseppe Bolotta

CS: And this is the third instalment of our series on religion and NGOS. Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of religious NGOS or so-called faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms – both of religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs – intersect, and how theses engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development. The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratisation and drawn attention to some aggressively uncivil sectors of the Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch we will talk about her research on Myanmar’s Muslim population, about the challenges of advocating for legal reform as a means of promoting religious tolerance and the future role of NGOs in Myanmar’s democratisation process. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview, we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series.

GB: So, speaking with us today is Dr Melissa Crouch. She’s senior lecturer at the law faculty at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Her research contributes to the field of Asian legal studies with a concentration on public law, Islamic law and rule of law in fragile states. Melissa is the author of: Law and Religion in Indonesia: Conflict and the Courts in West Java, published by Routledge in 2014; the editor of Islam and the State in Myanmar: Muslim Buddhist Relations and the Politics of Belonging, published by Oxford University Press in 2016; and the editor of The Business of Transition: Law, Reform, Development and Economics in Myanmar, which will be published by Cambridge University Press this autumn. An engaged legal scholar, among others a member of the Australia-Myanmar Constitutional Democracy Project, we are glad to have Dr Crouch with us today to talk more specifically about the influence of legal frameworks on religious organisations in Myanmar – especially Muslim organisations. Thank you very much for being here with us on the Religious Studies Project.

MC: Thank you.

GB: So, Catherine, would you like to start our questions for Melissa?

CS: Yes. Thanks for that and thank you Melissa. Your research was on religion, law and social conflicts in Muslim majority Indonesia, before you also started looking at comparative development in contemporary Myanmar. Can you tell us more about why you shifted your primary research focus and how, if at all, you see your earlier work in relation to the current events you now study?

MC: Thank you. I think, for myself, I see it more as a broadening rather than a shift. So my research, I would say, is inherently comparative. Although I started out focussing specifically on Indonesia, I have since sort-of expanded to look at South East Asia more broadly, but also a specific focus on Myanmar. And I think one of the most exciting things about the area of comparative law, and law and religion studies, is the strength of studying comparatively rather than in isolation. My own work is inspired by scholars such as Emeritus Professor MB Hooker and his formidable body of work on legal pluralism and Islamic law in South East Asia, scholars like the late Professor Andrew Huxley, who spent a lot of time looking at Burmese Buddhist law. And of course the late Professor Dan Lev who was the leading scholar on Indonesian Law of his generation. And among his work of course was seminal work such as on the Islamic court in Indonesia. (5:00) And so, really, I see my work as building on this kind of history of the field of social legal study in South East Asia. And in doing so, my research tries to focus on a number of core themes around constitutional change, law and development and law and religion. In relation to my research on Islam and Islamic law in Indonesia and Myanmar, I think there are fascinating parallels as well as some striking differences. And in my book on Islam and the State in Myanmar, I try and depict Muslims in Myanmar as at something of a crossroads between South East Asia and South Asia. I think there are similarities in the sense that in some of my work in Indonesia I was looking at the position of minorities within a Muslim majority state. Of course, in Myanmar you have a Buddhist majority country and Muslims as a minority, but, actually, some similar kinds of issues being faced by those minority groups. And I’ve expressed some of these ideas in an article that I wrote in the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law, which tried to sort of review and summarise some of the key themes in Islamic law in society in South East Asia. And really, I was trying to emphasise the importance of continuing to write against Arabic or Middle Eastern bias in Islamic Studies. Sixty percent of the world’s Muslims live in Asia today, so I think that’s an exciting place and position from which to write about Islam. In addition, I think, South East Asia is important for the study of legal pluralism, and this is where religion comes in, as a key influence in the history and development of legal systems across South East Asia. And I think, also, South East Asia helps us to re-examine and perhaps challenge some of the assumptions that we have in the study of law and religion and Islam, more broadly.

GB: Thank you so much, Melissa. As a legal scholar, with a particular interest in law and religion, how do you see the role of the researcher – her or his ethical responsibilities – and how would you position the book you recently edited, Islam and the State in Myanmar in this context?

MC: Yes, this is a great question and I think this was a really good question to grapple with at the workshop that you both hosted previously at the Asian Research Institute in Singapore. For me, I guess, my own research is influenced by and grounded in a legal ethnography and, I guess, this idea of an ethnographic sensibility. That is, I see in ethnography a great concern for the ethical obligations that we have towards our participants, many of whom become close friends and colleagues. Many of our participants – particularly when we’re talking about religion and issues of religious conflict and aid – are vulnerable, a kind of vulnerable community. And this ethnographic sensibility I think also calls for a need for an awareness of our own subjectivity, an awareness of our own strengths and limitations and weaknesses as researchers. And I think that this helps to influence and inform the choice of what we study, when we study, and how we study, as well as the kind of audiences that we’re trying to reach. The book Islam and the State in Myanmar was really just a first attempt to try to bring together interdisciplinary research. But a lot of it was very much ethnographically based, or based on substantive field research interviews, participant observations, archival and historical research. And really, it was an effort to try and put forward the beginning of an academic enquiry in this area, while recognising that there has been a lot of advocacy reports or policy reports in the past, and there probably will be ongoing, but that academics can play a role in informing some of these debates.

CS: Thanks Melissa, I’m glad you underlined this important aspect of your research. In this context I would like to touch upon a sad event. This January the prominent Muslim lawyer, Ko Ni was assassinated in Myanmar. (10:00) A long-term advocate for the right for peaceful protest and against hate speech, Ko Ni played a key role in recent efforts towards constitutional reform, law reform and legislative reform in religion. In the context of increasing violence against Muslims he joined the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association. Can you tell us a bit more about Ko Ni’s work and about his support for, and participation in, law and development, and about his contribution to NGOs – particularly religious NGOS? What is the current situation of Muslim associations and NGOs in Myanmar? How might the position for Islamic organisations have been affected by the death of Ko Ni?

MC: Yes. Thank you. I could spend all day talking about the legacy of Ko Ni and I don’t think it would quite do him justice. But let me see if I can try and encapsulate what I think is at the core of some of his work and efforts and concerns. And particularly his contribution and collaboration with quite a number of international development organisations as well as local civil society organisations and religious organisations. The assassination of Ko Ni on the 29th of January of this year, 2017, was a significant tragedy and very much a wakeup call for Myanmar, for the National League for Democracy, but also for the Muslim community in Myanmar. Simply because of the fact that he was a Muslim, as well as the fact that he was a very prominent lawyer, his death had a significant impact and was felt very deeply by the Muslim community in Myanmar. You are right to say that Ko Ni was affiliated with and involved with an organisation called the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association, although in some of the tributes that I’ve written about Ko Ni since his death I really tried to emphasise that I think this was, in some sense, a last resort strategy. In many ways, Ko Ni was first and foremost a lawyer: his concern was with legal process, with justice, with the rule of law and the importance of constitutional reform and equal rights for everyone. But at the same time he was someone – in part because of his stature, his physical appearance – who was well known as a Muslim, and he really couldn’t escape that fact. And I guess, particularly since 2012, with the outbreak of conflict in Rakhine State and the serious displacement there, and then the subsequent conflicts arising in many major towns across Myanmar that particularly targeted Muslim communities – a wide range of Muslim communities – there was a real sense of urgency that the situation was deteriorating rapidly. And I think this really came to a head in the lead up to the 2015 elections, when it appeared that there were strategies, in particular, to try and undermine the National League for Democracy. And one way of doing that was to try and portray them as somehow pro-Muslim. And using that to try and deter people from voting for them. And so because Ko Ni was associated with the NLD, and he himself was Muslim, he was kind-of caught up in some of this controversy. Ko Ni himself was very vocal against some positions and decisions which the NLD took, which he disagreed with. So, this was things like the fact that the NLD did not field any Muslim candidates in the 2015 elections. He was very adamant that that was not an appropriate way to go about things, and that the NLD shouldn’t have caved in, on that issue, under the pressure that had been put on them. So I think, in joining this Myanmar Muslim layers association, this was a last resort for him. But something that he felt was necessary to ensure that they had a voice in many of the kind of legal issues that were coming up, that would have direct impact on his community. And this was particularly acute in relation to what was referred to as the Race and Religion Wars, in 2015. (15:00)This was a package of four laws that was generally known as the Race and Religion Laws, but it was very much championed by Nationalist, radical Buddhist groups who were very overt in their claims that these laws would be targeting the Muslim community in ways that would sort-of contain and control their influence in the country. And so again, Ko Ni was someone who spoke out against the need for these race and religion laws, and very much called them out for the kind of nonsense that they were. And so, in this way, he played a particularly prominent role in many of these debates. On the second part of your question – in terms of his contribution to kind-of law and development initiatives and organisations in Myanmar – I will say that Ko Ni was very much a valued partner for many organisations, including religious organisations, but also the broader international NGO community. He was very much sought-after and was the person to go to, to ask for legal advice on a range of different issues. He was not only someone who was an educator, giving public lectures and speeches to parliament, writing opinion pieces on various legal reforms, as well as providing advice to different non-government organisations about various advocacy campaigns that they were involved with. So his death is very much a loss for the country, and very much a loss for many of these NGOs who did rely on his advice and kind-of the state of gravitas that his presence and influence was able to bring to bear on these issues.

GB: Thanks Melissa. Well the death of Ko Ni was a huge tragedy. Myanmar lost a great protagonist of its contemporary history. So the question now is, what are the future prospects of Muslims in Myanmar – and of course the civil society organisations – to prevent conflict, promote harmony and appreciation of diversity? And what role do scholars have to play in this process?

MC: That’s a big question. And it’s something that a lot of people and actors are working on in this area. We certainly have seen more recently the emergence of some new organisations. Often ones that, in a sense, slide below the radar. That is, they try to keep a very low profile, they don’t engage with the media or have a public profile, but at the same time they are doing research. They are particularly doing the monitoring of potential religious conflicts or social conflicts that may occur, as well as monitoring issues such as hate speech – which has become quite a significant and serious issue in Myanmar. But I think it’s quite telling that they are quite low profile in their presence at the moment. And there are some very practical reasons, and very practical concerns, that if they were to be more prominent that they may, perhaps, in some way be targeted. I think that it is important for scholars to play a role in this process and really, that was one of the reasons that I tried to bring together scholars for the edited book on Islam and the State in Myanmar. As I’ve mentioned, there have been policy papers and advocacy or human rights reports in the past on the situation, particularly in Northern Rakhine State, for the Rohingya as well as for other Muslim communities that have been displaced by those conflicts that took place in 2013 and 2014. Often these policy papers don’t have time for the kind of sustained research that can help provide a more informed analysis. So I think scholars are in a good position to bring a new lens to some of these issues, a fresh analysis, deeper thinking and in particular, comparative thinking and perspectives. Muslims in Myanmar are of course not the first or the only minority in majority Buddhist contexts to face these issues. We only have to look to places like Sri Lanka, or perhaps in Southern Thailand, to see that there are minorities in other majority Buddhist contexts that face quite serious issues. (20:00)But I do think we need to continue to work at pushing the stereotype that presumes that majority Buddhist societies don’t have a problem in the way they treat certain minorities, particularly Muslims. And obviously we see that issue quite prominently in Myanmar.

CS: Thank you, Melissa. This leads to our last question. You have been writing about emergency powers put in place in Rakhine State in Myanmar, in a recent article entitled The Expansion of Emergency Powers, Social Conflict and the Military in Indonesia. You stressed the importance of checking on the exercise of power during times of emergency. In such times humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, could tend to play a very important role. What is your perspective on this controversial issue in Indonesia and also in Myanmar?

MC: Yes, you’re certainly right that it’s precisely in times of emergency when we often need humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, the most. But it’s somewhat ironic that sometimes the state may block or obstruct the provision of these humanitarian services. I guess my concern with this issue crosses both Indonesia and Myanmar. In the contest of Myanmar, there has been a state of emergency declared in Rakhine State since 2012 and that sort-of continued to be extended on an ongoing basis. And it doesn’t look like it will be lifted any time soon. So that includes things like: a curfew, limitations on people’s freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and things like that. And of course humanitarian organisations in Northern Rakhine State have faced very difficult issues in getting access; at some points being kicked out because of various controversies, or perceptions of controversies. And so I think it’s going to remain a very serious issue in Northern Rakhine State for some time. I guess the broader theme, or pattern, that I feel is emerging is the way in which states across South East Asia have abused emergency powers and sought to extend them. So, I guess, the traditional understanding of emergency powers is that they’re supposed to be in very exceptional circumstances and that, because of that, there should be very strict time limitations: limitations to ensure that there will be a return to normal rule of law, a constitutional law situation. And I guess, the concern is that, in places like the Northern Rakhine State, it’s simply an ongoing emergency – but it’s one that is conveniently used to restrict people’s freedom of movement. But the people in those situations are very often the ones who have been the victims in these conflict situations. And in Indonesia there’s also the role of the military, trying to come back in to gain some ground again in situations of conflict and take on a role that perhaps it’s been quietly pushed out of, due to the democratisation process. I think in Indonesia there’s still a bit of a wait-and-see as to how the laws there will be used. But I think there is, overall, a broader concern that states, rather than facilitating access for humanitarian organisations and religious organisations are actually using emergency powers to obstruct them.

GB: Thank you very much, Dr Crouch, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project. This was a very inspiring conversation. Thank you.

MC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Crouch, Melissa, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 13 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslims-ngos-and-the-future-of-democratic-space-in-myanmar/

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Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Morocco

A response to “Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Indonesia: An Interview with Robert Hefner”

By John Thibdeau

Read more

Muslim NGOs and civil society in Indonesia

Religion and NGOs

Produced by R. Michael Feener

While the service provision activities of some religious NGOs complement and enhance systems of low state capacity, in others they compete with state services and in still others service delivery by religious NGOs is associated with political parties and forms part of their electoral strategies. Across diverse engagements, then, religious NGOs depend on their ability to elude, enrol, and subvert the state institutions – while states themselves adjust to the impact of these new actors in turn. In this interview with Robert Hefner about his research on Muslim NGOs in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta, and what his findings can show us about Islam and civil society in contemporary Southeast Asia.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, apples, oranges, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Indonesia

Podcast with Robert Hefner (16 October 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Hefner_-_Muslim_NGOs_and_Civil_Society_in_Indonesia

 

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Giuseppe Bolotta

Catherine Scheer (CS): And Catherine Scheer

GB: And this is the first instalment in our series on Religions and NGOs. First of all, one or two words on this series. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among policy-makers in the academy into the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field the work of religious NGOs or faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutions of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect – and how these engagements result in changes in our understandings of the concepts of religion and development.

CS: While the service provision activities of some religious NGOs complement and enhance systems of low state capacity, others compete with state services, and still others are seen as deploying service delivery in ways that build up support for political parties in electoral strategies. Across diverse engagements, religious NGOs depend on their ability to elude, enrol and subvert state institutions, while states themselves adjust to the impact of these new actors in turn. In this interview with Robert Hefner about his ongoing research on Muslim NGOs in both Jakarta and Yogyakarta, we will talk with him about his findings and what they can show us about Islam and civil society in contemporary South East Asia. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series. Speaking with us today about religion and NGOs is Professor Robert Hefner. He is the Director of the Institute of Culture, Religion and World Affairs, and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Boston University. While Professor Hefner is an anthropologist long-involved in the study of Muslim South East Asia – more specifically Muslim politics, ethics and law – he is also an interdisciplinary scholar and comparativist who carried out research on Christianity, Hinduism and political secularism. He directed over a dozen research projects, and among his numerous publications figure Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratisation in India, published in 2000; Making Modern Muslims: The Politics of Islamic Education in Southeast Asia, published in 2009; and most recently, Shari’a Law and Modern Muslim Ethics, published last year. A leading scholar of Islam, civil movements and democratisation, with an extensive field experience in Indonesia, we are glad to have Professor Hefner with us today to talk more specifically about the place of development among Indonesian Muslim NGOS. Thank you for being here with us on the Religious Studies Project.

RH: Thank you.

CS: Giuseppe, do you want to start with our first question?

GB: With pleasure. In your introduction to Civil Islam, you explain how your research on Islam and democracy has been partly prompted by Indonesian colleagues and Muslim lecturers. And you relate how a member of a Muslim youth organisation, who had read one of your books, confronted you with the unexpected question of whether you thought Muslims can create a civil society. All of this contributed to your decision to enquire more thoroughly into these and related questions. How do you see our role as researchers in writing and communicating about such highly complex and sensitive issues, not only in the academic arena but also on the ground, with the people at the centre of our studies?

RH: Thank you. One of the fascinating things about Indonesia is that – well there’s two things actually – is that it has undergone some of the most extraordinary political and cultural changes anywhere in the Muslim world. Over the span of the last thirty-five years, the country has gone from being a very authoritarian developmentalist state to being – not a perfect – but a well-functioning electoral democracy, with a free press and a variety of other institutions that we associate with democracy. But the change has happened so rapidly, I think, that many people don’t quite understand the role that Muslims and Muslim NGOs played in it. Going back, briefly, to my encounter in the early 1990s – it was  actually 1991 – when I began my research in Jakarta. Prior to that time in fact, in the late 1970s and then again in 1985, I worked in East Java in an area which was majority Muslim, and where a very large . . .  the largest Muslim social welfare organisation in the world, called Nahdlatul Ulama [NU], had its base. It was a very, very strong but moderately conservative – not extremely conservative – moderately conservative Islamic social welfare organisation. And it was a region which, in 1965-66 at the dawn of the authoritarian regime that ruled Indonesia from 1966 to1998, and who had played the central role in the destruction, and in fact massacre – mass killings – of members of the Communist Party, many of whom were Muslim in background, but not particularly observant. So I had this experience from earlier when I went to Jakarta in 1991, and I had already published a book about – among other things – the political change that led up to the great changes of the ‘80s and the ‘90s. But I had written a good deal, too, about the role of NU in the killings. So when I went to this meeting, at the invitation of some Muslim youth members of the Nahdlatul Ulama, I went there with a little bit of reservation, knowing that other people in the Muslim community had criticised some of my comments on the events of ’65-66. And to my surprise, the first gentleman who asked me a question raised his hand, and he was almost trembling with intense purpose and at first I thought he was angry, but his question was: “Professor Hefner, on the basis of NU’s involvement in the killing of Communists in 1965-66, do you really think Muslims can possibly create a civil society?” And I was shocked – I was astonished. And there were, in the course of the next hour-and-a-half that I spoke with them, there were strong expressions of concern and self-critique of the role of Muslims about, what these NU youth said, was buttressing, really, the authoritarian regime of the New Order. So this was my first exposure, in what would become in the period from 1991 to1999, a long series of engagements with Muslim NGOs, both NU, Mohammadiyah and also some smaller independent organisations. And I learned from that that, actually, Jakarta – but also Indonesia generally – was the home of some of the most vibrant Muslim civil society organisations, anywhere in the Muslim world. In fact I would, today, in the retrospect of more than thirty years of working in Indonesia, say that Indonesia has the largest Muslim – as well as non-Muslim – but the largest Muslim NGO and Muslim civil society organisational structure and network of associations of anywhere in the Muslim world. A rather extraordinary story. In any case, I then – from 1991-99 – spent those years working with a series of NGOs including one called LP3ES, which was a kind of amalgam of Muslims from a relatively conservative – but still pro-democracy – social welfare organisation, and then Muslims who had earlier been associated with Indonesia’s social democratic party. So I watched the way in which they grappled with a whole slew of issues, including: the question of religious tolerance; the question of how one engages matters of religious freedom; and another issue, which was very hot already in the 1990s and has remained so until this day, which is the question of women’s equality. So it was the beginning – that first meeting in 1991 was the first . . . it was the beginning of a kind of re-education, on my part, of my understanding of this huge organisation that I had originally met in the countryside in East Java, in villages, meeting with relatively conservative, but very decent Muslims, that this organisation had somehow given birth to a remarkable social welfare movement and that a wing of it had become a pillar – arguably their most important pillar – in Indonesia’s pro-democracy movement. A movement which – in combination with a great variety of social organisations, including secular nationalists but also including Christians and Hindus – would in May of 1998 succeed in, if you will, pushing President Soeharto from power and initiating an inauguration to a new electoral democracy in Indonesia. One which, during its first three years in particular, saw outbreaks of ethno-religious violence, but which the country weathered. And though there are still problems like questions of religious tolerance, today it stands as the most successful – one of the most successful – democracies anywhere in the global south, and certainly, certainly, by far the most successful Muslim majority democracy. And those Muslim NGOs that I first sort-of encountered in the countryside, but most dramatically in the critical decade of the 1990s, are a major part of the story of how this Muslim majority country became democratic.

