Islamic praxis

Print edition : November 29, 2013

Survivors of the Gujarat riots at a press conference in Mumbai on March 23, 2011. The author traces the emancipated women's journey from victimhood to peace activism. Photo: Vivek Bendre

The scholar has added a new element of analysis to the already available works on the Gujarat pogrom by focussing on Muslim peace activists.

IT is rare to find a Master’s research thesis getting published as a full-fledged monograph, that too by academic publishers such as Sage Publications. Credit for this goes to the author Raphael Susewind, for his robust empirical research on Muslim peace activists of Gujarat in the aftermath of the communal riots of 2002. Well-regarded analyses on the Gujarat violence include works by P. Ghassem-Fachandi ( Pogrom in Gujarat: Hindu Nationalism and Anti-Muslim Violence in India), T.K. Oommen ( Reconciliation in Post-Godhra Gujarat: The Role of Civil Society), A.A. Engineer ( The Gujarat Carnage), and Siddharth Varadarajan (edited work, Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy).

Susewind adds to this corpus of literature by focussing on Muslim peace activists and bringing in a new element of analysis into the already available works on the pogrom.

The author’s intention is to contribute to the debate on religion and conflict by shifting the focus to peace rather than dwelling on violence. He also intends to add to the debate on peace studies that began with the publication of R. Scott Appleby’s influential book, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation (2000). Appleby had argued that the nature of religion was ambivalent and variable and that it possessed an inherent pluralism within its religious tradition that explained its different responses to different circumstances.

Religious identity

Part of Susewind’s problem with Appleby’s approach (along with other authors who have written on the theme) is that it ignores the micro-level of religious identity and personal agency. He also finds Appleby’s focus on the elites to be problematic. And that is a gap in research methodology that Susewind seeks to fill with his work by including individual diversity among the respondents. The author believes that the approach that religious groups are presumed to be carriers of identity is seriously flawed and instead emphasises the personal micro level as a research unit. The empirical component of his research is built on 21 rigorous interviews. His interviews have a structured as well as a narrative component and the responses are evaluated on psychometric scales that measure one’s sense of belonging and group identity.

With this study, the author “…wanted 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.” Most of the people the author spoke to worked mostly “in conflict”, meaning that while they acknowledged the existence of conflict, they avoided dealing with the issue directly (which in this case would be communalism).

Four typologies

The author aims at enriching the “ambivalence of the sacred” and he has sought to do it by dividing his respondents (Muslims who work for peace) into four typologies. The respondents represent different ways of being a Muslim and working for peace.

First, the “faith-based actors”, who are strongly moral and practise their religion in an orthodox way. These peace activists represent the diversity of Indian Islam and there is a strong causal link between their identity and their personal agency. The author uses their examples to show how they were inspired by the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

Second, the “secular technocrats”, who are not influenced by religious beliefs in their activities and share a relaxed secularism. It is difficult to draw a link between these people’s religious identity and political agency. They adopt the rights-based approach to development and they also express a weaker emotional bond with their fellow Muslims.

Third, the emancipated women who have overcome the passivity of their victimisation during the riots and are struggling against religious patriarchy in their work. Unlike the previous two categories, the story of these women’s journey from victimhood to activism is important. The author uses the word “emancipated” to describe their status as they have overcome the sense of victimhood as well as religious patriarchy to emerge as peace activists. He uses the example of a woman called Fauzia to show how a Muslim woman adopted Islamic feminism and became a theatre actor and an activist. The fourth category has the doubting professionals who emphasise the complexity and ambivalence of religion in communal conflict. These professionals would have fit in with secular technocrats but developed severe doubts about their earlier stance towards religions after 2002. The religious identity of the doubting professionals is in a state of flux. They do not turn away from religion but discover within its realm a way to express their activism.

The author has introduced the agency of actual people into his research design and with this he has attempted to rethink the dynamics of religion in conflict. The research also brings out the dilemma of religion (in this case Islam) as its praxis represents “ambiguity tolerance” whereas it claims to represent a universal truth. By constantly highlighting the micro level of his research unit, the author has attempted to broaden the ambit of research on religion, conflict and peace.

Susewind’s study is important for social scientists interested in understanding the ambivalence and ambiguity of Islamic praxis, peace activism and communalism (particularly the 2002 Gujarat riots). The slightly stodgy academic language that Susewind uses may put off a layman interested in the theme.

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