2014 / 2013 / 2012 / 2011 / 2010

Reflections on the XXI International Association for the History of Religions World Congress, Erfurt, Germany

2 September 2015

Recently, I presented a paper, ‘Religious Communities in Societies: Muslim Women’s Position’, at the XXI World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions in Erfurt, Germany, 23–29 August 2015. The congress was held at the University of Erfurt

About 1400 people from many countries attended the conference. The topics presented and discussed in the congress were very diverse. It included discussions on religions (for example, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism), cults, scientology, the right-wing Tea Party movement, tele-evangelism, radicalism, urban space and gender. The methodological framework of the speakers included historical sociology, theological approach, life trajectories, qualitative and ethnographic approaches, critical race theory, feminist theory, and spatial mapping and urban space approaches.

I attended the sessions that were generally more aligned to my research focus, such as Muslim identity, Islam and education, and religion, culture and media. I will describe some of the congress highlights here.

Politics and religion
Some countries with communist backgrounds such as China do not want to be associated with any religion. However, China is happy to promote a religion if it is practised in the form of Chinese culture. For example, during the Cultural Revolution the Xuanyuan Temple that was built during the Ming dynasty in the 14th century was destroyed. However, in the 1990s the temple was rebuilt. It resumed the ancient practice of the worship of the mythical first king of the Ming dynasty, Huangdi, through offerings (sacrifices of pigs and sheep) but as a cultural practice.

In Spain, particularly in Madrid, religion has been shaped by the urban context. In Madrid there are more than 800 places of worship, and there is freedom of worship. However, the government provides different concessions to different religious groups, which it categorises in several levels, for example, level one comprises Catholicism, and level two is evangelical Christians, Jews and Muslims. The paradox in Madrid’s case is that the architecture in many urban spaces, for example the Cordoba mosque, shows the historical presence of Muslims but the various levels of religion indicates the marginalisation of non-Catholic groups.

The Finnish government endorses an integration model in education, for example, immigrants are provided with classes in their respective religion and ethnic language, along with subjects in the Finnish language. The government believes that this will boost the students’ identity and confidence. On the other hand, in Britain following the death of Lee Rigby in May 2013, the public debate has been questioning the compatibility of Islam and ‘Englishness’ and whether the British government should continue to fund Muslim schools. This has reinforced the Islamophobic narratives of ‘Otherness’ in public spaces.

Focus on radicalism
There were discussions on the Muslim youth movements in South Africa since the 1980s. Concerns have been raised about some South African Muslims joining ISIL. There were also discussions on radical groups such as the Boko Haram group in Nigeria, whose ideology is considered to be globally connected with the ideology of ‘salafism and salafi jihadism’. Critics pointed out that discussions of religion in Nigeria should also consider the sectarian conflict – the Christian–Muslim divide in Nigeria. Some Muslims in New Zealand have joined ISIL, and congress participants questioned whether the NZ government’s involvement in Iraq has made things worse. Some also pointed out that the Swiss ban on minarets in mosques and the acts of the Norwegian Anders Breivik should also be considered extremism. 

Muslim community dynamics
There were discussions on scholarship on Islam. There were suggestions that enough research has focused on jihad, and it is time to examine other Islamic phenomenon. For example, there is limited expertise on fiqh discourse (fiqh e dawah) and it needs more investigation. Dawah discourse will improve the position of marginalised Muslims. A lot of studies have been done on Tabligh Jammat, but now more research on the Barelvi phenomenon is needed. Congress participants also acknowledged that there has been a lot of debate on ‘true Islam’, that is, who is a better Muslim? For example, the debate on the Sufi vs the Salafis or the Barelvi vs Deobandis, or Tabliqh Jamaat vs Dawat e Islami, or Sunni vs Shia can be divisive. It was pointed out that Muslims should be more inclusive so that young Muslims, particularly those who are born and raised in non-Muslim majority countries are not confused. Some speakers raised issues faced by Muslim women. For example, in the American context, a documentary called ‘Voices of Muslim Women’ showed how Muslim female university students negotiate their identity in their everyday life in a non-Muslim environment. Hijabi women say, ‘We are never seen as women with agency’. Overall, many Muslim women remain doubly disadvantaged both in Muslim and non-Muslim societies.