CS: Thank you, that is a fascinating story. That leads me to ask you, how have particular organisations that you have been following, in Yogyakarta, been shaped by the political legal context in which they are working and how have they contributed to shape it more specifically? And you have already introduced elements of this, but if you can explain some further?

RH: Yes. After 1999, Indonesia’s transition returned to electoral democracy and I decided that I would put my Jakarta research phase behind me and return to working, not in the countryside, in this instance, but working in a non-capital region. So I chose Yogyakarta in part because I had university affiliation there, but also because Yogyakarta had a reputation of being – even though it’s a relatively small city by Indonesian standards, it’s a half million – it’s a kind of intellectual centre. It’s also a cultural centre and I love Javanese culture, so for me – and now I had children – it seemed like a good place to position ourselves. But the other reason – and the more serious reason that I decided to sort-of shift back to a non-capital region, to Yogyakarta in particular, is that I had come to realise that one of the major challenges that the democracy movement – and all efforts of kind-of social reform in Indonesia were confronting – was the question of how to devise Islamic rationales for things like gender equality, things like democracy and things like religious pluralism. And as I sat, during the first years of this great transition back from 32 years of authoritarian rule, there were serious outbreaks of violence across Indonesia. Some 10,000 people died, primarily in violence between Christians and Muslims although the dynamic wasn’t by any means exclusively, and in some instances even primarily about religion. But the question of how to, if you will, disseminate this idea, this new institution. Muslim support for this new institution of democracy loomed much more centrally in the aftermath of the sudden and, for many people, unexpected return to democracy. So I began working in Jogya. I sort of stumbled onto a group of some people who told me about it, when I was still working in Jakarta in the ’90s. And it was a group of mid-twenties Muslim youths, graduates of the State Islamic University. Most of them had spent their youth in madrasas – the Indonesian equivalent of madrasas which are known as [ audio unclear] pesantren. So they came from a kind of archetypical Nahdlatul Ulama background and had not had a kind-of secular education or things like that. But after graduating the equivalent of their first degree – BA in Islamic Studies – they had established an NGO whose purpose was really to address this issue of working within the Islamic tradition – and in particular within the jurisprudential tradition which is known as fiqh in Islamic tradition. Working within that to, if you will, invite people – they couldn’t do it themselves, they had to make this a kind of national collaborative effort, to invite people – to rethink collectively, together, the grounds for justifying things like representative democracy, gender equality and – the thorniest of all, actually – is the question of religious tolerance. Because there are, within the fiqh tradition, major precedents for identifying non-Muslims in a way that makes modern notions of equal citizenship difficult. So here were these mid-twenties, young guys – mid-twenties to early thirties – and I began working with them. And it was another one of these transformative moments for me. Because I followed them out to the countryside, out to the Indonesian madrasas, the pesantaren where they gave courses. But they weren’t in a position, because they were young – even though they were quite smart and they knew the jurisprudential tradition – but they couldn’t just sort of arrive and say, “Well, here’s what we need to do.” They had to work in a very collaborative way, in a way that was respectful of established religious scholars and, if you will, opened a dialogue that really would then continue over many years. And again, this was happening . . . they were part of a network. They were a key node, because they were also a publishing house. The group I’m referring to is called Al KIS, which is the Institute for the Study of Islam in Society, if you translate it. And they were a publishing house as well, so they were one very critical node in what was from the mid 1990s even before the return to democracy, to today. A node, a network of Muslim activists who were kind-of, who were trying to work from within the tradition and work with scholars – some were quite conservative – to bring about a kind of cultural shift. And this has proved to be a much more serious challenge than many people might have hoped. It didn’t surprise me. There were counter-currents. There are, particularly since 2005, there’s been a kind-of an upsurge in some conservative currents in Indonesia – some very conservative. But these efforts continue and once again they were part of, they are part of the Indonesian story. And part of the reason that you meet in Indonesia today – however much certain issues are still under debate – questions of, for example, democracy, the importance of the rule of law, the separation of powers. These ideas are now very much received by the Muslim mainstream in these countries. So again, I witnessed their efforts, I participated in some of their meetings with religious scholars and above all, I learned a lot about the importance of this new breed, this new species of Islamic NGO that had, at this critical moment in the democratic transition, jumped forward to, if you will, work on what it referred to sometimes, to do the “normative” work for justifying what is a significant kind of readjustment in Islamic legal and political thought.

GB: Thank you so much Professor Hefner. Your work on Indonesia is really, really meaningful. Even from a comparative perspective. Your work in Indonesia over the years has highlighted the dynamic nature of discourses on democratisation, pluralism and religious freedom. What would you highlight as the major points that your long-term experience in Indonesia could contribute to a broader conversation on the role of religion in civil society in a global context?

RH: There’s so much there, one doesn’t know quite where to begin. But the first thing I would say is something that I say when I am invited by Muslim colleagues and friends to go – particularly when I’m not speaking with Muslim academics or Indonesian academics . . . . But I’m invited to go out into the countryside and meet with people whose lives have changed so dramatically, both because of the political changes, but also because there’s been an educational revolution in Indonesia. Everywhere in the countryside you find children who’ve graduated from high school. When I first began my work in Indonesia, the average Indonesian had about a fourth grade education. Today it’s just short of a high school education. So there’s all sorts of changes that have taken place. But, when I go to the kind-of ordinary Indonesian settings, one of the points that I try to make is something that I’ve learned from my Muslim friends and which I also convey when I travel through . . . for example, I’ve been invited to give lectures in places like Turkey or Egypt or India, where there’s not great interest in Indonesia but a little. And one of the messages that I make in those countries, but also more significantly within Indonesia, has always been that, you know, democracy is not a . . . . It may have achieved an earlier development in Western, parts of the Western world, but it’s very much an instrument, a tool, a social tool for dealing with difference, negotiating difference, of all of humanity. It’s therefore a kind of generalised . . . it isn’t a kind of made-in-the-West institution. Indeed, even in the West, democracy takes different forms because it has to accommodate itself to different social, political, legal and ethical environments. We shouldn’t be surprised – in fact we should very much expect – that that would be the case in the Muslim world as well, within certain limits. You can’t – there has to be family resemblance – there has to be some kind of institutional and ethical core. And I think there is. But the idea that some conservative Islamists, who reject democracy and pluralism and things like that, the idea that they promote is that, “No, no. Democracy is a Western value and Western institution.” And my point – and it’s a point that isn’t my idea, it’s the idea that I’ve learned from speaking with my friends in NU and Muhommadiyah and other major Muslim social organisations in Indonesia – is that, no, democracy – particularly in it’s modern form – is an invention of humankind, to deal with certain kinds of challenges of living together in the world that we inhabit. So democratisation is not Westernisation. It is something that builds on, and must build on and have roots in, the ethical, legal and cultural traditions of each society in which it takes root. So that’s my first point, and I don’t think that’s particularly original or insightful . . . .

CS: But important.

RH: It’s one that I learned above all, from that, beginning with that meeting in ‘91, when that young earnest, decent man reflecting on the trauma of the Nahdlatul Ulama‘s involvement, and feeling ashamed – those were the words he used – for what had happened. And that was the beginning of my re-education into the culture, politics and ethics of Muslim Indonesia. And I think that basic lesson is very much generalisable to other parts of the world.

GB: We could speak with Professor Hefner for hours but our time is over. So thank you very much for joining us, Professor, at the Religious Studies Project.

RH: Thank you very much, It’s been an honour and a pleasure. Thank you.

CS: Thank you.

Citation Info: Hefner, Robert, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Indonesia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslim-ngos-and-civil-society-in-indonesia/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

Islamic Millennialism

We may tend to think of millennialism as something typical of New Religious Movements and christian fundamentalism, but it has a long and interesting history in the Islamic world too. Rob Gleave, Professor of Arabic Studies at Exeter, takes us through the history of Islamic millennialism, and explains how it has been tied up with political events in the past, as well as the present. He raises interesting points about how the unusual form of Twelver Shi’ite millennialism developed from Islamic theological discourse.

This podcast was generously supported by cenSAMM, the centre for the study of Apocalyptic and Millennial Movements. This podcast is also sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Islamic Millennialism

Podcast with Rob Gleave (18 September 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Gleave – Islamic Millennialism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Bedford at the CenSAMM Conference on Millennialism and Violence and I’m joined by Rob Gleave, who is the Director  for the Study of Islam at Exeter University.

Rob Gleave (RG): Yes.

DR: First of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

RG: Thanks very much.

DR: Today we’re going to talk about millennialism and violence in Islam, in the Islamic world. Maybe a good place to start is to tell us a little bit about the whole idea of millennialism and messianism in Islam. Is this something that comes from the Qur’an, or what’s the. . . ?

RG: Yes, there are clear indications in the Qur’an about an end time. There’s a shortage on detail as to what’s going to happen and a time as to when things are going to happen, but there’s a discussion – an extensive discussion – of something called the the Hour. And this Hour – the Hour that will come – is the time when the world will be brought to a an end and a judgement will happen and a resurrection of people who have died will occur: people from the graves. And there’s some indication in the Qur’an itself about some of the violent , catastrophic events that will happen, in terms of the sky and mountains being torn asunder and those sort of things. But there’s not a great detail and there’s not a description of a series of events that will eventually lead up to this event. So there’s a strong notion in the Qur’an that the world will come to an end, but, like many things in the Qur’an, it’s indicative. Or rather, it indicates something but it doesn’t always spell it out in detail. And that was left to Muslim theologians to try and discover what it was that the scriptures were referring to.

DR: OK.

RG: And for that they used some sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – and there were sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Of course, there’s huge debates about the authenticity of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. But, nonetheless, there was a sort of residue of statements by the Prophet Muhammad which described various things that were going to happen at the end of the world. And from these sources a number of different versions, if you like, of the end times were developed in Muslim theology. And the crucial point is that whilst belief in the eventual day of judgement is an essential element of Islamic belief, precisely what will happen at the those end times – the details, the sequence of events, if you like – this is not an essential element of Muslim belief. It’s not something which determines whether someone is a believer or not a believer. So, it was left open for the Muslim theologians to interpret this material in ways which was highly imaginative. There are some stock elements that always reoccur. The first one was with the return of Jesus. So this was an important element. The return of Jesus was seen as a crucial element of the end times.

DR: Which might come as quite a surprise to some of our listeners, I think.

RG: Well, yes. Jesus, of course, is highly regarded in Muslim theology as one of the Prophets sent by God. But the Qur’an itself indicates that Jesus will return, or that the return of Jesus is one of the signs of the end times. And it’s linked . . .  often it’s linked, by theologians, to the Qur’anic ambiguity about whether or not Jesus died on the cross. The Qur’anic phrase seems to indicate that he appeared to die, but didn’t die, and therefore it left the way open for a return of Jesus at the end times. And it’s very likely, historically, that this was incorporated into the Muslim theological framework from Christian roots about the return of Jesus. But it was a crucial element of the end time narrative for Muslims, the belief that Jesus will come. Another crucial element was also the return of another figure, known as the Mahdi. And the Sunni and Shi’i branches of Islam have slightly different notions of what this Mahdi will do and what his role is, theologically as well as physically, in the end times. (5:00) So they have slightly different notions of that. But these two elements are always conjoined: that the Mahdi and the return of Jesus together will bring about the ushering in, if you like, of the end of the world.

DR: And a lot of the imagery, as you say, is very reminiscent of the Christian story and the imagery of . . . well, imagery which carries on into some of the new religious kind of millenialisms we’ve been talking about this week.

RG: I think apocalyptic imagery is something which . . . well, it’s a discourse which is shared across the Jewish, Christian and Muslim milieux, and used across these different religious traditions, and re-used again and again.  You find it reinvented in new religious movements within Islam as well, which emphasised the coming of the end times. So, it’s a stock of imagery which is not exclusive to an individual tradition. And quite often, the ability for apocalyptic imagery to cross-fertilise between religious traditions . . .  there’s sometimes more potential for that than in other areas of theology, or in ethics or in law. In apocalyptics, somehow a shared stock of images about the Beast, the Antichrist, the notion of the return of Jesus: all of these things together can be shared across traditions.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: And you also find, with a lot of apocalyptic movements, that they’re quite willing to borrow from different traditions and they don’t feel any reticence about the sources of their religious imagery. Muslim religious movements, they will take something which we find in the Jewish or Christian traditions which have made their way into Islam, in one way or another through the history of Islam. And they’re not worried about the sources of these things when they’re constructing their end of time narrative.

DR: Of course not.

RG: So it makes for an enormously creative image of the end of the world, when apocalyptic writers are able to draw on a great wealth of writings and sources in their creative imagination about what the end of the world will look like.

DR: The theology – and ideas about the Mahdi in particular – is quite important in the history of the schism between the Sunni and Shi’i traditions, am I right?

RG: Absolutely. For the Sunni traditions, the Mahdi is a figure sent by God who will lead a battle and bring about the preparations, if you like, for the day of judgement. In the Shiite tradition, the Mahdi is the return of someone – or the reappearance of someone – who disappeared in the ninth century and who will return and re-establish their rightful, legitimate, political rule at some time in the future. So,  the Sunni and Shiite traditions didn’t divide over the question of the end times: at the beginning, it was a question of who should lead the community and what the role of that leader should be. The way in which the Shiite tradition developed was that following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, in 632, there was a series of leaders coming from amongst his family, his descendents, who were seen as blessed with special religious knowledge. And for one particular branch of that Shiite tradition there were twelve such leaders, and the last of these has gone into hiding. And this is the promised Mahdi, the promised messianic figure that will reappear at some point in the end of time – no one knows when. But Twelver Shiites, as they’re called – because they believe in twelve leaders after the Prophet Muhammad – Twelver Shiites have a very strong notion of the patience that’s required in expectation of the return of the Mahdi, and the internal striving to be a perfect servant. So the internal striving to be a perfect servant becomes a crucial element of Shiite identity, in the expectation of the return of the Mahdi at some point in time in the future. (10:00) And, when the Mahdi returns, it’s not simply that this person will be a military leader and bring about the end of days. This is the return of the person who should have been the leader of the Muslim community for all of these centuries. It’s the reappearance, if you like, of the Mahdi who is present in the community but unknown, suddenly making himself known again. So this is quite a different dynamic for Shiites about the end times, compared to Sunnis. And since the Mahdi is someone who’s seen as having perfect knowledge of divine matters, including the law, this means that he’s looked to, by Shiites , as a guide for daily living. And the Mahdi doesn’t fulfil such a role in Sunni theology.

DR: It’s a really fascinating, and – I think – kind-of unique situation: this idea of the Mahdi being this occulted figure who has gone into hiding but is still in the world, but hidden.  And they’re waiting on his . . . it’s not like a physical reincarnation or anything like that, it’s a re-emergence of this hidden figure. It’s really interesting.

RG: It was a belief which emerged in early Islam, through a series of descendents of the Prophet Muhammad who went into hiding in order to protect themselves, and the community, from oppression from a majority Sunni community. And the theme of a hidden Imam who will make themselves known again when the conditions are right became incorporated into Twelver Shiite doctrine and became an official element of Twelver Shiite belief. And so that’s something which is unusual, since most apocalyptic movements which have a messianic element think of the Messiah as returning to earth from somewhere else. Whereas, for the Shiites, the presence of the hidden Imam – the Mahdi – in the community means that at certain points they can find out what his opinion is.

DR: Yes.

RG: Which is the crucial element for Shiites: how do you know what the Imam’s opinion might be on this or that? So, for example, if all the community agree on something – on a particular doctrine – then Shiites have imagined that, well, one of the people who agree must be the hidden Imam.

DR: Yes.

RG: So the agreement suddenly becomes authoritative because the Imam’s opinion must be amongst the people who are agreeing. We don’t know which opinion it is, we don’t know the identity of the individual. But, because everyone’s agreed, the Imam must be within that agreement. And the result is that certain new doctrines might be validated by a community agreement. The theoretical possibility, if you like, of communication from the hidden Imam through community agreement, becomes possible.

DR: And I can see that being a very powerful narrative. Because in other traditions, where you want to have the prophetic figure – who is no longer with you – refer to present events, you either have to create a new revelation through a new prophet, or you discover or reveal some previously unknown writings – in the way that has happened in Buddhism quite a lot, for instance. But this . . . you can actually, quite legitimately have this figure referring to events of the day quite contemporaneously. Because he’s still around, we just don’t know where.

RG: He’s present, yes. And that creates a notion of immanence within the community which has become very important for Shiite devotional practice, in the sense that the Twelver Shiites will often pray to hasten the appearance of the Mahdi as part of their personal devotional prayers. They believe that through devotional acts one is contributing to the situation where the Imam ,who is present, can make themselves known. And it creates an internal – what you might call – piety within the religious tradition, which is a dynamic you can’t find in Sunni Islam. Because of the imagined presence of the Imam in the community, it means that there’s a emphasis on the importance, if you like, of ensuring community cohesion.(15:00)

DR: And does that spill out, then, into how millenarian ideas and prophetic ideas affect the community, then? Would we see a difference between the way that Shiites and Sunnis relate to how messianism plays into their actions in the political sphere?

RG: Well certainly within Shi’ism, the fact that the Imam is present and needs to be revealed has enabled certain claimants at different point in time to be “the man”. When, without them claiming this from the very beginning . . . . Because the revealing notion – of them being present but then revealing that they’re the Mahdi – is, in a sense, an extension of the basic theological doctrine.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: So you often find that, within the Shiite tradition, when an individual has claimed to be the Mahdi they haven’t needed to claim it straight away. Because their presence in the community, without being the Mahdi, isn’t a source of scandal – if you see what I mean – to their claim.

DR: Yes.

RG: Because the Imam decides when the time is right to appear. And the claimant can reliably or legitimately claim, “Well, it wasn’t the right time for me to make to make my personality known.” And it means that within the Twelver Shiite tradition, claiming the appearance of the Mahdi – or claiming to be the Mahdi through appearance – has a very strong potential. It’s like a trigger which is always loaded and ready to be fired at any point in time when the conditions are right, or the individual personality believes themselves to be fulfilling that particular role. And so there have been claims of people being the messianic figure throughout history of Islam, not just in Shi’i Islam. But when the claim happens in Shi’i Islam the individual is claiming more than just being a military leader. They’re claiming a special sort of knowledge which is, I suppose, akin to a form of prophecy. Although the Muslim theological doctrine means that prophecy ends with the Prophet Muhammad, even for Shiites. It’s another form of divine knowledge communicated to an individual. But the potentiality within Shi’ism for a claimant to put themselves forward is always there, because of the notion of an Imam present within the community who is just waiting to be revealed.

