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When Islam Is Not a Religion

Asma Uddin is the author of When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom. In this book, Uddin examines an alarming trend to redefine Islam as a political ideology, not a religion. In our conversation, we track the history of this movement to redefine Islam and its implications for the rights of Muslims. We discuss the widespread presumption among American progressives that courts tend to protect religious freedom for Christians, but not for Muslims, and we examine particular stories that support and problematize that narrative. In particular, Uddin provides vivid examples of how American courts have reacted to arguments that Islam is not a religion. Uddin explains how and why Muslims and their allies disagree about whether religious freedom laws offer (or should offer) necessary or sufficient legal frameworks for protecting the rights of religious minorities in the United States.

In the latter part of the conversation, we discuss Uddin’s approach to writing the book. She describes how she balanced the desires to better equip people who already acknowledge that Islam is a religion and, on the other hand, to convince those who view Islam only as a political ideology to change their minds.

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


When Islam Is Not a Religion

Podcast with Asma Uddin (24 June 2019).

Interviewed by Benjamin Marcus.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Uddin_-_When_Islam_Is_Not_a_Religion_1.1

 

Benjamin Marcus (BM): Hello, Religious Studies Project Listeners! My name is Ben Marcus and I’m really pleased to be here today with Asma Uddin – Welcome, Asma! Asma Uddin is a fellow with the Initiative on Security and Religious Freedom at the UCLA Burkle Centre for International Relations. She’s also a Berkley Centre Research fellow and a senior scholar at the Religious Freedom Centre of the Freedom Forum Institute. Uddin previously served as council with Becket, a non-profit law firm specialising in US and international religious freedom cases, and was director of strategy for the Centre for Islam and Religious Freedom, a non-profit engaged in religious liberty in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority contexts. She is widely published by law reviews, university presses and national and international newspapers. She is also an expert adviser on religious liberty to the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe and a term-member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In addition to her expertise on religious liberty, Uddin writes and speaks on gender in Islam and she is founding editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com. She graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, where she was a staff editor at the University of Chicago Law Review. And we’re here with Asma today because she just wrote an excellent new book that I’ve had the chance to get a sneak preview of, which is titled When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom, out on July 6th, and available for pre-order now. So I’m excited to have Asma here today to talk about that book. And I want to start off with a broad question that really is the context for the book that you’re writing, which is: was there a specific moment, or experience, that alerted you to the fact that people are seriously arguing that Islam is not religion?

Asma Uddin (AU): There was. And thank you, Ben, for having me here. It was in 2010, I was still at the Becket fund, and I was working on a case in Murfreesboro Tennessee, involving the Islamic Centre, Murfreesboro, and its attempt to build a new facility. As is very common with Muslim communities across the US, the community in Murfreesboro had outgrown its base numerous times and was tired of moving from apartment, to garage, to storefront, and decided that it needed a permanent spot: something that was big, and could accommodate them and their growing congregation over the course of many years. And, given the existing relationships that the Muslims of Murfreesboro had with others in that community, they were totally caught by surprise when, in the course of their construction of this building, their construction site and much of the construction material was actually set on fire. And those flames – as they were eating up this site and these materials – those were really the opening scene of my book. Because it was in that moment where there were these very clear signs that there was going to be real tension. And chronologically speaking, the timing is important because this incident happened pretty much on the heels of the Park51 dispute that has sort-of erupted, and taken over both New York City and the national headlines dealing with the mosque project – or a project that was deemed to be a mosque. It was actually a cultural community centre in New York. And so the two incidences are linked, in terms of the substance and the timing. But the argument in Murfreesboro was clear that it had come out of the animosity against the Park51 building. In the Murfreesboro case, it was actually argued in court, over the course of the six-day hearing . . . which is a significant fact, because the judge didn’t stop the questioning as it went on! Typically, if a lawyer gets out of line the judge shuts it down, but in this case it was allowed to go forward. And in the course of that six-day hearing it was argued very explicitly . . . and there’s always been a long time when these arguments have implicitly been made that Islam is not a religion, but these words were actually stated in court. And the argument was, essentially, that all the different protections that houses of worship get under the law do not apply in that case because Islam is not a religion.

BM: And what are they arguing that Islam is? What are they saying? If it’s not a religion, what can it be?

AU: There tends to be a number of responses to that. But the most dominant response is that it is a political ideology. And, you know, furthermore a dangerous political ideology that is bent on taking over the United States; that is at odds with the US Constitution; and its ultimate goal is a subversion of that Constitution.

BM: And I assume . . . . Did the judge provide any good questions . . . that would try to undermine that argument? Or did the judge just let that go forward unchallenged?

AU: (5:00) I mean, it was a number of witnesses that were questioned with really outrageous questions, such as: “If a religion is founded by a Prophet that engaged in sexual relationships with underage girls, specifically a six year old, would you call that a religion?” I mean, these are like commissioners and various government officials, siting on the stand, being asked these kinds of questions.

BM: Wow! So what do you find most alarming about this move to redefine Islam as something other than a religion? What have been some of the tangible repercussions or consequences of this?

AU: Yes, I think the conversation on Islamophobia has been going pretty strong for a long time. A lot of scholars and activists have noticed this trend. And what I noticed when I set out to write this book was that the conversation was almost exclusively based on what the media and politicians are saying – which is very important, obviously, because of the impact that both of those players have on our society. But nobody was really looking at the effect of this rhetoric on constitutional rights. And to the extent that that sort-of bridge was being made to tangible results, it was almost always in the light of national security policy and questions of immigration and detention. But it was a little odd for me, actually, that Muslims as a religious community . . . that conversation wasn’t happening through a religious liberty lens – which I get into in the book, actually. To the extent that framing, in itself, is another way of essentially saying that “Islam is not a religion”. If you keep talking about it in some other terms and not as a religious liberty issue, you’re almost implying that religion isn’t the proper lens to be looking at this through. And so when I set out to write this book, I was really coming from my background as somebody who’s a lawyer and writer focussed on religious liberty in the US, and abroad. And I was wanting to change that conversation a little, and turn the focus a bit to the concrete effects on religious freedom – which is what I spend the entire book really looking at: the various ways that this “Islam is not a religion” argument comes up. Sometimes it’s very explicit. Sometimes it’s implicit but in all cases it’s very obvious. And I have several chapters, each dedicated to a different area of religious exercise, where this has come into play to diminish legal rights of American Muslims under the US Constitution.

BM: That’s so interesting. I wonder if you’ve seen any changes in the strategies of lawyers, or legal scholars, who are advocates for the Muslim community? Are they starting to add in legal language protecting the rights of Muslims that are not just based on the First Amendment but based on other laws or legal precedent in their court cases? Are they trying the Fourteenth Amendment, or other laws or statutes?

AU: Yeah, I mean I haven’t done a full survey of actual briefs filed. It’s more so: are briefs being filed at all? But I did see some legal literature – academic literature – where Muslims were arguing that Islam, and protections for Muslims, needs to be defended under the racial discrimination elements of the equal protection clause.

BM: Interesting.

AU: And in some cases the argument went so far as to say that it should be used instead of religious liberty arguments because it “more accurately captures what is going on”. And that was, again . . . I mean, this was something that I read very early on in my research, which again was very alarming for me because it wasn’t just that there was a failure to understand these issues, but it was an actual concerted effort to diminish the importance of that. So again, it’s a move within the community. It’s not just outsiders saying this. But now it’s like a move within the community being, like, “Yeah, I think a better way to think about what we’re going through is racial discrimination and let’s advocate for it that way.” And I think that that in itself opens . . . I think the racialisation of Muslims is a reality. I think that is a phenomenon. But when you begin to say that it is racial instead of . . . or that the racial element is more important than . . . you’re creating exactly the space that these other people want, to diminish the religious status of Islam. You’re giving them that opening. And that’s worrying.

BM: It’s fascinating that the discourse by those who are antagonistic towards, or attacking the rights of Muslims has actually changed, to a certain extent, the legal strategy of Muslims – or their allies in courts – to move from the religious liberty lens to the race-based discrimination lens. Or maybe a combination of those two things.

AU: Again, I haven’t . . . that was the advocacy that I saw in the academic literature (10:00). And in terms of the actual legal advocacy I think, for me, that’s less of a current problem in its explicit form. But I think this idea of Muslims as racial or ethnic minorities – or something akin to that – as opposed to a religious minority, is showing up just in the types of issues that are being litigated to begin with.

BM: Right.

AU: And so, coming from a background where I saw very sort-of expansive advocacy for religious liberty on behalf of conservative Christians, and Jews, and a wide array of other religious groups in the US, that expansiveness is very much missing in the Muslim legal advocacy space. It’s like even the NYPD surveillance case, it was just. . . . The argument there, in terms of proving animus, was almost entirely based on trying prove intentional discrimination. And I was like . . . I tried advising that group that you can actually prove discrimination without proving the exact very explicit intentional discrimination. There’s a wide array of ways to prove that there was systemic differential treatment in a very systemic way. It could be something that’s not at its face discriminatory but applied in a particular way . . .

BM: Right.

AU: And that resistance or, I guess, the narrow sort-of lens on what constitutes religious discrimination is not something that’s limited to Muslims, but I think it’s just part of the political alliance that they’ve been welcomed into, that wants to think of religious liberty in very limited terms. Whereas many people on the conservative side would argue for religious liberty much more broadly. And so I think all those are political elements mixed in as well.

BM: Yeah. That’s fascinating. And are you seeing it show up in the court? So could you tell us a little bit more about how your work ties into the argument that courts are biased against Muslims – that somehow religious freedom is for Christians only? This is something that’s come up with a few of the Supreme Court cases that were decided just in the last year – that religious freedom laws are only really being applied to protect Christians and not Muslims or other religious minorities. Could you speak a little bit more about that?

AU: Yeah. And so I think that more extreme version of that statement . . . this idea that you stated perfectly encapsulated that . . . . The Editorial board of the New York Times put out a piece about a month ago with the title “Is Religious Freedom for Christians Only?” And I think that that’s an extreme version of what I’m looking at. I don’t think that the bias is that extreme. And I definitely don’t think that’s the case with the US Supreme Court. Do I think that there is some problematic bias and some dynamics that need to be looked at, and questioned more closely? Yes. There is statistical evidence that a number of different researchers have put together, looking at religious liberty cases brought under a wide array of legal bases – whether it be the Free Exercise Clause, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and so on – and looking at these cases over the course of . . . one study, for instance, looked at it over the course of a decade and found that Muslims were the least likely to have their religious liberty claims resolved in their favour. I think the only one that was competitive with that was the black separatist sects. And so there’s a number of studies looking at and bringing this issue to the fore. And these researchers then also take the step of trying to figure out “Why?” Like, “What’s going on?” Because when it comes to legal cases and their resolution there can be a number of different things going on. It could be, for instance, that many Muslim claims are from Muslim prisoners, and prisoners generally are notorious for bringing frivolous claims – so is that what’s going on? Well, no. Because if it was frivolous it would have been dealt with much before the judge got to writing opinion and deciding a case. And so, for instance, a study that I discuss in some detail in the book is one by Gregory Sisk and Michael Heise and they go through a number of explanations of what they think, and explain why none of them are the right explanation. And they finally conclude that it’s bias. It’s a bias that a lot of judges probably don’t realise that they have. But they, as human beings living in a society saturated with this, are essentially being affected by what’s going on outside the courtroom in terms of how they’re dealing with some claim in front of them. And so there’s that empirical evidence. And then in terms of the type of thing that the New York Times was seizing on . . . I think it’s significant that it is the New York Times and its editorial board. Because it’s really reflecting, I think, what many Americans are feeling in the light of more recent decisions. I think that contrast that we saw this last summer between the Supreme Court’s (15:00) . . . the way it dealt with animus – religious animus or anti-religious animus – in the Masterpiece case. And there was a lot made of what the commissioners and the Colorado Human Rights Commission had said about Jack Phillips’ Christian beliefs, or religious beliefs specifically. And that was enough to, essentially, hold in favour of the baker. And then, three weeks later, you have the Travel Ban case where it’s just way more evidence of animus and it’s like the President of the United States who’s engaging in this. And it was just sort-of deemed an issue, by the majority, that wasn’t relevant. And there are all kinds of other complicated factors here. It’s not just a state commissioner it’s the President. The President comes with all kinds of special privileges. But many Americans. . . . And it’s also the fact that the dissent in that case disagreed and said that, “Well, I don’t think that that’s the way law should be interpreted in that particular case.” And so there’s that plausible legal argument for why animus should have played a bigger role. But then that contrast really, I think, left a lot of Americans seriously wondering about the impartiality of our justice system. And then it came again to the fore in February, about a month ago, when we dealt with the case involving a Muslim inmate, a death row inmate who wanted an Imam with him in the execution chamber and was told that he couldn’t have him there with him, because the only clergyman allowed in there was the one of the staff. And the only one on staff was a Christian clergyman. And so, again, it was just especially because the facts of that case are so heart-breaking –it’s like your final moments! And the fact that it wasn’t just, like, no clergyman was available. I think Alabama has actually moved to that position now, which I think is bad for other reasons. But it was like, “Well if you happen to be Christian, you’ll get him.” Right?

BM: Right.

AU: And so I think we’re consistently seeing this. And of course there’s the bigger looming question of how partisan Supreme Court is. And we saw that blow up with the Kavanaugh hearings.

BM: Right. So you’ve outlined so many challenges to trying to help the public understand the nuances of this issue. Obviously there is compelling empirical evidence that you mentioned from different scholars who’ve been researching the success of religious liberty claims by different religious groups. You’ve talked about public understanding of how the Supreme Court and other courts have interpreted the First Amendment. And The New York Times editorial board piece. So with this very loud media landscape, where people are talking about this issue in very polarising ways, what have you found has been successful when you’re talking about Muslims and religious liberty, when you’re trying to reach different audiences – and especially audiences that might be hostile, or questioning the research and evidence that you present in your book? Has it been that empirical evidence is really helpful? Have you found personal narrative . . . ? I know in your book you weave in some of your personal narrative with your family growing up in Florida, if I remember correctly. So what has been successful? Do you change your tactics or strategies when you’re speaking to different audiences?

AU: So in terms of whether or not this is successful, I think that’s a question that remains to be seen once the book comes out and I use it as a sort-of launching pad for conversation and real engagement – which is what I’m hoping to do with it. But I think you raise an important question. I think that’s what I was also trying to get at when I said this framing of The New York Times’ editorial board . . . and I also understand that it’s probably getting a compelling title. But I made it a point to say that I thought it was more extreme than it needed to be. And part of that is just sort-of forks into how I wrote this book to begin with. I just made . . . I made a concerted . . . . It was actually a struggle to write about anti-Muslim issues in the US and not to fall into the type of tone and rhetoric that tends to dominate the space. I’m not actually sure that I’ve seen a book that really gets into the question of Islamophobia, and does it in a way that tries to make peace and reconcile with the people who are engaging this rhetoric. And that ultimately is, I think, why a lot of this literature just isn’t having an impact. I don’t think it’s enough just to kind-of like use it to hammer other Americans. I think the point is . . . OK I aim to articulate what’s actually happening. I’m not going to sugar coat it (20:00). But I’m also not going to use it to make assumptions about . . . certain types of assumptions that I think are probably a little bit too common now. Which is this idea that the person making these arguments is either inherently “dumb” or “bigoted” is something that we hear a lot. And I try to stay away from those words. Because I think it turns people off. It turns off the precise people that you need to reach. It makes them uninterested and it makes them put you in a particular box. And so I try, to the extent possible, to use language that shows that to some extent I understand their concerns. And I see them as another human being who is motivated by things that a lot of human beings are concerned about. A huge one that I keep hearing about is this idea of security and the way that Muslims have been portrayed in the circles . . . and with the leaders that they listen to, as a threat to the security of them, to their families and to their country. And part of my effort here, in humanising this, is like, “Guess what? I feel that, too.” Because I am also human, right? And so it’s hard to explain that a) I’m not going to put you down for your concerns, but I’m also going to explain to you how I have those same concerns and yet, even with those same concerns I don’t think that that justifies, or requires that, we limit the rights of Muslims, or of anyone else. So to the extent that we can measure success, I think some of the people, that interact with that group, which have read the manuscript, feel that I’ve done that well. So it remains to be seen.

BM: Yes. And to follow up on the question of audience: when you were writing it, did you imagine that you were equipping . . . were you trying to “robe the choir”, you know, “feed the choir”… are you “preaching to the choir” intentionally so that they have the tools that they need to continue to “sing out loud” – to use the metaphor for too long – to say that that “Islam is a religion: here are resources that I found from this book that help me make that argument?” Or are you trying to convert other people? Are you trying to reach an audience that already disagrees with you, or perhaps doesn’t quite know, and you’re trying to bring them over to your understanding of things?

AU: Well, the funny thing with the book is that I sort-of take aim – in my very civil, calm way, you know – across the political spectrum. So, roughly the last half of the book really looks at the way that I think that liberal allies of the Muslim community are, in their own ways, turning it into something that is not a religion. And why I think that this is really problematic. So the question really is: will I have any friends after the book? (Laughs).

BM: (Laughs)

AU: But the way you phrased the question was interesting. Because you said, “Are you preaching to the choir or trying to give them the tools to make the argument that Islam is a religion?” And it’s interesting because I’ve written about the book topic in mainstream news outlets, The New York Times and more recently The Washington Post, and a lot of people do get caught up in that. Like this question of “Well is Islam a religion, or is it not a religion?” “How do we define a religion?” “Is the dominant frame here the Protestant conception of what a religion is, and is that the core of all this?” And I actually don’t get into that. I sort-of mention that as an introduction as like “Yeah, that’s going on – but that’s not relevant.” This book is not a philosophical, deep dive into what constitutes a religion. I think that’s not what’s important. I think a lot of other people have done that. I think it would be interesting to look at that again in the light of modern political debate. But it’s more so: OK, I’m talking about the law, and the law has its own way of figuring out what’s a religion for purposes of protection under the US Constitution. And that really is the only definition that matters when it comes to legal grades. So there’s various philosophical definitions that have been adopted by the courts. But, again, the relevance is only to the extent that it’s been adopted by a court.

BM: That’s so interesting. Do you think that there’s a disconnect between conversations in Religious Studies as a field about what religion is, and in the legal field about what religion is? Are the courts listening to Religious Studies scholars when they’re trying to make sense of what constitutes a religion and what doesn’t? Or is it its own tradition, and they’re just referring back to their own tradition and not really in conversation with Religious Studies scholars?

AU: Well I mean, currently, it’s Paul Tillich‘s definition of religion that has really . . . The US Supreme Court has never defined religion. But federal courts have. And so there isn’t, like, this one agreed upon definition in the legal world (25:00). But for purposes of actual legal protections they understand . . . there is an understanding by the courts that whatever the definition may be, it has to be pretty broad. And that judges are not in the best position to be defining philosophical parameters of what constitutes religion. So to the extent that they can turn to philosophers and religion scholars to have the terminology and help figure out some sort of way to articulate this, they do that. But they’re more sort-of concerned about “How do we capture what we’re trying to protect without necessarily creating too strict a boundary?” Because ultimately this is about constitutional protections. And we have to . . . . So the emphasis really tends to be on what judges can and cannot do. We can’t interfere with questions of religious doctrine. Whether something is important to a religion, or central to a religion, it doesn’t matter. It could be the most peripheral element. If you’re religion-based it still gets protected. And so that’s really interesting, also, if you start tying it back to the discourse around “Islam is not a religion”. Because a lot of that discourse tends to be “Well, Islam is not just a religion”. Or, more specifically, as some pretty high-profile people have said, “Only sixteen percent of Islam is a religion.”

BM: How do they quantify that?

AU: Well my sense is that it all comes from a study or extensive ongoing studies done by the Centre for the Study of Political Islam, CSPI, and they actually, apparently, have gone through all the various Muslim core texts and have sort-of categorised what they think counts as religion, versus politics. And based on this categorisation have come up with the sixteen percent number.

BM: Wow! (Laughs).

AU: And of course it’s like, you know, the fact that outsiders are sitting there parsing through this way, coming up with their own definitions of where religion ceases to be religion and politics starts. It really kind-of shows: a) how ridiculous the process is – purely from an intellectual perspective – but then also what it leads to.

BM: Right.

AU: And that’s exactly the sort of thing that judges have to stay very far away from.

BM: Right. Wow. Well as we wrap up, do you have any thoughts about the future? Do you think that we’re moving in a positive, or negative, or neutral direction? Are you seeing groups that are popping up that are more vocal in their defence – I don’t know if defence is the right word – but their explanation that Islam of course is a religion? Or are you seeing more and more groups that are popping up, making this argument that Islam is not a religion? Where do you think that we’re heading? And I know that’s a very broad question, so you can answer in the courts, or just in the public discourse. Do you think that there’s reason for hope, or reason for some concern? Or both?

AU: I would say both. In terms of the people who might be popping up to say that Islam is not a religion, I think that they are not yet popping up (in court) – at least not in that form – because I think that . . . .What the book seeks to do is articulate a problem. And once I articulated it, lots of people were like, “Yeah. I heard that!” But you know they just sort-of dismissed it. And it’s really about “Don’t dismiss it. Focus on it.” And even more recently, with the Australian Senator commenting on New Zealand mosque attacks, he put out an official statement that said, “Islam is not a religion and these people are not blameless, even if they are essentially being gunned down in their own house of worship. They are not blameless.” And again it was just like people were like: “Oh my God! This is crazy!” But it was like: ‘It’s crazy!” And then attention sort-of diverted from it. And my intention was to bring it back. “You’ve seen this before. It’s happening again.” An official statement put out by politicians in the most gruesome circumstances and I’m trying to direct the attention to that. Because you can’t really take it seriously, and begin to figure out a solution to it, if you don’t actually realise it’s happening.

BM: Right.

AU: And if you don’t realise it’s part of a larger concerted plan with particular goals in mind . . . So in terms of the two different camps that you’ve mentioned I think the side that’s saying Islam is not a religion is gaining steam. There’s a piece that I cite in the very beginning of my book, but that was written by David French, a very prominent conservative commentator and columnist with The National Review. (30:00) And he says this. “Every time that I go and talk to conservative audiences about religious liberty, the first question is always: ‘Does everything you just said apply to Muslims?’” And so, there’s plenty of evidence that this is gaining ground. It’s becoming a very common argument. And I think it’s time to sort-of focus our energies in articulating proper responses to that.

BM: Well, thank you for doing that so compellingly in your book. It’s a really compelling, cogent, explanation of this line of argument that we’ve seen come through certain conservative circles. And then you also, as you mentioned, talk about the ways that folks across the religious political ideological spectrum are eroding the sense that Islam is a religion. So thank you for that contribution. As a reminder to our Listeners, the book is out on July 6th. The title is, When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom. And you can pre-order it now. Thank you so much, Asma, for coming in. I really enjoyed the conversation.

AU: Thank you, Ben, for having me.


Citation Info: Uddin, Asma and Benjamin Marcus. 2019. “When Islam Is Not a Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 June 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 13 June 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/when-islam-is-not-a-religion/

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Critical Approaches to Pre-Islamic Arabia and Early Islam

Given the way in which many introductory courses present the history of early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia, we may be tempted to think that the historical facts were well established and the narrative uncontested. However, this is far from the case. What evidence do we actually have from this period, and how may it challenge the conventional narratives that have become canonised in sacred and academic histories? What misconceptions might be challenged by modern epigraphic work, or the application of Social Identity theories to ancient texts? And why might this matter for contemporary Islam, contemporary Islamic Studies, and the critical study of religion more broadly? Joining Chris to discuss these questions, is Dr Ilkka Lindstedt of the University of Helsinki.

