Towards a better understanding

19. Dec 2008

Timo Kivimäki, Senior Researcher, NIAS and Gerald Jackson, Editor in Chief, NIAS Press

In the West, Islam is often presented in a very simplified manner (much as the West is interpreted in simplified terms in many parts of the Islamic world). This is no surprise but in fact is typical in situations where there is tension between two parties.However, in this case, for the sake of truth and the need for a de-escalation of these tensions, it is crucial that both sides perceive each other with greater subtlety and insight. Not least, it demands that we see each other’s world for what it is, as diverse and humane.From our Western (Copenhagen) perspective, therefore, it is important that the Islamic world is presented to Western audiences as something other than an alien landscape of beards, burkas and bombs – an image that is far too common. First and foremost, we recognize that it is a human world populated by people with needs and desires much like our own. In cultural terms, the Islamic world is also incredibly rich and diverse.Arguably, one of the essential aims of scholarship is to uncover and present our common humanity to the widest possible audience. Certainly, this is a thread in the endeavours of academic publishers generally, also of our own NIAS Press. For this reason, we welcome this special issue of NIASnytt, which showcases the work (published by NIAS Press) of six scholars writing on quite different aspects of Islam and/or Muslim peoples. Together these offer an alternative vision of the Islamic world to what is all too frequently presented in the West. They give a glimpse into the humanity and diversity of this world.

NIASnytt 3/2008Theme: The many faces of Islam

A cosmopolitan peripheryby Philip Taylor, Australian National University

In this extract from the preface to his study of the Cham Muslims of the Mekong delta, Philip Taylor describes how the Cham protect their cultural distinctiveness at home by being markedly cosmopolitan outside.

Putrajaya as Islamic assertionby Ross King, University of Melbourne

Arguably Southeast Asia’s most spectacular and architecturally distinguished city, Kuala Lumpur (KL to its denizens) in 2007 celebrated the 150th anniversary of its foundation and its 50th as capital of an independent Malay(si)a. The celebrations were fragmented, however, as KL now has a very different twin in the new administrative capital of Putrajaya some 30 kilometres to its south, a putative high-tech focus or ‘technopole’ for a wider Southeast Asian region – even more, for an emerging pan-Islamic world to stand against a reviled, railed-against West. Where KL is a diverse, cosmopolitan, multiracial metropolis, Putrajaya fulfils an elitist vision of a Malay-Muslim utopia. KL’s multi-cultural richness is reflected in the diversity of its architecture and the complexity of its urban spaces. Putrajaya, by contrast, is an architectural homage to an imagined Middle East.

Between and beyond mosques and malls in Malaysiaby Johan Fischerr, Roskilde University

Exploring consumption practices in urban Malaysia, Proper Islamic Consumption (NIAS Press, 2008) shows how diverse forms of Malay middle-class consumption (of food, clothing and cars, for example) are understood, practised and contested as a particular mode of modern Islamic practice. The book illustrates ways in which the issue of ‘proper Islamic consumption’ for consumers, the marketplace and the state in contemporary Malaysia evokes a whole range of contradictory Islamic visions, lifestyles and debates articulating what Islam is or ought to be. The empirical material on everyday consumption in a local context reinvigorates theoretical discussions about the nature of religion, ritual, the sacred and capitalism in the new millennium.

Women and Islam in urban Malaysiaby Sylva Frisk, Gothenburg University

Throughout Malaysia, religious educative activities have flourished and grown in popularity since the 1980s, developing out of the broad current of Islamization of Malaysian society. Women’s roles in the Islamization movement have generally been described in terms of followers and supporters of the movement, whereas men, in their capacity as leaders of political parties or as religious ideologues, are presented as initiators. Relatively little has been said about women’s participation in the process of Islamization from the perspective of women themselves. In her book Submitting to God. Women and Islam in Urban Malaysia, Sylva Frisk provides an ethographic account of Malay women’s everyday religious activities Kuala Lumpur, which balances this image. The focus is on religion as lived practice with an emphasis on the perfomance of religious duties, the acquiring of religious knowledge and the organisation of collective religious rituals, performed independently from men, in their homes and in the mosque. With its emphasis on women’s active participation in Islamization and the leading role that women are increasingly taking within Islam, the book aims to work against common representations of Muslim women as either passive, sometimes unconscious victims of a male dominated religious tradition, or as victims who try to openly resist that very tradition.

Muslims in Singapore: A secular state recruiting slam to its nation-building projectby Michael D. Barr, Flinders University

Since the foundation of Singapore as an independent state in 1965, the People’s Action Party government has not trusted the 15 per cent of its population who are Muslims. Until the mid-1980s they were routinely excluded from National Service for fear of which way they might point their guns in the event of a confrontation with Singapore’s larger Muslim-majority neighbours, and even today they are still subjected to open and public discrimination in the armed forces. These claims are not contentious in themselves since they are matters of public knowledge and are defended by the government at the highest levels. Less public but even more damaging to the welfare of the Muslim community has been discrimination against Muslims in education, employment and in the workplace – and in particular against the Malay-Muslim community, which makes up more than 90 per cent of Singapore’s Muslim population.

Islam in local contexts: Localised Islam in Northern Pakistanby Are Knudsen, Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI)

As Clifford Geertz remarked in his Islam Observed (1968), the idea of a ‘changing’ religion is a contradiction in terms, as religion is fundamentally concerned with what is permanent and eternal. Still, one way to come to terms with religious change is to consider the many ways that religion is interpreted, by laymen and scholars alike. Social anthropologists like myself have naturally found a niche for themselves in local studies of religion, especially in what is often referred to as ‘local Islam’. This article, based on my book Violence and Belonging. Land, Love and Lethal Conflict in the North-West Province of Pakistan, discusses the role of ‘local Islam’ among the tribesmen living in the Palas valley, a remote and inaccessible mountain valley located in the Kohistan District of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), Northern Pakistan.