DR: You don’t have to posit a new prophet or messiah or anything like that. The potential is already there as part of the actual theological position.

RG: And, of course, there is a huge taboo in Islam around positing yourself as a new prophet.

DR: Yes, exactly. Yes.

RG: Because it contravenes one of the basic doctrines of Islam which is that Muhammad is the seal of the Prophets and that there is no prophet after Muhammad. And so Sunni groups, or groups which have emerged out of Sunnism such as the Ahmadi movement, for example, have been treated with such strong criticism by the rest of the Sunni Muslim community because they have contravened this notion of the end of prophecy with the Prophet Muhammad. They’ve claimed to have a leader who is a new prophet. In the view of Sunni Islam, you know, the Ahmadi community has claimed that its founder is a new prophet. In Shi’i Islam the messianic figure is the hidden Imam, rather than a new prophet. Which, in a sense is slightly less of a taboo element within the theological framework.

DR: Really interesting. To move to the Sunni world, then, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t ask you about Isis. And there seems to be some debate about the degree to which they should be seen as a millennial, even apocalyptic, kind of movement. I, myself, would like to hear something from you. Your take on this is the apocalyptic millennial aspects of it being overplayed by the West, because of fears and ignorance. (20:00) Or is this something that is theologically driving . . . ?

RG: Well, my own view is that there has been a certain hyping up of the apocalyptic element, because it makes good journalism!

DR: (Laughs) Yes!

RG: Apocalypticism is always a sensationalist story for journalists in the contemporary period, because it’s seen as so “out there” and weird and bizarre. And, in a sense, accusations of being over-apocalyptic or . . . . The attraction, if you like, of the story of an apocalyptic movement, is a reflection of much of the state of – I’ll say – “British” society, and the nature of secularism and so-called rationality, and these [movements] are seen as hyper -irrational and consequently extremely interesting. And that’s certainly been, I think, an element in the attraction of journalists, and commentators as well, to the apocalyptic element of the Islamic State message. Having said that, there are strong elements within the Islamic State propaganda machine which indicate that they are quite willing to use apocalyptic imagery to describe and recruit for their military campaign. So, the most famous one being the small Syrian village of Dabiq, which is mentioned in a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad – a saying of the Prophet Muhammad – that this will be a place where the end times battle will take place. So it became very important that Islamic State captured this village and that they used it in their propaganda in particular their English language propaganda magazine, which they titled the Dabiq. And so they are quite happy to try and use that rhetoric within their propaganda. The big question is, how much of their activities are driven by apocalyptic beliefs? And, in that, I’m slightly less convinced of the primacy of apocalypticism within their military strategy and the ways in which they organise their state. Because most of the ways in which they argue for this policy or that policy, or this action or that action, you can trace back to traditional ways of thinking about the assessment of actions within the Islamic legal tradition. They argue using legal reasoning which you find in the traditional sources. And they themselves are always trying to demonstrate that their opinion is not an unusual opinion, compared to the traditional sources. So apocalypticism doesn’t really figure, I don’t think, in the internal organisation of Islamic State and the justification for some of their actions. It’s extremely important in the way in which they project themselves to the outside world. And this notion that they can recruit through this rhetoric – the fear of missing out on the success and ultimate end times, which Islamic State play a role in – is an incredibly powerful tool for them to attract new recruits.

DR: Absolutely. So that interest that comes from the media, they’re doing exactly the same thing and using it to attract attention to what they’re talking about. And, as you say as well, this is such a powerful set of imagery and deep-set, long-running narrative in human culture that it always seems to be there as a little reservoir that you can tap into.

RG: And don’t underestimate Islamic State’s awareness of this.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: They know. . . . They have quite a sophisticated media machine, which produces quite sophisticated propaganda materials. And they know that apocalyptic fears are an element within Western society, and Muslims living outside of Muslim majority contexts are the prime targets for that propaganda and recruitment. And the result is that they know how to use that in order to gain recruits. (25:00) And so it’s an element, it’s certainly an element of their rhetoric and their propaganda. How instrumental it is – how much they instrumentally use it in order to do this and how much it’s embedded within the movement – is a matter of some debate. Part of the problem is the actual internal workings of Islamic State are quite secretive, by necessity, or inevitably you might say. So precisely what the apocalyptic beliefs of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Bhagdadi, might be, outside of the propaganda element, is actually quite difficult to identify. But it’s certainly a form of religiosity that they are very happy to project outside of the territory that they control.

DR: That’s an excellent comparative point to end on, I think. It’s very important that we don’t simply ascribe naive beliefs to any of these millennial apocalyptic discourses, be they in Islam, Christianity, new religions or popular culture. There are multiple levels of discourse going on all the time and they’re being used sometimes for their media impact, or their interest, as much as they are themselves driving actions.

RG: Yes, we make a mistake if we think that an organisation like Islamic State is a simple organisation with a single message that it’s always churning out. It’s actually quite a complicated, multi-tiered, multi-faceted organisation which knows – and which through experience has learnt – what works and what doesn’t work in different contexts. And, like all organisations, it promotes itself in appropriate ways to appropriate audiences.

DR: And, that people are driven naively by beliefs and ideologies: in fact it’s much more complicated and they are mutually creating . . .

RG: No, certainly. And we make a mistake if we think that all we need to do is really try and show these people what the truth is, and how mistaken they are, through forceful argumentation – that we’re going to convince them in some way. No: people believe things and belief, as we know, is a really complex set of factors which lead to an individual settling upon a particular doctrine which they believe is right for them. And belief in the providential nature of Islamic State is one such belief. It’s not simple. It’s actually extremely complicated and complex as a process. Just as complicated as any process of religious commitment.

DR: Rob Gleave thank you so much for taking part in our sophisticated media and propaganda machine at the Religious Studies Project.

RG: (Laughs) That’s alright.

DR: I’m afraid it’s time for us to look to the future, and the next panel, here at the conference. So thanks very much for taking part.

RG: Thanks very much for inviting me.

DR: You’re quite welcome.

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts  are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Paths to Sexual Ethics

Sexual ethics remains a dominant topic in mainstream discussions of Islam. Like violence, sexuality—specifically the role and position of women—has taken center stage both within the academy and within broader societal discourses in the “West”. As with other discursively-dominant topics, for instance the “headscarf debates” that continue to make waves across Europe, sexuality and gender are cultural sites of both ongoing discomfort and discord. The burkini affair in France was only the latest example of struggles over sexual identity, modesty, ethics and allegiances in Europe. Discussions about sexual ethics are evidently deeply linked to broader spheres of ideas and action in contestation over the role of religion in “secular” states—from freedom to security, identity to rights.

While questions surrounding sexual ethics in Islam permeate the mainstream, scholarship on the topic remains largely lacking. Kecia Ali has pioneered in this respect, reaching deeply into the legal tradition in order to trace sexual ethics (such as in her book Sexual Ethics in Islam). She asserts at the onset of her interview that it is simply impossible not to have this discussion today. The challenge lies in unearthing and employing productive ways of having this discussion. The more specific challenge perhaps lies in moving beyond dominant discourses that tend to determine the direction of the conversation: such as the assumed “intolerance” of Muslims towards sexuality and patriarchal oppression of women.

How does one develop a more nuanced account of sexual ethics that accounts for both the past and adapts to the present? There is a strand of Islamic thought often deemed progressive, but that is in fact traditionalist. This includes the work of Professor Kecia Ali, as well as Professor Khaled Abu El Fadl, who authored (among other texts) The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, arguing that Islam has become distorted from its early tendencies towards increased freedom and inclusion. However, method matters as much as source in our attempts to understand sexual ethics in Islam, as well as other key topics in the study of religion. Meta-methodology further links these two scholars, who similarly argue that the way to present knowledge is to take seriously, while historically contextualizing, the past. To do this, both draw from early legal sources to trace patterns and developments of thought in Islam.
Kecia Ali illuminates the inconsistencies in assumptions about Islam utilized to justify devaluation by “the West” for centuries. Prior to the 20th century and the colonial apparatus that helped to spur disfiguring puritan notions of Islam (e.g. Wahhabism and certain other Salafi movements), Muslims were criticized for being too sexually open. From “the wanton”, as Kecia Ali names it, to the “oppressor/oppressed”, discourse has been consistently used to delegate Muslims to a lower position in the moral hierarchy vis a vis Europe. Sexuality, across religions and cultures, remains one of the most potent ways to both insult morality and forge a moral hierarchy. And yet, paradoxically, it is also a persuasive means to contest this insult and resist this hierarchy.

There is danger in essentialist categories. There is danger in categories, such as “the West” versus “Islam”, in the idea of a single Muslim perspective, when perspectives remain always multiple, and often moving. There is danger in naming Islam a sexually repressive or oppressive religion, just as there is it assuming it to be emancipatory. Human nature veers towards categorization, sense making about self through the perception of the other (we must only look at Freud on toddlerhood to see how early this begins). We cannot eliminate, but must move beyond categories, engaging the multiple, at times contradictory and often dynamic classifications that make up lives lived.

Kecia Ali argues in her interview that sources (such as the Qur’an, the hadith literature/Sunnah—i.e. sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and legal rulings) provide the most compelling way to complicate the discourse on sexual ethics, and move closer to answers rather than fixate on categories. She draws out an anti-puritanist discourse deeply rooted in early Islam, with important implications for the lives of Muslims today. One particularly evocative discussion between Kecia Ali and interviewer, Christopher Cotter, revolves around the age of Ayse, the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest and arguably favored wife after the death of Khadija (his first wife). The age of Ayse only becomes a site of inquiry in the late 19th/early 20th century, causing discomfort both inside and outside of the Muslim community (as it is cited in hadith literature that she married at 7, with the marriage consummated at 9). Polemical accusations from outside, such as by Reverend Jerry Fine, nominalize Muhammad a demon-possessed pedophile, drawing together long-standing and novel accusations to undermine the authenticity of his prophecy. Apologetics respond by noting that it was another time, with other norms, or citing the unreliability of the texts. Yet what these accounts miss is the rich knowledge about Ayse—a scholar, a source of political conflict, who comes under question in the hadith literature as possibly betraying Muhammad. Ali thus suggests that her age may have been employed as a means to signal her sexual purity, rather than a literal number, a conclusion that can only be reached with deep theological and historical knowledge.

Even those who bring forth this knowledge, such as Kecia Ali, may be deemed suspect by broader religious communities, when it comes to asserting claims about sexual ethics. This is—no pun intended—a touchy subject. Kecia Ali laughs as she recounts a student being told not to read her book on sexual ethics because it is “dangerous.” The highest of compliments, she notes, lies in this statement, as she has thus succeeded at complicating falsely simplified answers to difficult questions: “Answers are great…I don’t think we will get answers until we are asking the right questions”, she explains. The idea of the single encompassing answer is but another false category. Regarding sexual ethics in Islam, as well as many other pressing sociocultural questions, we tend to ask “which is the right way”, Ali notes. Perhaps we should instead be asking: what many ways have there been, how can we authenticate them and where can they lead us in the present?

A takeaway from the interview with Ali for the broader study of religion brings us back to paths, rather than categorical answers, the tracing of lives lived and stories told—perhaps nowhere more colorfully than intricately woven hadith and Islamic legal proceedings—that link believers and non-believers alike to tradition. Paths need not be linear nor our place on them stagnant, rather we can draw from the past and draw it into the present moment, revisiting and revising as we ask new questions in enduring, and uniting, struggles over ethics in sexuality and beyond.

Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

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A transcription of this interview is available as a PDF, and has also been pasted below.


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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Science, Religion, and the Tyranny of Authenticity

There has been a general paucity of quality scholarship on “Islam and science/evolution,” making Hameed’s work a welcome addition. That said, his work suffers from some of same problems as other work in the study of “science and religion.” To explain what I mean, some background on the field is in order.

It’s been a quarter of a century since the label “complexity thesis” was first given life by Ronald Numbers in a review of John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion: A Historical Perspective (1991), yet the rush to go “prospecting” for complexity, to use Numbers’ turn of phrase, continues full steam ahead.   Put briefly, the complexity thesis suggests that multiple relationships exist between science and religion. Instead of asking “What is the relationship between science and religion?” a complexity theorist asks “What are the relationships between sciences and religions?” The underlying desire to make such differentiations and the practical implications of such work are, however, much older than that.

Discourses surrounding “science and religion” first became popular in the late nineteenth century, primarily through the work of the so-called conflict theorists. The two men claimed by history as the exemplars of this group are John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, with some historians referring to the notion of conflict as the Draper-White thesis. Draper and White, however, never suggested that science and religion were entirely irreconcilable. Instead, they argued that science was incompatible with something more specific: dogma, theology, or Catholicism. For both of them, “true religion” was constructed as perfectly benign, which usually meant it was nothing more than a vague sense of ethics. Even so, many, if not most, current complexity theorists are eager to redeem one or both of these figures as being misunderstood advocates of complexity. This is part of the larger project of nullifying or moderating discourses of conflict that exists as a central aspect of the field as currently conceived.

Given this tendency, it might be said that it is common for those working on “science and religion” to regularly cross the boundary that Russell McCutcheon has outlined between critic and caretaker, or to be caught up in what Aaron Hughes has called the tyranny of authenticity. Even if it is not the primary or secondary goal of scholarship to produce a discourse that legitimates and delegitimates certain beliefs, institutions, etc., when this happens, and insofar as it happens, scholarship is not being done. It is worth noting that this is not always, and perhaps not even often, in defence of religion, as Draper and White both make professions their claims about a legitimate religious domain for the sake of particular scientific agendas, not for the benefit of religion. White, for example, as the first president of Cornell University, considered perceived religious interference into the work of his faculty as a frustrating roadblock to overcome. For him, the legitimizing of one space for religion was first and foremost about the delegitimizing of another space. Increasingly, these discourses seem to be geared towards supporting a sort of status quo intended to preserve the hegemonic status of secularism within scientific research without fully delegitimizing religion.

Hameed professes to be “less interested” in establishing a normative relationship between Islam and evolution, which needless to say is not the same thing as being uninterested and is not the same thing not making normative claims. Now, I appreciate that Hameed wears different hats, one of which openly and explicitly promotes a normative ideological vision based on Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). His work demonstrates no neat division between critic and caretaker, however, which is perhaps unsurprising, if other scholars of religion who attempt the same are any indication. Despite his claims to its practical efficacy, NOMA is more aspirational than descriptive, as the neat separation of an apolitical religious space distinct from a scientific space breaks down in practice, not just in theory as he suggests. The same “messiness” he speaks of to explain the varied reactions/responses to evolution within Islamic communities is also part of the reason why neat separation is not possible here: people do not compartmentalize so neatly. As Craig Martin has pointed out in Masking Hegemony, “there could never be a ‘separation of church and state’ in a liberal democracy unless the state forbade churches to produce and distribute ideology, to produce conditions of persuasion, to socialize subjects into regimes of normalization and privilege, and so on. As long as there is ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of religion,’ churches will be legally permitted to do these things” (2010: 164).

This does not mean that all religious scientists will behave like the Catholic biochemist Michael Behe, who gained notoriety for his work on “irreducible complexity.” Matthew Stanley’s recent work, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon, offers a compelling account of work being done in science prior to the rise of scientific naturalism, where he suggests that the work of theistic scientists and early scientific naturalists was often indistinguishable. They amicably coexisted in many ways, giving positive reviews of one another’s work and building on one another’s research. Further, all scientists throughout history have carried some sort of baggage, religious or otherwise.

Fitting neatly within a complexity thesis tradition, Hameed employs what might be called normativizing nuance. By this I mean that by demonstrating the complexity/messiness of things “on the ground,” one version of a tradition can be delegitimized and/or another version of the tradition can be legitimized. In this sense, “Islam and science/evolution” has a great deal of resemblance to work on “Islam and violence.” That said, one does not need to even go as far as suggesting that ISIS or evolution deniers are bad or false Muslims and that peaceful, science-affirming Muslims are the legitimate ones, because the very act of prospecting for this complexity already functions to place “true Islam” at arms length from these concerns, making it entirely rise above what now becomes a non-Islamic issue. True religion, or I n this case true Islam, becomes something far vaguer, more personal, and less political. It may even be reasonable to call this a sort of secular apologetics, in that it produces a vision of an Islamic core that is completely amenable to a specific set of “secular” political interests.

Part of this can also be seen in the way Hameed points out that Islam has, “no Pope-like authority.” This strikes me as a sort of misleading Islamic exceptionalism. This is not only because it might be argued that many/most traditions that have been identified as “religion” have no Pope-like authority, or that certain “Islamic” traditions do have authorities that bear some similarities, if not exact correspondence, to the Catholic Pope. Instead, it seems that all traditions claiming large swaths of humanity within their membership will have considerable diversity of opinion among those members, regardless of whether or not there are institutional authorities seeking to enforce uniformity.

Further suggestive of this is Hameed’s apparent disinclination to extend this type of “messiness” to science. In discussing a science textbook, he claims that after providing a Qur’anic quote, the book could simply offer “science as is.” I am not certain what it would mean for someone to declare themselves to be teaching “religion as is,” yet the label makes little more sense when applied to science. Science is not the sort of thing one might find in a second-hand shop where “as is” labels might abound. Instead, it is a human activity with politically motivated boundaries that speak more to the interests of those who do, fund, and control science than it does about the inherent uniqueness of scientific endeavour. Whether or not he intended to do this or not, I cannot be fully certain, but the way that Hameed establishes a contrast between the messiness of religion/identity on the one hand and the matter of fact nature of science on the other is certainly troubling.

Religion, Science and Evolutionary Theory

science-religionScience and evolution in Muslim societies is a complicated topic. Among the public, what does evolution mean? Whats does evolution stand for? Is there a ‘Muslim view’ on evolution? In this podcast, Stephen Jones interviews Salman Hameed about recent research on Muslim perceptions of science and evolution.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Darwin fish stickers, Primordial Soup and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 24 January 2017

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Conference: CenSAMM: Climate and Apocalypse

June 29–30, 2017

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Conference: CenSAMM: 500 Years: The Reformation and Its Resonations

September 14–15, 2017

Bedford, UK

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Conference panel: EASR 2017: The World Religions Paradigm in Educational Contexts

September 18–21, 2017

Leuven, Belgium

Deadline: January 31, 2017

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Conference panel: EASR 2017: “Communicating knowledge about religion in the >extended classroom<“

September 18–21, 2017

Leuven, Belgium

Deadline: January 31, 2017

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Conference: ICSA: Cultic Dynamics and Radicalization

June 29–July 1, 2017

Bordeaux, France

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Reading group: Sanskrit Reading Room

Spring 2017

Cross-departmental: SOAS; University of Oxford, UK

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Summer school: Religion in the World: Beyond the Secular Paradigm

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Utrecht University, The Netherlands

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Associate Professor: Study of Religion with specialization in Islam

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: March 1, 2017

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London School of Economics, UK

Deadline: February 24, 2017

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RUB Research School: SYLFF-Mikrokolleg: “Forced Migration”

Ruhr-Universitat Bochum, Germany

Deadline: February 11, 2017

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 17 January 2017

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EASR: Open sessions

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Leuven, Belgium

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Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: Islam in North America

Stanford University, USA

Deadline: February 20, 2017

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Research Associate / Research Fellow

University of Sheffield

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Leipzig University, Germany

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Spiritual Performance Training and Education Coordinator

MacDill Air Force Base, USA

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Radical experiences that can change worlds

Radicalisation, Fundamentalism and Terrorism are emotive topics in the 21st Century. All three terms are frequently the subject of distorted, and often highly prejudicial, usage in public discourse. It is precisely because of their contemporary relevance, a relevance that can literally have life-or-death consequences, that they are an important area for academic research. Matthew Francis’ podcast provides an excellent introduction to many of the problems caused by a simplified understanding of religion and radicalisation. As he argues, distinguishing between the three terms is crucial if we want to understand any of them and the processes that they are associated with. Not all radicals are terrorists, and not all terrorists are radicals. A narrow focus on particular forms of radicalism is limiting and dangerous, if we want to understand the processes involved we must view them in a broader context.