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


Critical Approaches to Pre-Islamic Arabia and Early Islam

Podcast with Ilka Lindstedt (6 May 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Lindstedt_-_Critical_Approaches_to_Pre-Islamic_Arabia_and_Early_Islam_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Given the way in which many introductory courses present the history of early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia, we may be tempted to think that the historical facts are well established and the narrative uncontested. However this is far from the case. What evidence do we actually have from this period, and how may it challenge the conventional narratives that have become canonised in both sacred and academic histories? What misconceptions might be challenged by modern ethnographic work, by the application of Social Identity theories to ancient texts? And why might this matter for contemporary Islam, contemporary Islamic Studies or the Study of Religion more broadly. Joining me to day in Helsinki is Ilka Lindstedt who holds a PhD and title of docent in Arabic Islamic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is currently University Lecturer in Islamic Theology at the Faculty of Theology. He’s published studies on early Islam, Arabic historiography and Arabic epigraphy and recent edited volumes in English include the co-edited Case Studies in Transmission and the forthcoming Translation and Transmission in the First Millennium, both with Ugarit-Verlag. And you can see his institutional website or academia.edu page for more information. And we’ll link to that on the website. So first off: Dr Ilka Lindstedt – welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Ilka Lindstedt (IL): Thank you very much.

CC: So, broadly, we’re talking about pre-Islamic Arabia and early Islam, today – which will obviously be something that’s quite familiar to you. But to the broader Religious Studies community it might not be. So if we could start off, just broadly, tell me about your area of research and what kind of sources are you using? How do you go about doing such research and things like that? What are you interested in? And why?

IL: Thank you. So, I’m interested in late antique Arabia, pre-Islamic Arabia from the first century Common Era onward, up till the early Islamic period, let’s say the eighth century, Common Era. So, the Prophet Muhammad lived in the sixth and seventh century. He died in 632, so that gives a sort of framework where we are operating. And I’m especially interested in approaching early Islam with Social Identity theories, formulated in Social Psychology, and how those can be used to study early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia as well. And I try to use – as much as possible, that we have to hand – dated materials, contemporary materials. Especially, epigraphy is an important source-set that we have from pre-Islamic Arabia and the early Islamic era as well.

CC: Excellent. You might want to . . . I actually had to look up what epigraphic sources meant before we spoke about this! So if you clarify for our Listeners what they are. And also, more of our Listeners are probably familiar with perhaps Biblical Studies because, you know, it tends to sit in Study of Religion departments in some way. I certainly did some Biblical Studies, back in the day. So it would be interesting to hear about how similar or different you might describe your work that might be done by a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, for example.

IL: Yeah. So by epigraphic sources I mean inscriptions, and in this particular case especially, lapidary inscriptions. So inscriptions engraved in stone, you know, preserved in tens of thousands from pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia. And I would say that, in my study, I definitely use as much as possible approaches and methods developed in Biblical Studies. Especially, you know, the understanding that we should use contemporary sources as much as possible. Most people dealing with early Islam have been using Islamic era – much later – sources to study the life of the Prophet or pre-Islamic Arabia, for instance. So also the Social Identity approach is something that has been used in Biblical Studies, since the nineties especially, to study the New Testament. But also the Hebrew Bible and see how people in those texts . . . and how those texts categorise the world. Although one question that has been studied quite a lot in Biblical Studies is the question of the parting of the ways when Judaism and Christianity become different categories: when did people start to see them as Christians as opposed to Jews? And that question is something that hasn’t been asked too much in Islamic Studies (5:00). So until the nineties very few people asked the question: when did Muslims actually start to categorise as Muslims, self-identify as Muslims? So that’s kind-of a new question.

CC: Excellent and we’ll get to that towards the end of the interview. So before we start diving into the misconceptions that might be challenged by some of your work and others into pre-Islamic Arabia, we should get some of those misconceptions out there onto the table. Again, our Listeners might not just know this basic narrative. But, what are some of the times and places in traditional narratives that we’re talking about here, relating to early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia? I know that I certainly have always thought that, you know, the Arabian Peninsula was full of nomads who all thought of themselves as Arabs, and Mecca was a really central key trading post, and they all came there and there are lots of deities in the Ka’bah and things like that. That’s the narrative that I had. But I think that’s not quite right. So, maybe, tell us a bit about the context and then we can challenge that with some of these sources that you’ve been looking at.

IL: So I guess the received tradition we have to start with, we could start with the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 570 in Mecca, like you said. In the Islamic Era the narrative Mecca is portrayed as being a place where almost everybody was polytheist. So according to this Arabic narrative there might have been a couple of Christians or Jews living in Mecca, but there were only a few of them. They were few and far between. So ninety-nine percent of the people, according to this, seem to be polytheist. So that’s 570 or so. And then in 610 the Prophet starts to receive his first revelations conveyed by the Archangel Gabriel, but coming ultimately from God. And at that time the Meccan polytheist aristocrat is not happy with the monotheist message that the prophet Muhammad is trying to convey in Mecca. So Muhammad receives very few converts, very few followers. One of them is actually his wife, Khadijah who becomes one of the first, or maybe the first convert to Islam. But still he has very few followers in those years, the 610s. And the polytheist aristocracy, as it’s usually called in Western scholarship, tries to come after the Prophet and his followers and they even torture some of his followers. And this situation leads to emigration from Mecca, this is called the Hijra, the emigration from Mecca which happens in 622. And this becomes, later, the first year of the Islamic era, the Islamic calendar. In Medina, the situation becomes better. The Prophet rises quite quickly to the top of this city state, as we might call it, of Medina. And he becomes both a religious and political leader of Medina. So early Muslims of Medina and the polytheists of Mecca are at war during those years. And in the year 630, early Muslims are victorious and conquer Mecca. But still the Prophet stays in Medina, and actually dies there in 632.So that’s sort-of the traditional narrative we have.

CC: So before we challenge that narrative through some of the, I guess, written sources . . . what kind of sources do we have from around that period? You know, I know that there’s more literary sources, there’s these inscriptions. So maybe you could just tell us what kind of sources exactly, and then maybe provide some challenges to that narrative?

IL: So, up until very recently, scholars were using Islamic era Arabic literary sources. And we have quite a lot of them, so thousands and thousands of pages of historiographical sources, of different sorts of literary genres, written in Arabic. But that Arabic literature is actually quite late. So we usually say that it’s born in the eighth century and starts to develop from that century onward (10:00). So at least a hundred years later than the Prophet. But still, most of the scholars have been using that source set to engage with pre-Islamic Arabia as well. And the life of the Prophet. But recently people have been turning their sight towards contemporary sources that we might have. And these are especially these inscriptions that I was mentioning. So from pre-Islamic Arabia, from the South and from the North, we have a vast quantity of epigraphic material actually. So from the South, from Yemen we have something like ten thousand pre-Islamic South Arabian inscriptions. And from the North we have even more, so something like fifty thousand or more are published now. And all the time, people doing fieldwork are finding more and more of these inscriptions. And many of them are yet to be published, even though they have already been recorded. So it’s a vast quantity of material and written in different languages. So not all of it is in Arabic, or very little of it, or only a subset of this material is in Arabic. So that’s something that we have from the pre-Islamic era. Then, from the Islamic era of sources we also have Arabic inscriptions. Not so many of them, but let’s say from the first hundred years of Hijra or the Islamic era, we have something like a hundred dated inscriptions, and probably much more that are undated but we can maybe paleographically date to that era as well. So we have quite a few inscriptions that are actually produced in Arabia, preserved in Arabia and produced also oftentimes by people who are not part of the elite. So that’s important to know this. So much of this material is actually graffiti, so stuff that the people were just writing or engraving in stone when they were en route to somewhere, and they were camping somewhere. So they spent an hour or so to carve their name and a message – simpler or longer – on stone. So that’s a very important set of sources that has not been utilised very much.

CC: And so what have these sorts of sources done, perhaps, to that traditional narrative that you laid out beforehand? Maybe a couple of key of examples of things that might challenge that?

IL: Yeah. Especially the polytheist milieu of Arabia in the pre-Islamic era is something that has been challenged by these inscriptions. So, for instance, in Yemen we see quite clearly that up to the fourth century Common Era all of this epigraphic material is polytheist. So there are mention of many gods: Almaqah, for instance, who’s a God associates with the moon; Shamash, associated with the sun. So this traditional polytheist milieu. But then in the fourth century, something happens quite drastically and we see in the epigraphic record that only monotheism is present in these texts and this continues up to the sixth century when the Prophet was born. And, in particular, it seems that the form of monotheism is Judaism that was adopted at least by the elite in Yemen, but probably also by the lay people to an extent, at least. So we don’t have, from the fourth century up to the sixth century, we don’t have any polytheist evidence from Yemen at all. So all the inscriptions that we have are either Jewish or Christian in nature. So they seem all monotheist and also Jewish or Christian identity. And then also in the North we see that Christianity, in particular, is advancing from the third century onward. And we have . . . we don’t have so much material as from the South when it comes to late antiquity – say the third century onward. But everything that we have seems to point towards the idea that Christianity was spreading, and spreading fast. So actually, when we look at what we have from the sixth century, which is the century when the Prophet was born, we don’t have a single text produced and preserved in Arabia that would be polytheist. So everything that we had is monotheist: either Christian or Jewish or something that we cannot actually pinpoint what it actually is. But then, maybe it didn’t even matter to the people who were engraving those inscriptions! (15:00) But this is the case of course in Hejaz, or Western Arabia, where the Prophet lived according to the traditional narrative, and also according to the majority of scholars. So from the Hejaz we don’t actually have so much material, or material at all from the sixth century. So that’s of course still a question mark: what’s going on in the Hejaz in the sixth century? But in any case it seems that in parts of . . . in most parts of Arabia, Christianity and Judaism were spreading past.

CC: Absolutely. Maybe one more example here, before we get onto your social identity work. I mean, perhaps . . . I was quite surprised to hear that Mecca wasn’t quite the big deal that we’ve been led to believe?

IL: Right, yeah. It’s very interesting. This Islamic era sources – which, like I said, are all late – they seem to describe Mecca as a place which was a pilgrimage centre, which was, you know, a trade centre along the trade routes, maybe that criss-crossed Arabia. But when we actually look at pre-Islamic evidence – for instance: Greek literature, Greek geographical literature and also these inscriptions that we have from Arabia – none of them actually mention Mecca. None. And they do mention quite a few Arabian cities and towns. So for instance, they mention Medina – Yathrib, which was the old name of Medina – quite a lot of times. So it seems that Medina was an important . . . or was along these trade routes that started from Yemen and went to Syria and the Mediterranean. But Mecca, maybe, wasn’t such a big deal. So it might have been a local centre but it’s not mentioned at all in the extant evidence that we have from the pre-Islamic era. So that makes me think, at least, that Mecca wasn’t that important in the pre-Islamic era.

CC: Obviously there might be various reasons that it then . . . it’s obviously very important now, and became very important. So there may be an element of reading that into the past. So we’ve only got about ten minutes left. This always happens! So some of your other work then is taking quite a modern Social Identity approach. And specifically, what I’ve read anyway, was looking at, in the Qur’an, looking at the different group dynamics in there. Perhaps you could just quickly introduce what a Social Identity approach might be? And then how you’ve used that to analyse the different groups.

IL: Yes. So the Social Identity approach was developed in Social Psychology since the 1970s by Henri Tajfel and his students, and later many more scholars. And the approach tries to look at social identity, especially. So not so much self-identity but social identity. Some of the group identities and affiliations that we have and possess and signal. And it makes a set of predictions, based on experiments and ethnographic research, about what group affiliation does and categorisation does in the group dynamics. So people have quite clearly noticed that this categorisation into the “in-group” that we affiliate with and the “out-group” which is the others. This sort of categorisation is very natural in us. And it usually and oftentimes leads to the fact that people are more helpful to their in-group members; they attach more positive adjectives to their in-group members; and they allow for different people in the in-group, so a sort-of heterogeneous view of the in-group. Whereas the out-group is usually seen as sort-of like a block, a monolith a homogeneous group of people. And sometimes it is . . . often times it is stereotyped in a way, or negative adjectives and attributes are attached to the out-group.

CC: Yes. And you might have positive attributions biased towards an in-group: some behaviour exhibited by a member of your in-group that would be interpreted positively – and if the same behaviour is in the out-group it might have a different interpretation, based on the same dynamic (20:00).

IL: Right, yeah.

CC: OK. So how does one study that in the Qur’an? I mean it was, maybe, initially developed as a more contemporary ethnographic thing, so how might one study that in this ancient text? And then what have you found regarding different religion-related groups?

IL: So I think the Social Identity approach gives a lot of insight into the ancient or pre-modern texts as well. So instead of actually asking . . . because usually, or sometimes, people have an approach to the Qur’an, and especially the polemic verses in the Qur’an, as signalling that there was some sort of clash between the groups. Whereas people that have been using the Social Identity approach in Biblical Studies have noticed that oftentimes these polemical verses, or polemical passages, in different texts they actually have to do with creation of the in-group identity and creation of this distinct identity. So it doesn’t always have to be the case that there has been some sort of clash in the past. But it actually might have something to do with the present; that the text is trying to signal a distinction to the out-group and trying to make this difference. Whereas the facts on the ground were much more varied and much more of a grey area in how people were viewing themselves and the others. And also, like I said, up until the 1990s people didn’t really ask, in Islamic Studies, the question: “When did Muslims start to view themselves as Muslims as distinct to something else- as distinct to Jews, Christians?” and so on. But in the 1990s Professor Fred Donner, at the University of Chicago, posed this question. But it hasn’t been studied still in depth. There hasn’t been too many people actually trying to approach that question. But I think it is a very important question. And I think we should start with no preconceptions, and start with contemporary sources. Start with the Qur’an and then try to understand the Qur’an in the context of what we know of pre-Islamic Arabia, and then see in the dated material, such as papyri and inscriptions, how that identity evolves later. So when we actually look at the Qur’an we see that the in-group appellation that is used there for the in-group is “believers”. It’s not yet “Muslims” so that is something that seems to happen later. And not only that, but also there are a number of verses that seem to categorise Jews and Christians as part of the in-group, part of the believers. So that makes me think that their situation is not one where Islamic identity was born already at the time of the Prophet. It wasn’t ready at the time, but it evolved later. And when we actually look at the inscriptions that we have that are later than the Qur’an, later than the Prophet Muhammad there we can see that it takes around 100 years before people start to call themselves Muslims or call their religion Islam. So it’s only the 740s when we see this sort of categorisation happening, and also mention of distinctively Islamic rites that happens in the early 8th century, not before.

CC: But again, in a standard into to Islam class, we’ll maybe hear about these verses differentiating Islam from Christianity: “They say that God is three. He is not three he is one,” and all those sorts of things. So there are some things in there which are maybe anti-Christian or anti-Jewish. How does that play into what you’ve just said about believers as a group?

IL: Yes, definitely. There’s definitely polemics against Trinitarianism and against shirk, which means associating anything with God. So absolute monotheism is the central message of the Qur’an, definitely. And I would say that any Jew or Christian who wasn’t willing to part with those associating tendencies wouldn’t be accepted as part of the in-group (25:00). So Trinitarianism is definitely rejected in the Qur’an. But then, there are a number of verses which say that Christians are closest in love to the believers, and they are pious, and they pray, and they will get a reward in the afterlife. And then there are a number of verses that talk about the “People of the Book” in positive manner. And the People of the Book seems to include . . . while the Qur’an doesn’t really spell it out who the People of the Book are, it seems to include at least Jews and Christians and possibly others as well. And so there are a number of verses that seem to suggest that those people in the People of the Book can be part of the in-group if they are willing to part with some of their views which are against the Qur’anic message, and if they are willing to accept the Prophet Muhammad as a Prophet, and the Qur’an as Revelation. Those are definitely sort-of identity signals that people . . . core values that people have to accept. But then, there are a number of others that are later Islamic developments. For instance, there is no conversion ritual mentioned in the Qur’an. The five daily prayers are not mentioned in the Qur’an. Prayer in general is, but the five daily prayers are not. So those sort of things. There are also two verses that explicitly say that Jews and Christians and the believers – and maybe others as well who believe in God – on the last day will get a heavenly reward. And those verses are then, in later Islamic traditions, understood as meaning “Jews and Christians that lived before the Prophet”. But the Qur’an doesn’t say that. And it seems that in the Qur’an the situation is the present tense. So it seems that the Qur’an actually promises, there, some of the Jews and Christians a heavenly reward and salvation, as such.

CC: So obviously I could probe much further but time is going to be our enemy here. So I would urge the Listeners to check out your webpage and dive into some of this. But as a final question: why does this stuff matter? I’ve often, in a sense . . . . As with, say, the historical Jesus studies, we can spend a lot of time working out what exactly was going on, what was happening at the time. But, in a sense, does it matter at all? Because the figure has taken on a life of its own, in a number of different ways. So why does this close study of these sources matter? And what’s its relevance, maybe, for . . . I guess there’s contemporary Islam, there’s contemporary Islamic Studies, the Study of Religion more broadly?

IL: That’s a good question. To an extent, I think it probably doesn’t matter to a lot of people! And maybe people in academia have a tendency to over-emphasise the meaning of their research in the wider society! And, you’re right: scholars who are working in historical Jesus studies, their studies are not probably so relevant to your average believer, your average Christian in say, Finland, or the UK, or South Africa, or wherever. So Jesus is something that matters . . . the Jesus figure that matters to them is probably different to what a scholar of historical Jesus would reconstruct. What I think has some sort-of intrinsic value here, is trying to look at the seventh century people or sixth century people who wrote their inscriptions: how did they see the world? And I think it sort-of gives value to their views, and tries to understand the world as they saw it. But when it comes to contemporary Islam or contemporary Islamic Studies of course, like I said, there’s different verses dealing with the Jews, dealing with the Christians and others in the Qur’an. And those can be understood in different ways. And there are a number of people working inside the tradition as Muslims and as scholars who are approaching these same verses, and maybe drawing similar or the same conclusion that I am here (30:00). So for instance Mun’im Siri, who has written a fine book called Scriptural Polemics, tries to see how the Qur’an itself classifies different religions and Islam, and also probes how later and modern exegists and modernist exegists have understood these verses. And he seems to suggest that the Qur’an can be understand in pluralistic ways, and it can be understood as not being all the time in polemics with Jews and Christians and so on. So, of course, it might have contemporary relevance. But, you know, I’ll leave it to the Listener.

CC: Yes. But it’s a good example of the fine line, in the Study of Religion in general, that we walk between not denying the uniqueness and boundedness of a tradition, but at the same time pointing out that these things are historical developments, and they’re connected to their context. And some may perceive that as an attack or as denigrating, and others may see it as validating. And we’re sort-of walking that line of saying “Things are more complicated than the common narrative might say.” Just as a final question: what are you working on just now? I would hate it if someone asked me that (Laughs).

IL: (Laughs) Yes! I’m actually, with a colleague of mine, we’re writing a book about the Prophet Muhammad, and the narratives about him, and the interpretations of him both in the medieval era and today. This has still got to be finished though, so . . . ! (Laughs).

CC: Excellent. Well, I’m sure some outputs will come out of that in English as well. And hey – you’ve now recorded an English language podcast – you might record a Finnish language podcast! So, Ilka Lindstedt, thank you so much for joining us on the Religious Studies Project!

IL: Thank you.


Citation Info: Lindstedt, Ilka and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “Critical Approaches to Pre-Islamic Arabia and Early Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 6 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 25 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/critical-approaches-to-preislamic-arabia-and-early-islam/

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Cosmpolitan and Cool–and Modest

A response to “Modest Dress Beyond the Headscarf”

by Saskia Warren, PhD

I listened with great interest to Elizabeth Bucar’s podcast interview with Candace Mixon. In particular, I was animated by her discussion of how fashion offers an alternative to textual analysis of religion by privileging the visual, material cultures, and everyday practices. In this I was firmly in agreement as a cultural geographer who also writes on Muslim women and fashion cultures, albeit the term I tend to mobilise is modest fashion, rather than Bucar’s pious fashion. Yet we are both interested in head-to-toe looks of wearers and how these might respond to local aesthetics and morals, rather than tracing clothing choices to religious texts. In responding to local contexts, or refashioning placeif you like, Muslim women can be engaged in changes to fashion and judgments around dressing appropriately over time.

My research does differ given an area focus trained on Britain, and specific attention towards those who work in fashion. In what might be termed a feminist geopolitical approach, I am keen to explore how fashion offers a means for activism. For a number of my participants, fashion and beauty are a way of reaching wide audiences of Muslims and non-Muslims alike in order to propagate an accessible and moderate image of Muslim women living in Britain, women who are cosmopolitan and cool. Fashion and beauty therefore work as a conduit, but I would argue that the implicit aim is overtly political – although perhaps engaged in more everyday forms of political action: to participate in public forum debates around women’s visibility and rights in Islam and society more broadly. Blurring fashion and media expertise, Muslim women have often led as highly active agents within the fast-growing Islamic Cultural Industrieswhere they are in the business of creating content that shapes new narratives about Muslim and feminine norms, visually and textually. Moreover, as Elizabeth discusses in this fascinating podcast, pious or modest fashion has impacted how wealldress. High street brands such as H&M and Uniqlo have launched modest fashion lines. But even more evident are the ways in which layered and covered looks – with higher necklines and lower hemlines – have become de rigueur.

As a case study we might think about the work of Dina Torkio whom I have written about elsewhereas crossing-over from fashionista to activist. In Britain, Dina was at the very forefront of the emergence of modest fashion as an influencer, featuring in a number of high profile mainstream magazines and newspapers, and has since diversified into film-making #YourAverageMuslim. More recently, she and her family have also been subjected to vicious and highly targeted abuse due to her decision to uncover her hair more regularly in online content, such as published videos and photos. This case study draws attention to the desire amongst young Muslim females for positive role modelswho share identity markers (and transcend national boundaries), while simultaneously spotlighting how digital space operates as both an oppressiveandprogressive forum, especially where it intersects with religion and moral discourse. I argue that paying closer attention to the work and agencies of Muslim women in the fashion world as cultural producers and activists can offer challenge to religious conservative and Western-liberal thinking on the contours of everyday Islam, gender and equality. It also gives emphasis to the day-to-day embodied and spiritual precarity experienced by Muslim womenas highly visible cultural producers. As Elizabeth discusses in relation to her own work, fashion can offer ‘a good way of thinking about different Muslim communities that doesn’t start with religious texts or inter-religious politics’, and instead ‘focuses on everyday practices’.

A related line of enquiry that resonated with me was how through an accessible topic such as fashion Elizabeth sought to combat Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism in ways that enable everyone to enter the conversation. I welcomed her approach of investigating three different site studies – Tehran (Iran), Yogyakarta (Indonesia), and Istanbul (Turkey) – to open up the representation and diversity of Muslim women. Of course, I also think one can diversify the representation of Muslim women at home, or within a single site case study, as well as through a comparative multi-national and multi-city approach. Again taking Britain as an example, where the Muslim population is 4.8% of the national population, with over 50% of the population of Muslims in Britain born in the country, there is a growing diversity of Muslim identities and experiences. Due to the British Empire and later migration of subjects from former colonies attracted by labour opportunities in British industry, Pakistani Muslims comprise the largest segment of the British Muslim population at 38%, followed by Bangladeshi at 15%. However in recent years, there has been an increase in minority Muslim groups, such as White ethnic, Black African, and, with changes to the British Census categories from 2011, those identifying as Arab. In my own research on Muslima lifestyle media and fashion, the majority of participants identified as from the South Asian diaspora, especially of Pakistani heritage, with the sample also comprising minority Muslims identifying variously as Scottish, Caribbean, Palestinian, Iranian, Egyptian, Burundian, and mixed heritage. A number rejected identification with one Islamic sect or school of thinking or identified as culturally Muslim. But those profiled had practiced variously as Sunni, Wahabi, Deobandi, Shia, or Sufi, showing a wide range of intra-Muslim beliefs and affiliations.  

The aim to diversify representations of Muslim women, and to emphasise their positive contribution to British culture, arts and the economy, are some of the guiding principles behind a monograph I am currently writing (under contract with Edinburgh University Press) and a major exhibition at The Whitworth, Manchester. Beyond Faith: Muslim Women Artists Todayfeatures the original artwork of five contemporary artists from a range of backgrounds and at various stages of their artistic careers: Robina Akhter Ullah, Shabana Baig, Fatimah Fagihassan, Aida Foroutan and Usarae Gul. In the podcast, Elizabeth discusses the highly successful Contemporary Muslim Fashionsexhibition at the De Young Gallery in San Francisco. Exploring visual art practices, Beyond Faithhighlights the creative agencies of Muslim women in the production and circulation of new material forms and narratives. The exhibition aims to increase understanding of the different artworks, artistic practices, and lives of these diverse artists. Together they offer challenge to social and economic inequalities and religious intolerance, while actively expanding and diversifying spaces of the artworld.