A way forward
In Indonesia some academics have initiated ‘peace education’ between Christians and Muslims. In some European countries, Sikhs have taken steps to celebrate Vaisakhi in public spaces so that they are not mistaken for Muslims. Some Muslims have also taken similar steps to display their faith by congregating in public spaces but have failed to get approval from their city councils. Some participants suggested that there needs to be more effective communication between Muslims and the city councils. Some presenters also pointed out that the case of Muslims in Ukraine needed international attention. The Ukraine territories occupied by Russia in 2014, Donbass and Crimea, have left many pro-Ukraine Muslims living in uncertainty. They wish to be united with Ukraine. 

The papers presented at the XXI IAHR Congress revealed the complexities of power, diverse actors, authority and agency. Many complexities arise from ignorance, arrogance and prejudice. Communication, dialogue, education and mutual understanding can resolve many misunderstandings. The conference has enhanced my thinking in various fields. Last but not least, I thank the Mayor of the Erfurt City Council for providing us free travel passes to use on public transport during the congress. 

By Nahid Afrose Kabir 

Minnesota - Human Rights Watch report

4 August 2015

An inevitable challenge of analyzing large-scale events of human rights violations (e.g. armed conflict, ethnic riots, violent policing) is the quality of data available. Government data as well as data provided by advocates for victims tend to be biased; governments are likely to undermine the actual scale of violation, rights advocates are likely to overestimate. A preferred alternative for scholars studying violence and conflict is newspapers and similar media-based sources. It's a methodology known as event-based media monitoring (EMM). Of course, EMM brings along its own share of challenges: which media sources to track, what information to look for, how to manage the monitoring process, and what to do with the collected information? 

A recent report from the University of Minnesota, in collaboration with Human Rights Watch, meticulously evaluates the use of manual and automated EMM systems and offers suggestions allowing the collection of valid and reliable data. It interviews and extensively cites the work Dr Raheel Dhattiwala, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the MnM Centre, for her own data collection strategy that was used to analyze ethnic violence in India as part of a doctoral thesis at Oxford University in 2012. In doing so, the report highlights MnM's principal research priority -- that of adopting rigorous scholarship and new ways of thinking to explain unpredictable sociological phenomena about ethnic and religious communities. Read the report here.

Issues of Islamophobia in the Western world

15 July 2015

The International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding had the pleasure to host on Wednesday 15 of July 2015 a seminar with professor emeritus Lawrence Davidson from West Chester University - Pennsylvania, to talk about the issue of Islamophobia in the Western world. Professor Davidson is an emeritus of the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He is the author of five books, including Islamic Fundamentalism-An Introduction (Greenwood Press, 2003), America's Palestine - Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (Univ. of Florida Press, 2001), A Concise History of the Middle East (Westview Press, 2006), and Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest (University Press of Kentucky, 2009).

He retired from West Chester University - Pennsylvania in 2013 after 27 years of teaching. He now writes a popular blog entitled To The Point Analyses and seeks to educate Americans about the consequences of their government's policies in the Middle East.

The main topic of discussion evolved around the issue of Islamophobia. Islamophobia has become a major problem throughout the West over the last two decades. In many ways this development reflects the ignorance Western population has about the history of Western relations with Muslim population, as well as the ongoing policies of their own government in the Middle East. How is this ignorance to be overcome in the face of media sensationalism and the manipulation of elements who seek to promote and gain from Islamophobic fears? Such a question remains to seek answers and demand the attention of academics all around the globe.