Radicalisation, Francis suggests, is almost synonymous with socialisation. It is the process, or processes, by which an individual or group come to hold ideas or beliefs that are deemed to be ‘radical.’ At its core, radicalisation is simply the process of religious or ideological change when that change occurs in a direction that is considered to be radical. The observation that ideas are not inherently radical, but that the term is a relative one that involves comparisons to social norms, is of critical importance. The value judgments that we ascribe to ideas are not innate to them but are instead reflections of our own beliefs. These beliefs and norms vary between societies and over time within society. It was not long ago that, in the United Kingdom, allowing women the right to vote, or homosexuals the right to marry, was considered radical and dangerous by the majority of people. Today, in many parts of the world, both of those ideas are still considered to be radical and dangerous. The ideas have not changed and yet our judgments of them have. The radical has become normal. Similarly, ideas that were once considered normative are now considered by many to be radical. The subjective nature of what is, and is not, considered radical requires researchers to suspend judgment about particular views and focus on the dynamics through which the beliefs and values of individuals change.

A second important insight into radicalisation discussed in the interview is that ‘sacred ideas’ are a core part of any and all ideologies. These are ideas, often implicit, that are considered to be absolutely true and non-negotiable. Secular examples include the belief that people have the right to freedom and self-determination, or that society has an obligation to protect children from abuse.  More controversial examples might be the belief that one’s own race or nation are superior, or that the strong deserve whatever they can take. Recognising that individuals can be radicalised to hold non-religious ideologies is important both to understand the processes of radicalisation but also to understand the growth of other social movements. These ideological movements are diverse and can come from either end of the political spectrum. Marxist ideologies and nationalisms and the emerging alt-right both involve strongly held, radical convictions. However, radicalisation is not always bad. New ideas can be improvements on old ones. Radicalisation, as a process of change, is not inherently good or bad but can be either depending on the particular ideologies involved.

Moving the frame of reference beyond just religious ideologies is an important step in the process of understanding radicalisation but it is also dangerous to go too far in that direction. Individuals who seek to sever the link between religious radicalisation and religion usually have good intentions and yet, as Francis suggests, that step is as misleading as portraying all religion as inherently bad. There are many individuals for whom religious motivations are of central importance and whose actions are driven by religiously radical ideas. For example, the conservative Christian who attacks an abortion clinic in order to prevent the ‘murder’ of the unborn does so out of deep religious conviction and without the belief that abortion is murder it is highly unlikely that they would commit such attacks. It is important to be aware of all the varying, and often conflicting, motivations that drive individuals to commit extreme actions in the name of an ideology but to focus purely on non-religious factors like economics would omit an important piece in the puzzle.

The work of Tanya Luhrmann (1991, 2004, 2012) is of relevance here. Her work has explored how individuals ‘learn’ to have spiritual experiences that reinforce developing worldviews. She describes this process of learning to attribute particular thoughts, feelings and experiences to a divine or otherwise supernatural source as ‘metakinesis’. Metakinesis, she argues, is similar to other learning processes that teach an individual to become an expert in a particular field. As an individual begins to view the world through a particular religious perspective, and interpret events in the way encouraged by the community they are joining, they find value in the traditions and practices. These practices, however, can do more than simply providing an interpretative framework for ambiguous events. The Spiritual Disciplines Project, an experiment that Luhrmann ran at Stanford University, showed that individual who pray or meditates repeatedly actually becomes more attuned to particular sensations and have increased spiritual experiences. These experiences reinforce the worldview that lead to the practice in the first place, frequently leading to increased immersion in it. Luhrmann’s early work with British magic-users and her more recent work with American Evangelicals both support the idea that religious practice can actually alter how individuals perceive and experience the world. This is, of course, a claim that many religious practitioners would agree with – spiritual practices are often intended to cultivate closer relationships with the divine. When studying radicalisation, the impact that spiritual experiences and practices can have on reinforcing ideological positions should not be neglected in favour of more ‘mundane’ influences. As Francis notes, the process of radicalisation is complex and nuanced. The role that spiritual experiences can play in encouraging individuals to adopt beliefs that are considered radical should not be overlooked. People gradually adopt ideologies through their experiences of the world and spiritual experiences can have an impact just like any other event that an individual considers significant.

It is only by appreciating and integrating the many different factors that cause people to adopt and disseminate beliefs that others consider strange or radical that we can fully understand the process of radicalisation. Doing so is important not only to devise strategies to counter the spread of ideas which are deemed dangerous but also to facilitate the spread of radical ideas that are deemed positive. Technological advances mean that ideas can now spread at a rate that was unthinkable mere decades ago. In this context, it is imperative that academics continue to focus their efforts on understanding the psychological and sociological dynamics by which ideas are spread. Equally, it is important that this research is communicated clearly and publically so that dangerous misconceptions are not allowed to flourish.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (1991). Persuasions of the witch’s craft: Ritual magic in contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. (2004). Metakinesis: How god becomes intimate in contemporary U.S. Christianity. American Anthropologist, 106(3), 518–528. doi:10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.518

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with god. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 November 2016

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Calls for papers

Anthology: Religion and Ethics in Contemporary Speculative Fiction

Deadline: January 1, 2017

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Conference: Old Norse Myth and Völkisch Ideology

September 6–8, 2017

Basel, Switzerland

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Conference: Apocalypse and Authenticity

July 11–13, 2017

University of Hull, UK

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Conference: SocRel: On the Edge? Centres and Margins in the Sociology of Religion

July 12–14, 2017

University of Leeds, UK

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Conference: British Association for Islamic Studies

April 11–13, 2017

University of Chester, UK

Deadline: November 30, 2016

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Conference: SISR/ISSR: Religion, Cooperation, and Conflict in Diverse Societies

4–7 July 2017

Lausanne, Switzerland

Deadline: January 10, 2017

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Journal: American Psychological Association

Special issue: American Atheism, Agnosticism, and Non-Religious Worldviews: Theoretical Models and Psychological Measurement

Deadline: March 31, 2017

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Journal: Religion, State & Society

Special issue: Religion and the Rise of Populism: Migration, Radicalism and New Nationalisms

Deadline: August 15, 2017

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Journal: Religions

Special issue: Religion and Genocide

Deadline: March 15, 2017

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Summer School: Prophétologies musulmanes: discours et représentations

June 29 – July 5, 2017

Aix en Provence, France

Deadline: January 4, 2017

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Symposium: 500 years: The Reformation and Its Resonations

September 14–15, 2017

Bedford, UK

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Symposium: Climate and Apocalypse

June 29–30, 2017

Bedford, UK

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Symposium: Violence and Millenarian Movements

April 6–7, 2017

Bedford, UK

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Events

Conference: Communicative Figurations

December 7–9, 2016

Universität Bremen, Germany

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SSNB Lecture Series: Evangelical and Tablighi Pioneers on Post-Atheist Frontiers

December 1, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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SSNB Roundtable: Who cares about unbelief?

December 2, 2016, 4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

London, UK

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NSRN Annual Lecture: Is atheism a religion?

December 2, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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SSNB Lecture Series: Jewish atheists in foxholes? Phenomenologies of violence and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

December 7, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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Faculty Fellowships: Summer Institute for Israel Studies

Brandeis University, USA

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Pennsylvania State University, USA

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Postdoctoral position: Religion and Its Publics

University of Virginia, USA

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Podcasts

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Resonance of Vestigial States

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is RSP stalwart (currently our videos producer), Jonathan Tuckett.

Way back in the early days of the RSP when I did interviews and roundtables I interviewed Naomi Goldenberg on religion as vestigial states. This was also back in the early days of my PhD when I had joined Stirling University and its program of phenomenology“. (Don’t worry this isn’t about phenomenology so much as it is about me).

This was all before I started reading Alfred Schutz who turned my thesis onto an entirely new path and eventually to the heights of “proper phenomenology”. The truth is, back then – when I interviewed Naomi – I couldn’t really say that a I “got” Critical Religion. As David has already explained in his editor’s choice, Timothy Fitzgerald is perhaps the most important scholar of religion of our time for the fact that he has made us change the way we think about religion. But I was stubborn and combative, so I had to come to realise the paradigm shift of Tim’s work by a slightly circuitous route.

And ever since I have made that paradigm shift, ever since I “got” Critical Religion and pronounce myself to be a part of that group, I have returned again and again to Naomi’s work on religion as vestigial states. I’m not saying I fully agree with Naomi’s theory. But the more I develop my proper phenomenology (yes, I am going to hammer that distinction again and again – I am no less stubborn and combative these days), the more I find how similarly my own views on “religion” resonate with hers. And, with potentially fortuitous timing, Naomi will be keynote speaker at this year’s BASR conference so we may well have another interview with her in the near future.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

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Muslim Superheroes

A. Dave Lewis joins us again for a discussion of representations of Muslims in superhero comics. We talk about some positive representations, like Kamala Khan, Marvel’s new Ms Marvel, and some less-than-positive portrayals, like Frank Millar’s Holy Terror! We talk about American comics as a product of the immigrant experience, and how comics made by Muslims play with the conventions of the genre. And we talk about how to use these texts in the classroom, as a powerful tool for exploring representation, media and religion. And what is the “wormhole sacred”?

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu-Tang comic books, canned tuna, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslim Superheroes

Podcast with A. David Lewis (28 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Lewis- Muslim Superheroes 1.1

David Robertson (DR): Well, it’s my pleasure to welcome A. Dave Lewis to the podcast once again. Dave is one of the few, if not the only one of our regular guests to be both an interviewer and an interviewee. Well I might be the only other one, strangely enough! But it’s certainly . . . it’s been a little while since he’s been on. So it’s my pleasure to welcome him back. So thanks, once again, for joining us!

David Lewis (DL): Alright, ok. It’s good to be here!

DR: Good. Well this time we are going to be talking about Muslim superheroes, partly jumping off your recent edited volume with Martin Lund, called Muslim Superheroes: Comics, Islam and Representation. Obviously, there’s quite a lot for us to unpack here. So maybe we could start with you just telling us a little bit about why you decided to focus specifically on Muslim superheroes?

DL: Actually it comes from an earlier collection that I did, called Graven Images, with Christine Hoff Kraemer And when we did that collection, we had a number of contributors give us perspectives from religion all over the world, and historically. But to be frank we, as the editors even, found the Islam section to be light. And given that that was growing as a focus of my own studies, given that that was growing as focus in my own personal life, it’s something that I, in part, wanted to remedy. Now there had been some work out there done, particularly on Islam and comics as a medium in general, but not on this hallmark genre. So I approached Martin and said that I was interested in this – not just the dearth of research on Muslim superheroes, but also the increasing number of Muslim superheroes that we were steadily finding in mainstream US comics. And from there we reached out, and put a call for papers out. And I also tapped a few people that we knew had similar interests. And we tried to synthesise the limited information that was out there, in this volume, as well as inject it with new ways in which we could explore the topic.

DR: Great. And as a topic I think there’s a number of really interesting aspects that make Islam and superhero comic, specifically, a particularly rich field for us to explore. We can talk about those in a little bit more depth, then. For a lot of people – and I’m a comic fan so I ‘m playing devil’s advocate a bit here – the idea of the superhero seems to be particularly tied to an American context. It seems to have a lot to do with the American dream of America’s role in the world. So, looking at the way that particularly the American comics have dealt with Muslims is particularly fraught with interesting data.

DL: Oh, hugely. And not only is it fraught with . . . particularly in a post-September 11 context, or even earlier than that, during the hostage crisis of the ’80s . . . . But, really, so much of this engagement has been passed over and forgotten, not necessarily chronicled. I reached back as far as I could, looking for not the earliest Arab character in superhero comics, nor the earliest Muslim character across all genres, but I was really trying to pinpoint: when did this genre in its infancy begin to engage other religions, other than ostensibly the Christian norm? And I became, actually, rather enamoured with what I found, which was a character in 1944, going back just a few years into the first superhero boom (5:00), called Kismet, Man of Fate . And not only did I start studying this character I found that I took sort-of a shine to him and wanted to start writing further adventures from him, since he had fallen into the public domain.

DR: It would be quite interesting to look and see if there were similar portrayals of Muslim characters in the British wartime comics. There was a lot of those still around when I was a kid, you know, telling these true life World War Two stories. Because, of course, at that time a lot of soldiers would have come into contact with Muslim soldiers, especially those serving in North Africa and places like that.

DL: Absolutely.

DR: Much different contexts than we have now.

DL: Without question. Although I won’t say it’s surprising that it would have entered the British consciousness far earlier than the US popular consciousness, given as you said, you know, colonial engagement and, more widely speaking, the theatre of battle. Whereas, for the US, we have been very slow to become aware of Islamic culture, despite it being not only important in the 20th century – being important historically, classically, without the classic philosophers. But no, it would not surprise me in the least to see more Muslim representation – both good and bad, you know, both fair and then highly stereotypical – in British war genre comics than in US superhero comics, as a latecomer.

DR: Indeed. Of course, superhero comics as a genre – I don’t need to tell you that there’s many other genres of comics of course – but the superhero genre, in particular, seems to be tied to the American immigrant experience, doesn’t it? So, I mean, that’s another resonance.

DL: Very much so. In fact I think it was Danny Fingeroth’s book, Disguised as Clark Kent, where he points out that the American superhero genre really is largely reflective of the immigrant experience. And you can just look at the pantheon of superheroes. You either have aliens of very different varieties, Atlantis like Aquaman, Kryptonians like Superman, Amazonians like Wonder Woman, or you have the dispossessed, sort of orphans in either the literal or the figurative sense- that’s where you get your Batman, your Captain America, your Spider-Man. But the genre – particularly when it was formed in the late 30s – early 40s, here in the US – was absolutely about congealing into a shared American experience, rather than there being one quintessential, pure American experience. And that has gotten, many times, lost in the history of the genre. I think if there’s been any time to best recapture it, it might be now – as superheroes are moving from comics as a fringe medium, largely speaking, to cinematic blockbusters. And people who may never have been caught dead with a comic book are now shelling out however-many-bucks to go see them live on the big screen.

DR: Yes. That’s something which has changed dramatically, even in the time I’ve known you and we’ve been talking about comics. It’s gone from a very fringe interest, as you say, into the biggest genre in cinema right now. And perhaps that’s why we’re seeing a number of very high profile Muslim characters coming into mainstream comics at the moment. Now Ms Marvel is an obvious example. Can we talk about her a little bit, maybe?

DL: Absolutely Kamala Khan Ms Marvel: born and bred Jersey girl, but with a Pakistani background, who is a fan of superheroes – who’s actually a fan fiction writer – finds that she is incredibly imbued with the power of a polymorph, meaning that she can change the size and shape of her body at will (10:00). She has been become, really, the frontline character – I don’t like using the word frontline – maybe the banner character for Muslims, in superhero comics. She certainly caught on with a large section of readers, especially with Marvel attempting this diversity initiative. The problem with her, if there is any problem – it’s a terrific character, and written by a terrific team with G. Willow Wilson – if there’s any problem with the character it’s that most people just know her for being Muslim.

DR: Right, yes.

DL: The character doesn’t come off as often in discussions where religion is not the focus, or where diversity is not the focus. And I only say that’s a problem because that does give her an upper limit, a ceiling of sorts. We can talk about, and generalise, what Captain America does, right, or what Ironman does, or even what Superman does, but we don’t yet have – as popular as Ms Marvel is, or as Simon Baz the new Green Lantern is, or any number of characters – we don’t yet have that Muslim character who is transcending their Muslim-ness, necessarily, into storylines so compelling and so iconic that audiences are keeping up with them. Maybe Ms Marvel is starting to tilt that way. She is a member of The Avengers and The Champions now. But I think the only context a lay person would know about her in, is in this religious and diversity-centred context.

DR: Right. And she reminds me, actually, a lot of Miles Morales. I think there’s a few clear parallels. I mean, Miles Morales is the black Superman

DL: Spider-Man.

DR: Spider-Man, yes, sorry. The black Spider-Man, introduced around the same time in Marvel.

DL: Black and Latino, he’s actually . . .

DR: That’s right. Yes, he is. He is similar to Ms Marvel, has become a hugely popular character, is also a superhero fan, interestingly. I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it, just now. But similarly, he has had difficulty crossing . . . has had some success crossing into the mainstream, but is still almost always talked about in terms of his ethnicity, rather than simply his being a compelling character. But that might be starting to change now. I don’t know if you know that when they made “Spider-Man: Homecoming” they were talking about whether they should use Miles Morales, because they were facing the fact that they had to relaunch this character for the third time. And it was decided against it, because: “a black superhero film can’t make any money at the box office, right?”

DL: That’s changed. I think that’s been disproven pretty solidly, recently.

DR: Yes, I think we’ve completely thrown that out the window! But there is now a Miles Morales animated movie coming out.

DL: That’s true and, just going back to “Spiderman: Homecoming” for one minute – not to stray too far from the subject of comics and religion – I do want to point out that they did cast Donald Glover in that movie in a small part, but his part there is actually playing the uncle of Miles Morales. So we haven’t been introduced to his character yet, but they have laid down the groundwork for integrating his character.

DR: Absolutely.

DL: But I think you put your finger on one of the problems there, David, which is that these characters are always becoming known as a subset of another character. I mentioned Simon Baz, he’s now the Muslim Green Lantern; we mentioned Miles Morales, he is the Black or Latino Spider-Man.

DR: We also had the female Thor as well, recently.

DG: Female Thor; there’s the Batman of Paris, a Muslim Batman of Paris, Nightrunner, And even Ms Marvel is inheriting a mantel from the former Ms Marvel, now Captain Marvel – who’s going to get her own movie. So we haven’t quite gotten to the point where we have a Muslim character whose core identity, partly, is Muslim but also is forging a superhero narrative in their own right (15:00). And the reason I keep coming back to superheroes – I feel like this is worth saying: you are absolutely right, there are any number of genres out there when it comes to comics. Almost as limitless as any other medium. However, A: comics are often judged in terms of superheroes, and B: as you mentioned earlier, superheroes are largely an American-made product, or an American-originating product. They’re the closest we have to what Richard Reynolds calls a Modern Mythology. So the reason I keep returning to the superhero is, basically, this has to be the testing space for whatever religious theory or criticism we’re bringing to this medium. Is comics superheroes and superheroes comics? No, absolutely not. And I would never limit either one in that way. But if we can’t talk about the superhero comic in terms of the subject that interests us here, religion and representation, then that challenge is going to keep presenting itself. Until it can be brought into this space it will always be penultimate.

