Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Global Faith

It has taken me well over a week to plough through Olivier Roy's "Globalised Islam". It is not a difficult book to read - it's just that the week in question has been particularly tough. Parts of Roy's thesis are difficult to accept - particularly in the hothouse that I live in. Others, however, make a great deal of sense. Roy talks about the effects of deterritorialisation and decontextualisation of Islam. This does add up when is looking at Islam through the lens of the Muslim diaspora particularly in Europe and North America. Yes, a Muslim living everyday life in those cultures is "dispossessed" of his cultural base and has to reinvent him/herself anew in a very different socio cultural milieu. He can either join an existing community (usually a geographic-mosque based situation, usually in a depressed part of town) create one of his own (easier said than done) or become part of a virtual community via the internet.
I still think the emphasis on the development of Islam by the Muslims in the West has been overrated - although I confess I may have to eat my words if things change in the future. From my perspective, the fact is that Muslim intellectuals living in the West have yet to have registered on the Pakistan faith radar. I have never read about Tariq Ramadan and others except in books written out of the west. Many writers tend to overestimate the connection between the Muslim diaspora and its connection with the mother country. A Pakistani immigrant in the Middle East retains more of a connection with Pakistan because he is essentially a "short term" immigrant (permanent residence is out of the question) and given the physical proximity to home (anywhere between a one to three hour flight) he retains his identity. Moreover, living in an Arab/Islamic environment, the contrast between the original and adopted culture is not traumatic.
The picture changes when you look at the Muslim diaspora in the West. The expression "West" is deceptive as diaspora experiences in Europe and North America differ dramatically. Broadly, a "western" Muslim immigrant is farther away from home, is in a pervasively different culture and has fewer connections with home. The sense of community may vary with large groups of muslims in the United Kingdom (Bradford is ten percent muslim) to scattered communities across the larger geography of the United States. To illustrate the point, I doubt that many Pakistanis could make a great deal of sense of "The Lost Language of Lovers" by Nadeem Aslam - a second generation immigrant living in the UK. Although Aslam writes well, his subject matter - Pakistani immigrants in the UK- does not translate well into modern Pakistani life. The description of "desi" life rings few notes of commonality with the mother country. The thought patterns, behaviour and actions of the characters are, literally, out of place. It is Pakistani morality circa the 1950s (when immigration to the UK was at its peak) which has crystallised and (grudgingly) absorbed random aspects of the English life.
But back to Roy. Unfortunately, he is fixated with diaspora to the West- not within Muslim territories. For example, is the sense of alienation ("deterritorialisation") comparable for an immigrant moving from Mirpur to Manchester and a land based individual moving from Sukkur to Karachi ? Where Roy does succeed is in looking towards trends which have created what he describes as "neofundamentalism" which he contrasts with the more traditional Islamists. The latter, he describes as interlinked to political development within a state whereas the neofuns(!) concentrate their efforts on rescucitation of the individual - political development will follow once the individual has been "saved" and brought back to the rightful path. To support this view, he cites a number of examples (primarily from the inernet to show) that the neofuns essentially equate at an individual level - the community is not the primary target. That personal salvation is the primary quest. That intellectual pursuit is not the primary target- the fact that the Afghan "liberators" chose to call themselves Taliban (students) and not Alim (teachers) is relevant.
Roy's examination of the neofuns at the individual level is interesting but wears thin. In a comparative survey of neofuns (primarily Al Qaeda, similar groups and internet preachers) he finds them to be (a) immigrants living in alien cultures; (b) usually with a fairly high level of (technical) education; (c) estranged from parents and the mother culture; and (d) usually married to a "foreign" spouse. This ties in neatly (too neatly, for some) with his contention that the brand of Islam peddled by the neofuns is essentially rule-based and not an Islam which is rooted or even linked to any specific culture or ethnicity. This has led to a distilled, "purified" form of Islam which can be applied across the board from Ankara to Tampa Florida. The end result of this distillation and anti-intellectualisation has however been the issue of a series of edicts or commandments rather than any form of discourse. There is a growing body of work on practice or praxis (the emphasis on growing a beard or the type of Hijab to be worn) which has taken the place of faith. This has echoes in Pakistan where "modern" ulema appear regularly on television either as polemicists or as advisors on matters of dress, etiquette, behaviour and practice as opposed to matters of "iman" or pure faith.
So how does all of this augur for the future ? Firstly, I see little to stem the tide of neo/fundamentalism in Pakistan. One's attention has been diverted by cries of "enlightened moderation" but there has been nothing practical to implement any of this. Merely passing a law deigning that madrassahs will include computer classes in their curriculum is not going to change the position. Second: the pace of Islamisation may have slowed down - due to a less conducive national (as opposed to Provincial) environment, less funding from foreign and local sponsors, but it has not stopped altogether. The factors that led to the creation and growth of fundamentalism in Pakistan (bad education, zero health facilities, a growth in poverty) remain and (if World Bank/IMF statistics are to be believed) have actually worsened. Third: The Islamists (particularly the MMA Government in the NWFP) have done little to improve their political opportunity. Fixating on the smallers issues (banning dancing, billboards with women, cinemas and music) they have failed to capitalise on the larger problems of drugs, violence, foreign infiltration etc. A change of pace should never be confused with the cessation of fundamentalism. As long as the root causes remain the effects will ultimately emerge.

2 Comments:

Blogger Bruce Khan said...

I enjoyed this post immensely. The muslims in the west and in USA are in fact cut of from their indeginous cultural base and focussed on a 'pure' version of Islam which is much more personal and fundamental. I can see trends in Pakistan with the Al-Huda movement etc. which is also against traditional cultural practices and more focused on a modern version of Islam which is more fundamental and personal.

12:42 am  
Blogger Uber Homme said...

Thank you. Although one reads about deterritoralised Islam, it is fairly difficult to figure out how it actually works, particularly when one is living in a very "rooted" Islamic culture.

1:00 pm  

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