To address this issue Professor Davidson opened up the seminar by explaining the concept of natural localism. Davidson elucidates that people in the West live their lives within a confined area that they become oriented to. This is where people – almost by necessity – focus their attention and knowledge on. This is what he calls the natural localism. Davidson believes that by focusing only on the local environment puts people in jeopardy because it leaves them ignorant of events from afar that are occurring outside the local sphere. Thus people depend on others to interpret these events for them. In this case, it could be the state and its alleged used experts and/or the media. These people [state experts and media] might have ulterior motives or biases which will skew people’s interpretations of events. So people become dependent on these resources [state experts and media] because they have no other way of contextualizing these happenings. Such contextual ignorance, Davidson explains, leads to the psychological backdrop of Islamophobia. Most Australians just like most Americans know very little about the Middle East and know very little about the history of Western interactions with the Middle East. Under normal circumstances they do not even think about what goes on there. So people’s interpretations become affected and influenced by the media resources or web representations of what goes outside the local sphere and do not bother to know the reality of things in relation to the actual context of events. Such interpretations, Davidson clarifies, might be the reason why people in the West are becoming more Islamophobic, since they allow the media and the political forces to feed into their ignorance when it comes to Islam and terrorism. In this regard, people tend to allow their ignorance to control their judgement based on what they hear. It is not that people are not intelligent but because they do not know what goes on the outside. They are vulnerable to the exaggerations of the media and state experts and to being misled. This conveys Islamophobia almost as a natural consequence of the position that it has taken by the media and the government. Thus the incidences start to spill in without contextual understanding or knowledge of the actual facts. It is up until the local environment is affected, disturbed or shaken that people start to question, doubt and pay closer attention to what is happening outside. For instance, starting in 2001 and the 911 attacks, Americans started to pay more attention to events abroad. These events started to spill over into the West. The question was how do you figure out what this means without contextual knowledge? Thus the ignorance and not paying attention starts to come back. People are easily convinced that these incidents even though far away are in fact affecting their local sphere. When these far away actions are imported into their own natural localism and neighbourhood, people started to develop the fear of their Muslim neighbours. They will be afraid of Muslims even if they do not have a neighbour. Davidson elaborates that in addition to that, there is the temptation of the political opportunism on the one hand and the media sensationalism on the other to keep this fear alive. Though Davidson questions how do you counter this? He confesses that he does not really have any definitive answers to it. But he could share some insights and ideas on what has been done in the United States as a response to that. He explains that in the United States there has been an effort made to organize the Muslim community across the country and to begin to strengthen it to the point where it can influence the government and its policies. This is the only real way to be able ultimately to counter this, Davidson suggests, by going to the source – and the source really is in many ways the government. Such effort resulted in creating a good model organization in the USA called CAIR. CAIR was the way for Muslims in the United States to voice their opinions and views in the public stream. CAIR stands for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The CAIR is a national organization that has multiple functions and layers as Davidson explains. It is all essentially funded by Muslim-American members. This is where it draws its income from. It has got a relatively large bank of lawyers who are on standby in various regions to defend Muslims and their community. If a Muslim – an individual Muslim – is a victim of Islamophobic discrimination, and if it is not something that could be solved through local leadership, then CAIR steps in and brings it to the courts. Thus, this organization advocates for Muslim civil rights and liberty. They educate Muslims in the United States – both citizens and non-citizens – about their constitutional rights, about what they should do if they are confronted with police, what they should do if they have trouble at any airport, and so on. They publicize in dispense aspects of the Coran and Hadith which they feel speak to historical situation of Muslims today in the United States. They sponsor interface groups and alliances. CAIR helps encourage the American Muslim communities to seek social and political activities. It also assists to empower Muslim societies by presenting an Islamic view on the important issues to the American public. So what they aim at is building community solidarity. They believe that no Muslim should feel that they are out there alone. This solidarity will ultimately allow them to approach the government as a special interest and influence government policies. Davidson continues on to say that it is the power of such a lobby that Muslims need. The Muslim community has to make its own lobby to the point it can successfully defend itself against others. Thus Davidson believes that such a lobbied organization is importantly needed in order to voice the Muslims’ concerns, also to educate people on Islamic views and beliefs.