Beyond Faithis shown in the Collection Centre and as part of an artist intervention in Four Corners of One Cloth: Textiles from the Islamic World. It marks the culmination of a major Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Project on the roles and experiences of Muslim women in the UK Cultural and Creative Industries that I was privileged to lead and is generously funded by AHRC and The Whitworth. The exhibition runs from 14 June 2019 – October 2019.

References

ThomasReuters State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2016/17 Accessed 4 August 2017. Available at: <https://ceif.iba.edu.pk/pdf/ThomsonReutersstateoftheGlobalIslamicEconomyReport201617.pdf>.

Warren, S. (2019). # YourAverageMuslim: Ruptural geopolitics of British Muslim women’s media and fashion. Political Geography, 69, 118-127.

Warren, S. (2018). Placing faith in creative labour: Muslim women and digital media work in Britain. Geoforum, 97, 1-9.

Discussing Pious Fashion and Muslim Dress Beyond the Headscarf

In this discussion, we cover some key terms from Bucar’s book, such as what Pious Fashion is, why it might be defined that way, and how it helps further a conversation about Muslim women beyond the veil. We discuss the differences in performing fieldwork for this project in Iran, Indonesia, and Turkey. Connecting this research to Islamophobia and Muslim experience in America, Liz Bucar reflects on how modesty has become more mainstream. Recording it at the American Academy of Religion conference in Denver, we also reflect on our own conservative fashion in academia and the experiences women scholars often have with dress and the academy.

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, April Fool’s prank stuff, bananas, and more.


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


Muslim Dress beyond the Headscarf

Podcast with Liz Bucar (1 April 2019).

Interviewed by Candace Mixon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Bucar_-_Muslim_Dress_beyond_the_Headscarf_1.1

Candace Mixon (CB): Ok, so I’m Candace Mixon and I’m meeting with Dr Liz Bucar at the Annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. And we are in Denver on the floor of the Conference Centre.

Liz Bucar (LB): Literally!

CM: We are on the floor. And there’s not a lot of space, so we’ve found a space to carve out for ourselves. So Dr Liz Bucar is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Northeastern University. She’s a religious ethicist who’s studied sexuality, gender and moral transformation within Islamic and Christian traditions and communities. She’s the author of three books including the award winning, Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress. And that’s what we’re mainly talking about today. So thanks so much, Liz, for meeting up with us.

LB: Thanks.

CM: So, to start, can you tell us what pious fashion is? And what brought you to that topic?

LB: So pious fashion is the word that I use in this book to describe clothing that is both religiously coded as Muslim, so trying to be “upright women” and trying to be “mosque”, in a certain religious way, giving their own interpretation but also intentionally trying to be fashion-forward or with the fashion trends. And it’s actually not exactly a topic I had, but it came out of conversations with the women that I’m actually talking to. It literally is subject-driven research: the focus groups I had, the interviews I had with women, that’s what they wanted to talk about in terms of mosque clothing. And so instead of calling it mosque clothing, or instead of calling it just . . . it’s not just headscarves, it’s really a head-to-toe sort-of look, in these three locations.

CM: Awesome. So speaking of the three locations you’re book relates to examples from Iran, Turkey and Indonesia. So for a lot of people out there that might be sort-of a random combination – ones that don’t immediately have commonalities. So I wonder if you could walk us through, first, just the choices for those three particular countries.

LB: Yes. The case studies came out of my own sort-of experience in these locations. But there’s also a conceptual, theoretical reason for it. So, in terms of my personal experience, like you, my initial research in grad school was based in Tehran or in Iran. So my experience. . . . . My research wasn’t about clothing or material culture in that way. At that time it was part of my experience, if not my research. And I had this moment where I moved directly from Tehran to Istanbul in 2004. And having spent the summer covered, to suddenly uncover on the streets of Istanbul . . . . For me, that was the first time I actually cared about clothing, or understood clothing, or was interested in clothing in terms of what it did to someone’s character and culture. Because I felt really uncomfortable uncovered. I’m not Muslim, but still, by doing that practice every day I felt . . . and I wasn’t covered with the intention of becoming more modest or becoming more Muslim. But still, by doing that every day in Iran, I had shifted what I thought was appropriate behaviour for myself with men I didn’t’ know, behaviour in public, how I should dress. And so that was an interesting moment for me. But I wasn’t really interested in the question of fashion until I did other research in Indonesia. And I got there and I was like, “Oh my God! It looks so different here!” And I was like, “Duh!” But when I’m surprised by things I have a moment where I lean in a little bit. So, of course it looks different there. And it didn’t read to me as, like, modest in the way that it would in those other locations – particularly in Tehran and Istanbul – because of the local style culture, the local politics, the local history of garb and women’s clothing and women’s dress. And so those three case studies kind-of come out of my own trajectory, moving through these different spaces, doing other research. But then when I sat down to write the book, I was like, “Oh no, no, I’m going to stick with case studies.” Because we spend so much time, particularly in the US, thinking about the Gulf as the origin of all things Islamic, much less clothing, right? And I just wanted to de-centre that. Of course you’re going to include Indonesia. That’s the most populous nation in the world and it was a great way to have three case studies. They’re all Muslim majority – the cities. That was sort-of one baseline for me. And they were all not part of the Gulf, right? So that’s how those case studies emerged. And then also showing the enormous diversity through those cases. And I mean, I’m really a comparativist. So the only thing that really cuts through all my work, that is similar, is that I like to have many things on the table at once and find connections and differences. So I felt much more comfortable and could find more things . . . could understand things more in depth when I have more case studies. So I understood more what was going on in Tehran when I started thinking about what was happening in Yogya or what was happening in Istanbul (5:00).

CM: It’s interesting, I think we’ve had similar trajectory. I haven’t been to Indonesia but I’ve certainly spent a lot of time in Turkey and Iran doing my research. And even just going back and forth from those two countries, packing is a nightmare, trying to get all the right clothing that makes sense for travelling in very different places. And I’m sure you’ve had this experience too, where your students will often come to it with monolithic . . . and so I think something like this really helps them break apart those different cases in how different the fashion and style is in those countries.

LB: Yes. I mean, I think in some ways. . . . Am I a little bit annoyed that we are still spending so much time in the conversation about women and Islam talking about clothing? Yes! I am also really annoyed about that. This is the second book I’ve written on this topic and this is not where my research started, right? But it’s partly in response to the fact that people still don’t understand it. And non-Muslims fetishize it, and over-politicise it, or under-politicise it: they think it means more than it does, or it means less than it does. They just don’t understand the context of what is happening. It’s either a sign of women’s oppression wholesale – they don’t understand the choice involved – or it’s a sign of a worrisome creep of Islam – “It’s coming! And “Oh look! The Hijabis are coming!” So it’s partly that we keep talking about it because there’s still so much misunderstanding. The other thing, that you just sort-of raised, is – particularly for my students and for a non-Muslim audience, which I’m really interested in, I’m writing primarily for them – it’s a good way in to thinking about different Muslim communities and Islam that doesn’t sort-of start with texts, or political debates. I mean, I get into politics, it comes up. But I also get to start with like religious practice. These women. . . . there’s not talk about the Qur’an in this book. That was actually really hard for me. I’ve written another book and it has that chapter on the sacred texts, right? And I was like “I know that stuff and I have to put that in there.” But I don’t put that in there because the women I’m talking to don’t start with quoting to me the Qur’an. They jump right in with, like, “OK – this is what it looks like here.” And “Here are the debates that we’re having”. And, “This is the problem” or, “This is the pressure we’re feeling”; or “Here’s how I style my headscarf.” They start right in with the decisions they’re making every day. And you realise that’s where the negotiation of what accounts to being a good Muslim woman is happening. It’s not happening over fights in the text. The women I was talking to, they all agreed that – these women who are covered – they think that it is their religious duty, it is a religious duty to cover. That’s a given. So then the question is, what does that mean? And that’s not a textual debate, really. It’s an everyday practice debate. So it’s a way into the religion that actually, once you move through, “It doesn’t mean that; it doesn’t mean that. Ok – it’s diverse!” You can then open it up and have a fuller conversation. Either in this book having a conversation, or with my students, or in the public scholarship I’m trying to do, I’m about combatting Islamophobia and Anti Muslim racism in ways that are trying to meet my audience at a place that they can enter the conversation with me, I guess.

CM: Right yes. So you mentioned Islamophobia and we talked about that for a second before this, and I am in interested in just having you say a little bit more about perhaps how your work, by diversifying . . . whether the hijab, or impressions of Muslim women and their choices – or not choices – or their culture, etc. . . if you see it rubbing against and resisting Islamophobic tendencies a little bit, or if you’ve seen any reaction like that related to your work?

LB: Ok, so as soon as you write anything about Muslim women and the veil, you immediately get hate-mail, right? Especially if you do it to a public audience. So the LA Times piece I wrote, I got a bunch of Liberal, non-Muslim women telling me I was like doing this terrible disservice to the world of feminism because I was talking about Muslim women’s fashion, I guess, just in a charitable way. I was letting the women speak for themselves. And they were expressing agency and choice – I mean within structures of . . . not that it’s a completely free choice. No clothing is not happening within a web of . . . You know.

CM: I have to wear this right now. I have to.

LB: You look really good. And you have to wear that right now. Because we’re at the AAR, right? So there’s all kinds of . . .

CM: Precisely.

LB: I was told, the first time I went to the AAR by a senior faculty member when I was a grad school, I was given a list of things that are particularly important for women. So: don’t wear aggressive shoes. I’m wearing aggressive shoes right now!

CM: Min are moderately aggressive shoes. Medium aggressive.

LB: I am wearing aggressive shoes right now. And not to wear distracting lipstick. I was told by a male senior professor to make sure that I had more than one suit when I went on a job, to wear, because women were judged more on their appearance. And on day two, I’d better show up in a different looking suit than on day one. (10:00) Another academic was talking about hemlines – so much policing of our clothing in the academy! So, anyway, that’s like another whole issue. But probably what this book is trying to get people to think about, as well, is our own sort-of constraints that we have. This is not just a Muslim problem. There are expectations about what you wear. But back to your questions about Islamophobia: I have found this an interesting way to begin conversations about Islamophobia, and anti-Muslim racism. Because . . . so the De Young exhibit is a good example, in San Francisco. Because it’s so visual and so material. So the De Young Museum is like . . . . I’m from Boston, so it’s like the MFA of San Francisco. It’s the modern art museum. They have a gorgeous exhibit right now which is very informed by scholars. They have a scholar board involved, and also a local community board that popped out. So it’s a very different than something like Heavenly Bodies, that Met exhibit, which was not informed that way. So the exhibit at De Young . . . because the clothing there is both stunning and beautiful, but also shows a great diversity, you could have someone who knows nothing about Islam and the Muslim community walk through and come out with a different . . . it sort-of shifts. . . . I think it pushes back against the stereotypes. And I think that’s important, because we’ve had a bunch of surveys lately that have told us that, basically, if you know a Muslim you’re less likely to be Islamophobic. And also, the Pew Forum in 2017 had a survey that came out that said that fifty percent of Americans do not think that Muslims are part of the mainstream, in the US.

CM: OK

LB: So that’s how Muslims are “othered”.

CM: Outsiders.

LB: Always outsiders, right? So you bring someone through this exhibit and you have clothing that is accessible. And you have . . . you know . . . the silly, Christian white lady: “Oh I would wear that! That’s not so different!” And then you have . . pushing back, “Oh it’s really not all a biased” and “It’s not all black clothing” And “There is a diversity of clothing!” Because, guess what? There’s a diversity within the Muslim community. That can be an “Aha!” moment for people. Or “Oh my God! They’re not, like, being forced to wear this by the men, or the Ayatollahs and their lies” – the Muslim men are liars – “and the clerics and their lies.” “Look, there are actually women who are designers who are making a business and life out of this!” Or “There are women who are using their clothing for social activism.” So the De Young exhibit has really activist wearers and designers as part of it. So they’re like, “Muslim women don’t need to be saved” right? They’re able to use the example of clothing like showing how they are themselves producers and using it in interesting ways. And then again that mainstream culture thing – it’s everywhere, now! And that exhibit – what does it look like? Macey’s. And what does it mean that. ..

CM: And all the top designers are adding full, modest lines.

LB: Yes.

CM: That are akin to people that are in the Middle East that are often becoming wealthier, in countries like Qatar and countries UAE, and trying to also push to that. So that’s also interesting.

LB: Yes. So who the designers are responding to is a certain market, right? But the truth is, I’m looking at what you’re wearing right now. You’re wearing a modest outfit, right. So hemlines have gotten longer and necklines have gotten higher. There is, sort-of, a “mainstream” . . . . I’m putting my hand in the air but no-one can see that, right?

CM: Air-quotes.

LB: Air-quotes for “mainstream fashion”. Like, these are taste-makers. Muslim women wearers and fashion makers are influencing . . . they’re part of mainstream culture. They are producing culture. And so if you think about, you know, Clothesline or H&M lines that people are going in and purchasing – not realising it was originally developed and marketed to Muslim women. But now it’s being marketed as globally sensitive, inclusive, like, you know, it could be called hip and sophisticated. It’s actually to be thinking about ways in which this clothing – if you’re a non-Muslim woman – this clothing actually might appeal to you now as a cool thing, right? As a cosmopolitan thing. So I think that clothing could be this way, again, into . . . . .If you really pay attention to it instead of just seeing the headscarf, you can just . . . it’s great way open up the complexity of these different areas.

CM: Yes. And then how do you see your work sort-of speaking to . . . . I mean, we’ve talked about dress and contemporary society – and, yes, I totally agree things like hemlines are getting longer, turtle necks are in again, mock necks etc., again, right now – but what about within gender and religion more broadly? So I know your project is comparative within the Muslim world or within Iran, Turkey and Indonesia. But how would you see those discussions fitting in with other discussions of religious clothing, perhaps, not just for mainstream America or something like that. Or would you?

LB: Sorry, particularly in the US context, or?

CM: Yes. Whichever ones seems to appeal to you

LB: So there’s a couple of things that . . . I think you’re sort-of asking me to expand my work out into religious Studies more broadly, right? (15:00) So for me, doing this work, because I’m really a religious ethicist, that’s the other hat I wear, is in different societies of religious ethicists. Like the Society of Christina Ethics, the Society of Muslim Ethics. Those have been societies that have been really text-driven. So even just thinking about how we study visual culture, and everyday practice, and material culture, and how we theorise that has been sort-of a challenge. And in that work I’ve really found allies in places like Religious Studies. And that was a lot of exciting stuff. But a lot of stuff was kind-of in the last decade. So none of it was stuff I was reading about, or thinking about, back when I was in grad school. So that’s thinking about – particularly if you’re someone like me who’s interested in everyday practice – and thinking about, how do you read, visually, instead of textually? Those have been really exciting conversations to have. And in the US context, actually the new project I’m working on there is a chapter focused on clothing and I brought up the ethics of it. Because we’re having this moment, in the US, where religious clothing has got a lot of attention. I mean the Met exhibit, Heavenly Bodies exhibit, which is an exhibit – for those who don’t know – of Catholic-inspired couture, basically, also some things from the Vatican – about forty pieces from the Vatican – so it’s . . . . The exhibit had 1.6 million visitors, and more visitors than any other exhibit ever . . .

CM: Right. It was huge.

LB: When I went it was like lines around the block.

CM: It was physically, like, immersive. I mean it took me hours to get through it, and I went to the cloisters and it was. . . .

LB: A pilgrimage

CM: It was a pilgrimage. It really was. You had to go on top of a mountain to get there.

LB: And the light was low, so you were kind-of confused. And the music is loud. The music is very dramatic. So it’s interesting, like, who that drew in. But what’s also interesting about that exhibit is – I don’t know how you felt about going through it. There wasn’t a lot of context. So, although there were beautiful pieces to look at, there wasn’t a lot of filling out of history of them, or the symbols that we saw there. So there’s a sort-of Met Gala, which is like the gala that opens it up where you have Rihanna dressed basically as the pope. And she’s like so fabulous and we’re all like “Oh, you look so fabulous! “But this is a sort-of appreciation for aesthetics but it’s not coming with the understanding . .

CM: Of the religious community . . .

LB: Yes, or some problematic features of it. So Robert Orsi wrote some great stuff about this, where it’s a very sexy exhibit – lots of low-cut, and really the body is put forward – and it’s coming at a time when we’re in this crisis, this sex abuse crisis. There’s no conversation about that in the exhibit. So again, I think, obviously the board, in considering religious clothing, they were like, “you can get them in the door of the Met to see it”. So again it becomes an opportunity to have more complicated conversations about religion. That’s where I’m thinking about sort-of going.

CM: Cool. And you mentioned something you’re working on. So if you wouldn’t mind, maybe we can have a little preview of your interesting . . .

LB: Little spoiler . . . Yes. I have a book that’s under contract again with Harvard University Press which was really wonderful to work with on Pious Fashion. And they’ve really helped me think about pushing or writing for a different kind of audience. And writing in a different voice. So I have a book under contract which is. . . . My working title is called, “Stealing your Religion”. And it’s a book that comes out of frustration, in my classroom, about stilted conversations about cultural appropriation that . . . . Students love that word, and love that phrase – especially in terms of religious . . . . racial borrowings, like white people stealing things from black communities, like culture. They were using a word, in addition also, in terms of religious stealing, but not . . . It was just shutting down conversations instead of opening up. So this book is about the sort-of ethical, muddy, ambiguity, good and bad, of these sort-of borrowings of religion particularly by people who themselves are not part of those communities. So we’re moving in the US to a situation where the majority of Americans are going to have no religious affiliation, right? We’re going to be “nones”  n-o-n right? Not . . .

CM: (Laughs).

LB: And so I thought there was actually something really interesting for me to think about in this. Because I actually am, myself – this is probably too much information – but I am, myself a baptised Catholic. But I have not been practising since I was in the household, like 10. So I’m a non-religious affiliated person who has made a career of studying religious communities. So that’s kind-of weird.

CM: Same, by the way. Almost exactly. (20:00)

LB: And it’s interesting to think about that and think about the positionality of that, and what the politics of that. And so this is a book that kind-of goes through different things that I have a lot of experience with. So, for example, I take students on a pilgrimage to Spain every year as part of our Study programme. We do the Camino. So I’m taking mostly non-Catholics on a Catholic pilgrimage as part of a course and the majority have this life-changing experience even if they’re not religious. OK, so what is that? Like why are they . . . ? What are they trying to get out of an experience . . .as a quote-unquote non-believer, as an outsider? How can they? Why are they searching for? How are they understanding the sort-of spirituality-versus-religion divide that people just assume is a truth? What is that really? So this book is like looking through different case studies. And I’m kind-of . . . I sometimes say I’m doing all the icky things and then thinking about them. So I’m “stealing their religion” and trying to unpack it and problematise what . . . . And that audience, that is really a book written for white women. Like, we’re hearing about “the problem of white women”, I want to think about especially about . . . . Like, if I am a character in that book, I’m sort-of thinking about white women moving through these spaces. And sort-of the ethics of that.

CM: Yes. I was thinking about, when you mentioned it . . . so obviously that project is pretty contemporary, right?

LB: Yes.

CM: As is Pious Fashion. But then I was thinking about, even if I consider examples from that Met exhibit, or just other ones where you see elements of covering such as habits, such as other forms of veils – Mother Mary is presented as wearing a veil. And those aren’t problematised as much as this abject reaction that comes, sometimes, with Muslim forms of covering.

LB: Yeah.

CM: So it’s interesting when you track a historical trajectory of different forms of covering up and then, now that one culture seems to be focussed on as the one that covers up, there’s more of an adverse reaction. Or something. At least I think, I don’t know.

LB: So again, part of my annoyance . . . not my annoyance, my resistance of writing this last book was that “Oh my gosh, there’s so much scrutiny on Muslim women!” – so much attention in some ways. And this book is part of that conversation. It’s like I’m also . . . I’m adding to that problem, right? I’m also scrutinizing and looking at women. I’m hoping that because they are really pushing the research, and their voices are really pulled out, you also see how they themselves are involved in like surveilling each other and scrutinising each other. And they’re part of that mechanism. But I think in my classroom with my students, they are usually really shocked to find out that the veil is not a big deal in Muslim communities until – like in Egypt – until the British decide it’s a big deal.

CM: Exactly.

LB: So it’s like, “Oh it’s just their fault.” Like it’s: the British come in and they’re like basically “This veil is a problem. It’s a sign of Islam, that you’re not the same as us. We’re going to take it off.” And then Muslims go, “Woah! You want to take it off? We’re going to put it back.” So, like, that interaction is usually a wake up moment for my students. Yes, we are in a really kind-of exciting, interesting moment, right, where we have our first elected representative in the congress in a hijab.

CM: Yeah.

LB: But I don’t know if you’ve seen this yet, but this week it just broke that one of the first things the Democrats are doing is changing a hundred-and-eighty-one year old rule, that’s on the books, for what you can wear on the house floor. It says you can’t wear hats. So in order for her to make sure she feels like she can walk in the first day, they’re going change it. So we’re in this interesting moment where like: I’m sorry – Muslims are mainstream in America, right? Muslims are part of leadership and activism. And so it’s also . . . (interruption waving at a passer-by) we’re at this interesting moment where it’s really showing us the structural racism and religious discrimination that we still have on the books.

CM: Yes, there’s so many examples, you know you can think about the history of the places that you’ve studied, of Turkey and Iran, specifically – hats! Oh my gosh! Such a big deal! Putting them on, taking them off, putting on the tie, taking off the tie. So the clothing is where those decisions about modernity and about culture are being negotiated. So it makes complete sense to have book like Pious Fashion, I think, to do some of that work. And I’ve found it works really well in the classroom. And I’m sure you’ve found as well that for your students, they’re reacting really well to the work, right?

LB: So yes my favourite thing, here, is that it’s working well in the classrooms. It’s only been out for a year and I have . . . . That is like the greatest compliment that you can pay me. Because I was trying to write in my teacher voice and I was trying to . . . . The way I teach is a lot of stories. So I was trying to tell the stories and let the women tell their stories. (25:00) And I just think the more story-telling we do in general in the classroom, and in our writing, the more we can . . . I just think it’s a good way to teach, and shift . . . . It’s very effective in terms of shifting perspectives. There is just something else that is happening there. Another thing that I think that’s happening right now, that’s sort-of showing again this like sea-change in the US right now: the NYPD is being sued by a bunch of different Muslim women for basically having their headscarves ripped off for mug shots. And again there’s no reason why hair . . . I mean my hair wasn’t this colour a couple of years ago! Hair is not a distinguishing feature of someone. You don’t need hair to . . . so the idea . . . . And it’s like we’re just in this really contentious place right now and unfortunately clothing is becoming part of that debate.

CM: Cool. Well I think this was super-helpful. Hopefully people have gotten a bit about pious fashion and will hopefully check out your book. Any other final thoughts for us?

LB: No. Thanks for this, it was really fun. Even though we should confess we are, literally, sitting on the floor!

CM: Yes. We might take a photo just to let everyone know. We’ll put it out there. It’s very empty. And yes we’re going to go back and keep conferencing.

LB: That’s right. In our conference gear . . . conference-wear!

CM: Yes, in our modest conference gear!

LB: There’s pious fashion everywhere. And what counts as pious fashion here is this!

CM: Is old suits!

LB: (Laughs). Sensible shoes and old suits!

CM: (Laughs). Ok. Thank you so much, Liz.


Citation Info: Bucar, Elizabeth and Candace Mixon. 2019. “Muslim Dress beyond the Headscarf”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 22 March 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslim-dress-beyond-the-headscarf/

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handshake

Religious and Socio-Cultural Boundary Work in the Swiss Handshake Affair

by Kerstin Duemmler, PhD

The Therwil affair leaves us wondering how refusing to shake hands can become such a symbolic act that it attracts the interest of politicians, lawyers, and media on local and global levels. It is evident that the excitement around this affair reflects social problems that lay behind the question of how pupils and teachers should greet each other.

