Saturday, June 07, 2008

BOOKS: What does it mean to be Islamic now?

Inside Muslim Minds
Riaz Hassan
MUP, 380pp

Who Speaks For Islam: What A Billion Muslims Really Think
John L Esposito & Dalia Mogahed
Gallup Press, 204pp

We don’t often associate the dark skin, exotic culture and third world poverty of the world’s largest Catholic continent with Catholicism. Few Australian Catholics would recognise the popular beliefs and practices of their Latin American co-religionists.

So if I were to make an ambit criticism of Christianity based on the extreme poverty and draconian politics of Latin America , Catholics would be justified in poking their fingers at me and ridiculing my simplistic reasoning.

Among those pointing at me in ridicule would be polemicists and cultural warriors with three fingers pointing back at themselves. Visit the Google search engine and type in “jihad”. Featuring prominently is “JihadWatch”, a blog moderated by far-Right Catholic polemicist Robert Spencer.

It takes a certain degree of intellectual laziness (often combined with irrational prejudice) to attribute negative characteristics to an entire group of people, especially when members of this “group” rarely if ever regard themselves as sharing some uniform identity.

Do entities such as the “Muslim community” or the “Muslim world” really exist? Do all Muslims regard themselves as belonging to the same community of believers? Indeed, do all Muslims regard each other as Muslims? If so, how do we explain the rhetoric of Iraqi Sunni groups who attack Shia Muslim shrines with a view to destroying the infidel?

And how do we explain the fact that an elderly Lakemba-based imam who once claimed the title of “Mufti of Australia, New Zealand & the South Pacific” wasn’t recognised by many Australian Muslims as playing any religious role whatsoever?

Yet we still see, hear and read of the “Muslim community” and the “Muslim world” allegedly having a uniform manifestation of faith in a monolithic (usually violent and hostile) manner. We so easily lump 1.2 billion people together in the same category.

Riaz Hassan, a sociology professor from Flinders University , argues that the tendency to generalise about Muslims is caused largely by the lack of empirical research. As someone familiar with the literature in this area, Hassan is well-placed to suggest that “sociologically informed analysis that explores the nature and content of Muslim piety remains very underdeveloped.”

Hassan’s recently published Inside Muslim Minds outlines some of the results of a comparative study of Muslim religiosity that began some 12 years ago. Just under 6,400 Muslims from seven Muslim-majority countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Kazakhstan) were interviewed on propositions covering the nature of jihad, blasphemy laws, segregation and the role of Islam in politics.

Unfortunately Hassan's propositions do not (and perhaps cannot) factor in the notion that different religious terms conjure up different meanings and images in the collective minds of Muslims from different regions. For instance, most respondents agreed strongly with the proposition that Muslim societies must be based on the Qur'an and sharia law. On the surface, this may suggest widespread support for theocratic Islamist political parties and opposition to secularism.

However, Islamic sacred law means different things to people from different cultures. In Pakistan, even the most secular parties would not dare oppose the operation of courts that decide on family law and inheritance matters based on the “shariat” (as it is referred to in Urdu). Meanwhile, in a conservative (yet ironically matriarchal) mercantile societies such as West Sumatra, the idea of governments not pursuing policies that support usury-free financial products based on (to use Bahasa Indonesia spelling) “syariah”-compliant economics would be an anathema to entrepreneurs, many of whom are women.

Further, while public manifestations of sharia law may signal theocracy for some, it may merely refer to increasing religious observance in civil society for others.

Hassan’s conclusion from his research is that the near-theocratic “safafabist” (a term he borrows from American Islamic jurist Kaled Abou El-Fadl) religious mindset is alive and well in Muslim communities across the world. Abou El-Fadl identifies 8 characteristics of this mindset, including “patriarchal, misogynistic and exclusionary orientation”, “profound alienation … from Islamic heritage and tradition” and “denial of universal moral values and rejection of the indeterminancy of the modern world”.

El-Fadl is a well respected Islamic jurist in the West with a strong grounding in both the classical tradition and modernist “Salafi” or “Wahhabi” (the terms are often used interchangeably, though this isn’t always accurate) thinking. A lay reviewer is hardly in a position to dismiss his work lightly.

Still, one would expect that strong salafabist tendencies translate into an increase in electoral support for parties espousing the 8 salafabist attributes. If recent elections in Pakistan , Indonesia and Malaysia are anything to go by, such tendencies are certainly resisted at the ballot box. Still, Hassan’s results seem to explain why a more liberal Islamist party with strong roots to classical Islam as espoused in Sufi orders has made electoral history in Turkey . Hassan’s sample of Turkish Muslims displayed among the weakest salafabist tendencies.

The size of the sample is also problematic. Do some 6,400 persons’ views reflect the allegedly common collective religious sentiment of 1.2 billion people spread across every nation on the planet?

Notwithstanding, I still find Hassan's analysis very useful. Without wishing to be a bush anthropologist, my own travels through some of the countries surveyed and my exposure to young Australian Muslims leads me to believe that many misogynistic and narrow-minded forms of theology are alive and well in many Muslim communities.

John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, co-authors of Who Speaks for Islam: What A Billion Muslims Really Think, aim to give voice to what they described as “this silenced majority” of Muslims. Their source material is the research findings of “tens of thousands of hour-long face-to-face interviews with residents of more than 35 nations that are predominantly Muslim or have substantial Muslim populations”.

The research was conducted between 2001 and 2007, using a sample which represented “residents young and old, educated and illiterate, female and male, and from urban and rural settings … representing more than 90% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims … the largest, most comprehensive study of contemporary Muslims ever done”. The goal of their research is to “democratise the debate” on issues relating to Muslims.

The outcomes would surprise those regularly pontificating on Muslims on the opinion pages of metropolitan broadsheets. So much of what we read about who Muslims are, what they think and how they live is based on speculation laced with understandable yet unhelpful emotional responses to attacks by extremists acting in the name of Islam.

The irony is that when extremist groups set out to harm the “infidel”, they include in this category ordinary Muslims who refuse to join their pseudo-jihad. It’s little wonder the survey confirms results from other studies of Muslim opinion – that many Muslims may sympathise with the causes cited by terrorist groups (Palestine , Kashmir etc) but they strongly oppose the methods used by these groups.

Like Hassan, Esposito & Mogahed cover a wide range of topics – democracy versus theocracy, gender issues, radicalism and relations with the West. However, their focus isn’t so much on religiosity than on contemporary issues going to the heart of alleged civilisational conflict. Their results evidence a majority Muslim sentiment not hostile to the West but seeking to emulate the West’s liberal democratic freedoms without the baggage of moral decay which even Western conservatives and liberals would wish to remove.

Both works emphasise greater emphasis on empirical evidence in debates on Islam’s relations with the West. Or as Esposito & Mogahed plead: “Let the data lead the discourse”. It’s not a message extremists from either side wish to dominate the dialogue between civilisations. But then, since when have extremists ever been interested in dialogue?

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and recipient of the 2007 Allen & Unwin Iremonger award for public affairs writing. An edited version of this article was published in The Weekend Australian, 7-8 June 2008.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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