2013 Being Muslim and Working for Peace: Ambivalence and Ambiguity in Gujarat. New Delhi and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Notes: ix, 159 pages ; ISBN 9788132110422
Reviewed 27 Jun 2013 by:
Jack David Eller <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Community College of Denver
Medium: Written Literature Subject
Muslims - Political activity - India - Gujarat
Peace-building - India - Gujarat - Citizen participation
Conflict management - India - Gujarat
Gujarat (India) - Politics and government - 21st century
Peace-building - Religious aspects - Islam
ABSTRACT: A project investigating the life histories and psychological characterstics of individual peace activists among the Muslims of post-violence Gujarat discovers four quite different types of persons involve in the cause of peace, with divergent and sometimes quite ambivalent relationships to Islam.
As I have written in previous reviews, and as is evident from the public discourse, two assumptions reign in regard to Islam—that Muslims are firmly immune to modernization and even to peace and that Muslims are all equally religious. Indeed, the more basic assumption seems to be that 'Muslim' is the primary if not only identity and motivation for action in the 'Muslim world,' that is, that people in some vague part of the globe can and should be discussed in terms of religion alone. As I have also commented elsewhere, seldom do we hear Europeans or Americans being characterized as the 'Christian world,' nor do we hesitate at the idea of Christians being peaceful or modern, or even 'secular.'
Susewind's new short book on Indian Muslim peace workers is a bit unconventional for anthropologists, since the author asserts up-front that the study was "deliberately not an ethnography: I was not so much interested in observing what my interlocutors did or how they did it, but in the reasons they themselves give for what they do, and in the meanings they attach to their activism" (p. 32). In other words, the research is an investigation into individual lives and identities, based on a small sample of twenty-one Muslim men and women involved in peace activities after the 2002 Gujarat Hindu/Muslim riots.
The goal, then, is "to understand the various ways in which spiritual beliefs, religious practices, and dynamics of belonging influence Muslims who work for peace--and to see how their activism in turn shapes these dimensions of their religious identities" (p. 7). For this purpose, Susewind collects two kinds of data, biographies and psychometric information, the latter through devices including the Geissen test of unconscious group attitudes, a list of rankings of self-categorizations, a measure of intensity of identification with a religious in-group, and the Inventory for the Measurement of Tolerance towards Ambiguity. The reason for these non-standard anthropological methods is Susewind's desire to distinguish what kinds of people engage in Muslim peace-making and to challenge the assumption, also operating in India, that all Muslims are "'violent' or at least 'suspect'" (p. 21. Susewind is intentionally aiming for maximum diversity in his sample, rather than for a single simple image of 'the peaceful Muslim.'
Significantly, he claims to discover four quite different types of Muslim peace activist, and each type receives a chapter in the book. First and perhaps least surprising is the 'faith-based actor' (Chapter Three), who gets the most extensive treatment of the four types. The faith-based actor, arguably whether that faith is Islam, Christianity, or any other, takes his/her inspiration and direction from a religious (perhaps scriptural) source and stresses community over individuality. Interestingly, Susewind finds that faith-based actors "do not like to narrate their lives" (p. 38), preferring to shift attention from their personality to their religious group and their (supposedly universal) beliefs and moral standards. While not necessarily fundamentalists (and precisely the opposite of the stereotypical violent fundamentalist), they tended to essentialize Islam as a religion of peace, to share 'orthopraxis' (although their specific orthodoxy varied), and to hold an apocalyptic view of the world that supported their "strong moral motivation" (63).
Most analyses of Islamic peace activism would probably stop right there, but Susewind proceeds next to describe the most unlikely individuals, the 'secular technocrats' (Chapter Four). The author fully appreciates that the very existence of such a category is surprising and fascinating, since the standard perspective assumes that "Muslims can never be truly 'secular' even in the inclusive Indian sense of the term" (p. 65), which is why the short coverage of the chapter is a little frustrating. Nevertheless, Susewind reveals some interesting results, such as that, like faith-based actors, secular technocrats tend to de-emphasize their personal story: "they focussed more on what they do than on why or how they do it—and emphasized success stories rather than personal biography" (p. 66). They also tended to talk in abstract and universal terms, in their case not about Islam and morality but about 'human rights' and 'justice.' Some were actually non-believers, while many "were not even decisively anti-religious" (69) but only suspended their religiosity when it came to peace work. Susewind assesses this unusual position as "secularized secularism," "a form of social practice, a secularism devoid of quasi-religious zeal, a secularism which has been secularized in the everyday and lost the characteristics of an ideological creed" (p. 73).
The third type of actor in the book is the 'emancipating woman' (Chapter Five). Not only is this person necessarily a woman, but she is not yet emancipated but in the process of emancipation. Therefore, compared to the first two types, she "tells a very personal story indeed. For emancipating women, 'being Muslim and working for peace' is foremost a personal journey, a journey in which they overcome the passivity of victimhood and numerous further adversities to become self-efficate peace activists, joining in a wider--but often overlooked--pattern of female political agency in South Asia" (p. 80-1). He finds that all of his interviewees were themselves victims of the 2002 violence, which set them not only on a course of peace work but of self work: "emancipating women explicitly reported their own transformation as their major peacebuilding success" (p. 84). Moreover, Susewind discovers remarkable similarity between their stories, which follow a three-stage process from 'liminality' to "the discovery of Islamic feminism" to the final stage of "the denouncement of religion altogether" (p. 87). That is, we now have two out of three kinds of Muslim peace activists who are not particularly religious.
Actually, we have three out of four, if we count Susewind's fourth type, the 'doubting professional' (Chapter Six). Rather than celebrating religion or rejecting religion, the doubting professional recognizes the 'beauty' of Islam but more importantly the ambiguity of Islam and all religion. They are the only type in Susewind typology "who have--psychologically speaking--a secure externalized standpoint towards religion and are thus able to fully embrace its ambivalence" (p. 105). Motivated by 'understanding,' their own personal lives tended to "narrate a single, but complex story, in which peace activism has more preconditions than the events of 2002 and 2002 is more consequential than a mere initiative moment for peace activism" (p. 109). The single greatest effect of the spasm of violence on the doubting professionals was that "former certainties about religion, beliefs, spirituality, and group dynamics were cast in radical doubts" (p. 112), and the doubting professionals were able to live in that ambiguous state.
"Religion matters" (p. 127), Susewind concludes in his seventh chapter, but exactly how it matters is not only important but quite diverse. As he realizes, his book "irreversibly complicates many common endeavours to explain the ambivalence of the sacred through meso- or macro-level aggregates alone. It demonstrates that ambivalence already unfolds in the lived experience, identity, and belonging of peace activists" (p. 138). We can only hope that the message of Muslim diversity and ambivalence reaches the ears of the public and of policy-makers and that more anthropologists will be inspired to explore and describe how religion actually moves, or does not move, particular Islamic--and other religions'--individual members, groups, and parties.