One aspect of this social problem is the fear of Islamism, which is omnipresent in Europe. The Swiss handshake affair only provides a further incidence that nurtures it – notwithstanding if fundamentalist Islamic ideas have really motivated the Muslim boys to refuse shaking hands with their female teacher. While this fear is not completely unjustified in view of the Islamist terror attacks during the last decade in Europe, it has turned into a suspicion towards all Muslims. In public debates, Muslims are suspected of allowing religious fundamentalism to override respect for civic duties like gender equality or religious freedom. These worries are pervasive within public discussions, not only around the handshake affair, making deeper social divisions visible within society that are also (re-)produced in the everyday life.

Financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation, Janine Dahinden, Joëlle Moret and I (while being affiliated to the Center for Understanding Social Processes (MAPS) at the University of Neuchâtel) conducted a large qualitative study project with young people of different religious and ethnic origin in Switzerland to understand the way they deal with this diversity in schools. Our results show that Muslims are perceived as religious Others and they are set in contrast to the two mainstream Christian religions – the Catholic and Protestant church – and the high number of Nonbelievers (Dahinden, Duemmler, & Moret, 2014). Based on a clear-cut dichotomy, over-simplified images are sketched: Muslims would live their religiosity extremely, not only in private but also in the public sphere, and would not be free to choose how they live religion. The Christian and Nonreligious defined mainstream We-group is, in contrast, perceived as moderate, respecting religious freedom and considering religion a private matter. This clear-cut religious boundary work between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has become prominent because it pretends to defend religious and secular values as well as gender equality, making the ‘oppressed Muslim women wearing a headscarf’ the prototype of the religious Other.

This religious boundary is historically new in Switzerland – as the social cleavages during the 19th century were among Protestants, Catholics, and liberal-secular political forces – but the ‘cultural stuff’ legitimizing the Othering of Muslims today seems to be somewhat similar. As Philipp Hetmancyzk and Martin Bürgin also argue in their podcast, civic duties are again privileged over religious duties, at least in the public space like the school, what makes them even speak about a ‘contemporary Swiss culture war’. I would bring other arguments forward helping to better understand the Othering of Muslims within the Swiss context of immigration.

In fact, the Muslim population (around 5%) is primarily an immigrant population who has become more visible since the 1990s with immigration and asylum seeking from the former Yugoslavian states, Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Arab or Asian countries[1]. Thus, the discussion on handshakes is overlaid with the discourse on immigration and integration. But how are ‘Muslims’ constructed as cultural Others?

During the whole 20th century, the fear of ‘over-foreignization’ marked most political debates and anti-immigration initiatives in Switzerland (Dahinden et al., 2014). This fear relates to the number of immigrants and their potential ‘danger for Swiss culture’. After World War II, Italian and Spanish labor migrants were perceived as cultural Others; during the 1980 and 1990, the fear concentrated on labor migrants and asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey; and since at least 9/11, Muslims are the prototype of the ‘foreigner’ – so are called ‘immigrants’ in everyday terms – leading to a ‘Muslimisation’ of immigrants (Allenbach & Sökefeld 2010).

Above, Simonetta Sommaruga, Justice Minister, argued that shaking hands is part of Swiss culture. Critics say that Switzerland is a multicultural society, where the practices of religious minorities should be respected. 

Historically, cultural assimilation of immigrants was seen as a measure to circumvent ‘over-foreignization’, and although Switzerland officially follows nowadays an integration policy, assimilationist ideas have remained omnipresent until today (in particular in the Swiss German part of Switzerland) alongside multiculturalist ideas. This means that immigrants are in general expected to ‘culturally and socially integrate’, while ethno-cultural differences are, at the same time, perceived as enriching and ethno-cultural identities and thus not totally expected to be abandoned (Duemmler, 2015a). In this context, where assimilationist ideas are ever-present, the public dispute emerged whether shaking hands with teachers are a cultural habit to which everybody, including Muslim immigrants, is expected to adapt or not. And it is in this precise context where teachers (in the canton of Basel where Therwill is located) are nowadays encouraged to denounce ‘integration failures’ to immigration authorities.

Thus, the Therwill affair is also an affair that mobilizes a socio-cultural boundary besides religious Othering. In our study, young people were equally convinced that immigrants had to ‘socially and culturally integrate’, as well as learn to speak the local language, if they really want to be accepted – or, in other terms, cross the boundary. These ideas sometimes turned into a general suspicion that immigrants, in particular Muslims, would not integrate. And although pupils and teachers in the school defended multiculturalist ideas, the integration paradigm was omnipresent (Duemmler, 2015b). In view of our fieldwork, I am thus more reserved than Hetmancyzk and Bürgin about whether teachers will always resist the pressure to report integration failures to immigration authorities.

Finally, the Therwill affair makes me wonder whether there might be even more teachers and schools who strain to find pragmatic, local solutions to questions of religious and socio-cultural diversity. If schools want to prepare young people to deal with socio-cultural and religious diversity in a tolerant and respectful manner, they have to put a strong emphasize on the living of these values in the everyday school life and remain vigilant not to give up the territory to any kind of populism or extremism.

 

References:

Allenbach, B. and Sökefeld, M. eds., 2010. Muslime in der Schweiz [Muslims in Switzerland]. Zürich: Seismo.

Dahinden, J., Duemmler, K., & Moret, J. (2014). Disentangling religious, ethnic and gendered contents in boundary work: How young adults create the figure of ‘the oppressed Muslim woman. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 35(4), 329-438.

Duemmler, K. (2015a). The exclusionary side-effects of the civic-integration paradigm: boundary processes among youth in Swiss schools. Identities. Global studies in Culture and Power, 22(4), 378-396.

Duemmler, K. (2015b). Symbolische Grenzen – Zur Reproduktion sozialer Ungleichheit durch ethnische und religiöse Zuschreibungen. Bielefeld: transcript.

The Therwil Affair: Handshakes in Swiss Schools

In this podcast, taking place on the last day of the Annual EASR Conference in Bern, Dr Philipp Hetmanczyk and Martin Bürgin of Zurich University talk to Thomas White about the Therwil Affair, a controversy that emerged in 2016 after two Swiss Muslim schoolboys declined to shake hands with their female teacher.

The seemingly rather local, minor incident of two boys declining a handshake in a school just outside of Basel escalated into a major national debate, and was reported in news media across the world. As the issue moved from one of school governance, to public values, to law and later immigration, the Therwil Affair became a focal point for national discussions on religious freedom, gender equality, civic duties, multi-ethnic integration and cultural identity in Switzerland.

As the podcast delves into Swiss political history, Philipp and Martin elaborate on both the conservative and liberal cultural narratives which sought to situate the Muslim schoolboys’ refusal to shake hands. They comment that it is not without some irony that amongst the voices who decried the gender inequality implied in the schoolboys’ actions were the same conservative men who had previously argued against women acquiring the national vote: a policy that did not enter law on a national level until as late as 1971 – and in a specific canton as recently as 1990!

Following an explanation of the historical backdrop to contemporary Swiss ‘culture wars’ that the Therwil Affair spoke so clearly to, the discussion moves to how Swiss educational law has shifted subsequent to the Therwil Affair, with schools now expected to report to Swiss Immigration similar instances of supposed integration failure. With schools being understood not merely as centres for education but also as sites for the teaching and reproduction of standardised norms and values, in countries of religious, ethnic and cultural diversity, the tricky question emerges as to what these norms and values are? Perhaps what may be better, as Philipp suggests, is for schools to resist expectations that they should be cultivating a cultural homogeneity, but focus instead on preparing pupils for moments of cultural difference.

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, prank hand buzzers, drilled and slotted rotors, and more.


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


The Therwil Affair: Handshakes in Swiss Schools

Podcast with Philipp Hetmancyzk and Martin Bürgin (17 December 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hetmancyzk and Burgin – The Therwil Affair 1.1

 

Thomas White (TW): Hello there! I’m here in Bern, Switzerland, at the EASR. We’re on the final day. And I’m joined here by two Swiss early-career researchers, Dr Philipp Hetmancyzk and Martin Bürgin, both from the University of Zurich. And because it’s based in Switzerland, this conference, and we need to really get to grips with issues that are affecting Swiss understandings of religion – and politics and religion – in the public space, we are going to be talking about the Therwil Affair. This, as far as I remember from reading in the international press a couple of years ago, was a big issue, carried on the winds of international press as often sensational religious controversies do. But I suspect I’m not the best person to introduce this to our Listeners. So, Philipp and Martin, what was the Therwil Affair? Can you please explain this for us?

Philipp Hetmancyzk (PH): So, what we now call the Therwil Affair is named, first of all, after the place, Therwil. Therwil is a little town close to the city of Basel, which probably might be better known. In Therwil there was a secondary school. And two Muslim students of that school decided not to shake hands due to religious reasons, as they claim, with the female teacher. And this very local incident kind of became a nationwide affair, a case where the media was involved and reported extensively. Politicians debated about the case, brought it up to the cantonal parliament. And even international media reported about that. So, in the end, it became just a huge thing.

TW: Wow. Well this is unusual and perhaps even rather hard to understand – the importance of handshakes. Are handshakes that important in Switzerland?

PH: And just to correct your introduction – Martin is the Swiss guy here. I came to Switzerland for doing my PhD.

TW: Oh, I beg your pardon!

PH: Just to put that straight. No problem at all. But I think that question Martin definitely has to answer – because I never experienced schooling in Switzerland.

Martin Bürgin (MB): Well, of course. I can answer the question from a very personal level. I mean, I grew up in Switzerland and went to school in Switzerland. And I have to say, I don’t remember that shaking hands was a ritual, a common ritual, at school. Maybe at kindergarten, but definitely not at high school. And if we look to that from a historical perspective and we can go one generation back, it was very common that students were sitting behind their desks when teachers came in. And they had to stand up and say, “Hello” and that was it. So there was for sure, no handshake at all. Whether it is, maybe, on the very personal level . . . ? As a scholar in the study of religions – maybe we can discuss this afterwards – but I would say it’s very interesting to see the handshake as a symbol within a cultural symbol system. If we remember Stuart Hall it is the participants in a culture who give meaning to people, objects and practices. And we can interpret this handshake, or the denial of a handshake as a cultural practice.

TW: Right. So the handshake is symbolic of a far bigger conversation and far bigger issues than just simply, you know, classroom management. But let’s try and get to grips with the actual case study before we try and explore the really big conceptual issues, which will be a fascinating aspect to this topic. Now as I understand it, the school did try to reconcile this issue on its own terms quite early. Is that correct?

MB: Before the refused handshake was discussed on the national and international level, the local school management had already reached a compromise with the students and parents. And, basically, it was agreed that the students should be allowed to acknowledge their teacher with another appropriate, respectful form of greeting rather than being obliged to shake hands with them. So this compromise temporarily exempted the two students from their obligation to shake hands with their female teachers, but at the same time it also forbade them to shake hands with their male teachers.

TW: Right. So . . .

PH: Can I add to that?

TW: Yes, of course. Please do. (5:00)

PH: I think what was at stake here – and it’s kind of the important point also of the whole affair – the whole stressing of the gender dimension of this thing. Since they refused to shake hands with the female teacher, teachers in the school feared that now they will go against the principle of gender equality if they would allow for that, just like that. So they forced the pupils, or convinced them also, “If you don’t want to shake hands with the female teachers, you don’t shake hands with your male teachers either.” Just to stick to the principle of gender equality. It was made a big issue, in this case.

TW: Excellent. So there was an effort to both respect the religious freedom of the Muslim students whilst not transgressing on strong principals of gender neutrality.

PH: Exactly.

TW: But then the issue got a lot larger, didn’t it? The media got hold of it. It ballooned into this national conversation. How was it framed in the media, and how did it kind-of create such a controversy?

MB: It exploded when the Arena, I would say the most influential political TV programme in Switzerland, addressed the subject in two specials, under the lurid titles “Fear of Islam” and “Switzerland without God”. Then a barrage of reports and comments in the media as well. As the demand of concrete political measures, postulated by the politicians of influence on the national level, put pressure on the cantonal authorities and politicians in Basel-Country.

PH: I think we have to add to that, also, that the solution found by the school was just meant as a short time-span compromise. The school wanted to have it fixed on legal terms, so they asked for legal expertise to check into the case. Because the school wanted sort-of defined standards to which they could refer in case something like that would happen again. And so they drew it to a legal level, and this made the whole thing public and raised the media attention. So we have, then, two systems kicking in, both with their own interests: the lawyers, the lawmakers, checking on this issue of gender equality, freedom of religion, educational law; and parallel to that the media echo, of course, trying to make the thing a hot topic.

TW: Were the media discussing it within a legal frame? Were they using legal terminology? Or were they using more populist ways of engaging with the issue?

MB: Yes, definitely. It was about, as we said, the equality of women and men; it was about Islam, and Islam as a thing which has to be feared; it was about Christian culture; it was about liberal culture. And so the whole discussion was not really about the . . . it exploded away from this very local issue.

PH: But that was also possible because the media could connect to other hot topics and hot debates, like building mosques in the public sphere, wearing the burqa and other debates which are currently . . . which already existed before. And the Therwil case was just another piece in that sort-of chain of discussions. But again, this then put it in line with “Swiss Culture versus Muslim immigrant culture”.

TW: Right, so we’ve got this discussion of a kind of culture war taking place – or certainly that framing of the issue. For our listeners who might not perhaps be experts in Swiss culture, or the history of Swiss national identity, what are the key tropes or key narratives that can help us understand the forces behind this conversation, this national debate?

MB: Different narratives here, but I would say one of the most important topics is that of the equality of women and men. For that one has to know that in Switzerland women claimed their right to vote not until 1971, on a national level. And in one specific canton, called Appenzell Innerrhoden, as recently as 1991. (10:00)

TW: Wow!

MB: Following a decision by the Federal Supreme Court – so, not on the basis of the democratic level. But now it’s very interesting to see how the same conservative parties and sometimes also the very same politicians – now a little bit older – which opposed the right to vote for women a few decades ago, act now as the spokesmen for an equality of women and men against – from their point of view –archaic forces which menace Swiss women.

TW: So, those who were strongly opposed to . . . or were at least quite sceptical of women’s rights are now using it as a rhetorical means with which to push against Muslims within Switzerland.

PH: It was sort of instrumentalised, I think. I mean, maybe adding to that from a sort-of outsider perspective on Swiss cultural narratives – which are kind of complex, I would also say, which is fascinating . . . . Because you have this narrative of Swiss history and culture as being very liberal, with kind-of a lot of referendums, having a very strong sense for democratic procedures. But on the other hand you have still strong institutions like the army, with sort-of an idolised “male warrior culture”. And also, the national hero figure as the guy with the strong bow, shooting the apple, right? Wilhelm Tell.

TW: We know the music, yes.

PH: And there’s also a strong sense that it is not . . . The army is part of the wider population. Every male guy has to go to the army, takes the weapon home. So whenever there is need to defend the country, they are ready. And this thing is still kind-of going strong, I have the impression. Maybe not as much, of course, as 30-40 years ago. But if I compare it to Britain and Germany, for example, I think it makes a difference here, where you still have that argument as . . .

TW: So are we perhaps looking at a machismo which is defending women from insults, as opposed to really seeking to enforce gender equality.

PH: I would not go that far.

TW: That’s too far.

PH: But the Therwil case definitely kind of was instrumentalised to push the argument forward, “Look at the Muslim minorities. They have an issue with women’s rights.” But we don’t look at our own shortcomings. Because we are very liberal – although you can put many question marks behind that.

MB: The narrative I described before, that was more like the conservative narrative. And of course you have another narrative which I would describe as a liberal narrative. So the liberals in their motion, when the whole this was discussed in the local cantonal parliament, they described a refused handshake as a symbol – I could cite that I guess – for a fundamentalist and militant ideology – so you hear that in their own words – which contradicts our state and social order which is built on personal freedom, legal equality and the equality of men and women. And that’s a different thing. As the conservatives would propose. So for the liberals these are the three pillars of society. And now from the perspective of a history of concepts, maybe it’s interesting to see that if we replace the equality of women and men with the rather old-fashioned term of brotherhood – of course, produced in times of pure male hegemony – we get the very familiar trio of liberté, égalité et fraternité. And that’s the slogan of the French Revolution which is essential for the self-conception of the Swiss Liberals, that they wanted to defend.

TW: So on the one hand, we’ve got the liberal narrative of equality and Enlightenment values, (15:00) and then on the other hand we got the conservative . . .

MB: defending of Swiss women.

TW: And so we’ve kind-of got this strange confluence of cultural narratives being allied to push against migrant and specifically Muslim identities and interests. It’s fascinating. Moving away from perhaps the cultural discussion to more the legal issue – because it did become a legal discussion as well – how was that framed, and what were the arguments on either side?

PH: I think at least one power play that played an important role here was “civic duties versus religious freedoms”. And some politicians brought it forward that civic duties should be given primacy over religious freedoms. And this whole trope, or this logic, has a history in itself. And probably Martin can say a little bit more about that, because it goes also back to this culture war.

MB: Yes that’s true. The concept of primacy of civic duty is also connected with a narrative, with a political narrative. It comes from the Federal Constitution of 1874. It was the first revision of the first constitution of the modern Swiss State, which came from 1848. And both constitutions were products of conflict situations between the Catholic conservative camp and the liberal camp. The constitution of 1874 and the so-called primacy of civic duty – that is a product of pure culture-war politics. This constitution, as well as the first constitution, served as a warrantor of the – at the time – liberal radical majority and was directed against the Catholic conservative minority. So they served as a dispositive of power.

TW: So how does this fit? Is this more kind-of ensuring the loyalty of the Catholic community to the Swiss State, as opposed to Rome? Or the civic duty – it has some very strong policy implications even today, doesn’t it? But . . .

MB: Yes, that was expelled from the Constitution. So it’s not any more in the Constitution, at the national level. So they want to reintroduce that, or wanted to introduce that on a cantonal level, after the so-called Therwil incident. Yes the constitution – as you said – of 1874: that was a political instrument to weaken the Catholic conservative camp. I mean, it included things like the suppression and ban of the Society of Jesus, and the prohibition of the establishment and re-establishment of monasteries in Switzerland, the removal of the right to be elected as members of the National Council for Roman Catholic priests – so not very democratic for Roman Catholic priests – and restrictions against the formation of new Roman Catholic Dioceses in Switzerland. That was a pure culture war product.

TW: And this narrative of civic duties was being mobilised to push against the religious freedom arguments.

PH: It was brought up again, yes, interestingly. Although it has this kind of history package. But in the end they had to drop it again. They did not . . . . Although it was brought up in the discussion, if it should be included in the constitution again – in the cantonal constitution – you have to say. But it was dropped, because of course it was a lot of legal question marks behind if that was still possible. Anyway, to your question about the legal framing – because that’s not it – what they still introduced is that cases like Therwil have now to be reported to the bureau of immigration affairs by the teachers. This is now part of educational law. And since you asked how this changed the perspective since the Therwil case . . . . Because it is clear, now, that you can now bring it up to the Bureau of Immigration Affairs, then the whole issue of religious diversity in the classroom is now being reduced to an issue of immigration questions.

TW: So we’ve got an incident that takes place in the classroom now being an issue of immigration. Is there more to the story, there? (20:00) I mean, were the two Muslim school children, were they recent immigrants, or were they citizens, or . . .? It seems strange to have . . .

PH: I think it was second generation kids. But probably not citizens, yet.

MB: I think from Syria, yes.

TW: Oh, wow. Ok. So we’re starting to almost get integration issues starting to be . . . integration at the national policy level being focused on what’s taking place in the classroom.

MB: I think that was why politicians took the whole issue on the national level: to speak about questions of migration and immigration – and maybe not that much about handshakes.

TW: Yes. So carrying over into broader anxieties and concerns about immigration to Switzerland. Is that how it relates to other controversies? We were suggesting, earlier, that there are other points of conflict, perhaps, between the national narrative of culture and immigrant communities.

PH: Yes. And actually, talking about immigration, I think there’s . . . we already mentioned like the burqa, the mosques, the minarets. But I think what we forgot so far is also the debate about immigration as such – because that’s big topic, too. This is about the integration of Switzerland in wider Europe. Because Switzerland kind-of experienced a huge influx of foreign workers from all around Europe. And this led also to an intensive debate about immigration, local culture, fears of local customs and Swiss culture sort of dying out. And I think this was just another issue to which the Therwil thing could be associated.

TW: Yes, so the site of the school being very much a focus of identity politics. And through the conference we’ve been hearing kind-of papers that have explored the idea that schools are not simply places where people learn, but almost centres of ideological production; where children are inculcated with certain values and certain behaviours and certain perspectives. What do you think are the implications for education, as such, when it gets drawn into these kind of national controversies of culture, citizenship, and diversity?

PH: To answer the first part of your question, I think it’s still the case and schools, of course, are places where you learn about mathematics, where you learn about literature, but also from a Religious Studies perspective, school is definitely still a place which is imagined by wider society as a place where its norms and values are being taught and reproduced. So I think this has not gone. But the question is definitely: what norms and values do you want to teach in school? And I mean, this was also debated in the Therwil case. Because it was said, “Yes – all schools should be a place where they learn to cope with difference; where they should learn about diversity; individual peculiarities; tolerance; respect and so on. But then, what actually happened was that they used this argument to basically out-rule religious diversity in the form of two Muslim guys rejecting the handshake. So there was then, rather: “OK, the school should be a place where norms and values are practised, but these norms and values are not in accord with what these two guys, what the two boys did.” So that put a very strong vision of what schools should be and what norms and values should be practised in school, and what does not fit in to the school.

MB: But of course we don’t have any definition of what these values and customs should be. I mean the cantonal government spoke of, “considering the increasing migration of people with various ethnic and religious backgrounds, it is essential that those people respect our laws our values and our customs.” The cantonal government, you can hear it, doesn’t give us a definition of what these values and customs should be. But clearly we can see a constructed dichotomy of a “we” and “the others”; a construction of identity through alterity. (25:00)

TW: Fascinating.

PH: There was a second part of your question which has stayed unanswered so far. And that was how this kind of national debate about school . . . and what would be the impact on school being connected to citizenship, and what would be an alternative way to deal with such national issues in terms of education? And I think what would definitely help, in such cases like we have in Therwil, is that students and pupils are kind-of equipped with the competence for religious questions. That means also not from a religiously normative perspective, but just having knowledge and competence about religion. So they can basically critically evaluate such debates by themselves, and also kind-of learn to understand what is at stake here. And that then brings me again back to the study of religion as a discipline. Because I think implementing contents from the study of religion in school curriculum would help a lot. For example, to equip students to kind-of get an opinion on such things, by themselves.

TW: Yes. So the handshake isn’t so much a moment for discipline or enforcing national homogeneity or cultural integration but a pedagogic opportunity, perhaps: where the kids in the classroom can actually think about where people come from in different perspectives, regarding the religious values that cause them to physically interact with people in different ways. I suppose the question I want to conclude with is, what is the policy position now? Where are we regarding handshakes in Swiss schools?

PH: That’s a very good question actually. The media attention has gone by now, because the debates are all through. The media is now already onto the next event. And to the next stuff. So what kept almost unnoticed is that the debates in the parliament went through, with the respective change of law as we described earlier. So the civic duties over religious freedoms has not become part of the Constitution, but teachers have to report to the immigration office such incidents. What is done now is kind-of out of the media attention. And the case now, with this, is more or less settled. But with the respective political outcomes which you can see as . . . . Yes, it will have an influence on further cases. Because there’s now a kind of pre-structure for the way of how to handle such cases. This is what the politicians wanted, but which is also kind-of giving away the chance to probably have a more thorough debate on religious diversity in school. This chance is now, somehow, out.

TW: Yes. Well thank you very much Martin and Philipp. This was an extremely stimulating conversation. Any final comments before we sign off and say farewell to our Listeners?

MB: (Laughs).

TW: I think we’re all keen to enjoy a beer, now, at the end of the conference!

MB: And the next media scandalisation in Switzerland will come, for sure! (Laughs).

PH: Definitely! (Laughs).

TW: Wonderful! Thank you very much for that.

PH and MB: Thank you.


Citation Info: Hetmancyzk, Philipp, Martin Bürgin and Thomas White. 2018. “The Therwil Affair: Handshakes in Swiss Schools”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 17 December 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 14 December 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-therwil-affair-handshakes-in-swiss-schools/

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.

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/

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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.

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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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.

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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.

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, Tiger Balm, and more.