DR: I had a thought, actually, when I was reading the book. You mentioned that . . . most of the examples we’ve given today, in fact, except for the Green Lantern, are Marvel characters. And what you’re saying there, about modern mythology, I think is the reason why. DC characters are harder to represent as having a religion, because DC write more mythologically. DC characters are essentially gods. So it’s much harder to represent religion, ethnicity, gender issues and these kinds of things, because they relate to humans. But the classic argument is that while DC are gods, Marvel are always telling metaphors for being a teenager. So Marvel characters are much better suited to these kinds of discussions about identity and representation, because that is the Marvel style.

DL: And I think that’s true historically, right? DC has been around longer as a unified company. And Batman and Superman reach back further than the Fantastic Four, or Spiderman or the X- Men. But I think there is the opportunity to challenge that just the same. I mean, we could focus on Superman’s alien-ness instead of his godliness. Or we could focus on The Flash – he really is your most mortal and your most human of heroes but he gets elevated to this god-like Hermes status, at least in popular consumption. So I don’t think that either company has to be locked into these positions. And there have been a number of times that Marvel has experimented with sort-of the more godly figure with its characters. But, yes, I think if you had to do a fast summary of each one, you get Marvel with its very human heroes being raised to an elevated status that they may or may not be able to handle, and DC superheroes being sort-of gods – but more gods with feet of clay, or gods with an affection or a tie to humanity. That said, neither approach precludes any spiritual or religious material. I thought it was when . . . . This was a Justice League annual back in the year 2000. It was pre-September 11. But they did try to introduce a Muslim character at that time called The Janissary. And The Janissary, she was a fine character. But the more interesting thing that came out of that particular issue is, does Wonder Woman, an Amazonian, a princess, a goddess-like character – and, at certain times, practically portrayed as a goddess – does she wear a hijab? Is she either subject to the cultural norms of the society she finds herself featured in, or does she transcend that (20:00)? Or does she even find it alien to her? Because she has proof of her own gods and not of an unseen Allah. So these can be engaged in any number of ways, if the companies, frankly, see a profit motive for it.

DR: Yes. I’d like to dig into some other examples. Ms Marvel: there’s been a few papers and stuff and people can go and read more widely, and obviously we can point them to your book where there’s a lot of good examples. But I want to bring up a few sort-of perhaps more problematic examples. One that you don’t talk about directly in the book, but was the first time I became aware of this as an issue in comics, was Holy Terror.

DL: Oh, yes.

DR: Which was originally going to be a Batman book.

DL: It was originally going to be Holy Terror Batman, punning on the whole 1960’s television Robin catchphrase: “Holy terror, Batman!” And it was pitched by Frank Miller of “Dark Knight Returns“ and “Sin City“ and “300“ fame, to DC. And DC thought about it and ultimately rejected it. So he reworked it as his own independent book, I believe with Legendary Comics.

DR: Yes. And I don’t know an awful lot about Frank Miller, but I’m guessing his politics must definitely be towards the more right-wing end of the spectrum?

DL: They have absolutely grown that way over the years. I can’t say if he’s always held a right-wing position. But I do recall that shortly after September 11th there were any number of charity relief books that were being published by various companies. And it struck me that he contributed a very militaristic piece. Like: “Get ready for our thunder! Get ready for our power! You’ve woken a sleeping giant!” And since that time his work has turned quite . . . I would almost say radically to the right. And in Holy Terror he reworks a Batman archetype into a character that I believe he calls The Fixer.

DR: That’s right.

DL: And The Fixer is intent on wiping out terrorism. But the only form of terrorism showcased in the book . . . basically terrorism becomes synonymous with radical Islam, with extremist militaristic radical Islam. And having it enjoin us . . . that lens really portrays an Islamophobia that’s concern isn’t terrorism – or else we could look at spots around the world that are unrelated to Islam, where terrorism is being employed. He really takes a turn there towards a xenophobic fearing of “the other” and one that stands, in his view, in opposition to America and the American norms and democracy. It’s worth noting that one of the works that he did which followed this up, which followed up Holy Terror, was that he returned to Dark Knight Returns for a third time. He did Dark Knight Returns, Dark Knight Strikes Back– which happened right as September 2001 struck, and may have actually changed the way he concluded that story. But then he returned with Dark Knight III: The Master Race, which is, in very brief summary, all about basically Kryptonians – Superman’s people – coming to terrorise and dominate humankind. And only Batman and Superman can save us. And it rings the same bells of, basically, this xenophobia against an outside religious group that seems to be, from his perspective, aggressive, and attempting to conquer. So these are things that he has pursued in a rather, I find, distasteful manner – but definitely in a forthright manner. He’s not hiding or being cute about it (25:00). There are a number of other comic creators who are injecting anti-Islamic themes into their content without saying so explicitly. But when we focussed on Muslim Superheroes as a book we said that that’s less our concern, tracking Islamophobia in comics – which is its own tremendous topic, and there has been some great work done it – but more looking at how they’re trying to integrate the heroism and the principles of, frankly, US heroism or Western heroism to interface with what are perceived Islamic ideals.

DR: I would be quite interested to know a little bit about black Muslim superheroes, because obviously that’s another important aspect of Islam in a America, historically speaking. Presumably here we’re going to be mostly talking about the pre-9/11 situation.

DL: One of our chapters is a terrific piece on basically reading earlier black superheroes and we can point to John Stewart as a Green Lantern or point to The Falcon, Captain America’s partner, as I believe our contributor calls them, “crypto-Muslims” or “proto-Muslims”. Basically, if you’re a New York writer of comics, which is where the two – DC and Marvel, the two major superhero companies – were stationed, what you’re seeing of black strengths and black presence, in the news and in your environment, is either the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. Black Panthers being not the superhero Black Panther, but the group.

DR: Although there is a direct connection there. Stan Lee took the name of the character directly from the Black Panthers.

DL: Yes, I’d heard different reports on that. I’ve heard that it either entered his consciousness, or he did conspicuously think . . . I don’t know the exact details, there. But yes, you can read a lot of black characters in comics, in the 60s as well as the 70s, as what we call crypto-Muslims. But then you can go forward and find actual black Muslims in a number of comics, particularly around the 1990s. Milestone comics had Wise Son. Marvel comics featured Josiah X who was a Muslim, a black Muslim preacher who also had a family member experimented on in Captain America’s super soldier programme. So they definitely exist. But even here, they did not have yet the nuance or just the enjoyability of characters like Simon Baz; like Kamala Khan, Ms Marvel; like Excalibur; and a number of others. These were very serious, angry, severe characters. And being included is terrific; being represented is important. But often their full humanity wasn’t portrayed, I dare say. And that could be because they were not being written by black creators, or minority creators. They were white – usually male – creators’ imagination of the black man and of the black Islamic man, rather than a more authentic experience. I don’t want to be mischaracterised as saying that only black writers can write black characters, only Muslim writers can write Muslim characters. That’s not what I’m suggesting at all. But I am suggesting that when you have a gulf, and a conspicuous gulf, between such characters and their creators that’s something that has to be examined and looked at cautiously.

DR: Yes. Absolutely. It’s actually quite a good link, then, into my next question which was (30:00):foundationsuperhero comics which come out of the Islamic world, and which perhaps play with and reframe some of the American context, in the creation of their own superheroes and superhero teams. Can you give us a couple of quick examples of those?

DL: Yes, absolutely. And, again, we dedicate at least two, if not three, chapters in the book to this topic. The most notable of them – the Ms Marvel equivalent, the most well-known – would be The 99, which came out of Kuwait. And this was actually spearheaded by a professional psychologist, Naif Al-Mutawa. And the issue they ran into – at least according to our contributor in the book – is that there were any number of superhero genre elements that they could reproduce with Muslim characters, except for two. And that was the hyper-sexualised nature of the superhero – and you could start with the skin-tight costumes if you like, but you can also look at their physique and physicality and go from there. The other thing that they were cautious about – other companies were less cautious, but this was a challenge for The 99 – was their resolving everything, or nearly everything, with violence, which was very much an image that Dr Al-Mutawa wanted to move away from. He wanted these comics to be inspirational of solving conflicts with other powers, with other abilities, with conflict resolution or with building and such. So they struggled with that. Other companies like AK Comics – which were admittedly less successful – out of Egypt, they were more embracing of those two additional elements, but they did not last nearly as long as The 99. So we don’t yet have . . . now there are more publishers, even today. One that comes to mind is Youneek Studios, and that’s spelled Y-O-U-N-E-E-K, which is an African company. And I think they’re doing a terrific job of sort-of trying to thread the needle in the way that the Black Panther movie does: being genuinely African, right, but also still delivering on narrative elements that audiences have come to expect, rather than being some weak copy of an American superhero or diverging into its own sub-genre. This is a challenge because the American superhero has characteristics not only that may not translate into other cultures and religions, but may have ones that the American superhero industry itself doesn’t want to fix: again referring back to the issues of violence and sexuality; also looking at misogyny, patriarchy, heteronormativity. How much it can be changed by a non-white and non-Christian group, before it becomes unrecognisable, is the challenge of the day.

DR: Indeed. We’ve been talking a while now and we could go on quite a while more, I’m sure. But I’ve got a couple of questions to wrap up, then. One is: I particularly liked the little chapter at the end of the book that you and Martin Lund contributed, which talks about the idea of using these in schools. I absolutely love the idea of using an issue of Ms Marvel, for instance, as a text for students to engage with these issues.

DL: It seems like not only the natural outgrowth of these things, but also the raison d’être, you know, the whole: are we just studying these things for our amusement? And just as an exercise? Or is there something to be done here? Can we include a call to action? And, as I said, the most natural call to action is to bring this into the classroom, and let students have a foundation where they can engage with it (35:00). And I think, as we know in the final chapter, this doesn’t have to be head-on. We’re not proposing that we need Muslim superhero classes, and we need Muslim superhero curriculum and degrees given out on Muslim superheroes. We’re actually suggesting that instead this genre, and this religious interaction with the genre, can be a powerful way to explore historical events, to explore cultural differences, to explore media bias and media studies. So we really just want to open this to the educator, who may not be an expert in comics, or may not be an expert in Islam – and certainly not the two combined – but will see the inherent value of working on materials that access student’s attention in a novel way.

DR: Right, and using popular cultural texts – be they comic, or television, or films, or whatever – I think, actually, can be a more powerful way of introducing the students, and teaching the students the critical skills. If we start with academic texts then getting the students to be able to read the biases and the positionality of the papers can be quite tricky, because academic language is very qualified and very specific. But using popular texts to start with, and teaching them to read them as media texts, we can do a lot to train them in that way of critical reading that they can then take on and apply to more obviously academic texts.

DL: And this has long been true. Educators have tried to incorporate music in the classroom, and incorporate film in the classroom. And really, any medium that isn’t a text book that can sort-of take these students unawares into learning, or into critical thought, is always welcome. We highlight the comic book because of our fascination with comics in its dual-channel delivery system: its verbal, visual, creative engagement with the reader that will work for a number of students in particular, who don’t have to be comic book fans themselves but may be looking to light up different hemispheres of their brain at the same time. That, a lecture, or a strictly prose textbook, would not be able to do.

DR: Absolutely. As a final closing kind-of point here: is there any further thought on how the work that you’re doing in the book and elsewhere . . . what can it tell RS? How can these kinds of analyses, then, enhance Religious Studies more broadly?

DL: Well, I think that a particular area . . . two come to mind. The first is that we talk often about lived religion, right? And we often want to explore how religions are either evolving or being expressed in a modern context, and then tracking that against the religion, historically or classically. And I want to point out that comics are a relatively cheap and very evocative space in which to track that sort of lived religious experience. Whereas television is highly scripted and highly censored in many cases. And film, while perhaps less censored, is again driven by a huge profit motive. Comics, while a business and while a business that wants to sustain itself, has a greater freedom with the most reach. So, that would be my first response. That if we’re trying to do a present-day lived anthropological read of religion in popular culture or interpretation, comics is an ideal space. One further argument to have – and this is a little more radical on my part . . .

DR: OK, we like that.

DL: I wrote about this for an up-coming book (40:00). This is going to sound wonky, but I have the perspective that comics, when read intensely, when read seriously, when read genuinely, can lead to their own transcendent experience. Now, this is going to make me sound like someone who’s drunk the Kool-Aid . . .

DR: (Laughs).

DL: Inasmuch as we say frescos, and tapestries, and stained glass windows, and sculpture can all really unlock, as arts, the human mind to some spiritual dimension, I want to suggest that there are comics out there that could do similar. That can actually, by their . . . . And I think the way I phrase it in this up-coming text is that, by basically going down into the mundane, down into the print, and the ink, and the paper of the comic, it can actually trip us and flip us towards the sacred, towards what lies behind it: the “real real” – and here I’m being very Eliade in my language. But I’m exploring that more and more. I’m not necessarily saying you’re going to get that from your average Superman comic off the rack, right? And I’m not saying it’s better to read Ms Marvel than go to a Mosque. I’m not saying anything of that sort. But I am suggesting that we can’t rule out this medium as having its own access to potentially transcendent experience. And in the chapter that’ll be coming out I think later this year, I make the argument for why it’s not just legitimate but actually might be favourable to view them in this way.

DR: There are some inklings of that in Graven Images. We can maybe pick this conversation up in a year’s time, when I interview you the next time. It does sound a bit wonky – but as somebody who reads The Invisibles every year, you know you’re not going to get an argument from me!

DL: That actually is a terrific example of precisely the sort of comic that you can deal with. And, actually, I came up with a fantastic, really out-there, crazy term for it! We’ll talk about it next year.

DR: Yes. We’ll pick it up next time.

DL: I call it the “wormhole sacred”. So, be sure to ask me next year about the wormhole sacred!

DR: Excellent. I will do that. Let’s put it in the diary already! Until then, though, I would urge listeners who’ve enjoyed the conversation to check out Muslim Superheroes. And I’ll just say thanks, A. Dave Lewis, for joining us again!

DL: I love coming back. Thank you so much for having me!

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Lewis, A. David and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Muslim Superheroes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslim-superheroes/

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Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

Produced by R. Michael Feener

The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratization and drawn attention to some aggressively un-civil sectors of this Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch, we will talk about her recent research on Myanmar’s Muslim population and about the role played by the international community – and by religious NGOs in particular – in relation to the escalation of violence targeting the Rohingyas.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar

Podcast with Melissa Crouch (13 November 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Crouch-_Muslims,_NGOs_and_the_Future_of_Democratic_Space_in_Myanmar

 

Catherine Scheer (CS): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Catherine Scheer

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): And Giuseppe Bolotta

CS: And this is the third instalment of our series on religion and NGOS. Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of religious NGOS or so-called faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms – both of religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs – intersect, and how theses engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development. The critical situation of the Rohingyas has cast a shadow over Myanmar’s process of democratisation and drawn attention to some aggressively uncivil sectors of the Buddhist majority country’s Muslim minority population. In this interview with Melissa Crouch we will talk about her research on Myanmar’s Muslim population, about the challenges of advocating for legal reform as a means of promoting religious tolerance and the future role of NGOs in Myanmar’s democratisation process. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview, we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series.

GB: So, speaking with us today is Dr Melissa Crouch. She’s senior lecturer at the law faculty at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Her research contributes to the field of Asian legal studies with a concentration on public law, Islamic law and rule of law in fragile states. Melissa is the author of: Law and Religion in Indonesia: Conflict and the Courts in West Java, published by Routledge in 2014; the editor of Islam and the State in Myanmar: Muslim Buddhist Relations and the Politics of Belonging, published by Oxford University Press in 2016; and the editor of The Business of Transition: Law, Reform, Development and Economics in Myanmar, which will be published by Cambridge University Press this autumn. An engaged legal scholar, among others a member of the Australia-Myanmar Constitutional Democracy Project, we are glad to have Dr Crouch with us today to talk more specifically about the influence of legal frameworks on religious organisations in Myanmar – especially Muslim organisations. Thank you very much for being here with us on the Religious Studies Project.

MC: Thank you.

GB: So, Catherine, would you like to start our questions for Melissa?

CS: Yes. Thanks for that and thank you Melissa. Your research was on religion, law and social conflicts in Muslim majority Indonesia, before you also started looking at comparative development in contemporary Myanmar. Can you tell us more about why you shifted your primary research focus and how, if at all, you see your earlier work in relation to the current events you now study?

MC: Thank you. I think, for myself, I see it more as a broadening rather than a shift. So my research, I would say, is inherently comparative. Although I started out focussing specifically on Indonesia, I have since sort-of expanded to look at South East Asia more broadly, but also a specific focus on Myanmar. And I think one of the most exciting things about the area of comparative law, and law and religion studies, is the strength of studying comparatively rather than in isolation. My own work is inspired by scholars such as Emeritus Professor MB Hooker and his formidable body of work on legal pluralism and Islamic law in South East Asia, scholars like the late Professor Andrew Huxley, who spent a lot of time looking at Burmese Buddhist law. And of course the late Professor Dan Lev who was the leading scholar on Indonesian Law of his generation. And among his work of course was seminal work such as on the Islamic court in Indonesia. (5:00) And so, really, I see my work as building on this kind of history of the field of social legal study in South East Asia. And in doing so, my research tries to focus on a number of core themes around constitutional change, law and development and law and religion. In relation to my research on Islam and Islamic law in Indonesia and Myanmar, I think there are fascinating parallels as well as some striking differences. And in my book on Islam and the State in Myanmar, I try and depict Muslims in Myanmar as at something of a crossroads between South East Asia and South Asia. I think there are similarities in the sense that in some of my work in Indonesia I was looking at the position of minorities within a Muslim majority state. Of course, in Myanmar you have a Buddhist majority country and Muslims as a minority, but, actually, some similar kinds of issues being faced by those minority groups. And I’ve expressed some of these ideas in an article that I wrote in the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law, which tried to sort of review and summarise some of the key themes in Islamic law in society in South East Asia. And really, I was trying to emphasise the importance of continuing to write against Arabic or Middle Eastern bias in Islamic Studies. Sixty percent of the world’s Muslims live in Asia today, so I think that’s an exciting place and position from which to write about Islam. In addition, I think, South East Asia is important for the study of legal pluralism, and this is where religion comes in, as a key influence in the history and development of legal systems across South East Asia. And I think, also, South East Asia helps us to re-examine and perhaps challenge some of the assumptions that we have in the study of law and religion and Islam, more broadly.

GB: Thank you so much, Melissa. As a legal scholar, with a particular interest in law and religion, how do you see the role of the researcher – her or his ethical responsibilities – and how would you position the book you recently edited, Islam and the State in Myanmar in this context?

MC: Yes, this is a great question and I think this was a really good question to grapple with at the workshop that you both hosted previously at the Asian Research Institute in Singapore. For me, I guess, my own research is influenced by and grounded in a legal ethnography and, I guess, this idea of an ethnographic sensibility. That is, I see in ethnography a great concern for the ethical obligations that we have towards our participants, many of whom become close friends and colleagues. Many of our participants – particularly when we’re talking about religion and issues of religious conflict and aid – are vulnerable, a kind of vulnerable community. And this ethnographic sensibility I think also calls for a need for an awareness of our own subjectivity, an awareness of our own strengths and limitations and weaknesses as researchers. And I think that this helps to influence and inform the choice of what we study, when we study, and how we study, as well as the kind of audiences that we’re trying to reach. The book Islam and the State in Myanmar was really just a first attempt to try to bring together interdisciplinary research. But a lot of it was very much ethnographically based, or based on substantive field research interviews, participant observations, archival and historical research. And really, it was an effort to try and put forward the beginning of an academic enquiry in this area, while recognising that there has been a lot of advocacy reports or policy reports in the past, and there probably will be ongoing, but that academics can play a role in informing some of these debates.

