Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A view from the Muslim World: For us Din (faith) and Dawla (politics) are the same!

Jean Comaroff and Tawana Kupe

Prof Jean Comaroff’s discussion on Politics of Faith was both inspiring and informative. Here, I would like reflect on the lecture with examples from my own research with examples from the Muslim world. An interesting observation can be drawn between the Pentecostal movements and trends in contemporary reformist and revivalist movements in Muslim world. The similarities concern such aspects as the reverence and return to foundational texts and traditions, the emphasis of the family institution, criticism of the economic crisis as a sign of failure of secularism, inseparability of the sacred and the secular, provision of social welfare for members, reliance on modern technologies for propagation to redefinition of the role of religious institutions as place of multiple functions. The separation of religion and politics as expounded in current thought presents a dilemma in the case of Islam where religion is viewed as a totality of all ways of life by the followers. The question of whether there is a line between din and dawla, between the sacred and profane, though it always generate debates, has not been very controversial.

The example of the Medinan state has always been used to argue for the need to infuse the political and the religious into one by some reformist movements. The medieval Islamic philosophers grappled with such issues. Leadership that infuses some aspects of temporal and religious power has been vast in the history of Islam, from the early caliphates, to jihads of Uthman Dan Fodio, Mahdist movement in Sudan to the contemporary governments like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan. The question of the inseparability of the mundane and the spiritual in Islam and other religion as presented in the talk raises two crucial questions. Should religion be used as political ideology? Who is entitled to such expositions? While the second question concerns the perennial contestations and negotiations in the public sphere, the first question still needs discussion. The separation between secular and religious is artificial in the real life of the devout masses. Jurgen Habermas argues this way

‘…many religious citizens do not have good reasons to undertake an artificial division between secular and religious within their own minds, since they couldn’t do so without destabilizing their mode of existence as pious persons. The objection appeals to the integral role that religion plays in the life of a person of faith, in other words to religion’s “seat” in everyday life. A devout person pursues her daily rounds by drawing on her belief…[1]

I would like to think aloud here: Are there religious organizations for whom the secular and sacred remain separate? Put differently, are there exceptional cases of transnational religious movements that tend to ignore the political as envisioned on discourse surrounding the state and statecraft? Here I have Tablighi Jamaat in mind. A movement that originated in early 20th Century India and today considered as one of the most widespread Islamic transnational movement in world. How does one position a movement that is explicitly apolitical, that empowers the lay into what Yoginder Sikand calls the priesthood of all believers through democratization of religious authority? By focusing on individual salvation and going beyond the limits of sovereign state and mundane temporal issues, the Tablighi defy some generalizing definitions of adherents engaged with the political. Of course, it all depends on what being political and participating means: Is being apolitical a political statement? Maybe this example shadows another dynamic of the politics of faith. The case of Tablighi Jamaat, described by Barbara Metcalf as apolitical, quietest movement for internal grassroot missionary reform, has redefined concepts of politics, religious authority, transnationalism, travels and the universal confessional community of believers. I will end the reflections on politics of faith with a quotation from Peter Mandaville on the Tablighis.

In terms of politics, the Tablighis dwell in a translocality that challenges the spatial confines of political community. Theirs is, in essence, an averse normative model in which the good not emanates not from an ethical institution (i.e. the state) but rather from an emphasis on the collective power of the ethical ‘self.’[2]

Halkano A. Wario

[1] Religion in the public sphereby Holberg Prize Laureate 2005 Professor J├╝rgen Habermas Lecture presented at the Holberg Prize Seminar 29 November 2005 p. 7

[2] Peter Mandaville, Trans National Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma. London and New York: Routledge, 2001, p. 146

Jesus is the answer, Jean is the genius!

Jean Comaroff and Eric Worby

The theme of Tuesday’s breathtaking morning session with Jean Comaroff was “the politics of faith”, revolving around the new entanglements of the religious, the political, and the economic. The God business booms, but what is new in this boom, Jean Comaroff argues, is how the sacred appears in ever more profane places. Governments discover citizens’ sense of empathy, proclaim moral regeneration campaigns, and lead wars against evil; the market economy appears as the vivid proof of the end of history. New “passionate convictions” seem to have overcome modernity’s alleged “affective deficit” (Mazzarella). Affect has become the currency that does not need exchange, it is direct, immediate, ready to feel, display, use, and to be overwhelmed by. Just religion? Rather a symptom of something more profound happening in society: a general metaphysical remaking of modernity.