As a response to the current significant debate on Muslims removing themselves from all forms of organizations in Australia, Davidson does not think that anyone can, in practical terms, remove themselves. He believes that they [the organizations] will come after anyone anyway. They will not leave anyone alone. At least this is the conclusion that has been drawn in the United States. Thus, individual Muslims can chose how they want to respond to this. He thinks that the notion to simply ignore it means it will go away is, probably historically speaking, not true. Davidson then wondered if the existence of an organization such as CAIR in Australia can work or make such a huge difference. He suggested that this is something Australian-Muslims have to work on. He personally does not believe or think that people should just burry their heads in the sand and be attacked in this fashion. Davidson’s book Cultural Genocide (Rutgers University Press, 2012) discusses the relationship of the Russians and the Jews during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Thus He relies on the Jews in Europe as an example to explain the historical response to anti-Semitism in the middle ages, which has been essentially to lay low and keep their heads down. Though it worked to a certain extent, Davidson believes that if they [the Jews] had developed a different response pattern may be they could have been able to measure the intensity of things during the Nazis’ rule and not got wiped out. He explains that the experience with the Nazis so shook up the Western nations that they were willing to give up some of their legal sovereignty, sign international treaties and establish the international courts. Now there is a whole movement to step back from these laws and possibly eliminate them. In response, he suggests that individuals need to stand up and figure out how they can properly respond in ways to defend their community within the historical environment that they have now. He urges individuals also to try and understand why communities can be bamboozled into these historical feuds. 

Then there came the question of extremism, what is understood by extremism and how it came about in the West. Davidson explains that people buy that terminology because of their ignorance of Western interaction with the Middle East. He clarifies that people in the West do not know what has been going on in that part of the world [Middle East] for the past 300 years. So extremism became the obvious way of describing these acts of terror. He agrees that terrorism committed by suicide bombers – not only Muslims – is terrible and takes many innocent lives. But compared to the power of state and their exercise of state terrorism there is no comparison. The problem or danger is that there is no way that the citizens could know what is going on. People need to know what extremism means and for them it means whatever the individual media says it means. Unfortunately, it is really hard to define such a term or find a way out of it. Thus the struggle continues. 

By Andre N. Correa

The International Convention of Asia Scholars-9 (ICAS-9)

15 July 2015

The International Convention of Asia Scholars-9 (ICAS-9) was hosted at the Adelaide Convention Centre in Adelaide from 5th—9th July. Held every two years, this year’s convention was hosted by the, University of South Australia, University of Adelaide and Flinders University of South Australia, and brought over 1000 scholars from 60 countries to Adelaide. International Centre for Muslim and Non- Muslim Understanding organised important events during the convention, like the Pakistan Summit, Intercultural Adelaide and individual presentations contributed by the members of the centre. Justifying the theme of inter-culturality the convention opened up scope for extensive intellectual engagements spanning over fields of politics, economics and the social through presentation of papers and workshops. It started on the 5th of July with Post-Graduate workshop addressing all the facets of the PhD student-life. The presentations covered the topics of challenges of data collection in societies that are undergoing conflict situation; confronting the tribulations of being a writer while transcribing the data to the text; publication and its implication for research and community; and about archival and library research. These presentations spoke of the methods and the processes involved in the various stages of research.              

The 6th of July kick started with the Pakistan Summit inaugurated by the Hon Bob Hawke, stressing the need for a cultural understanding of Muslim communities. The Pakistan summit showcased the stance and the standing of the country in the international field. Key note speaker, Mr Shahid Javed Burki questioned the labels of failed state on Pakistan claiming that the policy initiatives in Pakistan have been short term and discussed the need for long term strategic plans. The next keynote speaker Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury evaluated the position of Pakistan in the region and the world reflecting on the creation of Pakistan as a state premised on ideology of religion which suffered a setback with creation of Bangladesh. Its relations with its neighbour India made Pakistan turn to Middle East, China and US to balance the power matrix. Issues of gender in Pakistan politics were raised by Speakers like Professor Samina Yasmeen and Associate Professor Tahmina Rashid. Simultaneous sessions of paper presentations were going on over other very important issues some of them are worth mentioning such as ‘Notions of Justice in Contemporary China’, ‘Heritage in Asia’, Japan and International Relations/ Political-Economy. 