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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Podcasts

When Islam Is Not a Religion

Asma Uddin is the author of When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom. In this book, Uddin examines an alarming trend to redefine Islam as a political ideology, not a religion. In our conversation, we track the history of this movement to redefine Islam and its implications for the rights of Muslims. We discuss the widespread presumption among American progressives that courts tend to protect religious freedom for Christians, but not for Muslims, and we examine particular stories that support and problematize that narrative. In particular, Uddin provides vivid examples of how American courts have reacted to arguments that Islam is not a religion. Uddin explains how and why Muslims and their allies disagree about whether religious freedom laws offer (or should offer) necessary or sufficient legal frameworks for protecting the rights of religious minorities in the United States.

In the latter part of the conversation, we discuss Uddin’s approach to writing the book. She describes how she balanced the desires to better equip people who already acknowledge that Islam is a religion and, on the other hand, to convince those who view Islam only as a political ideology to change their minds.

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, roses, llama figurines, and more.


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


When Islam Is Not a Religion

Podcast with Asma Uddin (24 June 2019).

Interviewed by Benjamin Marcus.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Uddin_-_When_Islam_Is_Not_a_Religion_1.1

 

Benjamin Marcus (BM): Hello, Religious Studies Project Listeners! My name is Ben Marcus and I’m really pleased to be here today with Asma Uddin – Welcome, Asma! Asma Uddin is a fellow with the Initiative on Security and Religious Freedom at the UCLA Burkle Centre for International Relations. She’s also a Berkley Centre Research fellow and a senior scholar at the Religious Freedom Centre of the Freedom Forum Institute. Uddin previously served as council with Becket, a non-profit law firm specialising in US and international religious freedom cases, and was director of strategy for the Centre for Islam and Religious Freedom, a non-profit engaged in religious liberty in Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority contexts. She is widely published by law reviews, university presses and national and international newspapers. She is also an expert adviser on religious liberty to the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe and a term-member of the Council on Foreign Relations. In addition to her expertise on religious liberty, Uddin writes and speaks on gender in Islam and she is founding editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com. She graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, where she was a staff editor at the University of Chicago Law Review. And we’re here with Asma today because she just wrote an excellent new book that I’ve had the chance to get a sneak preview of, which is titled When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom, out on July 6th, and available for pre-order now. So I’m excited to have Asma here today to talk about that book. And I want to start off with a broad question that really is the context for the book that you’re writing, which is: was there a specific moment, or experience, that alerted you to the fact that people are seriously arguing that Islam is not religion?

Asma Uddin (AU): There was. And thank you, Ben, for having me here. It was in 2010, I was still at the Becket fund, and I was working on a case in Murfreesboro Tennessee, involving the Islamic Centre, Murfreesboro, and its attempt to build a new facility. As is very common with Muslim communities across the US, the community in Murfreesboro had outgrown its base numerous times and was tired of moving from apartment, to garage, to storefront, and decided that it needed a permanent spot: something that was big, and could accommodate them and their growing congregation over the course of many years. And, given the existing relationships that the Muslims of Murfreesboro had with others in that community, they were totally caught by surprise when, in the course of their construction of this building, their construction site and much of the construction material was actually set on fire. And those flames – as they were eating up this site and these materials – those were really the opening scene of my book. Because it was in that moment where there were these very clear signs that there was going to be real tension. And chronologically speaking, the timing is important because this incident happened pretty much on the heels of the Park51 dispute that has sort-of erupted, and taken over both New York City and the national headlines dealing with the mosque project – or a project that was deemed to be a mosque. It was actually a cultural community centre in New York. And so the two incidences are linked, in terms of the substance and the timing. But the argument in Murfreesboro was clear that it had come out of the animosity against the Park51 building. In the Murfreesboro case, it was actually argued in court, over the course of the six-day hearing . . . which is a significant fact, because the judge didn’t stop the questioning as it went on! Typically, if a lawyer gets out of line the judge shuts it down, but in this case it was allowed to go forward. And in the course of that six-day hearing it was argued very explicitly . . . and there’s always been a long time when these arguments have implicitly been made that Islam is not a religion, but these words were actually stated in court. And the argument was, essentially, that all the different protections that houses of worship get under the law do not apply in that case because Islam is not a religion.

BM: And what are they arguing that Islam is? What are they saying? If it’s not a religion, what can it be?

AU: There tends to be a number of responses to that. But the most dominant response is that it is a political ideology. And, you know, furthermore a dangerous political ideology that is bent on taking over the United States; that is at odds with the US Constitution; and its ultimate goal is a subversion of that Constitution.

BM: And I assume . . . . Did the judge provide any good questions . . . that would try to undermine that argument? Or did the judge just let that go forward unchallenged?

AU: (5:00) I mean, it was a number of witnesses that were questioned with really outrageous questions, such as: “If a religion is founded by a Prophet that engaged in sexual relationships with underage girls, specifically a six year old, would you call that a religion?” I mean, these are like commissioners and various government officials, siting on the stand, being asked these kinds of questions.

BM: Wow! So what do you find most alarming about this move to redefine Islam as something other than a religion? What have been some of the tangible repercussions or consequences of this?

AU: Yes, I think the conversation on Islamophobia has been going pretty strong for a long time. A lot of scholars and activists have noticed this trend. And what I noticed when I set out to write this book was that the conversation was almost exclusively based on what the media and politicians are saying – which is very important, obviously, because of the impact that both of those players have on our society. But nobody was really looking at the effect of this rhetoric on constitutional rights. And to the extent that that sort-of bridge was being made to tangible results, it was almost always in the light of national security policy and questions of immigration and detention. But it was a little odd for me, actually, that Muslims as a religious community . . . that conversation wasn’t happening through a religious liberty lens – which I get into in the book, actually. To the extent that framing, in itself, is another way of essentially saying that “Islam is not a religion”. If you keep talking about it in some other terms and not as a religious liberty issue, you’re almost implying that religion isn’t the proper lens to be looking at this through. And so when I set out to write this book, I was really coming from my background as somebody who’s a lawyer and writer focussed on religious liberty in the US, and abroad. And I was wanting to change that conversation a little, and turn the focus a bit to the concrete effects on religious freedom – which is what I spend the entire book really looking at: the various ways that this “Islam is not a religion” argument comes up. Sometimes it’s very explicit. Sometimes it’s implicit but in all cases it’s very obvious. And I have several chapters, each dedicated to a different area of religious exercise, where this has come into play to diminish legal rights of American Muslims under the US Constitution.

BM: That’s so interesting. I wonder if you’ve seen any changes in the strategies of lawyers, or legal scholars, who are advocates for the Muslim community? Are they starting to add in legal language protecting the rights of Muslims that are not just based on the First Amendment but based on other laws or legal precedent in their court cases? Are they trying the Fourteenth Amendment, or other laws or statutes?

AU: Yeah, I mean I haven’t done a full survey of actual briefs filed. It’s more so: are briefs being filed at all? But I did see some legal literature – academic literature – where Muslims were arguing that Islam, and protections for Muslims, needs to be defended under the racial discrimination elements of the equal protection clause.

BM: Interesting.

AU: And in some cases the argument went so far as to say that it should be used instead of religious liberty arguments because it “more accurately captures what is going on”. And that was, again . . . I mean, this was something that I read very early on in my research, which again was very alarming for me because it wasn’t just that there was a failure to understand these issues, but it was an actual concerted effort to diminish the importance of that. So again, it’s a move within the community. It’s not just outsiders saying this. But now it’s like a move within the community being, like, “Yeah, I think a better way to think about what we’re going through is racial discrimination and let’s advocate for it that way.” And I think that that in itself opens . . . I think the racialisation of Muslims is a reality. I think that is a phenomenon. But when you begin to say that it is racial instead of . . . or that the racial element is more important than . . . you’re creating exactly the space that these other people want, to diminish the religious status of Islam. You’re giving them that opening. And that’s worrying.

BM: It’s fascinating that the discourse by those who are antagonistic towards, or attacking the rights of Muslims has actually changed, to a certain extent, the legal strategy of Muslims – or their allies in courts – to move from the religious liberty lens to the race-based discrimination lens. Or maybe a combination of those two things.

AU: Again, I haven’t . . . that was the advocacy that I saw in the academic literature (10:00). And in terms of the actual legal advocacy I think, for me, that’s less of a current problem in its explicit form. But I think this idea of Muslims as racial or ethnic minorities – or something akin to that – as opposed to a religious minority, is showing up just in the types of issues that are being litigated to begin with.

BM: Right.

AU: And so, coming from a background where I saw very sort-of expansive advocacy for religious liberty on behalf of conservative Christians, and Jews, and a wide array of other religious groups in the US, that expansiveness is very much missing in the Muslim legal advocacy space. It’s like even the NYPD surveillance case, it was just. . . . The argument there, in terms of proving animus, was almost entirely based on trying prove intentional discrimination. And I was like . . . I tried advising that group that you can actually prove discrimination without proving the exact very explicit intentional discrimination. There’s a wide array of ways to prove that there was systemic differential treatment in a very systemic way. It could be something that’s not at its face discriminatory but applied in a particular way . . .

BM: Right.

AU: And that resistance or, I guess, the narrow sort-of lens on what constitutes religious discrimination is not something that’s limited to Muslims, but I think it’s just part of the political alliance that they’ve been welcomed into, that wants to think of religious liberty in very limited terms. Whereas many people on the conservative side would argue for religious liberty much more broadly. And so I think all those are political elements mixed in as well.

BM: Yeah. That’s fascinating. And are you seeing it show up in the court? So could you tell us a little bit more about how your work ties into the argument that courts are biased against Muslims – that somehow religious freedom is for Christians only? This is something that’s come up with a few of the Supreme Court cases that were decided just in the last year – that religious freedom laws are only really being applied to protect Christians and not Muslims or other religious minorities. Could you speak a little bit more about that?

AU: Yeah. And so I think that more extreme version of that statement . . . this idea that you stated perfectly encapsulated that . . . . The Editorial board of the New York Times put out a piece about a month ago with the title “Is Religious Freedom for Christians Only?” And I think that that’s an extreme version of what I’m looking at. I don’t think that the bias is that extreme. And I definitely don’t think that’s the case with the US Supreme Court. Do I think that there is some problematic bias and some dynamics that need to be looked at, and questioned more closely? Yes. There is statistical evidence that a number of different researchers have put together, looking at religious liberty cases brought under a wide array of legal bases – whether it be the Free Exercise Clause, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and so on – and looking at these cases over the course of . . . one study, for instance, looked at it over the course of a decade and found that Muslims were the least likely to have their religious liberty claims resolved in their favour. I think the only one that was competitive with that was the black separatist sects. And so there’s a number of studies looking at and bringing this issue to the fore. And these researchers then also take the step of trying to figure out “Why?” Like, “What’s going on?” Because when it comes to legal cases and their resolution there can be a number of different things going on. It could be, for instance, that many Muslim claims are from Muslim prisoners, and prisoners generally are notorious for bringing frivolous claims – so is that what’s going on? Well, no. Because if it was frivolous it would have been dealt with much before the judge got to writing opinion and deciding a case. And so, for instance, a study that I discuss in some detail in the book is one by Gregory Sisk and Michael Heise and they go through a number of explanations of what they think, and explain why none of them are the right explanation. And they finally conclude that it’s bias. It’s a bias that a lot of judges probably don’t realise that they have. But they, as human beings living in a society saturated with this, are essentially being affected by what’s going on outside the courtroom in terms of how they’re dealing with some claim in front of them. And so there’s that empirical evidence. And then in terms of the type of thing that the New York Times was seizing on . . . I think it’s significant that it is the New York Times and its editorial board. Because it’s really reflecting, I think, what many Americans are feeling in the light of more recent decisions. I think that contrast that we saw this last summer between the Supreme Court’s (15:00) . . . the way it dealt with animus – religious animus or anti-religious animus – in the Masterpiece case. And there was a lot made of what the commissioners and the Colorado Human Rights Commission had said about Jack Phillips’ Christian beliefs, or religious beliefs specifically. And that was enough to, essentially, hold in favour of the baker. And then, three weeks later, you have the Travel Ban case where it’s just way more evidence of animus and it’s like the President of the United States who’s engaging in this. And it was just sort-of deemed an issue, by the majority, that wasn’t relevant. And there are all kinds of other complicated factors here. It’s not just a state commissioner it’s the President. The President comes with all kinds of special privileges. But many Americans. . . . And it’s also the fact that the dissent in that case disagreed and said that, “Well, I don’t think that that’s the way law should be interpreted in that particular case.” And so there’s that plausible legal argument for why animus should have played a bigger role. But then that contrast really, I think, left a lot of Americans seriously wondering about the impartiality of our justice system. And then it came again to the fore in February, about a month ago, when we dealt with the case involving a Muslim inmate, a death row inmate who wanted an Imam with him in the execution chamber and was told that he couldn’t have him there with him, because the only clergyman allowed in there was the one of the staff. And the only one on staff was a Christian clergyman. And so, again, it was just especially because the facts of that case are so heart-breaking –it’s like your final moments! And the fact that it wasn’t just, like, no clergyman was available. I think Alabama has actually moved to that position now, which I think is bad for other reasons. But it was like, “Well if you happen to be Christian, you’ll get him.” Right?

BM: Right.

AU: And so I think we’re consistently seeing this. And of course there’s the bigger looming question of how partisan Supreme Court is. And we saw that blow up with the Kavanaugh hearings.

BM: Right. So you’ve outlined so many challenges to trying to help the public understand the nuances of this issue. Obviously there is compelling empirical evidence that you mentioned from different scholars who’ve been researching the success of religious liberty claims by different religious groups. You’ve talked about public understanding of how the Supreme Court and other courts have interpreted the First Amendment. And The New York Times editorial board piece. So with this very loud media landscape, where people are talking about this issue in very polarising ways, what have you found has been successful when you’re talking about Muslims and religious liberty, when you’re trying to reach different audiences – and especially audiences that might be hostile, or questioning the research and evidence that you present in your book? Has it been that empirical evidence is really helpful? Have you found personal narrative . . . ? I know in your book you weave in some of your personal narrative with your family growing up in Florida, if I remember correctly. So what has been successful? Do you change your tactics or strategies when you’re speaking to different audiences?

AU: So in terms of whether or not this is successful, I think that’s a question that remains to be seen once the book comes out and I use it as a sort-of launching pad for conversation and real engagement – which is what I’m hoping to do with it. But I think you raise an important question. I think that’s what I was also trying to get at when I said this framing of The New York Times’ editorial board . . . and I also understand that it’s probably getting a compelling title. But I made it a point to say that I thought it was more extreme than it needed to be. And part of that is just sort-of forks into how I wrote this book to begin with. I just made . . . I made a concerted . . . . It was actually a struggle to write about anti-Muslim issues in the US and not to fall into the type of tone and rhetoric that tends to dominate the space. I’m not actually sure that I’ve seen a book that really gets into the question of Islamophobia, and does it in a way that tries to make peace and reconcile with the people who are engaging this rhetoric. And that ultimately is, I think, why a lot of this literature just isn’t having an impact. I don’t think it’s enough just to kind-of like use it to hammer other Americans. I think the point is . . . OK I aim to articulate what’s actually happening. I’m not going to sugar coat it (20:00). But I’m also not going to use it to make assumptions about . . . certain types of assumptions that I think are probably a little bit too common now. Which is this idea that the person making these arguments is either inherently “dumb” or “bigoted” is something that we hear a lot. And I try to stay away from those words. Because I think it turns people off. It turns off the precise people that you need to reach. It makes them uninterested and it makes them put you in a particular box. And so I try, to the extent possible, to use language that shows that to some extent I understand their concerns. And I see them as another human being who is motivated by things that a lot of human beings are concerned about. A huge one that I keep hearing about is this idea of security and the way that Muslims have been portrayed in the circles . . . and with the leaders that they listen to, as a threat to the security of them, to their families and to their country. And part of my effort here, in humanising this, is like, “Guess what? I feel that, too.” Because I am also human, right? And so it’s hard to explain that a) I’m not going to put you down for your concerns, but I’m also going to explain to you how I have those same concerns and yet, even with those same concerns I don’t think that that justifies, or requires that, we limit the rights of Muslims, or of anyone else. So to the extent that we can measure success, I think some of the people, that interact with that group, which have read the manuscript, feel that I’ve done that well. So it remains to be seen.

BM: Yes. And to follow up on the question of audience: when you were writing it, did you imagine that you were equipping . . . were you trying to “robe the choir”, you know, “feed the choir”… are you “preaching to the choir” intentionally so that they have the tools that they need to continue to “sing out loud” – to use the metaphor for too long – to say that that “Islam is a religion: here are resources that I found from this book that help me make that argument?” Or are you trying to convert other people? Are you trying to reach an audience that already disagrees with you, or perhaps doesn’t quite know, and you’re trying to bring them over to your understanding of things?

AU: Well, the funny thing with the book is that I sort-of take aim – in my very civil, calm way, you know – across the political spectrum. So, roughly the last half of the book really looks at the way that I think that liberal allies of the Muslim community are, in their own ways, turning it into something that is not a religion. And why I think that this is really problematic. So the question really is: will I have any friends after the book? (Laughs).

BM: (Laughs)

AU: But the way you phrased the question was interesting. Because you said, “Are you preaching to the choir or trying to give them the tools to make the argument that Islam is a religion?” And it’s interesting because I’ve written about the book topic in mainstream news outlets, The New York Times and more recently The Washington Post, and a lot of people do get caught up in that. Like this question of “Well is Islam a religion, or is it not a religion?” “How do we define a religion?” “Is the dominant frame here the Protestant conception of what a religion is, and is that the core of all this?” And I actually don’t get into that. I sort-of mention that as an introduction as like “Yeah, that’s going on – but that’s not relevant.” This book is not a philosophical, deep dive into what constitutes a religion. I think that’s not what’s important. I think a lot of other people have done that. I think it would be interesting to look at that again in the light of modern political debate. But it’s more so: OK, I’m talking about the law, and the law has its own way of figuring out what’s a religion for purposes of protection under the US Constitution. And that really is the only definition that matters when it comes to legal grades. So there’s various philosophical definitions that have been adopted by the courts. But, again, the relevance is only to the extent that it’s been adopted by a court.

BM: That’s so interesting. Do you think that there’s a disconnect between conversations in Religious Studies as a field about what religion is, and in the legal field about what religion is? Are the courts listening to Religious Studies scholars when they’re trying to make sense of what constitutes a religion and what doesn’t? Or is it its own tradition, and they’re just referring back to their own tradition and not really in conversation with Religious Studies scholars?

AU: Well I mean, currently, it’s Paul Tillich‘s definition of religion that has really . . . The US Supreme Court has never defined religion. But federal courts have. And so there isn’t, like, this one agreed upon definition in the legal world (25:00). But for purposes of actual legal protections they understand . . . there is an understanding by the courts that whatever the definition may be, it has to be pretty broad. And that judges are not in the best position to be defining philosophical parameters of what constitutes religion. So to the extent that they can turn to philosophers and religion scholars to have the terminology and help figure out some sort of way to articulate this, they do that. But they’re more sort-of concerned about “How do we capture what we’re trying to protect without necessarily creating too strict a boundary?” Because ultimately this is about constitutional protections. And we have to . . . . So the emphasis really tends to be on what judges can and cannot do. We can’t interfere with questions of religious doctrine. Whether something is important to a religion, or central to a religion, it doesn’t matter. It could be the most peripheral element. If you’re religion-based it still gets protected. And so that’s really interesting, also, if you start tying it back to the discourse around “Islam is not a religion”. Because a lot of that discourse tends to be “Well, Islam is not just a religion”. Or, more specifically, as some pretty high-profile people have said, “Only sixteen percent of Islam is a religion.”

BM: How do they quantify that?

AU: Well my sense is that it all comes from a study or extensive ongoing studies done by the Centre for the Study of Political Islam, CSPI, and they actually, apparently, have gone through all the various Muslim core texts and have sort-of categorised what they think counts as religion, versus politics. And based on this categorisation have come up with the sixteen percent number.

BM: Wow! (Laughs).

AU: And of course it’s like, you know, the fact that outsiders are sitting there parsing through this way, coming up with their own definitions of where religion ceases to be religion and politics starts. It really kind-of shows: a) how ridiculous the process is – purely from an intellectual perspective – but then also what it leads to.

BM: Right.

AU: And that’s exactly the sort of thing that judges have to stay very far away from.

BM: Right. Wow. Well as we wrap up, do you have any thoughts about the future? Do you think that we’re moving in a positive, or negative, or neutral direction? Are you seeing groups that are popping up that are more vocal in their defence – I don’t know if defence is the right word – but their explanation that Islam of course is a religion? Or are you seeing more and more groups that are popping up, making this argument that Islam is not a religion? Where do you think that we’re heading? And I know that’s a very broad question, so you can answer in the courts, or just in the public discourse. Do you think that there’s reason for hope, or reason for some concern? Or both?

AU: I would say both. In terms of the people who might be popping up to say that Islam is not a religion, I think that they are not yet popping up (in court) – at least not in that form – because I think that . . . .What the book seeks to do is articulate a problem. And once I articulated it, lots of people were like, “Yeah. I heard that!” But you know they just sort-of dismissed it. And it’s really about “Don’t dismiss it. Focus on it.” And even more recently, with the Australian Senator commenting on New Zealand mosque attacks, he put out an official statement that said, “Islam is not a religion and these people are not blameless, even if they are essentially being gunned down in their own house of worship. They are not blameless.” And again it was just like people were like: “Oh my God! This is crazy!” But it was like: ‘It’s crazy!” And then attention sort-of diverted from it. And my intention was to bring it back. “You’ve seen this before. It’s happening again.” An official statement put out by politicians in the most gruesome circumstances and I’m trying to direct the attention to that. Because you can’t really take it seriously, and begin to figure out a solution to it, if you don’t actually realise it’s happening.

BM: Right.

AU: And if you don’t realise it’s part of a larger concerted plan with particular goals in mind . . . So in terms of the two different camps that you’ve mentioned I think the side that’s saying Islam is not a religion is gaining steam. There’s a piece that I cite in the very beginning of my book, but that was written by David French, a very prominent conservative commentator and columnist with The National Review. (30:00) And he says this. “Every time that I go and talk to conservative audiences about religious liberty, the first question is always: ‘Does everything you just said apply to Muslims?’” And so, there’s plenty of evidence that this is gaining ground. It’s becoming a very common argument. And I think it’s time to sort-of focus our energies in articulating proper responses to that.

BM: Well, thank you for doing that so compellingly in your book. It’s a really compelling, cogent, explanation of this line of argument that we’ve seen come through certain conservative circles. And then you also, as you mentioned, talk about the ways that folks across the religious political ideological spectrum are eroding the sense that Islam is a religion. So thank you for that contribution. As a reminder to our Listeners, the book is out on July 6th. The title is, When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom. And you can pre-order it now. Thank you so much, Asma, for coming in. I really enjoyed the conversation.

AU: Thank you, Ben, for having me.


Citation Info: Uddin, Asma and Benjamin Marcus. 2019. “When Islam Is Not a Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 June 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 13 June 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/when-islam-is-not-a-religion/

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Critical Approaches to Pre-Islamic Arabia and Early Islam

Given the way in which many introductory courses present the history of early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia, we may be tempted to think that the historical facts were well established and the narrative uncontested. However, this is far from the case. What evidence do we actually have from this period, and how may it challenge the conventional narratives that have become canonised in sacred and academic histories? What misconceptions might be challenged by modern epigraphic work, or the application of Social Identity theories to ancient texts? And why might this matter for contemporary Islam, contemporary Islamic Studies, and the critical study of religion more broadly? Joining Chris to discuss these questions, is Dr Ilkka Lindstedt of the University of Helsinki.

