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Arugula Akbar?

September 15th, 2009 · 5 Comments

Thoreau over at Unqualified Offerings writes:

In a report on Indonesia, the Economist makes the interesting point that urban Muslims in Indonesia are actually more likely to be drawn to more austere, fundamentalist versions of Islam than their rural counterparts.  The rural Muslims prefer religious practices that blend Islam with elements of Hinduism and indigenous faiths that were practiced there prior to Islam.  No generalizable point here, just an interesting observation on how complex matters of religion and culture can be.

This is actually a point that sociologist Olivier Roy has been making for years now—most memorably in his excellent Globalized Islam. Like most faiths that actually persist in practice for long periods of time, local versions of Islam have accumulated a whole array of local traditions and practices layered atop the official holy writ—and also moderated some of the most potentially radical tenets of the system in the process of accommodation  to the practical demands of real social life. It’s urbanites and cosmopolitans who are most likely to come into contact with the many variations between the local versions of Islam. Now, if you’re a believer convinced that there’s one uniquely authoritative set of commands and practices that have been divinely ordained, this can provoke enormous cognitive dissonance—and prompt a search for the “true” version of Islam purged of all these regional variations. Insofar as this also purges the system of its evolved adaptations, the result is apt to be more radical, and potentially more dangerous.

Tags: Religion · Sociology



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steve M. // Sep 15, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    I think there’s a similar point to be made about Christianity, at least after it got off the ground, in the Roman Empire.

  • 2 Thoreau // Sep 16, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    The point about urbanites coming into contact with other strains of Islam is a valid one, but it’s not like cities are anything new. Has urban Islam always been more radical than rural Islam?

    I wonder if another factor is education: The fundamentalist objection is “That’s not in the book!” In order for this objection to matter to you, you have to be able to (1) read the book and (2) regard books as sources of ideas that need to be sorted out. If you can’t read the book, or at least can’t analyze books very well, you’re more likely to take the preacher’s interpretation of the book. And the preacher was trained by institutions that have evolved over time.

    Now, there’s a sweet spot here. If you can’t really analyze books at all, if you only read just enough to get through daily business, you have to let somebody else do it for you. If you can analyze books really, really well, you can sort through deep theological tracts, which are generally nuanced things.

    But if you know enough to analyze it, but not enough to analyze it very well, then fundamentalism makes sense. You can recognize the problem of contradictions between different local variants and between your variant and the words on the page, but you aren’t necessarily interested in sorting things out with sophisticated theories. Indeed, I run into a surprising number of Christian fundamentalists who are engineers or even scientists. Smart people, they know how to think, but they see getting too intellectual as a dangerous way of hand-waving away the plain truth on the page.

  • 3 Barry // Sep 17, 2009 at 3:27 pm


    In the Pleistocene Evolutionary Environement Quaint Traditional Peasant Village, there are large and old social networks (families, clans, customs, etc.) which support and moderate behavior (and bind, constrict and oppress).

    When one first moves to the city, those networks are cut. This puts gaps in peoples’ lives, spiritually, psychologically, and practically. A fundamentalist religion, stripped of tradition and other ties, is a quick fill-in.

    I mentioned on that thread by Thoreau that a comparative study of Catholicism among US immigrants in the 1840’s-WWI era would be fascinating, for two reasons:

    1) Would the Catholic church behave differently?

    2) Is much of what we think of Catholicism actually ‘fundamentalist Catholicism’, running along the same lines?

    (and what about Judaism and the Eastern Orthodox Church?)

  • 4 A.C.M. // Sep 18, 2009 at 7:32 am

    Thoreau is right; there’s no real generalizable point. Islam ends up being drastically different in every region that it inhabits. What we see in Indonesia may be true, but it’s hard to say the same about places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, or the Arab countries. What happens all too frequently is that cultural doctrines are interwoven with religious doctrine.

    Part of the problem is the lack of any international leader who can speak on behalf of Muslims. This creates a vacuum that is filled by a variety of local or national leaders, each with their own ambitions.

    Further complicating the matter are the more than 1400 years of often contradictory Islamic jurisprudence and Qur’anic interpretations, which can be used to justify gross violations like attacks on civilian populations or the oppression of women’s rights.

    I also agree with Thoreau’s take on the effect of education, particularly in the countries where Arabic is not the native language. There, the populace have to rely on the interpretation of the local cleric whose own Arabic proficiency is not guaranteed, often resulting in a disastrous game of religious telephone.

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