South Asian Studies Association of Australia, held a full day workshop on the topic of ‘Sate of Democracy’ in India on the 7th of July. The topic of discussion was Modi Government’s ascendance to power, examining the working of democracy in initiation of development programs. The key note address delivered by Christophe Jaffrelot analysed the voting patterns and the element of caste and class in the last elections that catapulted Modi to power. The papers in the panel discussed various facets of the governmental interventions, examining if the Modi government was delivering its reform agenda through concrete measures or not, presentations covered areas of policy measures and counter insurgency practices of the government. Other facets of governance covered by the presentations in addition to policy were the use of history, media and foreign policy as a tools to garner political support and construct reality. Simultaneous panels were being conducted holding presentations on topics such as, ‘Islam and the West’, ‘Sri Lankan issues’, ‘Primary vocational Education in Asia’ etc. 

On the 8th of July I attended the panel named ‘Bringing up children in East Asia’ which strongly reflected policy failures of the governments on issues of population control. The papers in this panel discussed the problem of child care and upbringing in Japan where the fertility rates have fallen below replacement levels and discussed government plans to raise the fertility levels. Also problems faced by the Chinese women who cross borders to reach Hong Kong to give birth to their second child to evade the one child policy of China and in the hope of better future for their Hong Kong born children was discussed. I presented my paper in the panel named, ‘Health Issues in Asia-1’, titled, ‘Appearing before the law: the Indian Female reproductive subject through the law’ examining the politics of population control reflected in the laws on abortion in India. As on other days simultaneous panels were held on issues such as ‘Historical Perspective on Partition and the Emergency’, ‘Spanish Civil War in Asia Pacific’ and ‘Museums as Places of Intercultural Dialogue’.

Finally 9th of July which was reserved for Intercultural Adelaide, witnessed a major public policy summit and action research project to discuss cultural adaptability towards the diverse Asian immigrant communities. The event opened with an address by Premier the Hon Jay Weatherill expressing hope that the summit would yield practical results and would lay the foundations for future collaborations. Key note address speakers included Professor Prasenjit Duara who spoke on the relevance of concept of secularism and explored the ideas of transcendence as propagated by several Asian traditions; and Professor Garry Bouma who spoke on religious diversity and need for interculturality. The panels of Intercultural Adelaide covered six key policy areas; education and research, cultural industries and urban and regional environments, sports and tourism, food and wine, health and services, lastly, inclusion, cohesion, resilience and counter radicalisation. Intercultural Adelaide was a befitting way to end the ICAS-9 that brought over intellectuals not only from Asia but from all over the world to engage with each other not only for academic purposes but also to inform future policies on trade and intercultural diversity in South Australia. 

By Rupa Ghosh

 Australia’s Regional Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, Sydney, 11–12 June 2015

14 July 2015

In June 2015 I attended Australia’s Regional Summit to Counter Violent Extremism in Sydney. The summit was attended by key stakeholders from government, civil society and industry from the Asia-Pacific region, Britain and the United States. Through several sessions and workshops, it aimed to build capacity to address the threat posed by violent extremist groups. For example, the panel session ‘Understanding and combating terrorist propaganda’ discussed the historical myth of ISIL or DAESH, and how it is preying on Muslim families and their youths. It discussed the strategies and multiple narratives civil society should adopt to counter the Islamic State’s narrative through media and academic discourse, talk-back shows and social media. The next session, ‘Key players – the role of women and families in challenging terrorist propaganda’, acknowledged that families are in the front line in detecting radicalisation of their youths. It examined how women and families could play a key role in shaping positive attitudes among young people, and fostering community resilience and group well-being. It also emphasised the need for non-government organisations to be aware of cultural sensitivities. Another session, ‘Regional forum for civil society’, provided examples of Muslim integration through sports. For example, Bashar Houli of the Australian Football League is a unique example of Muslim integration in the wider society. There were suggestions that sports should be considered cultural capital and that, through partnership with the federal government, more Muslims should be included in sports. 

In the workshops suggestions were provided on how to engage youth thorough Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp. For example, after the Lindt Café siege at Martin Place in Sydney, the Muslim community received many messages of support such as ‘I’ll ride with you’ through Twitter and Facebook. Such counter-narratives are important for social cohesion. Community-led intervention in correctional centres and youth organisations is also important. We also heard about hackathon programs such as the CVE hackabout team, which aim to empower vulnerable young people. 