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


Critical Approaches to Pre-Islamic Arabia and Early Islam

Podcast with Ilka Lindstedt (6 May 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Lindstedt_-_Critical_Approaches_to_Pre-Islamic_Arabia_and_Early_Islam_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Given the way in which many introductory courses present the history of early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia, we may be tempted to think that the historical facts are well established and the narrative uncontested. However this is far from the case. What evidence do we actually have from this period, and how may it challenge the conventional narratives that have become canonised in both sacred and academic histories? What misconceptions might be challenged by modern ethnographic work, by the application of Social Identity theories to ancient texts? And why might this matter for contemporary Islam, contemporary Islamic Studies or the Study of Religion more broadly. Joining me to day in Helsinki is Ilka Lindstedt who holds a PhD and title of docent in Arabic Islamic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is currently University Lecturer in Islamic Theology at the Faculty of Theology. He’s published studies on early Islam, Arabic historiography and Arabic epigraphy and recent edited volumes in English include the co-edited Case Studies in Transmission and the forthcoming Translation and Transmission in the First Millennium, both with Ugarit-Verlag. And you can see his institutional website or academia.edu page for more information. And we’ll link to that on the website. So first off: Dr Ilka Lindstedt – welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Ilka Lindstedt (IL): Thank you very much.

CC: So, broadly, we’re talking about pre-Islamic Arabia and early Islam, today – which will obviously be something that’s quite familiar to you. But to the broader Religious Studies community it might not be. So if we could start off, just broadly, tell me about your area of research and what kind of sources are you using? How do you go about doing such research and things like that? What are you interested in? And why?

IL: Thank you. So, I’m interested in late antique Arabia, pre-Islamic Arabia from the first century Common Era onward, up till the early Islamic period, let’s say the eighth century, Common Era. So, the Prophet Muhammad lived in the sixth and seventh century. He died in 632, so that gives a sort of framework where we are operating. And I’m especially interested in approaching early Islam with Social Identity theories, formulated in Social Psychology, and how those can be used to study early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia as well. And I try to use – as much as possible, that we have to hand – dated materials, contemporary materials. Especially, epigraphy is an important source-set that we have from pre-Islamic Arabia and the early Islamic era as well.

CC: Excellent. You might want to . . . I actually had to look up what epigraphic sources meant before we spoke about this! So if you clarify for our Listeners what they are. And also, more of our Listeners are probably familiar with perhaps Biblical Studies because, you know, it tends to sit in Study of Religion departments in some way. I certainly did some Biblical Studies, back in the day. So it would be interesting to hear about how similar or different you might describe your work that might be done by a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, for example.

IL: Yeah. So by epigraphic sources I mean inscriptions, and in this particular case especially, lapidary inscriptions. So inscriptions engraved in stone, you know, preserved in tens of thousands from pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia. And I would say that, in my study, I definitely use as much as possible approaches and methods developed in Biblical Studies. Especially, you know, the understanding that we should use contemporary sources as much as possible. Most people dealing with early Islam have been using Islamic era – much later – sources to study the life of the Prophet or pre-Islamic Arabia, for instance. So also the Social Identity approach is something that has been used in Biblical Studies, since the nineties especially, to study the New Testament. But also the Hebrew Bible and see how people in those texts . . . and how those texts categorise the world. Although one question that has been studied quite a lot in Biblical Studies is the question of the parting of the ways when Judaism and Christianity become different categories: when did people start to see them as Christians as opposed to Jews? And that question is something that hasn’t been asked too much in Islamic Studies (5:00). So until the nineties very few people asked the question: when did Muslims actually start to categorise as Muslims, self-identify as Muslims? So that’s kind-of a new question.

CC: Excellent and we’ll get to that towards the end of the interview. So before we start diving into the misconceptions that might be challenged by some of your work and others into pre-Islamic Arabia, we should get some of those misconceptions out there onto the table. Again, our Listeners might not just know this basic narrative. But, what are some of the times and places in traditional narratives that we’re talking about here, relating to early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia? I know that I certainly have always thought that, you know, the Arabian Peninsula was full of nomads who all thought of themselves as Arabs, and Mecca was a really central key trading post, and they all came there and there are lots of deities in the Ka’bah and things like that. That’s the narrative that I had. But I think that’s not quite right. So, maybe, tell us a bit about the context and then we can challenge that with some of these sources that you’ve been looking at.

IL: So I guess the received tradition we have to start with, we could start with the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 570 in Mecca, like you said. In the Islamic Era the narrative Mecca is portrayed as being a place where almost everybody was polytheist. So according to this Arabic narrative there might have been a couple of Christians or Jews living in Mecca, but there were only a few of them. They were few and far between. So ninety-nine percent of the people, according to this, seem to be polytheist. So that’s 570 or so. And then in 610 the Prophet starts to receive his first revelations conveyed by the Archangel Gabriel, but coming ultimately from God. And at that time the Meccan polytheist aristocrat is not happy with the monotheist message that the prophet Muhammad is trying to convey in Mecca. So Muhammad receives very few converts, very few followers. One of them is actually his wife, Khadijah who becomes one of the first, or maybe the first convert to Islam. But still he has very few followers in those years, the 610s. And the polytheist aristocracy, as it’s usually called in Western scholarship, tries to come after the Prophet and his followers and they even torture some of his followers. And this situation leads to emigration from Mecca, this is called the Hijra, the emigration from Mecca which happens in 622. And this becomes, later, the first year of the Islamic era, the Islamic calendar. In Medina, the situation becomes better. The Prophet rises quite quickly to the top of this city state, as we might call it, of Medina. And he becomes both a religious and political leader of Medina. So early Muslims of Medina and the polytheists of Mecca are at war during those years. And in the year 630, early Muslims are victorious and conquer Mecca. But still the Prophet stays in Medina, and actually dies there in 632.So that’s sort-of the traditional narrative we have.

CC: So before we challenge that narrative through some of the, I guess, written sources . . . what kind of sources do we have from around that period? You know, I know that there’s more literary sources, there’s these inscriptions. So maybe you could just tell us what kind of sources exactly, and then maybe provide some challenges to that narrative?

IL: So, up until very recently, scholars were using Islamic era Arabic literary sources. And we have quite a lot of them, so thousands and thousands of pages of historiographical sources, of different sorts of literary genres, written in Arabic. But that Arabic literature is actually quite late. So we usually say that it’s born in the eighth century and starts to develop from that century onward (10:00). So at least a hundred years later than the Prophet. But still, most of the scholars have been using that source set to engage with pre-Islamic Arabia as well. And the life of the Prophet. But recently people have been turning their sight towards contemporary sources that we might have. And these are especially these inscriptions that I was mentioning. So from pre-Islamic Arabia, from the South and from the North, we have a vast quantity of epigraphic material actually. So from the South, from Yemen we have something like ten thousand pre-Islamic South Arabian inscriptions. And from the North we have even more, so something like fifty thousand or more are published now. And all the time, people doing fieldwork are finding more and more of these inscriptions. And many of them are yet to be published, even though they have already been recorded. So it’s a vast quantity of material and written in different languages. So not all of it is in Arabic, or very little of it, or only a subset of this material is in Arabic. So that’s something that we have from the pre-Islamic era. Then, from the Islamic era of sources we also have Arabic inscriptions. Not so many of them, but let’s say from the first hundred years of Hijra or the Islamic era, we have something like a hundred dated inscriptions, and probably much more that are undated but we can maybe paleographically date to that era as well. So we have quite a few inscriptions that are actually produced in Arabia, preserved in Arabia and produced also oftentimes by people who are not part of the elite. So that’s important to know this. So much of this material is actually graffiti, so stuff that the people were just writing or engraving in stone when they were en route to somewhere, and they were camping somewhere. So they spent an hour or so to carve their name and a message – simpler or longer – on stone. So that’s a very important set of sources that has not been utilised very much.

CC: And so what have these sorts of sources done, perhaps, to that traditional narrative that you laid out beforehand? Maybe a couple of key of examples of things that might challenge that?

IL: Yeah. Especially the polytheist milieu of Arabia in the pre-Islamic era is something that has been challenged by these inscriptions. So, for instance, in Yemen we see quite clearly that up to the fourth century Common Era all of this epigraphic material is polytheist. So there are mention of many gods: Almaqah, for instance, who’s a God associates with the moon; Shamash, associated with the sun. So this traditional polytheist milieu. But then in the fourth century, something happens quite drastically and we see in the epigraphic record that only monotheism is present in these texts and this continues up to the sixth century when the Prophet was born. And, in particular, it seems that the form of monotheism is Judaism that was adopted at least by the elite in Yemen, but probably also by the lay people to an extent, at least. So we don’t have, from the fourth century up to the sixth century, we don’t have any polytheist evidence from Yemen at all. So all the inscriptions that we have are either Jewish or Christian in nature. So they seem all monotheist and also Jewish or Christian identity. And then also in the North we see that Christianity, in particular, is advancing from the third century onward. And we have . . . we don’t have so much material as from the South when it comes to late antiquity – say the third century onward. But everything that we have seems to point towards the idea that Christianity was spreading, and spreading fast. So actually, when we look at what we have from the sixth century, which is the century when the Prophet was born, we don’t have a single text produced and preserved in Arabia that would be polytheist. So everything that we had is monotheist: either Christian or Jewish or something that we cannot actually pinpoint what it actually is. But then, maybe it didn’t even matter to the people who were engraving those inscriptions! (15:00) But this is the case of course in Hejaz, or Western Arabia, where the Prophet lived according to the traditional narrative, and also according to the majority of scholars. So from the Hejaz we don’t actually have so much material, or material at all from the sixth century. So that’s of course still a question mark: what’s going on in the Hejaz in the sixth century? But in any case it seems that in parts of . . . in most parts of Arabia, Christianity and Judaism were spreading past.

CC: Absolutely. Maybe one more example here, before we get onto your social identity work. I mean, perhaps . . . I was quite surprised to hear that Mecca wasn’t quite the big deal that we’ve been led to believe?

IL: Right, yeah. It’s very interesting. This Islamic era sources – which, like I said, are all late – they seem to describe Mecca as a place which was a pilgrimage centre, which was, you know, a trade centre along the trade routes, maybe that criss-crossed Arabia. But when we actually look at pre-Islamic evidence – for instance: Greek literature, Greek geographical literature and also these inscriptions that we have from Arabia – none of them actually mention Mecca. None. And they do mention quite a few Arabian cities and towns. So for instance, they mention Medina – Yathrib, which was the old name of Medina – quite a lot of times. So it seems that Medina was an important . . . or was along these trade routes that started from Yemen and went to Syria and the Mediterranean. But Mecca, maybe, wasn’t such a big deal. So it might have been a local centre but it’s not mentioned at all in the extant evidence that we have from the pre-Islamic era. So that makes me think, at least, that Mecca wasn’t that important in the pre-Islamic era.

CC: Obviously there might be various reasons that it then . . . it’s obviously very important now, and became very important. So there may be an element of reading that into the past. So we’ve only got about ten minutes left. This always happens! So some of your other work then is taking quite a modern Social Identity approach. And specifically, what I’ve read anyway, was looking at, in the Qur’an, looking at the different group dynamics in there. Perhaps you could just quickly introduce what a Social Identity approach might be? And then how you’ve used that to analyse the different groups.

IL: Yes. So the Social Identity approach was developed in Social Psychology since the 1970s by Henri Tajfel and his students, and later many more scholars. And the approach tries to look at social identity, especially. So not so much self-identity but social identity. Some of the group identities and affiliations that we have and possess and signal. And it makes a set of predictions, based on experiments and ethnographic research, about what group affiliation does and categorisation does in the group dynamics. So people have quite clearly noticed that this categorisation into the “in-group” that we affiliate with and the “out-group” which is the others. This sort of categorisation is very natural in us. And it usually and oftentimes leads to the fact that people are more helpful to their in-group members; they attach more positive adjectives to their in-group members; and they allow for different people in the in-group, so a sort-of heterogeneous view of the in-group. Whereas the out-group is usually seen as sort-of like a block, a monolith a homogeneous group of people. And sometimes it is . . . often times it is stereotyped in a way, or negative adjectives and attributes are attached to the out-group.

CC: Yes. And you might have positive attributions biased towards an in-group: some behaviour exhibited by a member of your in-group that would be interpreted positively – and if the same behaviour is in the out-group it might have a different interpretation, based on the same dynamic (20:00).

IL: Right, yeah.

CC: OK. So how does one study that in the Qur’an? I mean it was, maybe, initially developed as a more contemporary ethnographic thing, so how might one study that in this ancient text? And then what have you found regarding different religion-related groups?

IL: So I think the Social Identity approach gives a lot of insight into the ancient or pre-modern texts as well. So instead of actually asking . . . because usually, or sometimes, people have an approach to the Qur’an, and especially the polemic verses in the Qur’an, as signalling that there was some sort of clash between the groups. Whereas people that have been using the Social Identity approach in Biblical Studies have noticed that oftentimes these polemical verses, or polemical passages, in different texts they actually have to do with creation of the in-group identity and creation of this distinct identity. So it doesn’t always have to be the case that there has been some sort of clash in the past. But it actually might have something to do with the present; that the text is trying to signal a distinction to the out-group and trying to make this difference. Whereas the facts on the ground were much more varied and much more of a grey area in how people were viewing themselves and the others. And also, like I said, up until the 1990s people didn’t really ask, in Islamic Studies, the question: “When did Muslims start to view themselves as Muslims as distinct to something else- as distinct to Jews, Christians?” and so on. But in the 1990s Professor Fred Donner, at the University of Chicago, posed this question. But it hasn’t been studied still in depth. There hasn’t been too many people actually trying to approach that question. But I think it is a very important question. And I think we should start with no preconceptions, and start with contemporary sources. Start with the Qur’an and then try to understand the Qur’an in the context of what we know of pre-Islamic Arabia, and then see in the dated material, such as papyri and inscriptions, how that identity evolves later. So when we actually look at the Qur’an we see that the in-group appellation that is used there for the in-group is “believers”. It’s not yet “Muslims” so that is something that seems to happen later. And not only that, but also there are a number of verses that seem to categorise Jews and Christians as part of the in-group, part of the believers. So that makes me think that their situation is not one where Islamic identity was born already at the time of the Prophet. It wasn’t ready at the time, but it evolved later. And when we actually look at the inscriptions that we have that are later than the Qur’an, later than the Prophet Muhammad there we can see that it takes around 100 years before people start to call themselves Muslims or call their religion Islam. So it’s only the 740s when we see this sort of categorisation happening, and also mention of distinctively Islamic rites that happens in the early 8th century, not before.

CC: But again, in a standard into to Islam class, we’ll maybe hear about these verses differentiating Islam from Christianity: “They say that God is three. He is not three he is one,” and all those sorts of things. So there are some things in there which are maybe anti-Christian or anti-Jewish. How does that play into what you’ve just said about believers as a group?

IL: Yes, definitely. There’s definitely polemics against Trinitarianism and against shirk, which means associating anything with God. So absolute monotheism is the central message of the Qur’an, definitely. And I would say that any Jew or Christian who wasn’t willing to part with those associating tendencies wouldn’t be accepted as part of the in-group (25:00). So Trinitarianism is definitely rejected in the Qur’an. But then, there are a number of verses which say that Christians are closest in love to the believers, and they are pious, and they pray, and they will get a reward in the afterlife. And then there are a number of verses that talk about the “People of the Book” in positive manner. And the People of the Book seems to include . . . while the Qur’an doesn’t really spell it out who the People of the Book are, it seems to include at least Jews and Christians and possibly others as well. And so there are a number of verses that seem to suggest that those people in the People of the Book can be part of the in-group if they are willing to part with some of their views which are against the Qur’anic message, and if they are willing to accept the Prophet Muhammad as a Prophet, and the Qur’an as Revelation. Those are definitely sort-of identity signals that people . . . core values that people have to accept. But then, there are a number of others that are later Islamic developments. For instance, there is no conversion ritual mentioned in the Qur’an. The five daily prayers are not mentioned in the Qur’an. Prayer in general is, but the five daily prayers are not. So those sort of things. There are also two verses that explicitly say that Jews and Christians and the believers – and maybe others as well who believe in God – on the last day will get a heavenly reward. And those verses are then, in later Islamic traditions, understood as meaning “Jews and Christians that lived before the Prophet”. But the Qur’an doesn’t say that. And it seems that in the Qur’an the situation is the present tense. So it seems that the Qur’an actually promises, there, some of the Jews and Christians a heavenly reward and salvation, as such.

CC: So obviously I could probe much further but time is going to be our enemy here. So I would urge the Listeners to check out your webpage and dive into some of this. But as a final question: why does this stuff matter? I’ve often, in a sense . . . . As with, say, the historical Jesus studies, we can spend a lot of time working out what exactly was going on, what was happening at the time. But, in a sense, does it matter at all? Because the figure has taken on a life of its own, in a number of different ways. So why does this close study of these sources matter? And what’s its relevance, maybe, for . . . I guess there’s contemporary Islam, there’s contemporary Islamic Studies, the Study of Religion more broadly?

IL: That’s a good question. To an extent, I think it probably doesn’t matter to a lot of people! And maybe people in academia have a tendency to over-emphasise the meaning of their research in the wider society! And, you’re right: scholars who are working in historical Jesus studies, their studies are not probably so relevant to your average believer, your average Christian in say, Finland, or the UK, or South Africa, or wherever. So Jesus is something that matters . . . the Jesus figure that matters to them is probably different to what a scholar of historical Jesus would reconstruct. What I think has some sort-of intrinsic value here, is trying to look at the seventh century people or sixth century people who wrote their inscriptions: how did they see the world? And I think it sort-of gives value to their views, and tries to understand the world as they saw it. But when it comes to contemporary Islam or contemporary Islamic Studies of course, like I said, there’s different verses dealing with the Jews, dealing with the Christians and others in the Qur’an. And those can be understood in different ways. And there are a number of people working inside the tradition as Muslims and as scholars who are approaching these same verses, and maybe drawing similar or the same conclusion that I am here (30:00). So for instance Mun’im Siri, who has written a fine book called Scriptural Polemics, tries to see how the Qur’an itself classifies different religions and Islam, and also probes how later and modern exegists and modernist exegists have understood these verses. And he seems to suggest that the Qur’an can be understand in pluralistic ways, and it can be understood as not being all the time in polemics with Jews and Christians and so on. So, of course, it might have contemporary relevance. But, you know, I’ll leave it to the Listener.

CC: Yes. But it’s a good example of the fine line, in the Study of Religion in general, that we walk between not denying the uniqueness and boundedness of a tradition, but at the same time pointing out that these things are historical developments, and they’re connected to their context. And some may perceive that as an attack or as denigrating, and others may see it as validating. And we’re sort-of walking that line of saying “Things are more complicated than the common narrative might say.” Just as a final question: what are you working on just now? I would hate it if someone asked me that (Laughs).

IL: (Laughs) Yes! I’m actually, with a colleague of mine, we’re writing a book about the Prophet Muhammad, and the narratives about him, and the interpretations of him both in the medieval era and today. This has still got to be finished though, so . . . ! (Laughs).

CC: Excellent. Well, I’m sure some outputs will come out of that in English as well. And hey – you’ve now recorded an English language podcast – you might record a Finnish language podcast! So, Ilka Lindstedt, thank you so much for joining us on the Religious Studies Project!

IL: Thank you.


Citation Info: Lindstedt, Ilka and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “Critical Approaches to Pre-Islamic Arabia and Early Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 6 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 25 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/critical-approaches-to-preislamic-arabia-and-early-islam/

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Cosmpolitan and Cool–and Modest

A response to “Modest Dress Beyond the Headscarf”

by Saskia Warren, PhD

I listened with great interest to Elizabeth Bucar’s podcast interview with Candace Mixon. In particular, I was animated by her discussion of how fashion offers an alternative to textual analysis of religion by privileging the visual, material cultures, and everyday practices. In this I was firmly in agreement as a cultural geographer who also writes on Muslim women and fashion cultures, albeit the term I tend to mobilise is modest fashion, rather than Bucar’s pious fashion. Yet we are both interested in head-to-toe looks of wearers and how these might respond to local aesthetics and morals, rather than tracing clothing choices to religious texts. In responding to local contexts, or refashioning placeif you like, Muslim women can be engaged in changes to fashion and judgments around dressing appropriately over time.

My research does differ given an area focus trained on Britain, and specific attention towards those who work in fashion. In what might be termed a feminist geopolitical approach, I am keen to explore how fashion offers a means for activism. For a number of my participants, fashion and beauty are a way of reaching wide audiences of Muslims and non-Muslims alike in order to propagate an accessible and moderate image of Muslim women living in Britain, women who are cosmopolitan and cool. Fashion and beauty therefore work as a conduit, but I would argue that the implicit aim is overtly political – although perhaps engaged in more everyday forms of political action: to participate in public forum debates around women’s visibility and rights in Islam and society more broadly. Blurring fashion and media expertise, Muslim women have often led as highly active agents within the fast-growing Islamic Cultural Industrieswhere they are in the business of creating content that shapes new narratives about Muslim and feminine norms, visually and textually. Moreover, as Elizabeth discusses in this fascinating podcast, pious or modest fashion has impacted how wealldress. High street brands such as H&M and Uniqlo have launched modest fashion lines. But even more evident are the ways in which layered and covered looks – with higher necklines and lower hemlines – have become de rigueur.

As a case study we might think about the work of Dina Torkio whom I have written about elsewhereas crossing-over from fashionista to activist. In Britain, Dina was at the very forefront of the emergence of modest fashion as an influencer, featuring in a number of high profile mainstream magazines and newspapers, and has since diversified into film-making #YourAverageMuslim. More recently, she and her family have also been subjected to vicious and highly targeted abuse due to her decision to uncover her hair more regularly in online content, such as published videos and photos. This case study draws attention to the desire amongst young Muslim females for positive role modelswho share identity markers (and transcend national boundaries), while simultaneously spotlighting how digital space operates as both an oppressiveandprogressive forum, especially where it intersects with religion and moral discourse. I argue that paying closer attention to the work and agencies of Muslim women in the fashion world as cultural producers and activists can offer challenge to religious conservative and Western-liberal thinking on the contours of everyday Islam, gender and equality. It also gives emphasis to the day-to-day embodied and spiritual precarity experienced by Muslim womenas highly visible cultural producers. As Elizabeth discusses in relation to her own work, fashion can offer ‘a good way of thinking about different Muslim communities that doesn’t start with religious texts or inter-religious politics’, and instead ‘focuses on everyday practices’.

A related line of enquiry that resonated with me was how through an accessible topic such as fashion Elizabeth sought to combat Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism in ways that enable everyone to enter the conversation. I welcomed her approach of investigating three different site studies – Tehran (Iran), Yogyakarta (Indonesia), and Istanbul (Turkey) – to open up the representation and diversity of Muslim women. Of course, I also think one can diversify the representation of Muslim women at home, or within a single site case study, as well as through a comparative multi-national and multi-city approach. Again taking Britain as an example, where the Muslim population is 4.8% of the national population, with over 50% of the population of Muslims in Britain born in the country, there is a growing diversity of Muslim identities and experiences. Due to the British Empire and later migration of subjects from former colonies attracted by labour opportunities in British industry, Pakistani Muslims comprise the largest segment of the British Muslim population at 38%, followed by Bangladeshi at 15%. However in recent years, there has been an increase in minority Muslim groups, such as White ethnic, Black African, and, with changes to the British Census categories from 2011, those identifying as Arab. In my own research on Muslima lifestyle media and fashion, the majority of participants identified as from the South Asian diaspora, especially of Pakistani heritage, with the sample also comprising minority Muslims identifying variously as Scottish, Caribbean, Palestinian, Iranian, Egyptian, Burundian, and mixed heritage. A number rejected identification with one Islamic sect or school of thinking or identified as culturally Muslim. But those profiled had practiced variously as Sunni, Wahabi, Deobandi, Shia, or Sufi, showing a wide range of intra-Muslim beliefs and affiliations.  

The aim to diversify representations of Muslim women, and to emphasise their positive contribution to British culture, arts and the economy, are some of the guiding principles behind a monograph I am currently writing (under contract with Edinburgh University Press) and a major exhibition at The Whitworth, Manchester. Beyond Faith: Muslim Women Artists Todayfeatures the original artwork of five contemporary artists from a range of backgrounds and at various stages of their artistic careers: Robina Akhter Ullah, Shabana Baig, Fatimah Fagihassan, Aida Foroutan and Usarae Gul. In the podcast, Elizabeth discusses the highly successful Contemporary Muslim Fashionsexhibition at the De Young Gallery in San Francisco. Exploring visual art practices, Beyond Faithhighlights the creative agencies of Muslim women in the production and circulation of new material forms and narratives. The exhibition aims to increase understanding of the different artworks, artistic practices, and lives of these diverse artists. Together they offer challenge to social and economic inequalities and religious intolerance, while actively expanding and diversifying spaces of the artworld.