CS: Thanks Melissa, I’m glad you underlined this important aspect of your research. In this context I would like to touch upon a sad event. This January the prominent Muslim lawyer, Ko Ni was assassinated in Myanmar. (10:00) A long-term advocate for the right for peaceful protest and against hate speech, Ko Ni played a key role in recent efforts towards constitutional reform, law reform and legislative reform in religion. In the context of increasing violence against Muslims he joined the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association. Can you tell us a bit more about Ko Ni’s work and about his support for, and participation in, law and development, and about his contribution to NGOs – particularly religious NGOS? What is the current situation of Muslim associations and NGOs in Myanmar? How might the position for Islamic organisations have been affected by the death of Ko Ni?

MC: Yes. Thank you. I could spend all day talking about the legacy of Ko Ni and I don’t think it would quite do him justice. But let me see if I can try and encapsulate what I think is at the core of some of his work and efforts and concerns. And particularly his contribution and collaboration with quite a number of international development organisations as well as local civil society organisations and religious organisations. The assassination of Ko Ni on the 29th of January of this year, 2017, was a significant tragedy and very much a wakeup call for Myanmar, for the National League for Democracy, but also for the Muslim community in Myanmar. Simply because of the fact that he was a Muslim, as well as the fact that he was a very prominent lawyer, his death had a significant impact and was felt very deeply by the Muslim community in Myanmar. You are right to say that Ko Ni was affiliated with and involved with an organisation called the Myanmar Muslim Lawyers Association, although in some of the tributes that I’ve written about Ko Ni since his death I really tried to emphasise that I think this was, in some sense, a last resort strategy. In many ways, Ko Ni was first and foremost a lawyer: his concern was with legal process, with justice, with the rule of law and the importance of constitutional reform and equal rights for everyone. But at the same time he was someone – in part because of his stature, his physical appearance – who was well known as a Muslim, and he really couldn’t escape that fact. And I guess, particularly since 2012, with the outbreak of conflict in Rakhine State and the serious displacement there, and then the subsequent conflicts arising in many major towns across Myanmar that particularly targeted Muslim communities – a wide range of Muslim communities – there was a real sense of urgency that the situation was deteriorating rapidly. And I think this really came to a head in the lead up to the 2015 elections, when it appeared that there were strategies, in particular, to try and undermine the National League for Democracy. And one way of doing that was to try and portray them as somehow pro-Muslim. And using that to try and deter people from voting for them. And so because Ko Ni was associated with the NLD, and he himself was Muslim, he was kind-of caught up in some of this controversy. Ko Ni himself was very vocal against some positions and decisions which the NLD took, which he disagreed with. So, this was things like the fact that the NLD did not field any Muslim candidates in the 2015 elections. He was very adamant that that was not an appropriate way to go about things, and that the NLD shouldn’t have caved in, on that issue, under the pressure that had been put on them. So I think, in joining this Myanmar Muslim layers association, this was a last resort for him. But something that he felt was necessary to ensure that they had a voice in many of the kind of legal issues that were coming up, that would have direct impact on his community. And this was particularly acute in relation to what was referred to as the Race and Religion Wars, in 2015. (15:00)This was a package of four laws that was generally known as the Race and Religion Laws, but it was very much championed by Nationalist, radical Buddhist groups who were very overt in their claims that these laws would be targeting the Muslim community in ways that would sort-of contain and control their influence in the country. And so again, Ko Ni was someone who spoke out against the need for these race and religion laws, and very much called them out for the kind of nonsense that they were. And so, in this way, he played a particularly prominent role in many of these debates. On the second part of your question – in terms of his contribution to kind-of law and development initiatives and organisations in Myanmar – I will say that Ko Ni was very much a valued partner for many organisations, including religious organisations, but also the broader international NGO community. He was very much sought-after and was the person to go to, to ask for legal advice on a range of different issues. He was not only someone who was an educator, giving public lectures and speeches to parliament, writing opinion pieces on various legal reforms, as well as providing advice to different non-government organisations about various advocacy campaigns that they were involved with. So his death is very much a loss for the country, and very much a loss for many of these NGOs who did rely on his advice and kind-of the state of gravitas that his presence and influence was able to bring to bear on these issues.

GB: Thanks Melissa. Well the death of Ko Ni was a huge tragedy. Myanmar lost a great protagonist of its contemporary history. So the question now is, what are the future prospects of Muslims in Myanmar – and of course the civil society organisations – to prevent conflict, promote harmony and appreciation of diversity? And what role do scholars have to play in this process?

MC: That’s a big question. And it’s something that a lot of people and actors are working on in this area. We certainly have seen more recently the emergence of some new organisations. Often ones that, in a sense, slide below the radar. That is, they try to keep a very low profile, they don’t engage with the media or have a public profile, but at the same time they are doing research. They are particularly doing the monitoring of potential religious conflicts or social conflicts that may occur, as well as monitoring issues such as hate speech – which has become quite a significant and serious issue in Myanmar. But I think it’s quite telling that they are quite low profile in their presence at the moment. And there are some very practical reasons, and very practical concerns, that if they were to be more prominent that they may, perhaps, in some way be targeted. I think that it is important for scholars to play a role in this process and really, that was one of the reasons that I tried to bring together scholars for the edited book on Islam and the State in Myanmar. As I’ve mentioned, there have been policy papers and advocacy or human rights reports in the past on the situation, particularly in Northern Rakhine State, for the Rohingya as well as for other Muslim communities that have been displaced by those conflicts that took place in 2013 and 2014. Often these policy papers don’t have time for the kind of sustained research that can help provide a more informed analysis. So I think scholars are in a good position to bring a new lens to some of these issues, a fresh analysis, deeper thinking and in particular, comparative thinking and perspectives. Muslims in Myanmar are of course not the first or the only minority in majority Buddhist contexts to face these issues. We only have to look to places like Sri Lanka, or perhaps in Southern Thailand, to see that there are minorities in other majority Buddhist contexts that face quite serious issues. (20:00)But I do think we need to continue to work at pushing the stereotype that presumes that majority Buddhist societies don’t have a problem in the way they treat certain minorities, particularly Muslims. And obviously we see that issue quite prominently in Myanmar.

CS: Thank you, Melissa. This leads to our last question. You have been writing about emergency powers put in place in Rakhine State in Myanmar, in a recent article entitled The Expansion of Emergency Powers, Social Conflict and the Military in Indonesia. You stressed the importance of checking on the exercise of power during times of emergency. In such times humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, could tend to play a very important role. What is your perspective on this controversial issue in Indonesia and also in Myanmar?

MC: Yes, you’re certainly right that it’s precisely in times of emergency when we often need humanitarian organisations, including religious NGOs, the most. But it’s somewhat ironic that sometimes the state may block or obstruct the provision of these humanitarian services. I guess my concern with this issue crosses both Indonesia and Myanmar. In the contest of Myanmar, there has been a state of emergency declared in Rakhine State since 2012 and that sort-of continued to be extended on an ongoing basis. And it doesn’t look like it will be lifted any time soon. So that includes things like: a curfew, limitations on people’s freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and things like that. And of course humanitarian organisations in Northern Rakhine State have faced very difficult issues in getting access; at some points being kicked out because of various controversies, or perceptions of controversies. And so I think it’s going to remain a very serious issue in Northern Rakhine State for some time. I guess the broader theme, or pattern, that I feel is emerging is the way in which states across South East Asia have abused emergency powers and sought to extend them. So, I guess, the traditional understanding of emergency powers is that they’re supposed to be in very exceptional circumstances and that, because of that, there should be very strict time limitations: limitations to ensure that there will be a return to normal rule of law, a constitutional law situation. And I guess, the concern is that, in places like the Northern Rakhine State, it’s simply an ongoing emergency – but it’s one that is conveniently used to restrict people’s freedom of movement. But the people in those situations are very often the ones who have been the victims in these conflict situations. And in Indonesia there’s also the role of the military, trying to come back in to gain some ground again in situations of conflict and take on a role that perhaps it’s been quietly pushed out of, due to the democratisation process. I think in Indonesia there’s still a bit of a wait-and-see as to how the laws there will be used. But I think there is, overall, a broader concern that states, rather than facilitating access for humanitarian organisations and religious organisations are actually using emergency powers to obstruct them.

GB: Thank you very much, Dr Crouch, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project. This was a very inspiring conversation. Thank you.

MC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Crouch, Melissa, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Muslims, NGOs and the Future of Democratic Space in Myanmar”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 13 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 10 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslims-ngos-and-the-future-of-democratic-space-in-myanmar/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Morocco

A response to “Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Indonesia: An Interview with Robert Hefner”

By John Thibdeau

Read more

Muslim NGOs and civil society in Indonesia

Religion and NGOs

Produced by R. Michael Feener

While the service provision activities of some religious NGOs complement and enhance systems of low state capacity, in others they compete with state services and in still others service delivery by religious NGOs is associated with political parties and forms part of their electoral strategies. Across diverse engagements, then, religious NGOs depend on their ability to elude, enrol, and subvert the state institutions – while states themselves adjust to the impact of these new actors in turn. In this interview with Robert Hefner about his research on Muslim NGOs in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta, and what his findings can show us about Islam and civil society in contemporary Southeast Asia.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, apples, oranges, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Indonesia

Podcast with Robert Hefner (16 October 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Hefner_-_Muslim_NGOs_and_Civil_Society_in_Indonesia

 

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Giuseppe Bolotta

Catherine Scheer (CS): And Catherine Scheer

GB: And this is the first instalment in our series on Religions and NGOs. First of all, one or two words on this series. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among policy-makers in the academy into the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field the work of religious NGOs or faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutions of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect – and how these engagements result in changes in our understandings of the concepts of religion and development.

CS: While the service provision activities of some religious NGOs complement and enhance systems of low state capacity, others compete with state services, and still others are seen as deploying service delivery in ways that build up support for political parties in electoral strategies. Across diverse engagements, religious NGOs depend on their ability to elude, enrol and subvert state institutions, while states themselves adjust to the impact of these new actors in turn. In this interview with Robert Hefner about his ongoing research on Muslim NGOs in both Jakarta and Yogyakarta, we will talk with him about his findings and what they can show us about Islam and civil society in contemporary South East Asia. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series. Speaking with us today about religion and NGOs is Professor Robert Hefner. He is the Director of the Institute of Culture, Religion and World Affairs, and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Boston University. While Professor Hefner is an anthropologist long-involved in the study of Muslim South East Asia – more specifically Muslim politics, ethics and law – he is also an interdisciplinary scholar and comparativist who carried out research on Christianity, Hinduism and political secularism. He directed over a dozen research projects, and among his numerous publications figure Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratisation in India, published in 2000; Making Modern Muslims: The Politics of Islamic Education in Southeast Asia, published in 2009; and most recently, Shari’a Law and Modern Muslim Ethics, published last year. A leading scholar of Islam, civil movements and democratisation, with an extensive field experience in Indonesia, we are glad to have Professor Hefner with us today to talk more specifically about the place of development among Indonesian Muslim NGOS. Thank you for being here with us on the Religious Studies Project.

RH: Thank you.

CS: Giuseppe, do you want to start with our first question?

GB: With pleasure. In your introduction to Civil Islam, you explain how your research on Islam and democracy has been partly prompted by Indonesian colleagues and Muslim lecturers. And you relate how a member of a Muslim youth organisation, who had read one of your books, confronted you with the unexpected question of whether you thought Muslims can create a civil society. All of this contributed to your decision to enquire more thoroughly into these and related questions. How do you see our role as researchers in writing and communicating about such highly complex and sensitive issues, not only in the academic arena but also on the ground, with the people at the centre of our studies?

RH: Thank you. One of the fascinating things about Indonesia is that – well there’s two things actually – is that it has undergone some of the most extraordinary political and cultural changes anywhere in the Muslim world. Over the span of the last thirty-five years, the country has gone from being a very authoritarian developmentalist state to being – not a perfect – but a well-functioning electoral democracy, with a free press and a variety of other institutions that we associate with democracy. But the change has happened so rapidly, I think, that many people don’t quite understand the role that Muslims and Muslim NGOs played in it. Going back, briefly, to my encounter in the early 1990s – it was  actually 1991 – when I began my research in Jakarta. Prior to that time in fact, in the late 1970s and then again in 1985, I worked in East Java in an area which was majority Muslim, and where a very large . . .  the largest Muslim social welfare organisation in the world, called Nahdlatul Ulama [NU], had its base. It was a very, very strong but moderately conservative – not extremely conservative – moderately conservative Islamic social welfare organisation. And it was a region which, in 1965-66 at the dawn of the authoritarian regime that ruled Indonesia from 1966 to1998, and who had played the central role in the destruction, and in fact massacre – mass killings – of members of the Communist Party, many of whom were Muslim in background, but not particularly observant. So I had this experience from earlier when I went to Jakarta in 1991, and I had already published a book about – among other things – the political change that led up to the great changes of the ‘80s and the ‘90s. But I had written a good deal, too, about the role of NU in the killings. So when I went to this meeting, at the invitation of some Muslim youth members of the Nahdlatul Ulama, I went there with a little bit of reservation, knowing that other people in the Muslim community had criticised some of my comments on the events of ’65-66. And to my surprise, the first gentleman who asked me a question raised his hand, and he was almost trembling with intense purpose and at first I thought he was angry, but his question was: “Professor Hefner, on the basis of NU’s involvement in the killing of Communists in 1965-66, do you really think Muslims can possibly create a civil society?” And I was shocked – I was astonished. And there were, in the course of the next hour-and-a-half that I spoke with them, there were strong expressions of concern and self-critique of the role of Muslims about, what these NU youth said, was buttressing, really, the authoritarian regime of the New Order. So this was my first exposure, in what would become in the period from 1991 to1999, a long series of engagements with Muslim NGOs, both NU, Mohammadiyah and also some smaller independent organisations. And I learned from that that, actually, Jakarta – but also Indonesia generally – was the home of some of the most vibrant Muslim civil society organisations, anywhere in the Muslim world. In fact I would, today, in the retrospect of more than thirty years of working in Indonesia, say that Indonesia has the largest Muslim – as well as non-Muslim – but the largest Muslim NGO and Muslim civil society organisational structure and network of associations of anywhere in the Muslim world. A rather extraordinary story. In any case, I then – from 1991-99 – spent those years working with a series of NGOs including one called LP3ES, which was a kind of amalgam of Muslims from a relatively conservative – but still pro-democracy – social welfare organisation, and then Muslims who had earlier been associated with Indonesia’s social democratic party. So I watched the way in which they grappled with a whole slew of issues, including: the question of religious tolerance; the question of how one engages matters of religious freedom; and another issue, which was very hot already in the 1990s and has remained so until this day, which is the question of women’s equality. So it was the beginning – that first meeting in 1991 was the first . . . it was the beginning of a kind of re-education, on my part, of my understanding of this huge organisation that I had originally met in the countryside in East Java, in villages, meeting with relatively conservative, but very decent Muslims, that this organisation had somehow given birth to a remarkable social welfare movement and that a wing of it had become a pillar – arguably their most important pillar – in Indonesia’s pro-democracy movement. A movement which – in combination with a great variety of social organisations, including secular nationalists but also including Christians and Hindus – would in May of 1998 succeed in, if you will, pushing President Soeharto from power and initiating an inauguration to a new electoral democracy in Indonesia. One which, during its first three years in particular, saw outbreaks of ethno-religious violence, but which the country weathered. And though there are still problems like questions of religious tolerance, today it stands as the most successful – one of the most successful – democracies anywhere in the global south, and certainly, certainly, by far the most successful Muslim majority democracy. And those Muslim NGOs that I first sort-of encountered in the countryside, but most dramatically in the critical decade of the 1990s, are a major part of the story of how this Muslim majority country became democratic.

CS: Thank you, that is a fascinating story. That leads me to ask you, how have particular organisations that you have been following, in Yogyakarta, been shaped by the political legal context in which they are working and how have they contributed to shape it more specifically? And you have already introduced elements of this, but if you can explain some further?

RH: Yes. After 1999, Indonesia’s transition returned to electoral democracy and I decided that I would put my Jakarta research phase behind me and return to working, not in the countryside, in this instance, but working in a non-capital region. So I chose Yogyakarta in part because I had university affiliation there, but also because Yogyakarta had a reputation of being – even though it’s a relatively small city by Indonesian standards, it’s a half million – it’s a kind of intellectual centre. It’s also a cultural centre and I love Javanese culture, so for me – and now I had children – it seemed like a good place to position ourselves. But the other reason – and the more serious reason that I decided to sort-of shift back to a non-capital region, to Yogyakarta in particular, is that I had come to realise that one of the major challenges that the democracy movement – and all efforts of kind-of social reform in Indonesia were confronting – was the question of how to devise Islamic rationales for things like gender equality, things like democracy and things like religious pluralism. And as I sat, during the first years of this great transition back from 32 years of authoritarian rule, there were serious outbreaks of violence across Indonesia. Some 10,000 people died, primarily in violence between Christians and Muslims although the dynamic wasn’t by any means exclusively, and in some instances even primarily about religion. But the question of how to, if you will, disseminate this idea, this new institution. Muslim support for this new institution of democracy loomed much more centrally in the aftermath of the sudden and, for many people, unexpected return to democracy. So I began working in Jogya. I sort of stumbled onto a group of some people who told me about it, when I was still working in Jakarta in the ’90s. And it was a group of mid-twenties Muslim youths, graduates of the State Islamic University. Most of them had spent their youth in madrasas – the Indonesian equivalent of madrasas which are known as [ audio unclear] pesantren. So they came from a kind of archetypical Nahdlatul Ulama background and had not had a kind-of secular education or things like that. But after graduating the equivalent of their first degree – BA in Islamic Studies – they had established an NGO whose purpose was really to address this issue of working within the Islamic tradition – and in particular within the jurisprudential tradition which is known as fiqh in Islamic tradition. Working within that to, if you will, invite people – they couldn’t do it themselves, they had to make this a kind of national collaborative effort, to invite people – to rethink collectively, together, the grounds for justifying things like representative democracy, gender equality and – the thorniest of all, actually – is the question of religious tolerance. Because there are, within the fiqh tradition, major precedents for identifying non-Muslims in a way that makes modern notions of equal citizenship difficult. So here were these mid-twenties, young guys – mid-twenties to early thirties – and I began working with them. And it was another one of these transformative moments for me. Because I followed them out to the countryside, out to the Indonesian madrasas, the pesantaren where they gave courses. But they weren’t in a position, because they were young – even though they were quite smart and they knew the jurisprudential tradition – but they couldn’t just sort of arrive and say, “Well, here’s what we need to do.” They had to work in a very collaborative way, in a way that was respectful of established religious scholars and, if you will, opened a dialogue that really would then continue over many years. And again, this was happening . . . they were part of a network. They were a key node, because they were also a publishing house. The group I’m referring to is called Al KIS, which is the Institute for the Study of Islam in Society, if you translate it. And they were a publishing house as well, so they were one very critical node in what was from the mid 1990s even before the return to democracy, to today. A node, a network of Muslim activists who were kind-of, who were trying to work from within the tradition and work with scholars – some were quite conservative – to bring about a kind of cultural shift. And this has proved to be a much more serious challenge than many people might have hoped. It didn’t surprise me. There were counter-currents. There are, particularly since 2005, there’s been a kind-of an upsurge in some conservative currents in Indonesia – some very conservative. But these efforts continue and once again they were part of, they are part of the Indonesian story. And part of the reason that you meet in Indonesia today – however much certain issues are still under debate – questions of, for example, democracy, the importance of the rule of law, the separation of powers. These ideas are now very much received by the Muslim mainstream in these countries. So again, I witnessed their efforts, I participated in some of their meetings with religious scholars and above all, I learned a lot about the importance of this new breed, this new species of Islamic NGO that had, at this critical moment in the democratic transition, jumped forward to, if you will, work on what it referred to sometimes, to do the “normative” work for justifying what is a significant kind of readjustment in Islamic legal and political thought.