The CVE Summit was of course an important initiative for social cohesion. But such engagements are normally confined to people who already support inclusion. The questions that still remain to be addressed are the high unemployment rate of Australian Muslims in spite of their high skill level; how policies in correctional centres can incorporate inclusive programs; and how the people who are already marked as the ‘Other’ can be accepted in the wider society. 

By Nahid Afrose Kabir 

 Languages of the Divine

We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning

 Werner Heisenberg

The development of the written script holds a special place in mankind’s histories. Written language codifies a set of shared signs that enables a civilisation to trade, establish social, cultural and political structures and to shape specific world-views. In the contemporaneous European context, the question of language has been paramount in shaping its philosophical enquiries. From the projects of structuralism, poststructuralism and deconstruction, language comes to be seen as a prison that conditions our entire existence, leaving us playing eternal language games.

Hasan Azad reflects upon the status of the mystical in western philosophies, arguing that ‘western philosophy has for too long been caught up in circular arguments of what can or cannot be expressed, rather than passing over in silence to higher levels of knowing and, ultimately, being’. Expressed differently, it can be stated that in any language, absolute confidence in language and its associated claims is a problem. One recalls Sophocles’ suspicion of the sophists, voiced through the tragic tale of Oedipus Rex, whose desire to bring the truth to light ends in the gouging out of his eyes when he learns the truth of his crime, questioning the doctrine that man is the measure of all things. The Libyan novelist Ibrahim Al-Koni explains that the ‘Arabic word for profession is derived from the same root as literal. And to be literal is deadly. As Paul the Apostle teaches us: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”’; this is why the spirit amongst the settled people is dead. Indeed, George Steiner (1967: 30) writes, ‘the Apostle tells us that in the beginning was the Word. He gives us no assurance as to the end […] The highest, purest reach of the contemplative act is that which has learned to leave language behind it. The ineffable lies beyond the frontiers of the word’. When it comes to voyaging towards the attainment of higher “Truths”, language, then, has to be left behind. To give one example, in the Muslim artistic tradition, ‘poetry is capable of illuminating – by “showing”, instead of “stating” or “arguing” – the highest experiences of philosophers and ordinary folk alike’ (Azad).  The Muslim poetic tradition is full of images of fire, light and reflection. The classical Greek myth of hubris (human pride) exemplified in Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with his waxen wings and melted, also embodies this metaphor. ‘Facing’ God is akin to being burnt: we cannot face His glories because we are unable to comprehend them in their intensities and those who claim to do so are heretical. We can only access – and express – His glories through the geometries of reflection, like a perfect symmetrical structure, each reflecting Him, yet each of us unable to grasp our positions within this infinite and harmonious composition. The significance of reflection can perhaps be grasped in the fact that despite the intense heat and light of the sun, the moon (which reflects light from the sun) has far stronger gravitational pull on the earth’s surface. In the words of Rumi:

At night, I open the window and ask the moon to come and press its face against mine. Breathe into me. Close the language-door and open the love-window. The moon won’t use the door, only the window.

Civilizations are the sum of their methods of measurements and calculations. There is another facet to the problem of language that challenges our deep seated notions about communication between the plant, animal, human and spiritual realms. Science has evidenced the chemical and electric languages of communication between plants and animals that reveal interplays between scent, touch, sight and taste. Science is also revealing the possibilities of sound that plants emit in growth. Stephen Hawking rather provocatively stated that ‘philosophy is dead’ because philosophers ‘have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics’. He may be right. For it is the laws of physics, which Einstein contemplated throughout his life, that hold the secrets to decoding the universe. And it is aspiration to these ideals that should animate philosophers all over again...

By Chloé A. Gill-Khan

Blog archive

2014 / 2013 / 2012 / 2011 / 2010

Disclaimer: The links provided on the MnM blog are for interest only. The MnM Centre takes no responsibility for the content or security of the websites. The information contained on websites linked to this page does not necessarily reflect the views of the MnM Centre or the University of South Australia.

Areas of study and research

+ Click to minimise