Beyond Faithis shown in the Collection Centre and as part of an artist intervention in Four Corners of One Cloth: Textiles from the Islamic World. It marks the culmination of a major Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Project on the roles and experiences of Muslim women in the UK Cultural and Creative Industries that I was privileged to lead and is generously funded by AHRC and The Whitworth. The exhibition runs from 14 June 2019 – October 2019.

References

ThomasReuters State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2016/17 Accessed 4 August 2017. Available at: <https://ceif.iba.edu.pk/pdf/ThomsonReutersstateoftheGlobalIslamicEconomyReport201617.pdf>.

Warren, S. (2019). # YourAverageMuslim: Ruptural geopolitics of British Muslim women’s media and fashion. Political Geography, 69, 118-127.

Warren, S. (2018). Placing faith in creative labour: Muslim women and digital media work in Britain. Geoforum, 97, 1-9.

Discussing Pious Fashion and Muslim Dress Beyond the Headscarf

In this discussion, we cover some key terms from Bucar’s book, such as what Pious Fashion is, why it might be defined that way, and how it helps further a conversation about Muslim women beyond the veil. We discuss the differences in performing fieldwork for this project in Iran, Indonesia, and Turkey. Connecting this research to Islamophobia and Muslim experience in America, Liz Bucar reflects on how modesty has become more mainstream. Recording it at the American Academy of Religion conference in Denver, we also reflect on our own conservative fashion in academia and the experiences women scholars often have with dress and the academy.

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, April Fool’s prank stuff, bananas, and more.


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


Muslim Dress beyond the Headscarf

Podcast with Liz Bucar (1 April 2019).

Interviewed by Candace Mixon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Bucar_-_Muslim_Dress_beyond_the_Headscarf_1.1

Candace Mixon (CB): Ok, so I’m Candace Mixon and I’m meeting with Dr Liz Bucar at the Annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. And we are in Denver on the floor of the Conference Centre.

Liz Bucar (LB): Literally!

CM: We are on the floor. And there’s not a lot of space, so we’ve found a space to carve out for ourselves. So Dr Liz Bucar is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Northeastern University. She’s a religious ethicist who’s studied sexuality, gender and moral transformation within Islamic and Christian traditions and communities. She’s the author of three books including the award winning, Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress. And that’s what we’re mainly talking about today. So thanks so much, Liz, for meeting up with us.

LB: Thanks.

CM: So, to start, can you tell us what pious fashion is? And what brought you to that topic?

LB: So pious fashion is the word that I use in this book to describe clothing that is both religiously coded as Muslim, so trying to be “upright women” and trying to be “mosque”, in a certain religious way, giving their own interpretation but also intentionally trying to be fashion-forward or with the fashion trends. And it’s actually not exactly a topic I had, but it came out of conversations with the women that I’m actually talking to. It literally is subject-driven research: the focus groups I had, the interviews I had with women, that’s what they wanted to talk about in terms of mosque clothing. And so instead of calling it mosque clothing, or instead of calling it just . . . it’s not just headscarves, it’s really a head-to-toe sort-of look, in these three locations.

CM: Awesome. So speaking of the three locations you’re book relates to examples from Iran, Turkey and Indonesia. So for a lot of people out there that might be sort-of a random combination – ones that don’t immediately have commonalities. So I wonder if you could walk us through, first, just the choices for those three particular countries.

LB: Yes. The case studies came out of my own sort-of experience in these locations. But there’s also a conceptual, theoretical reason for it. So, in terms of my personal experience, like you, my initial research in grad school was based in Tehran or in Iran. So my experience. . . . . My research wasn’t about clothing or material culture in that way. At that time it was part of my experience, if not my research. And I had this moment where I moved directly from Tehran to Istanbul in 2004. And having spent the summer covered, to suddenly uncover on the streets of Istanbul . . . . For me, that was the first time I actually cared about clothing, or understood clothing, or was interested in clothing in terms of what it did to someone’s character and culture. Because I felt really uncomfortable uncovered. I’m not Muslim, but still, by doing that practice every day I felt . . . and I wasn’t covered with the intention of becoming more modest or becoming more Muslim. But still, by doing that every day in Iran, I had shifted what I thought was appropriate behaviour for myself with men I didn’t’ know, behaviour in public, how I should dress. And so that was an interesting moment for me. But I wasn’t really interested in the question of fashion until I did other research in Indonesia. And I got there and I was like, “Oh my God! It looks so different here!” And I was like, “Duh!” But when I’m surprised by things I have a moment where I lean in a little bit. So, of course it looks different there. And it didn’t read to me as, like, modest in the way that it would in those other locations – particularly in Tehran and Istanbul – because of the local style culture, the local politics, the local history of garb and women’s clothing and women’s dress. And so those three case studies kind-of come out of my own trajectory, moving through these different spaces, doing other research. But then when I sat down to write the book, I was like, “Oh no, no, I’m going to stick with case studies.” Because we spend so much time, particularly in the US, thinking about the Gulf as the origin of all things Islamic, much less clothing, right? And I just wanted to de-centre that. Of course you’re going to include Indonesia. That’s the most populous nation in the world and it was a great way to have three case studies. They’re all Muslim majority – the cities. That was sort-of one baseline for me. And they were all not part of the Gulf, right? So that’s how those case studies emerged. And then also showing the enormous diversity through those cases. And I mean, I’m really a comparativist. So the only thing that really cuts through all my work, that is similar, is that I like to have many things on the table at once and find connections and differences. So I felt much more comfortable and could find more things . . . could understand things more in depth when I have more case studies. So I understood more what was going on in Tehran when I started thinking about what was happening in Yogya or what was happening in Istanbul (5:00).

CM: It’s interesting, I think we’ve had similar trajectory. I haven’t been to Indonesia but I’ve certainly spent a lot of time in Turkey and Iran doing my research. And even just going back and forth from those two countries, packing is a nightmare, trying to get all the right clothing that makes sense for travelling in very different places. And I’m sure you’ve had this experience too, where your students will often come to it with monolithic . . . and so I think something like this really helps them break apart those different cases in how different the fashion and style is in those countries.

LB: Yes. I mean, I think in some ways. . . . Am I a little bit annoyed that we are still spending so much time in the conversation about women and Islam talking about clothing? Yes! I am also really annoyed about that. This is the second book I’ve written on this topic and this is not where my research started, right? But it’s partly in response to the fact that people still don’t understand it. And non-Muslims fetishize it, and over-politicise it, or under-politicise it: they think it means more than it does, or it means less than it does. They just don’t understand the context of what is happening. It’s either a sign of women’s oppression wholesale – they don’t understand the choice involved – or it’s a sign of a worrisome creep of Islam – “It’s coming! And “Oh look! The Hijabis are coming!” So it’s partly that we keep talking about it because there’s still so much misunderstanding. The other thing, that you just sort-of raised, is – particularly for my students and for a non-Muslim audience, which I’m really interested in, I’m writing primarily for them – it’s a good way in to thinking about different Muslim communities and Islam that doesn’t sort-of start with texts, or political debates. I mean, I get into politics, it comes up. But I also get to start with like religious practice. These women. . . . there’s not talk about the Qur’an in this book. That was actually really hard for me. I’ve written another book and it has that chapter on the sacred texts, right? And I was like “I know that stuff and I have to put that in there.” But I don’t put that in there because the women I’m talking to don’t start with quoting to me the Qur’an. They jump right in with, like, “OK – this is what it looks like here.” And “Here are the debates that we’re having”. And, “This is the problem” or, “This is the pressure we’re feeling”; or “Here’s how I style my headscarf.” They start right in with the decisions they’re making every day. And you realise that’s where the negotiation of what accounts to being a good Muslim woman is happening. It’s not happening over fights in the text. The women I was talking to, they all agreed that – these women who are covered – they think that it is their religious duty, it is a religious duty to cover. That’s a given. So then the question is, what does that mean? And that’s not a textual debate, really. It’s an everyday practice debate. So it’s a way into the religion that actually, once you move through, “It doesn’t mean that; it doesn’t mean that. Ok – it’s diverse!” You can then open it up and have a fuller conversation. Either in this book having a conversation, or with my students, or in the public scholarship I’m trying to do, I’m about combatting Islamophobia and Anti Muslim racism in ways that are trying to meet my audience at a place that they can enter the conversation with me, I guess.

CM: Right yes. So you mentioned Islamophobia and we talked about that for a second before this, and I am in interested in just having you say a little bit more about perhaps how your work, by diversifying . . . whether the hijab, or impressions of Muslim women and their choices – or not choices – or their culture, etc. . . if you see it rubbing against and resisting Islamophobic tendencies a little bit, or if you’ve seen any reaction like that related to your work?

LB: Ok, so as soon as you write anything about Muslim women and the veil, you immediately get hate-mail, right? Especially if you do it to a public audience. So the LA Times piece I wrote, I got a bunch of Liberal, non-Muslim women telling me I was like doing this terrible disservice to the world of feminism because I was talking about Muslim women’s fashion, I guess, just in a charitable way. I was letting the women speak for themselves. And they were expressing agency and choice – I mean within structures of . . . not that it’s a completely free choice. No clothing is not happening within a web of . . . You know.

CM: I have to wear this right now. I have to.

LB: You look really good. And you have to wear that right now. Because we’re at the AAR, right? So there’s all kinds of . . .

CM: Precisely.

LB: I was told, the first time I went to the AAR by a senior faculty member when I was a grad school, I was given a list of things that are particularly important for women. So: don’t wear aggressive shoes. I’m wearing aggressive shoes right now!

CM: Min are moderately aggressive shoes. Medium aggressive.

LB: I am wearing aggressive shoes right now. And not to wear distracting lipstick. I was told by a male senior professor to make sure that I had more than one suit when I went on a job, to wear, because women were judged more on their appearance. And on day two, I’d better show up in a different looking suit than on day one. (10:00) Another academic was talking about hemlines – so much policing of our clothing in the academy! So, anyway, that’s like another whole issue. But probably what this book is trying to get people to think about, as well, is our own sort-of constraints that we have. This is not just a Muslim problem. There are expectations about what you wear. But back to your questions about Islamophobia: I have found this an interesting way to begin conversations about Islamophobia, and anti-Muslim racism. Because . . . so the De Young exhibit is a good example, in San Francisco. Because it’s so visual and so material. So the De Young Museum is like . . . . I’m from Boston, so it’s like the MFA of San Francisco. It’s the modern art museum. They have a gorgeous exhibit right now which is very informed by scholars. They have a scholar board involved, and also a local community board that popped out. So it’s a very different than something like Heavenly Bodies, that Met exhibit, which was not informed that way. So the exhibit at De Young . . . because the clothing there is both stunning and beautiful, but also shows a great diversity, you could have someone who knows nothing about Islam and the Muslim community walk through and come out with a different . . . it sort-of shifts. . . . I think it pushes back against the stereotypes. And I think that’s important, because we’ve had a bunch of surveys lately that have told us that, basically, if you know a Muslim you’re less likely to be Islamophobic. And also, the Pew Forum in 2017 had a survey that came out that said that fifty percent of Americans do not think that Muslims are part of the mainstream, in the US.

CM: OK

LB: So that’s how Muslims are “othered”.

CM: Outsiders.

LB: Always outsiders, right? So you bring someone through this exhibit and you have clothing that is accessible. And you have . . . you know . . . the silly, Christian white lady: “Oh I would wear that! That’s not so different!” And then you have . . pushing back, “Oh it’s really not all a biased” and “It’s not all black clothing” And “There is a diversity of clothing!” Because, guess what? There’s a diversity within the Muslim community. That can be an “Aha!” moment for people. Or “Oh my God! They’re not, like, being forced to wear this by the men, or the Ayatollahs and their lies” – the Muslim men are liars – “and the clerics and their lies.” “Look, there are actually women who are designers who are making a business and life out of this!” Or “There are women who are using their clothing for social activism.” So the De Young exhibit has really activist wearers and designers as part of it. So they’re like, “Muslim women don’t need to be saved” right? They’re able to use the example of clothing like showing how they are themselves producers and using it in interesting ways. And then again that mainstream culture thing – it’s everywhere, now! And that exhibit – what does it look like? Macey’s. And what does it mean that. ..

CM: And all the top designers are adding full, modest lines.

LB: Yes.

CM: That are akin to people that are in the Middle East that are often becoming wealthier, in countries like Qatar and countries UAE, and trying to also push to that. So that’s also interesting.

LB: Yes. So who the designers are responding to is a certain market, right? But the truth is, I’m looking at what you’re wearing right now. You’re wearing a modest outfit, right. So hemlines have gotten longer and necklines have gotten higher. There is, sort-of, a “mainstream” . . . . I’m putting my hand in the air but no-one can see that, right?

CM: Air-quotes.

LB: Air-quotes for “mainstream fashion”. Like, these are taste-makers. Muslim women wearers and fashion makers are influencing . . . they’re part of mainstream culture. They are producing culture. And so if you think about, you know, Clothesline or H&M lines that people are going in and purchasing – not realising it was originally developed and marketed to Muslim women. But now it’s being marketed as globally sensitive, inclusive, like, you know, it could be called hip and sophisticated. It’s actually to be thinking about ways in which this clothing – if you’re a non-Muslim woman – this clothing actually might appeal to you now as a cool thing, right? As a cosmopolitan thing. So I think that clothing could be this way, again, into . . . . .If you really pay attention to it instead of just seeing the headscarf, you can just . . . it’s great way open up the complexity of these different areas.

CM: Yes. And then how do you see your work sort-of speaking to . . . . I mean, we’ve talked about dress and contemporary society – and, yes, I totally agree things like hemlines are getting longer, turtle necks are in again, mock necks etc., again, right now – but what about within gender and religion more broadly? So I know your project is comparative within the Muslim world or within Iran, Turkey and Indonesia. But how would you see those discussions fitting in with other discussions of religious clothing, perhaps, not just for mainstream America or something like that. Or would you?

LB: Sorry, particularly in the US context, or?

CM: Yes. Whichever ones seems to appeal to you

LB: So there’s a couple of things that . . . I think you’re sort-of asking me to expand my work out into religious Studies more broadly, right? (15:00) So for me, doing this work, because I’m really a religious ethicist, that’s the other hat I wear, is in different societies of religious ethicists. Like the Society of Christina Ethics, the Society of Muslim Ethics. Those have been societies that have been really text-driven. So even just thinking about how we study visual culture, and everyday practice, and material culture, and how we theorise that has been sort-of a challenge. And in that work I’ve really found allies in places like Religious Studies. And that was a lot of exciting stuff. But a lot of stuff was kind-of in the last decade. So none of it was stuff I was reading about, or thinking about, back when I was in grad school. So that’s thinking about – particularly if you’re someone like me who’s interested in everyday practice – and thinking about, how do you read, visually, instead of textually? Those have been really exciting conversations to have. And in the US context, actually the new project I’m working on there is a chapter focused on clothing and I brought up the ethics of it. Because we’re having this moment, in the US, where religious clothing has got a lot of attention. I mean the Met exhibit, Heavenly Bodies exhibit, which is an exhibit – for those who don’t know – of Catholic-inspired couture, basically, also some things from the Vatican – about forty pieces from the Vatican – so it’s . . . . The exhibit had 1.6 million visitors, and more visitors than any other exhibit ever . . .

CM: Right. It was huge.

LB: When I went it was like lines around the block.

CM: It was physically, like, immersive. I mean it took me hours to get through it, and I went to the cloisters and it was. . . .

LB: A pilgrimage

CM: It was a pilgrimage. It really was. You had to go on top of a mountain to get there.

LB: And the light was low, so you were kind-of confused. And the music is loud. The music is very dramatic. So it’s interesting, like, who that drew in. But what’s also interesting about that exhibit is – I don’t know how you felt about going through it. There wasn’t a lot of context. So, although there were beautiful pieces to look at, there wasn’t a lot of filling out of history of them, or the symbols that we saw there. So there’s a sort-of Met Gala, which is like the gala that opens it up where you have Rihanna dressed basically as the pope. And she’s like so fabulous and we’re all like “Oh, you look so fabulous! “But this is a sort-of appreciation for aesthetics but it’s not coming with the understanding . .

CM: Of the religious community . . .

LB: Yes, or some problematic features of it. So Robert Orsi wrote some great stuff about this, where it’s a very sexy exhibit – lots of low-cut, and really the body is put forward – and it’s coming at a time when we’re in this crisis, this sex abuse crisis. There’s no conversation about that in the exhibit. So again, I think, obviously the board, in considering religious clothing, they were like, “you can get them in the door of the Met to see it”. So again it becomes an opportunity to have more complicated conversations about religion. That’s where I’m thinking about sort-of going.

CM: Cool. And you mentioned something you’re working on. So if you wouldn’t mind, maybe we can have a little preview of your interesting . . .

LB: Little spoiler . . . Yes. I have a book that’s under contract again with Harvard University Press which was really wonderful to work with on Pious Fashion. And they’ve really helped me think about pushing or writing for a different kind of audience. And writing in a different voice. So I have a book under contract which is. . . . My working title is called, “Stealing your Religion”. And it’s a book that comes out of frustration, in my classroom, about stilted conversations about cultural appropriation that . . . . Students love that word, and love that phrase – especially in terms of religious . . . . racial borrowings, like white people stealing things from black communities, like culture. They were using a word, in addition also, in terms of religious stealing, but not . . . It was just shutting down conversations instead of opening up. So this book is about the sort-of ethical, muddy, ambiguity, good and bad, of these sort-of borrowings of religion particularly by people who themselves are not part of those communities. So we’re moving in the US to a situation where the majority of Americans are going to have no religious affiliation, right? We’re going to be “nones”  n-o-n right? Not . . .

CM: (Laughs).

LB: And so I thought there was actually something really interesting for me to think about in this. Because I actually am, myself – this is probably too much information – but I am, myself a baptised Catholic. But I have not been practising since I was in the household, like 10. So I’m a non-religious affiliated person who has made a career of studying religious communities. So that’s kind-of weird.

CM: Same, by the way. Almost exactly. (20:00)

LB: And it’s interesting to think about that and think about the positionality of that, and what the politics of that. And so this is a book that kind-of goes through different things that I have a lot of experience with. So, for example, I take students on a pilgrimage to Spain every year as part of our Study programme. We do the Camino. So I’m taking mostly non-Catholics on a Catholic pilgrimage as part of a course and the majority have this life-changing experience even if they’re not religious. OK, so what is that? Like why are they . . . ? What are they trying to get out of an experience . . .as a quote-unquote non-believer, as an outsider? How can they? Why are they searching for? How are they understanding the sort-of spirituality-versus-religion divide that people just assume is a truth? What is that really? So this book is like looking through different case studies. And I’m kind-of . . . I sometimes say I’m doing all the icky things and then thinking about them. So I’m “stealing their religion” and trying to unpack it and problematise what . . . . And that audience, that is really a book written for white women. Like, we’re hearing about “the problem of white women”, I want to think about especially about . . . . Like, if I am a character in that book, I’m sort-of thinking about white women moving through these spaces. And sort-of the ethics of that.

CM: Yes. I was thinking about, when you mentioned it . . . so obviously that project is pretty contemporary, right?

LB: Yes.

CM: As is Pious Fashion. But then I was thinking about, even if I consider examples from that Met exhibit, or just other ones where you see elements of covering such as habits, such as other forms of veils – Mother Mary is presented as wearing a veil. And those aren’t problematised as much as this abject reaction that comes, sometimes, with Muslim forms of covering.

LB: Yeah.

CM: So it’s interesting when you track a historical trajectory of different forms of covering up and then, now that one culture seems to be focussed on as the one that covers up, there’s more of an adverse reaction. Or something. At least I think, I don’t know.

LB: So again, part of my annoyance . . . not my annoyance, my resistance of writing this last book was that “Oh my gosh, there’s so much scrutiny on Muslim women!” – so much attention in some ways. And this book is part of that conversation. It’s like I’m also . . . I’m adding to that problem, right? I’m also scrutinizing and looking at women. I’m hoping that because they are really pushing the research, and their voices are really pulled out, you also see how they themselves are involved in like surveilling each other and scrutinising each other. And they’re part of that mechanism. But I think in my classroom with my students, they are usually really shocked to find out that the veil is not a big deal in Muslim communities until – like in Egypt – until the British decide it’s a big deal.

CM: Exactly.

LB: So it’s like, “Oh it’s just their fault.” Like it’s: the British come in and they’re like basically “This veil is a problem. It’s a sign of Islam, that you’re not the same as us. We’re going to take it off.” And then Muslims go, “Woah! You want to take it off? We’re going to put it back.” So, like, that interaction is usually a wake up moment for my students. Yes, we are in a really kind-of exciting, interesting moment, right, where we have our first elected representative in the congress in a hijab.

CM: Yeah.

LB: But I don’t know if you’ve seen this yet, but this week it just broke that one of the first things the Democrats are doing is changing a hundred-and-eighty-one year old rule, that’s on the books, for what you can wear on the house floor. It says you can’t wear hats. So in order for her to make sure she feels like she can walk in the first day, they’re going change it. So we’re in this interesting moment where like: I’m sorry – Muslims are mainstream in America, right? Muslims are part of leadership and activism. And so it’s also . . . (interruption waving at a passer-by) we’re at this interesting moment where it’s really showing us the structural racism and religious discrimination that we still have on the books.

CM: Yes, there’s so many examples, you know you can think about the history of the places that you’ve studied, of Turkey and Iran, specifically – hats! Oh my gosh! Such a big deal! Putting them on, taking them off, putting on the tie, taking off the tie. So the clothing is where those decisions about modernity and about culture are being negotiated. So it makes complete sense to have book like Pious Fashion, I think, to do some of that work. And I’ve found it works really well in the classroom. And I’m sure you’ve found as well that for your students, they’re reacting really well to the work, right?

LB: So yes my favourite thing, here, is that it’s working well in the classrooms. It’s only been out for a year and I have . . . . That is like the greatest compliment that you can pay me. Because I was trying to write in my teacher voice and I was trying to . . . . The way I teach is a lot of stories. So I was trying to tell the stories and let the women tell their stories. (25:00) And I just think the more story-telling we do in general in the classroom, and in our writing, the more we can . . . I just think it’s a good way to teach, and shift . . . . It’s very effective in terms of shifting perspectives. There is just something else that is happening there. Another thing that I think that’s happening right now, that’s sort-of showing again this like sea-change in the US right now: the NYPD is being sued by a bunch of different Muslim women for basically having their headscarves ripped off for mug shots. And again there’s no reason why hair . . . I mean my hair wasn’t this colour a couple of years ago! Hair is not a distinguishing feature of someone. You don’t need hair to . . . so the idea . . . . And it’s like we’re just in this really contentious place right now and unfortunately clothing is becoming part of that debate.

CM: Cool. Well I think this was super-helpful. Hopefully people have gotten a bit about pious fashion and will hopefully check out your book. Any other final thoughts for us?

LB: No. Thanks for this, it was really fun. Even though we should confess we are, literally, sitting on the floor!

CM: Yes. We might take a photo just to let everyone know. We’ll put it out there. It’s very empty. And yes we’re going to go back and keep conferencing.

LB: That’s right. In our conference gear . . . conference-wear!

CM: Yes, in our modest conference gear!

LB: There’s pious fashion everywhere. And what counts as pious fashion here is this!

CM: Is old suits!

LB: (Laughs). Sensible shoes and old suits!

CM: (Laughs). Ok. Thank you so much, Liz.


Citation Info: Bucar, Elizabeth and Candace Mixon. 2019. “Muslim Dress beyond the Headscarf”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 22 March 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/muslim-dress-beyond-the-headscarf/

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handshake

Religious and Socio-Cultural Boundary Work in the Swiss Handshake Affair

by Kerstin Duemmler, PhD

The Therwil affair leaves us wondering how refusing to shake hands can become such a symbolic act that it attracts the interest of politicians, lawyers, and media on local and global levels. It is evident that the excitement around this affair reflects social problems that lay behind the question of how pupils and teachers should greet each other.