GB: Thank you so much Professor Hefner. Your work on Indonesia is really, really meaningful. Even from a comparative perspective. Your work in Indonesia over the years has highlighted the dynamic nature of discourses on democratisation, pluralism and religious freedom. What would you highlight as the major points that your long-term experience in Indonesia could contribute to a broader conversation on the role of religion in civil society in a global context?

RH: There’s so much there, one doesn’t know quite where to begin. But the first thing I would say is something that I say when I am invited by Muslim colleagues and friends to go – particularly when I’m not speaking with Muslim academics or Indonesian academics . . . . But I’m invited to go out into the countryside and meet with people whose lives have changed so dramatically, both because of the political changes, but also because there’s been an educational revolution in Indonesia. Everywhere in the countryside you find children who’ve graduated from high school. When I first began my work in Indonesia, the average Indonesian had about a fourth grade education. Today it’s just short of a high school education. So there’s all sorts of changes that have taken place. But, when I go to the kind-of ordinary Indonesian settings, one of the points that I try to make is something that I’ve learned from my Muslim friends and which I also convey when I travel through . . . for example, I’ve been invited to give lectures in places like Turkey or Egypt or India, where there’s not great interest in Indonesia but a little. And one of the messages that I make in those countries, but also more significantly within Indonesia, has always been that, you know, democracy is not a . . . . It may have achieved an earlier development in Western, parts of the Western world, but it’s very much an instrument, a tool, a social tool for dealing with difference, negotiating difference, of all of humanity. It’s therefore a kind of generalised . . . it isn’t a kind of made-in-the-West institution. Indeed, even in the West, democracy takes different forms because it has to accommodate itself to different social, political, legal and ethical environments. We shouldn’t be surprised – in fact we should very much expect – that that would be the case in the Muslim world as well, within certain limits. You can’t – there has to be family resemblance – there has to be some kind of institutional and ethical core. And I think there is. But the idea that some conservative Islamists, who reject democracy and pluralism and things like that, the idea that they promote is that, “No, no. Democracy is a Western value and Western institution.” And my point – and it’s a point that isn’t my idea, it’s the idea that I’ve learned from speaking with my friends in NU and Muhommadiyah and other major Muslim social organisations in Indonesia – is that, no, democracy – particularly in it’s modern form – is an invention of humankind, to deal with certain kinds of challenges of living together in the world that we inhabit. So democratisation is not Westernisation. It is something that builds on, and must build on and have roots in, the ethical, legal and cultural traditions of each society in which it takes root. So that’s my first point, and I don’t think that’s particularly original or insightful . . . .

CS: But important.

RH: It’s one that I learned above all, from that, beginning with that meeting in ‘91, when that young earnest, decent man reflecting on the trauma of the Nahdlatul Ulama‘s involvement, and feeling ashamed – those were the words he used – for what had happened. And that was the beginning of my re-education into the culture, politics and ethics of Muslim Indonesia. And I think that basic lesson is very much generalisable to other parts of the world.

GB: We could speak with Professor Hefner for hours but our time is over. So thank you very much for joining us, Professor, at the Religious Studies Project.

RH: Thank you very much, It’s been an honour and a pleasure. Thank you.

CS: Thank you.

Citation Info: Hefner, Robert, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Muslim NGOs and Civil Society in Indonesia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslim-ngos-and-civil-society-in-indonesia/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

Islamic Millennialism

We may tend to think of millennialism as something typical of New Religious Movements and christian fundamentalism, but it has a long and interesting history in the Islamic world too. Rob Gleave, Professor of Arabic Studies at Exeter, takes us through the history of Islamic millennialism, and explains how it has been tied up with political events in the past, as well as the present. He raises interesting points about how the unusual form of Twelver Shi’ite millennialism developed from Islamic theological discourse.

This podcast was generously supported by cenSAMM, the centre for the study of Apocalyptic and Millennial Movements. This podcast is also sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, smudging sticks, Marmite, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Islamic Millennialism

Podcast with Rob Gleave (18 September 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Gleave – Islamic Millennialism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Bedford at the CenSAMM Conference on Millennialism and Violence and I’m joined by Rob Gleave, who is the Director  for the Study of Islam at Exeter University.

Rob Gleave (RG): Yes.

DR: First of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

RG: Thanks very much.

DR: Today we’re going to talk about millennialism and violence in Islam, in the Islamic world. Maybe a good place to start is to tell us a little bit about the whole idea of millennialism and messianism in Islam. Is this something that comes from the Qur’an, or what’s the. . . ?

RG: Yes, there are clear indications in the Qur’an about an end time. There’s a shortage on detail as to what’s going to happen and a time as to when things are going to happen, but there’s a discussion – an extensive discussion – of something called the the Hour. And this Hour – the Hour that will come – is the time when the world will be brought to a an end and a judgement will happen and a resurrection of people who have died will occur: people from the graves. And there’s some indication in the Qur’an itself about some of the violent , catastrophic events that will happen, in terms of the sky and mountains being torn asunder and those sort of things. But there’s not a great detail and there’s not a description of a series of events that will eventually lead up to this event. So there’s a strong notion in the Qur’an that the world will come to an end, but, like many things in the Qur’an, it’s indicative. Or rather, it indicates something but it doesn’t always spell it out in detail. And that was left to Muslim theologians to try and discover what it was that the scriptures were referring to.

DR: OK.

RG: And for that they used some sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – and there were sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Of course, there’s huge debates about the authenticity of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. But, nonetheless, there was a sort of residue of statements by the Prophet Muhammad which described various things that were going to happen at the end of the world. And from these sources a number of different versions, if you like, of the end times were developed in Muslim theology. And the crucial point is that whilst belief in the eventual day of judgement is an essential element of Islamic belief, precisely what will happen at the those end times – the details, the sequence of events, if you like – this is not an essential element of Muslim belief. It’s not something which determines whether someone is a believer or not a believer. So, it was left open for the Muslim theologians to interpret this material in ways which was highly imaginative. There are some stock elements that always reoccur. The first one was with the return of Jesus. So this was an important element. The return of Jesus was seen as a crucial element of the end times.

DR: Which might come as quite a surprise to some of our listeners, I think.

RG: Well, yes. Jesus, of course, is highly regarded in Muslim theology as one of the Prophets sent by God. But the Qur’an itself indicates that Jesus will return, or that the return of Jesus is one of the signs of the end times. And it’s linked . . .  often it’s linked, by theologians, to the Qur’anic ambiguity about whether or not Jesus died on the cross. The Qur’anic phrase seems to indicate that he appeared to die, but didn’t die, and therefore it left the way open for a return of Jesus at the end times. And it’s very likely, historically, that this was incorporated into the Muslim theological framework from Christian roots about the return of Jesus. But it was a crucial element of the end time narrative for Muslims, the belief that Jesus will come. Another crucial element was also the return of another figure, known as the Mahdi. And the Sunni and Shi’i branches of Islam have slightly different notions of what this Mahdi will do and what his role is, theologically as well as physically, in the end times. (5:00) So they have slightly different notions of that. But these two elements are always conjoined: that the Mahdi and the return of Jesus together will bring about the ushering in, if you like, of the end of the world.

DR: And a lot of the imagery, as you say, is very reminiscent of the Christian story and the imagery of . . . well, imagery which carries on into some of the new religious kind of millenialisms we’ve been talking about this week.

RG: I think apocalyptic imagery is something which . . . well, it’s a discourse which is shared across the Jewish, Christian and Muslim milieux, and used across these different religious traditions, and re-used again and again.  You find it reinvented in new religious movements within Islam as well, which emphasised the coming of the end times. So, it’s a stock of imagery which is not exclusive to an individual tradition. And quite often, the ability for apocalyptic imagery to cross-fertilise between religious traditions . . .  there’s sometimes more potential for that than in other areas of theology, or in ethics or in law. In apocalyptics, somehow a shared stock of images about the Beast, the Antichrist, the notion of the return of Jesus: all of these things together can be shared across traditions.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: And you also find, with a lot of apocalyptic movements, that they’re quite willing to borrow from different traditions and they don’t feel any reticence about the sources of their religious imagery. Muslim religious movements, they will take something which we find in the Jewish or Christian traditions which have made their way into Islam, in one way or another through the history of Islam. And they’re not worried about the sources of these things when they’re constructing their end of time narrative.

DR: Of course not.

RG: So it makes for an enormously creative image of the end of the world, when apocalyptic writers are able to draw on a great wealth of writings and sources in their creative imagination about what the end of the world will look like.

DR: The theology – and ideas about the Mahdi in particular – is quite important in the history of the schism between the Sunni and Shi’i traditions, am I right?

RG: Absolutely. For the Sunni traditions, the Mahdi is a figure sent by God who will lead a battle and bring about the preparations, if you like, for the day of judgement. In the Shiite tradition, the Mahdi is the return of someone – or the reappearance of someone – who disappeared in the ninth century and who will return and re-establish their rightful, legitimate, political rule at some time in the future. So,  the Sunni and Shiite traditions didn’t divide over the question of the end times: at the beginning, it was a question of who should lead the community and what the role of that leader should be. The way in which the Shiite tradition developed was that following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, in 632, there was a series of leaders coming from amongst his family, his descendents, who were seen as blessed with special religious knowledge. And for one particular branch of that Shiite tradition there were twelve such leaders, and the last of these has gone into hiding. And this is the promised Mahdi, the promised messianic figure that will reappear at some point in the end of time – no one knows when. But Twelver Shiites, as they’re called – because they believe in twelve leaders after the Prophet Muhammad – Twelver Shiites have a very strong notion of the patience that’s required in expectation of the return of the Mahdi, and the internal striving to be a perfect servant. So the internal striving to be a perfect servant becomes a crucial element of Shiite identity, in the expectation of the return of the Mahdi at some point in time in the future. (10:00) And, when the Mahdi returns, it’s not simply that this person will be a military leader and bring about the end of days. This is the return of the person who should have been the leader of the Muslim community for all of these centuries. It’s the reappearance, if you like, of the Mahdi who is present in the community but unknown, suddenly making himself known again. So this is quite a different dynamic for Shiites about the end times, compared to Sunnis. And since the Mahdi is someone who’s seen as having perfect knowledge of divine matters, including the law, this means that he’s looked to, by Shiites , as a guide for daily living. And the Mahdi doesn’t fulfil such a role in Sunni theology.

DR: It’s a really fascinating, and – I think – kind-of unique situation: this idea of the Mahdi being this occulted figure who has gone into hiding but is still in the world, but hidden.  And they’re waiting on his . . . it’s not like a physical reincarnation or anything like that, it’s a re-emergence of this hidden figure. It’s really interesting.

RG: It was a belief which emerged in early Islam, through a series of descendents of the Prophet Muhammad who went into hiding in order to protect themselves, and the community, from oppression from a majority Sunni community. And the theme of a hidden Imam who will make themselves known again when the conditions are right became incorporated into Twelver Shiite doctrine and became an official element of Twelver Shiite belief. And so that’s something which is unusual, since most apocalyptic movements which have a messianic element think of the Messiah as returning to earth from somewhere else. Whereas, for the Shiites, the presence of the hidden Imam – the Mahdi – in the community means that at certain points they can find out what his opinion is.

DR: Yes.

RG: Which is the crucial element for Shiites: how do you know what the Imam’s opinion might be on this or that? So, for example, if all the community agree on something – on a particular doctrine – then Shiites have imagined that, well, one of the people who agree must be the hidden Imam.

DR: Yes.

RG: So the agreement suddenly becomes authoritative because the Imam’s opinion must be amongst the people who are agreeing. We don’t know which opinion it is, we don’t know the identity of the individual. But, because everyone’s agreed, the Imam must be within that agreement. And the result is that certain new doctrines might be validated by a community agreement. The theoretical possibility, if you like, of communication from the hidden Imam through community agreement, becomes possible.

DR: And I can see that being a very powerful narrative. Because in other traditions, where you want to have the prophetic figure – who is no longer with you – refer to present events, you either have to create a new revelation through a new prophet, or you discover or reveal some previously unknown writings – in the way that has happened in Buddhism quite a lot, for instance. But this . . . you can actually, quite legitimately have this figure referring to events of the day quite contemporaneously. Because he’s still around, we just don’t know where.

RG: He’s present, yes. And that creates a notion of immanence within the community which has become very important for Shiite devotional practice, in the sense that the Twelver Shiites will often pray to hasten the appearance of the Mahdi as part of their personal devotional prayers. They believe that through devotional acts one is contributing to the situation where the Imam ,who is present, can make themselves known. And it creates an internal – what you might call – piety within the religious tradition, which is a dynamic you can’t find in Sunni Islam. Because of the imagined presence of the Imam in the community, it means that there’s a emphasis on the importance, if you like, of ensuring community cohesion.(15:00)

DR: And does that spill out, then, into how millenarian ideas and prophetic ideas affect the community, then? Would we see a difference between the way that Shiites and Sunnis relate to how messianism plays into their actions in the political sphere?

RG: Well certainly within Shi’ism, the fact that the Imam is present and needs to be revealed has enabled certain claimants at different point in time to be “the man”. When, without them claiming this from the very beginning . . . . Because the revealing notion – of them being present but then revealing that they’re the Mahdi – is, in a sense, an extension of the basic theological doctrine.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: So you often find that, within the Shiite tradition, when an individual has claimed to be the Mahdi they haven’t needed to claim it straight away. Because their presence in the community, without being the Mahdi, isn’t a source of scandal – if you see what I mean – to their claim.

DR: Yes.

RG: Because the Imam decides when the time is right to appear. And the claimant can reliably or legitimately claim, “Well, it wasn’t the right time for me to make to make my personality known.” And it means that within the Twelver Shiite tradition, claiming the appearance of the Mahdi – or claiming to be the Mahdi through appearance – has a very strong potential. It’s like a trigger which is always loaded and ready to be fired at any point in time when the conditions are right, or the individual personality believes themselves to be fulfilling that particular role. And so there have been claims of people being the messianic figure throughout history of Islam, not just in Shi’i Islam. But when the claim happens in Shi’i Islam the individual is claiming more than just being a military leader. They’re claiming a special sort of knowledge which is, I suppose, akin to a form of prophecy. Although the Muslim theological doctrine means that prophecy ends with the Prophet Muhammad, even for Shiites. It’s another form of divine knowledge communicated to an individual. But the potentiality within Shi’ism for a claimant to put themselves forward is always there, because of the notion of an Imam present within the community who is just waiting to be revealed.

DR: You don’t have to posit a new prophet or messiah or anything like that. The potential is already there as part of the actual theological position.

RG: And, of course, there is a huge taboo in Islam around positing yourself as a new prophet.

DR: Yes, exactly. Yes.

RG: Because it contravenes one of the basic doctrines of Islam which is that Muhammad is the seal of the Prophets and that there is no prophet after Muhammad. And so Sunni groups, or groups which have emerged out of Sunnism such as the Ahmadi movement, for example, have been treated with such strong criticism by the rest of the Sunni Muslim community because they have contravened this notion of the end of prophecy with the Prophet Muhammad. They’ve claimed to have a leader who is a new prophet. In the view of Sunni Islam, you know, the Ahmadi community has claimed that its founder is a new prophet. In Shi’i Islam the messianic figure is the hidden Imam, rather than a new prophet. Which, in a sense is slightly less of a taboo element within the theological framework.

DR: Really interesting. To move to the Sunni world, then, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t ask you about Isis. And there seems to be some debate about the degree to which they should be seen as a millennial, even apocalyptic, kind of movement. I, myself, would like to hear something from you. Your take on this is the apocalyptic millennial aspects of it being overplayed by the West, because of fears and ignorance. (20:00) Or is this something that is theologically driving . . . ?

RG: Well, my own view is that there has been a certain hyping up of the apocalyptic element, because it makes good journalism!

DR: (Laughs) Yes!

RG: Apocalypticism is always a sensationalist story for journalists in the contemporary period, because it’s seen as so “out there” and weird and bizarre. And, in a sense, accusations of being over-apocalyptic or . . . . The attraction, if you like, of the story of an apocalyptic movement, is a reflection of much of the state of – I’ll say – “British” society, and the nature of secularism and so-called rationality, and these [movements] are seen as hyper -irrational and consequently extremely interesting. And that’s certainly been, I think, an element in the attraction of journalists, and commentators as well, to the apocalyptic element of the Islamic State message. Having said that, there are strong elements within the Islamic State propaganda machine which indicate that they are quite willing to use apocalyptic imagery to describe and recruit for their military campaign. So, the most famous one being the small Syrian village of Dabiq, which is mentioned in a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad – a saying of the Prophet Muhammad – that this will be a place where the end times battle will take place. So it became very important that Islamic State captured this village and that they used it in their propaganda in particular their English language propaganda magazine, which they titled the Dabiq. And so they are quite happy to try and use that rhetoric within their propaganda. The big question is, how much of their activities are driven by apocalyptic beliefs? And, in that, I’m slightly less convinced of the primacy of apocalypticism within their military strategy and the ways in which they organise their state. Because most of the ways in which they argue for this policy or that policy, or this action or that action, you can trace back to traditional ways of thinking about the assessment of actions within the Islamic legal tradition. They argue using legal reasoning which you find in the traditional sources. And they themselves are always trying to demonstrate that their opinion is not an unusual opinion, compared to the traditional sources. So apocalypticism doesn’t really figure, I don’t think, in the internal organisation of Islamic State and the justification for some of their actions. It’s extremely important in the way in which they project themselves to the outside world. And this notion that they can recruit through this rhetoric – the fear of missing out on the success and ultimate end times, which Islamic State play a role in – is an incredibly powerful tool for them to attract new recruits.

DR: Absolutely. So that interest that comes from the media, they’re doing exactly the same thing and using it to attract attention to what they’re talking about. And, as you say as well, this is such a powerful set of imagery and deep-set, long-running narrative in human culture that it always seems to be there as a little reservoir that you can tap into.

RG: And don’t underestimate Islamic State’s awareness of this.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: They know. . . . They have quite a sophisticated media machine, which produces quite sophisticated propaganda materials. And they know that apocalyptic fears are an element within Western society, and Muslims living outside of Muslim majority contexts are the prime targets for that propaganda and recruitment. And the result is that they know how to use that in order to gain recruits. (25:00) And so it’s an element, it’s certainly an element of their rhetoric and their propaganda. How instrumental it is – how much they instrumentally use it in order to do this and how much it’s embedded within the movement – is a matter of some debate. Part of the problem is the actual internal workings of Islamic State are quite secretive, by necessity, or inevitably you might say. So precisely what the apocalyptic beliefs of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Bhagdadi, might be, outside of the propaganda element, is actually quite difficult to identify. But it’s certainly a form of religiosity that they are very happy to project outside of the territory that they control.