“We want our church to look like a shopping mall” enthuses a pastor that Comaroff quotes. New practices of faith become ever more possessed by rationales coming from spheres long thought separate from religion: popular culture, secular media and the market. Indeed, one could argue, neoliberal obsessions with choice increasingly ground the very practice of faith itself. I came across the multi-faith site beliefnet.com that recommends everyone to do a “belief-o-matic” test in order to find out about one’s own spiritual preferences and styles. On the website it reads: “Even if YOU don't know what faith you are, Belief-O-MaticTM knows. Answer 20 questions about your concept of God, the afterlife, human nature, and more, and Belief-O-Matic™ will tell you what religion (if any) you practice...or ought to consider practicing.“ And right underneath „Warning: Belief-O-Matic™ assumes no legal liability for the ultimate fate of your soul.“ The marriage of commerce and faith seems unproblematic and, yes, absolutely rational. But the notion of choice is stretched even more: Need a prayer? And a meditation afterwards? No need to be restrained, one can pick from the theme park of faith whatever suits best for the very occasion one looks for input: ready to consume instantaneously. An example of Achille’s spontaneous creation of short-termism?

So, if Jesus, and others of his kind, is the answer, what was the question again? One question, at least, was Achille Mbembe’s where the political has gone (if, as others assumed, it has vanished). Comaroff’s title “The politics of faith” suggests an answer that slips away as soon as we start to pronounce it. The new political in the religious? Or has it morphed into new aggregates, new entanglements, new “regimes of feeling” (Thrift)? Take for example the discovery of love, mystery, secret, and passion by marketing gurus Saatchi and Saatchi as the central tropes for successful advertising. But where do we go from that in search of the political? David Goldberg reminded us to ask about the worldly effects of power involved in the new politics of passion and faith, such as exclusion to salvation. Here we are back to the waste-lands of human history.

Christine Hentschel

Superfluous Womanhood: The “Human,” Race and Other People’s Waste

Shatema Threadcraft (left) in conversation with Lucia Cantera and Victoria Collis-Buthelezi

In his talk, Democracy and the Ethics of Mutuality, Achille Mbembe discussed unemployment, closed routes to manhood and the importance of South Africa as one of the key experiments in how to dismantle race-based systems while striving to create racial equality through positive law. He discussed the changing relationship between democracy and the "human" and the responsibility of democratic governments to respect, redistribute and rebuild the humanity of capital’s superfluous or those who in the racialized yet post-apartheid, post-industrial world, find that "capital doesn't need them any more."

This is a change from black men’s paradoxical position in an apartheid economy, where their labor was indispensable and all other aspects of them, including their human capacity for political participation, was dispensable, waste. His presentation was profound. It made me think about what it might mean to be a woman, equally, in this society. To paraphrase Seyla Benhabib, I would add that thinking about human work and racial equality must not stop at the household door. What is the paradox in the black female relationship to the political community in this society? Which aspects of black womanhood have been considered indispensable and which aspects waste? How do we deal with this in thinking about democracy and its relationship to the “human?”

Here racially subordinated womanhood seems to have a lot to do with them reproducing the biological lives of others. Their work, their creative energy in reproducing the lives of their families, their efforts to produce children and not workers, time wasted. As an outsider I am always struck by how much of everyone else’s reproductive labor is performed by black women; I have real doubts about whether or not the labor necessary to sustain life can be alienated justly. Such reservations lead me to question what's at stake in retrieving one's humanity with regard to the labor necessary to reproduce life and (subject to feminist critique) feminine gender roles? What, then, is the responsibility of a democratic government that professes the equal dignity of all human beings regarding this? I should note that historically, regarding the labor necessary to produce life and racial subordination, subordinated women have not rejected this labor outright I’ve argued that enslaved women saw this labor as a part of a full human life the fight to end racial subordination in this labor has been a fight about who should be labor’s beneficiaries. In the United States, for example, after emancipation historian Jacqueline Jones claims that there was a trend among black women to withdraw from productive labor so that they might perform domestic labor for their families; this effort to withdraw remains an important point of racial conflict in the U.S.

Equality for freedwomen meant not walking away from this labor forever, but performing less labor for others and more for their families. I believe that movement toward racial equality here must not overlook questions regarding the relationship between access to privatized feminine gender roles, racial group ownership of domestic labor power, and racial equality. If the democratic government aims to take up capital’s slack with regard to the human, it must address this racial imbalance and ask what is the relationship between the human, roles historically associated with the feminine gender and racial equality?

Shatema Threadcraft