One aspect of this social problem is the fear of Islamism, which is omnipresent in Europe. The Swiss handshake affair only provides a further incidence that nurtures it – notwithstanding if fundamentalist Islamic ideas have really motivated the Muslim boys to refuse shaking hands with their female teacher. While this fear is not completely unjustified in view of the Islamist terror attacks during the last decade in Europe, it has turned into a suspicion towards all Muslims. In public debates, Muslims are suspected of allowing religious fundamentalism to override respect for civic duties like gender equality or religious freedom. These worries are pervasive within public discussions, not only around the handshake affair, making deeper social divisions visible within society that are also (re-)produced in the everyday life.

Financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation, Janine Dahinden, Joëlle Moret and I (while being affiliated to the Center for Understanding Social Processes (MAPS) at the University of Neuchâtel) conducted a large qualitative study project with young people of different religious and ethnic origin in Switzerland to understand the way they deal with this diversity in schools. Our results show that Muslims are perceived as religious Others and they are set in contrast to the two mainstream Christian religions – the Catholic and Protestant church – and the high number of Nonbelievers (Dahinden, Duemmler, & Moret, 2014). Based on a clear-cut dichotomy, over-simplified images are sketched: Muslims would live their religiosity extremely, not only in private but also in the public sphere, and would not be free to choose how they live religion. The Christian and Nonreligious defined mainstream We-group is, in contrast, perceived as moderate, respecting religious freedom and considering religion a private matter. This clear-cut religious boundary work between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has become prominent because it pretends to defend religious and secular values as well as gender equality, making the ‘oppressed Muslim women wearing a headscarf’ the prototype of the religious Other.

This religious boundary is historically new in Switzerland – as the social cleavages during the 19th century were among Protestants, Catholics, and liberal-secular political forces – but the ‘cultural stuff’ legitimizing the Othering of Muslims today seems to be somewhat similar. As Philipp Hetmancyzk and Martin Bürgin also argue in their podcast, civic duties are again privileged over religious duties, at least in the public space like the school, what makes them even speak about a ‘contemporary Swiss culture war’. I would bring other arguments forward helping to better understand the Othering of Muslims within the Swiss context of immigration.

In fact, the Muslim population (around 5%) is primarily an immigrant population who has become more visible since the 1990s with immigration and asylum seeking from the former Yugoslavian states, Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Arab or Asian countries[1]. Thus, the discussion on handshakes is overlaid with the discourse on immigration and integration. But how are ‘Muslims’ constructed as cultural Others?

During the whole 20th century, the fear of ‘over-foreignization’ marked most political debates and anti-immigration initiatives in Switzerland (Dahinden et al., 2014). This fear relates to the number of immigrants and their potential ‘danger for Swiss culture’. After World War II, Italian and Spanish labor migrants were perceived as cultural Others; during the 1980 and 1990, the fear concentrated on labor migrants and asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey; and since at least 9/11, Muslims are the prototype of the ‘foreigner’ – so are called ‘immigrants’ in everyday terms – leading to a ‘Muslimisation’ of immigrants (Allenbach & Sökefeld 2010).

Above, Simonetta Sommaruga, Justice Minister, argued that shaking hands is part of Swiss culture. Critics say that Switzerland is a multicultural society, where the practices of religious minorities should be respected. 

Historically, cultural assimilation of immigrants was seen as a measure to circumvent ‘over-foreignization’, and although Switzerland officially follows nowadays an integration policy, assimilationist ideas have remained omnipresent until today (in particular in the Swiss German part of Switzerland) alongside multiculturalist ideas. This means that immigrants are in general expected to ‘culturally and socially integrate’, while ethno-cultural differences are, at the same time, perceived as enriching and ethno-cultural identities and thus not totally expected to be abandoned (Duemmler, 2015a). In this context, where assimilationist ideas are ever-present, the public dispute emerged whether shaking hands with teachers are a cultural habit to which everybody, including Muslim immigrants, is expected to adapt or not. And it is in this precise context where teachers (in the canton of Basel where Therwill is located) are nowadays encouraged to denounce ‘integration failures’ to immigration authorities.

Thus, the Therwill affair is also an affair that mobilizes a socio-cultural boundary besides religious Othering. In our study, young people were equally convinced that immigrants had to ‘socially and culturally integrate’, as well as learn to speak the local language, if they really want to be accepted – or, in other terms, cross the boundary. These ideas sometimes turned into a general suspicion that immigrants, in particular Muslims, would not integrate. And although pupils and teachers in the school defended multiculturalist ideas, the integration paradigm was omnipresent (Duemmler, 2015b). In view of our fieldwork, I am thus more reserved than Hetmancyzk and Bürgin about whether teachers will always resist the pressure to report integration failures to immigration authorities.

Finally, the Therwill affair makes me wonder whether there might be even more teachers and schools who strain to find pragmatic, local solutions to questions of religious and socio-cultural diversity. If schools want to prepare young people to deal with socio-cultural and religious diversity in a tolerant and respectful manner, they have to put a strong emphasize on the living of these values in the everyday school life and remain vigilant not to give up the territory to any kind of populism or extremism.

 

References:

Allenbach, B. and Sökefeld, M. eds., 2010. Muslime in der Schweiz [Muslims in Switzerland]. Zürich: Seismo.

Dahinden, J., Duemmler, K., & Moret, J. (2014). Disentangling religious, ethnic and gendered contents in boundary work: How young adults create the figure of ‘the oppressed Muslim woman. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 35(4), 329-438.

Duemmler, K. (2015a). The exclusionary side-effects of the civic-integration paradigm: boundary processes among youth in Swiss schools. Identities. Global studies in Culture and Power, 22(4), 378-396.

Duemmler, K. (2015b). Symbolische Grenzen – Zur Reproduktion sozialer Ungleichheit durch ethnische und religiöse Zuschreibungen. Bielefeld: transcript.

The Therwil Affair: Handshakes in Swiss Schools

In this podcast, taking place on the last day of the Annual EASR Conference in Bern, Dr Philipp Hetmanczyk and Martin Bürgin of Zurich University talk to Thomas White about the Therwil Affair, a controversy that emerged in 2016 after two Swiss Muslim schoolboys declined to shake hands with their female teacher.

The seemingly rather local, minor incident of two boys declining a handshake in a school just outside of Basel escalated into a major national debate, and was reported in news media across the world. As the issue moved from one of school governance, to public values, to law and later immigration, the Therwil Affair became a focal point for national discussions on religious freedom, gender equality, civic duties, multi-ethnic integration and cultural identity in Switzerland.

As the podcast delves into Swiss political history, Philipp and Martin elaborate on both the conservative and liberal cultural narratives which sought to situate the Muslim schoolboys’ refusal to shake hands. They comment that it is not without some irony that amongst the voices who decried the gender inequality implied in the schoolboys’ actions were the same conservative men who had previously argued against women acquiring the national vote: a policy that did not enter law on a national level until as late as 1971 – and in a specific canton as recently as 1990!

Following an explanation of the historical backdrop to contemporary Swiss ‘culture wars’ that the Therwil Affair spoke so clearly to, the discussion moves to how Swiss educational law has shifted subsequent to the Therwil Affair, with schools now expected to report to Swiss Immigration similar instances of supposed integration failure. With schools being understood not merely as centres for education but also as sites for the teaching and reproduction of standardised norms and values, in countries of religious, ethnic and cultural diversity, the tricky question emerges as to what these norms and values are? Perhaps what may be better, as Philipp suggests, is for schools to resist expectations that they should be cultivating a cultural homogeneity, but focus instead on preparing pupils for moments of cultural difference.

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, prank hand buzzers, drilled and slotted rotors, and more.


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


The Therwil Affair: Handshakes in Swiss Schools

Podcast with Philipp Hetmancyzk and Martin Bürgin (17 December 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hetmancyzk and Burgin – The Therwil Affair 1.1

 

Thomas White (TW): Hello there! I’m here in Bern, Switzerland, at the EASR. We’re on the final day. And I’m joined here by two Swiss early-career researchers, Dr Philipp Hetmancyzk and Martin Bürgin, both from the University of Zurich. And because it’s based in Switzerland, this conference, and we need to really get to grips with issues that are affecting Swiss understandings of religion – and politics and religion – in the public space, we are going to be talking about the Therwil Affair. This, as far as I remember from reading in the international press a couple of years ago, was a big issue, carried on the winds of international press as often sensational religious controversies do. But I suspect I’m not the best person to introduce this to our Listeners. So, Philipp and Martin, what was the Therwil Affair? Can you please explain this for us?

Philipp Hetmancyzk (PH): So, what we now call the Therwil Affair is named, first of all, after the place, Therwil. Therwil is a little town close to the city of Basel, which probably might be better known. In Therwil there was a secondary school. And two Muslim students of that school decided not to shake hands due to religious reasons, as they claim, with the female teacher. And this very local incident kind of became a nationwide affair, a case where the media was involved and reported extensively. Politicians debated about the case, brought it up to the cantonal parliament. And even international media reported about that. So, in the end, it became just a huge thing.

TW: Wow. Well this is unusual and perhaps even rather hard to understand – the importance of handshakes. Are handshakes that important in Switzerland?

PH: And just to correct your introduction – Martin is the Swiss guy here. I came to Switzerland for doing my PhD.

TW: Oh, I beg your pardon!

PH: Just to put that straight. No problem at all. But I think that question Martin definitely has to answer – because I never experienced schooling in Switzerland.

Martin Bürgin (MB): Well, of course. I can answer the question from a very personal level. I mean, I grew up in Switzerland and went to school in Switzerland. And I have to say, I don’t remember that shaking hands was a ritual, a common ritual, at school. Maybe at kindergarten, but definitely not at high school. And if we look to that from a historical perspective and we can go one generation back, it was very common that students were sitting behind their desks when teachers came in. And they had to stand up and say, “Hello” and that was it. So there was for sure, no handshake at all. Whether it is, maybe, on the very personal level . . . ? As a scholar in the study of religions – maybe we can discuss this afterwards – but I would say it’s very interesting to see the handshake as a symbol within a cultural symbol system. If we remember Stuart Hall it is the participants in a culture who give meaning to people, objects and practices. And we can interpret this handshake, or the denial of a handshake as a cultural practice.

TW: Right. So the handshake is symbolic of a far bigger conversation and far bigger issues than just simply, you know, classroom management. But let’s try and get to grips with the actual case study before we try and explore the really big conceptual issues, which will be a fascinating aspect to this topic. Now as I understand it, the school did try to reconcile this issue on its own terms quite early. Is that correct?

MB: Before the refused handshake was discussed on the national and international level, the local school management had already reached a compromise with the students and parents. And, basically, it was agreed that the students should be allowed to acknowledge their teacher with another appropriate, respectful form of greeting rather than being obliged to shake hands with them. So this compromise temporarily exempted the two students from their obligation to shake hands with their female teachers, but at the same time it also forbade them to shake hands with their male teachers.

TW: Right. So . . .

PH: Can I add to that?

TW: Yes, of course. Please do. (5:00)

PH: I think what was at stake here – and it’s kind of the important point also of the whole affair – the whole stressing of the gender dimension of this thing. Since they refused to shake hands with the female teacher, teachers in the school feared that now they will go against the principle of gender equality if they would allow for that, just like that. So they forced the pupils, or convinced them also, “If you don’t want to shake hands with the female teachers, you don’t shake hands with your male teachers either.” Just to stick to the principle of gender equality. It was made a big issue, in this case.

TW: Excellent. So there was an effort to both respect the religious freedom of the Muslim students whilst not transgressing on strong principals of gender neutrality.

PH: Exactly.

TW: But then the issue got a lot larger, didn’t it? The media got hold of it. It ballooned into this national conversation. How was it framed in the media, and how did it kind-of create such a controversy?

MB: It exploded when the Arena, I would say the most influential political TV programme in Switzerland, addressed the subject in two specials, under the lurid titles “Fear of Islam” and “Switzerland without God”. Then a barrage of reports and comments in the media as well. As the demand of concrete political measures, postulated by the politicians of influence on the national level, put pressure on the cantonal authorities and politicians in Basel-Country.

PH: I think we have to add to that, also, that the solution found by the school was just meant as a short time-span compromise. The school wanted to have it fixed on legal terms, so they asked for legal expertise to check into the case. Because the school wanted sort-of defined standards to which they could refer in case something like that would happen again. And so they drew it to a legal level, and this made the whole thing public and raised the media attention. So we have, then, two systems kicking in, both with their own interests: the lawyers, the lawmakers, checking on this issue of gender equality, freedom of religion, educational law; and parallel to that the media echo, of course, trying to make the thing a hot topic.

TW: Were the media discussing it within a legal frame? Were they using legal terminology? Or were they using more populist ways of engaging with the issue?

MB: Yes, definitely. It was about, as we said, the equality of women and men; it was about Islam, and Islam as a thing which has to be feared; it was about Christian culture; it was about liberal culture. And so the whole discussion was not really about the . . . it exploded away from this very local issue.

PH: But that was also possible because the media could connect to other hot topics and hot debates, like building mosques in the public sphere, wearing the burqa and other debates which are currently . . . which already existed before. And the Therwil case was just another piece in that sort-of chain of discussions. But again, this then put it in line with “Swiss Culture versus Muslim immigrant culture”.

TW: Right, so we’ve got this discussion of a kind of culture war taking place – or certainly that framing of the issue. For our listeners who might not perhaps be experts in Swiss culture, or the history of Swiss national identity, what are the key tropes or key narratives that can help us understand the forces behind this conversation, this national debate?

MB: Different narratives here, but I would say one of the most important topics is that of the equality of women and men. For that one has to know that in Switzerland women claimed their right to vote not until 1971, on a national level. And in one specific canton, called Appenzell Innerrhoden, as recently as 1991. (10:00)

TW: Wow!

MB: Following a decision by the Federal Supreme Court – so, not on the basis of the democratic level. But now it’s very interesting to see how the same conservative parties and sometimes also the very same politicians – now a little bit older – which opposed the right to vote for women a few decades ago, act now as the spokesmen for an equality of women and men against – from their point of view –archaic forces which menace Swiss women.

TW: So, those who were strongly opposed to . . . or were at least quite sceptical of women’s rights are now using it as a rhetorical means with which to push against Muslims within Switzerland.

PH: It was sort of instrumentalised, I think. I mean, maybe adding to that from a sort-of outsider perspective on Swiss cultural narratives – which are kind of complex, I would also say, which is fascinating . . . . Because you have this narrative of Swiss history and culture as being very liberal, with kind-of a lot of referendums, having a very strong sense for democratic procedures. But on the other hand you have still strong institutions like the army, with sort-of an idolised “male warrior culture”. And also, the national hero figure as the guy with the strong bow, shooting the apple, right? Wilhelm Tell.

TW: We know the music, yes.

PH: And there’s also a strong sense that it is not . . . The army is part of the wider population. Every male guy has to go to the army, takes the weapon home. So whenever there is need to defend the country, they are ready. And this thing is still kind-of going strong, I have the impression. Maybe not as much, of course, as 30-40 years ago. But if I compare it to Britain and Germany, for example, I think it makes a difference here, where you still have that argument as . . .

TW: So are we perhaps looking at a machismo which is defending women from insults, as opposed to really seeking to enforce gender equality.

PH: I would not go that far.

TW: That’s too far.

PH: But the Therwil case definitely kind of was instrumentalised to push the argument forward, “Look at the Muslim minorities. They have an issue with women’s rights.” But we don’t look at our own shortcomings. Because we are very liberal – although you can put many question marks behind that.

MB: The narrative I described before, that was more like the conservative narrative. And of course you have another narrative which I would describe as a liberal narrative. So the liberals in their motion, when the whole this was discussed in the local cantonal parliament, they described a refused handshake as a symbol – I could cite that I guess – for a fundamentalist and militant ideology – so you hear that in their own words – which contradicts our state and social order which is built on personal freedom, legal equality and the equality of men and women. And that’s a different thing. As the conservatives would propose. So for the liberals these are the three pillars of society. And now from the perspective of a history of concepts, maybe it’s interesting to see that if we replace the equality of women and men with the rather old-fashioned term of brotherhood – of course, produced in times of pure male hegemony – we get the very familiar trio of liberté, égalité et fraternité. And that’s the slogan of the French Revolution which is essential for the self-conception of the Swiss Liberals, that they wanted to defend.

TW: So on the one hand, we’ve got the liberal narrative of equality and Enlightenment values, (15:00) and then on the other hand we got the conservative . . .

MB: defending of Swiss women.

TW: And so we’ve kind-of got this strange confluence of cultural narratives being allied to push against migrant and specifically Muslim identities and interests. It’s fascinating. Moving away from perhaps the cultural discussion to more the legal issue – because it did become a legal discussion as well – how was that framed, and what were the arguments on either side?

PH: I think at least one power play that played an important role here was “civic duties versus religious freedoms”. And some politicians brought it forward that civic duties should be given primacy over religious freedoms. And this whole trope, or this logic, has a history in itself. And probably Martin can say a little bit more about that, because it goes also back to this culture war.

MB: Yes that’s true. The concept of primacy of civic duty is also connected with a narrative, with a political narrative. It comes from the Federal Constitution of 1874. It was the first revision of the first constitution of the modern Swiss State, which came from 1848. And both constitutions were products of conflict situations between the Catholic conservative camp and the liberal camp. The constitution of 1874 and the so-called primacy of civic duty – that is a product of pure culture-war politics. This constitution, as well as the first constitution, served as a warrantor of the – at the time – liberal radical majority and was directed against the Catholic conservative minority. So they served as a dispositive of power.

TW: So how does this fit? Is this more kind-of ensuring the loyalty of the Catholic community to the Swiss State, as opposed to Rome? Or the civic duty – it has some very strong policy implications even today, doesn’t it? But . . .

MB: Yes, that was expelled from the Constitution. So it’s not any more in the Constitution, at the national level. So they want to reintroduce that, or wanted to introduce that on a cantonal level, after the so-called Therwil incident. Yes the constitution – as you said – of 1874: that was a political instrument to weaken the Catholic conservative camp. I mean, it included things like the suppression and ban of the Society of Jesus, and the prohibition of the establishment and re-establishment of monasteries in Switzerland, the removal of the right to be elected as members of the National Council for Roman Catholic priests – so not very democratic for Roman Catholic priests – and restrictions against the formation of new Roman Catholic Dioceses in Switzerland. That was a pure culture war product.

TW: And this narrative of civic duties was being mobilised to push against the religious freedom arguments.

PH: It was brought up again, yes, interestingly. Although it has this kind of history package. But in the end they had to drop it again. They did not . . . . Although it was brought up in the discussion, if it should be included in the constitution again – in the cantonal constitution – you have to say. But it was dropped, because of course it was a lot of legal question marks behind if that was still possible. Anyway, to your question about the legal framing – because that’s not it – what they still introduced is that cases like Therwil have now to be reported to the bureau of immigration affairs by the teachers. This is now part of educational law. And since you asked how this changed the perspective since the Therwil case . . . . Because it is clear, now, that you can now bring it up to the Bureau of Immigration Affairs, then the whole issue of religious diversity in the classroom is now being reduced to an issue of immigration questions.

TW: So we’ve got an incident that takes place in the classroom now being an issue of immigration. Is there more to the story, there? (20:00) I mean, were the two Muslim school children, were they recent immigrants, or were they citizens, or . . .? It seems strange to have . . .

PH: I think it was second generation kids. But probably not citizens, yet.

MB: I think from Syria, yes.

TW: Oh, wow. Ok. So we’re starting to almost get integration issues starting to be . . . integration at the national policy level being focused on what’s taking place in the classroom.

MB: I think that was why politicians took the whole issue on the national level: to speak about questions of migration and immigration – and maybe not that much about handshakes.

TW: Yes. So carrying over into broader anxieties and concerns about immigration to Switzerland. Is that how it relates to other controversies? We were suggesting, earlier, that there are other points of conflict, perhaps, between the national narrative of culture and immigrant communities.

PH: Yes. And actually, talking about immigration, I think there’s . . . we already mentioned like the burqa, the mosques, the minarets. But I think what we forgot so far is also the debate about immigration as such – because that’s big topic, too. This is about the integration of Switzerland in wider Europe. Because Switzerland kind-of experienced a huge influx of foreign workers from all around Europe. And this led also to an intensive debate about immigration, local culture, fears of local customs and Swiss culture sort of dying out. And I think this was just another issue to which the Therwil thing could be associated.

TW: Yes, so the site of the school being very much a focus of identity politics. And through the conference we’ve been hearing kind-of papers that have explored the idea that schools are not simply places where people learn, but almost centres of ideological production; where children are inculcated with certain values and certain behaviours and certain perspectives. What do you think are the implications for education, as such, when it gets drawn into these kind of national controversies of culture, citizenship, and diversity?

PH: To answer the first part of your question, I think it’s still the case and schools, of course, are places where you learn about mathematics, where you learn about literature, but also from a Religious Studies perspective, school is definitely still a place which is imagined by wider society as a place where its norms and values are being taught and reproduced. So I think this has not gone. But the question is definitely: what norms and values do you want to teach in school? And I mean, this was also debated in the Therwil case. Because it was said, “Yes – all schools should be a place where they learn to cope with difference; where they should learn about diversity; individual peculiarities; tolerance; respect and so on. But then, what actually happened was that they used this argument to basically out-rule religious diversity in the form of two Muslim guys rejecting the handshake. So there was then, rather: “OK, the school should be a place where norms and values are practised, but these norms and values are not in accord with what these two guys, what the two boys did.” So that put a very strong vision of what schools should be and what norms and values should be practised in school, and what does not fit in to the school.

MB: But of course we don’t have any definition of what these values and customs should be. I mean the cantonal government spoke of, “considering the increasing migration of people with various ethnic and religious backgrounds, it is essential that those people respect our laws our values and our customs.” The cantonal government, you can hear it, doesn’t give us a definition of what these values and customs should be. But clearly we can see a constructed dichotomy of a “we” and “the others”; a construction of identity through alterity. (25:00)

TW: Fascinating.

PH: There was a second part of your question which has stayed unanswered so far. And that was how this kind of national debate about school . . . and what would be the impact on school being connected to citizenship, and what would be an alternative way to deal with such national issues in terms of education? And I think what would definitely help, in such cases like we have in Therwil, is that students and pupils are kind-of equipped with the competence for religious questions. That means also not from a religiously normative perspective, but just having knowledge and competence about religion. So they can basically critically evaluate such debates by themselves, and also kind-of learn to understand what is at stake here. And that then brings me again back to the study of religion as a discipline. Because I think implementing contents from the study of religion in school curriculum would help a lot. For example, to equip students to kind-of get an opinion on such things, by themselves.

TW: Yes. So the handshake isn’t so much a moment for discipline or enforcing national homogeneity or cultural integration but a pedagogic opportunity, perhaps: where the kids in the classroom can actually think about where people come from in different perspectives, regarding the religious values that cause them to physically interact with people in different ways. I suppose the question I want to conclude with is, what is the policy position now? Where are we regarding handshakes in Swiss schools?

PH: That’s a very good question actually. The media attention has gone by now, because the debates are all through. The media is now already onto the next event. And to the next stuff. So what kept almost unnoticed is that the debates in the parliament went through, with the respective change of law as we described earlier. So the civic duties over religious freedoms has not become part of the Constitution, but teachers have to report to the immigration office such incidents. What is done now is kind-of out of the media attention. And the case now, with this, is more or less settled. But with the respective political outcomes which you can see as . . . . Yes, it will have an influence on further cases. Because there’s now a kind of pre-structure for the way of how to handle such cases. This is what the politicians wanted, but which is also kind-of giving away the chance to probably have a more thorough debate on religious diversity in school. This chance is now, somehow, out.

TW: Yes. Well thank you very much Martin and Philipp. This was an extremely stimulating conversation. Any final comments before we sign off and say farewell to our Listeners?

MB: (Laughs).

TW: I think we’re all keen to enjoy a beer, now, at the end of the conference!

MB: And the next media scandalisation in Switzerland will come, for sure! (Laughs).

PH: Definitely! (Laughs).

TW: Wonderful! Thank you very much for that.

PH and MB: Thank you.


Citation Info: Hetmancyzk, Philipp, Martin Bürgin and Thomas White. 2018. “The Therwil Affair: Handshakes in Swiss Schools”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 17 December 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 14 December 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-therwil-affair-handshakes-in-swiss-schools/

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.

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/

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/

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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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