DR: That’s an excellent comparative point to end on, I think. It’s very important that we don’t simply ascribe naive beliefs to any of these millennial apocalyptic discourses, be they in Islam, Christianity, new religions or popular culture. There are multiple levels of discourse going on all the time and they’re being used sometimes for their media impact, or their interest, as much as they are themselves driving actions.

RG: Yes, we make a mistake if we think that an organisation like Islamic State is a simple organisation with a single message that it’s always churning out. It’s actually quite a complicated, multi-tiered, multi-faceted organisation which knows – and which through experience has learnt – what works and what doesn’t work in different contexts. And, like all organisations, it promotes itself in appropriate ways to appropriate audiences.

DR: And, that people are driven naively by beliefs and ideologies: in fact it’s much more complicated and they are mutually creating . . .

RG: No, certainly. And we make a mistake if we think that all we need to do is really try and show these people what the truth is, and how mistaken they are, through forceful argumentation – that we’re going to convince them in some way. No: people believe things and belief, as we know, is a really complex set of factors which lead to an individual settling upon a particular doctrine which they believe is right for them. And belief in the providential nature of Islamic State is one such belief. It’s not simple. It’s actually extremely complicated and complex as a process. Just as complicated as any process of religious commitment.

DR: Rob Gleave thank you so much for taking part in our sophisticated media and propaganda machine at the Religious Studies Project.

RG: (Laughs) That’s alright.

DR: I’m afraid it’s time for us to look to the future, and the next panel, here at the conference. So thanks very much for taking part.

RG: Thanks very much for inviting me.

DR: You’re quite welcome.

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Paths to Sexual Ethics

Sexual ethics remains a dominant topic in mainstream discussions of Islam. Like violence, sexuality—specifically the role and position of women—has taken center stage both within the academy and within broader societal discourses in the “West”. As with other discursively-dominant topics, for instance the “headscarf debates” that continue to make waves across Europe, sexuality and gender are cultural sites of both ongoing discomfort and discord. The burkini affair in France was only the latest example of struggles over sexual identity, modesty, ethics and allegiances in Europe. Discussions about sexual ethics are evidently deeply linked to broader spheres of ideas and action in contestation over the role of religion in “secular” states—from freedom to security, identity to rights.

While questions surrounding sexual ethics in Islam permeate the mainstream, scholarship on the topic remains largely lacking. Kecia Ali has pioneered in this respect, reaching deeply into the legal tradition in order to trace sexual ethics (such as in her book Sexual Ethics in Islam). She asserts at the onset of her interview that it is simply impossible not to have this discussion today. The challenge lies in unearthing and employing productive ways of having this discussion. The more specific challenge perhaps lies in moving beyond dominant discourses that tend to determine the direction of the conversation: such as the assumed “intolerance” of Muslims towards sexuality and patriarchal oppression of women.

How does one develop a more nuanced account of sexual ethics that accounts for both the past and adapts to the present? There is a strand of Islamic thought often deemed progressive, but that is in fact traditionalist. This includes the work of Professor Kecia Ali, as well as Professor Khaled Abu El Fadl, who authored (among other texts) The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, arguing that Islam has become distorted from its early tendencies towards increased freedom and inclusion. However, method matters as much as source in our attempts to understand sexual ethics in Islam, as well as other key topics in the study of religion. Meta-methodology further links these two scholars, who similarly argue that the way to present knowledge is to take seriously, while historically contextualizing, the past. To do this, both draw from early legal sources to trace patterns and developments of thought in Islam.
Kecia Ali illuminates the inconsistencies in assumptions about Islam utilized to justify devaluation by “the West” for centuries. Prior to the 20th century and the colonial apparatus that helped to spur disfiguring puritan notions of Islam (e.g. Wahhabism and certain other Salafi movements), Muslims were criticized for being too sexually open. From “the wanton”, as Kecia Ali names it, to the “oppressor/oppressed”, discourse has been consistently used to delegate Muslims to a lower position in the moral hierarchy vis a vis Europe. Sexuality, across religions and cultures, remains one of the most potent ways to both insult morality and forge a moral hierarchy. And yet, paradoxically, it is also a persuasive means to contest this insult and resist this hierarchy.

There is danger in essentialist categories. There is danger in categories, such as “the West” versus “Islam”, in the idea of a single Muslim perspective, when perspectives remain always multiple, and often moving. There is danger in naming Islam a sexually repressive or oppressive religion, just as there is it assuming it to be emancipatory. Human nature veers towards categorization, sense making about self through the perception of the other (we must only look at Freud on toddlerhood to see how early this begins). We cannot eliminate, but must move beyond categories, engaging the multiple, at times contradictory and often dynamic classifications that make up lives lived.

Kecia Ali argues in her interview that sources (such as the Qur’an, the hadith literature/Sunnah—i.e. sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and legal rulings) provide the most compelling way to complicate the discourse on sexual ethics, and move closer to answers rather than fixate on categories. She draws out an anti-puritanist discourse deeply rooted in early Islam, with important implications for the lives of Muslims today. One particularly evocative discussion between Kecia Ali and interviewer, Christopher Cotter, revolves around the age of Ayse, the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest and arguably favored wife after the death of Khadija (his first wife). The age of Ayse only becomes a site of inquiry in the late 19th/early 20th century, causing discomfort both inside and outside of the Muslim community (as it is cited in hadith literature that she married at 7, with the marriage consummated at 9). Polemical accusations from outside, such as by Reverend Jerry Fine, nominalize Muhammad a demon-possessed pedophile, drawing together long-standing and novel accusations to undermine the authenticity of his prophecy. Apologetics respond by noting that it was another time, with other norms, or citing the unreliability of the texts. Yet what these accounts miss is the rich knowledge about Ayse—a scholar, a source of political conflict, who comes under question in the hadith literature as possibly betraying Muhammad. Ali thus suggests that her age may have been employed as a means to signal her sexual purity, rather than a literal number, a conclusion that can only be reached with deep theological and historical knowledge.

Even those who bring forth this knowledge, such as Kecia Ali, may be deemed suspect by broader religious communities, when it comes to asserting claims about sexual ethics. This is—no pun intended—a touchy subject. Kecia Ali laughs as she recounts a student being told not to read her book on sexual ethics because it is “dangerous.” The highest of compliments, she notes, lies in this statement, as she has thus succeeded at complicating falsely simplified answers to difficult questions: “Answers are great…I don’t think we will get answers until we are asking the right questions”, she explains. The idea of the single encompassing answer is but another false category. Regarding sexual ethics in Islam, as well as many other pressing sociocultural questions, we tend to ask “which is the right way”, Ali notes. Perhaps we should instead be asking: what many ways have there been, how can we authenticate them and where can they lead us in the present?

A takeaway from the interview with Ali for the broader study of religion brings us back to paths, rather than categorical answers, the tracing of lives lived and stories told—perhaps nowhere more colorfully than intricately woven hadith and Islamic legal proceedings—that link believers and non-believers alike to tradition. Paths need not be linear nor our place on them stagnant, rather we can draw from the past and draw it into the present moment, revisiting and revising as we ask new questions in enduring, and uniting, struggles over ethics in sexuality and beyond.

Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

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A transcription of this interview is available as a PDF, and has also been pasted below.


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 28 March 2017

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Science, Religion, and the Tyranny of Authenticity

There has been a general paucity of quality scholarship on “Islam and science/evolution,” making Hameed’s work a welcome addition. That said, his work suffers from some of same problems as other work in the study of “science and religion.” To explain what I mean, some background on the field is in order.

It’s been a quarter of a century since the label “complexity thesis” was first given life by Ronald Numbers in a review of John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion: A Historical Perspective (1991), yet the rush to go “prospecting” for complexity, to use Numbers’ turn of phrase, continues full steam ahead.   Put briefly, the complexity thesis suggests that multiple relationships exist between science and religion. Instead of asking “What is the relationship between science and religion?” a complexity theorist asks “What are the relationships between sciences and religions?” The underlying desire to make such differentiations and the practical implications of such work are, however, much older than that.

Discourses surrounding “science and religion” first became popular in the late nineteenth century, primarily through the work of the so-called conflict theorists. The two men claimed by history as the exemplars of this group are John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, with some historians referring to the notion of conflict as the Draper-White thesis. Draper and White, however, never suggested that science and religion were entirely irreconcilable. Instead, they argued that science was incompatible with something more specific: dogma, theology, or Catholicism. For both of them, “true religion” was constructed as perfectly benign, which usually meant it was nothing more than a vague sense of ethics. Even so, many, if not most, current complexity theorists are eager to redeem one or both of these figures as being misunderstood advocates of complexity. This is part of the larger project of nullifying or moderating discourses of conflict that exists as a central aspect of the field as currently conceived.

Given this tendency, it might be said that it is common for those working on “science and religion” to regularly cross the boundary that Russell McCutcheon has outlined between critic and caretaker, or to be caught up in what Aaron Hughes has called the tyranny of authenticity. Even if it is not the primary or secondary goal of scholarship to produce a discourse that legitimates and delegitimates certain beliefs, institutions, etc., when this happens, and insofar as it happens, scholarship is not being done. It is worth noting that this is not always, and perhaps not even often, in defence of religion, as Draper and White both make professions their claims about a legitimate religious domain for the sake of particular scientific agendas, not for the benefit of religion. White, for example, as the first president of Cornell University, considered perceived religious interference into the work of his faculty as a frustrating roadblock to overcome. For him, the legitimizing of one space for religion was first and foremost about the delegitimizing of another space. Increasingly, these discourses seem to be geared towards supporting a sort of status quo intended to preserve the hegemonic status of secularism within scientific research without fully delegitimizing religion.

Hameed professes to be “less interested” in establishing a normative relationship between Islam and evolution, which needless to say is not the same thing as being uninterested and is not the same thing not making normative claims. Now, I appreciate that Hameed wears different hats, one of which openly and explicitly promotes a normative ideological vision based on Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). His work demonstrates no neat division between critic and caretaker, however, which is perhaps unsurprising, if other scholars of religion who attempt the same are any indication. Despite his claims to its practical efficacy, NOMA is more aspirational than descriptive, as the neat separation of an apolitical religious space distinct from a scientific space breaks down in practice, not just in theory as he suggests. The same “messiness” he speaks of to explain the varied reactions/responses to evolution within Islamic communities is also part of the reason why neat separation is not possible here: people do not compartmentalize so neatly. As Craig Martin has pointed out in Masking Hegemony, “there could never be a ‘separation of church and state’ in a liberal democracy unless the state forbade churches to produce and distribute ideology, to produce conditions of persuasion, to socialize subjects into regimes of normalization and privilege, and so on. As long as there is ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of religion,’ churches will be legally permitted to do these things” (2010: 164).

This does not mean that all religious scientists will behave like the Catholic biochemist Michael Behe, who gained notoriety for his work on “irreducible complexity.” Matthew Stanley’s recent work, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon, offers a compelling account of work being done in science prior to the rise of scientific naturalism, where he suggests that the work of theistic scientists and early scientific naturalists was often indistinguishable. They amicably coexisted in many ways, giving positive reviews of one another’s work and building on one another’s research. Further, all scientists throughout history have carried some sort of baggage, religious or otherwise.

Fitting neatly within a complexity thesis tradition, Hameed employs what might be called normativizing nuance. By this I mean that by demonstrating the complexity/messiness of things “on the ground,” one version of a tradition can be delegitimized and/or another version of the tradition can be legitimized. In this sense, “Islam and science/evolution” has a great deal of resemblance to work on “Islam and violence.” That said, one does not need to even go as far as suggesting that ISIS or evolution deniers are bad or false Muslims and that peaceful, science-affirming Muslims are the legitimate ones, because the very act of prospecting for this complexity already functions to place “true Islam” at arms length from these concerns, making it entirely rise above what now becomes a non-Islamic issue. True religion, or I n this case true Islam, becomes something far vaguer, more personal, and less political. It may even be reasonable to call this a sort of secular apologetics, in that it produces a vision of an Islamic core that is completely amenable to a specific set of “secular” political interests.

Part of this can also be seen in the way Hameed points out that Islam has, “no Pope-like authority.” This strikes me as a sort of misleading Islamic exceptionalism. This is not only because it might be argued that many/most traditions that have been identified as “religion” have no Pope-like authority, or that certain “Islamic” traditions do have authorities that bear some similarities, if not exact correspondence, to the Catholic Pope. Instead, it seems that all traditions claiming large swaths of humanity within their membership will have considerable diversity of opinion among those members, regardless of whether or not there are institutional authorities seeking to enforce uniformity.

Further suggestive of this is Hameed’s apparent disinclination to extend this type of “messiness” to science. In discussing a science textbook, he claims that after providing a Qur’anic quote, the book could simply offer “science as is.” I am not certain what it would mean for someone to declare themselves to be teaching “religion as is,” yet the label makes little more sense when applied to science. Science is not the sort of thing one might find in a second-hand shop where “as is” labels might abound. Instead, it is a human activity with politically motivated boundaries that speak more to the interests of those who do, fund, and control science than it does about the inherent uniqueness of scientific endeavour. Whether or not he intended to do this or not, I cannot be fully certain, but the way that Hameed establishes a contrast between the messiness of religion/identity on the one hand and the matter of fact nature of science on the other is certainly troubling.

Religion, Science and Evolutionary Theory

science-religionScience and evolution in Muslim societies is a complicated topic. Among the public, what does evolution mean? Whats does evolution stand for? Is there a ‘Muslim view’ on evolution? In this podcast, Stephen Jones interviews Salman Hameed about recent research on Muslim perceptions of science and evolution.

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Radical experiences that can change worlds

Radicalisation, Fundamentalism and Terrorism are emotive topics in the 21st Century. All three terms are frequently the subject of distorted, and often highly prejudicial, usage in public discourse. It is precisely because of their contemporary relevance, a relevance that can literally have life-or-death consequences, that they are an important area for academic research. Matthew Francis’ podcast provides an excellent introduction to many of the problems caused by a simplified understanding of religion and radicalisation. As he argues, distinguishing between the three terms is crucial if we want to understand any of them and the processes that they are associated with. Not all radicals are terrorists, and not all terrorists are radicals. A narrow focus on particular forms of radicalism is limiting and dangerous, if we want to understand the processes involved we must view them in a broader context.

Radicalisation, Francis suggests, is almost synonymous with socialisation. It is the process, or processes, by which an individual or group come to hold ideas or beliefs that are deemed to be ‘radical.’ At its core, radicalisation is simply the process of religious or ideological change when that change occurs in a direction that is considered to be radical. The observation that ideas are not inherently radical, but that the term is a relative one that involves comparisons to social norms, is of critical importance. The value judgments that we ascribe to ideas are not innate to them but are instead reflections of our own beliefs. These beliefs and norms vary between societies and over time within society. It was not long ago that, in the United Kingdom, allowing women the right to vote, or homosexuals the right to marry, was considered radical and dangerous by the majority of people. Today, in many parts of the world, both of those ideas are still considered to be radical and dangerous. The ideas have not changed and yet our judgments of them have. The radical has become normal. Similarly, ideas that were once considered normative are now considered by many to be radical. The subjective nature of what is, and is not, considered radical requires researchers to suspend judgment about particular views and focus on the dynamics through which the beliefs and values of individuals change.

A second important insight into radicalisation discussed in the interview is that ‘sacred ideas’ are a core part of any and all ideologies. These are ideas, often implicit, that are considered to be absolutely true and non-negotiable. Secular examples include the belief that people have the right to freedom and self-determination, or that society has an obligation to protect children from abuse.  More controversial examples might be the belief that one’s own race or nation are superior, or that the strong deserve whatever they can take. Recognising that individuals can be radicalised to hold non-religious ideologies is important both to understand the processes of radicalisation but also to understand the growth of other social movements. These ideological movements are diverse and can come from either end of the political spectrum. Marxist ideologies and nationalisms and the emerging alt-right both involve strongly held, radical convictions. However, radicalisation is not always bad. New ideas can be improvements on old ones. Radicalisation, as a process of change, is not inherently good or bad but can be either depending on the particular ideologies involved.

Moving the frame of reference beyond just religious ideologies is an important step in the process of understanding radicalisation but it is also dangerous to go too far in that direction. Individuals who seek to sever the link between religious radicalisation and religion usually have good intentions and yet, as Francis suggests, that step is as misleading as portraying all religion as inherently bad. There are many individuals for whom religious motivations are of central importance and whose actions are driven by religiously radical ideas. For example, the conservative Christian who attacks an abortion clinic in order to prevent the ‘murder’ of the unborn does so out of deep religious conviction and without the belief that abortion is murder it is highly unlikely that they would commit such attacks. It is important to be aware of all the varying, and often conflicting, motivations that drive individuals to commit extreme actions in the name of an ideology but to focus purely on non-religious factors like economics would omit an important piece in the puzzle.

The work of Tanya Luhrmann (1991, 2004, 2012) is of relevance here. Her work has explored how individuals ‘learn’ to have spiritual experiences that reinforce developing worldviews. She describes this process of learning to attribute particular thoughts, feelings and experiences to a divine or otherwise supernatural source as ‘metakinesis’. Metakinesis, she argues, is similar to other learning processes that teach an individual to become an expert in a particular field. As an individual begins to view the world through a particular religious perspective, and interpret events in the way encouraged by the community they are joining, they find value in the traditions and practices. These practices, however, can do more than simply providing an interpretative framework for ambiguous events. The Spiritual Disciplines Project, an experiment that Luhrmann ran at Stanford University, showed that individual who pray or meditates repeatedly actually becomes more attuned to particular sensations and have increased spiritual experiences. These experiences reinforce the worldview that lead to the practice in the first place, frequently leading to increased immersion in it. Luhrmann’s early work with British magic-users and her more recent work with American Evangelicals both support the idea that religious practice can actually alter how individuals perceive and experience the world. This is, of course, a claim that many religious practitioners would agree with – spiritual practices are often intended to cultivate closer relationships with the divine. When studying radicalisation, the impact that spiritual experiences and practices can have on reinforcing ideological positions should not be neglected in favour of more ‘mundane’ influences. As Francis notes, the process of radicalisation is complex and nuanced. The role that spiritual experiences can play in encouraging individuals to adopt beliefs that are considered radical should not be overlooked. People gradually adopt ideologies through their experiences of the world and spiritual experiences can have an impact just like any other event that an individual considers significant.

It is only by appreciating and integrating the many different factors that cause people to adopt and disseminate beliefs that others consider strange or radical that we can fully understand the process of radicalisation. Doing so is important not only to devise strategies to counter the spread of ideas which are deemed dangerous but also to facilitate the spread of radical ideas that are deemed positive. Technological advances mean that ideas can now spread at a rate that was unthinkable mere decades ago. In this context, it is imperative that academics continue to focus their efforts on understanding the psychological and sociological dynamics by which ideas are spread. Equally, it is important that this research is communicated clearly and publically so that dangerous misconceptions are not allowed to flourish.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (1991). Persuasions of the witch’s craft: Ritual magic in contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. (2004). Metakinesis: How god becomes intimate in contemporary U.S. Christianity. American Anthropologist, 106(3), 518–528. doi:10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.518

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with god. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 November 2016

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Calls for papers

Anthology: Religion and Ethics in Contemporary Speculative Fiction

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University of Hull, UK

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