Tuesday 20 October 2009

A Cosmopolitan Canopy against Dangerous Dichotomies

The above title refers to two concepts developed by Dr Bruce Lawrence, the Nancy & Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor at Duke University and director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC), in his keynote address to the 2009 Biannual International Forum on Asia-Middle East Studies hosted by the US Naval Academy (USNA) in Annapolis on 16 and 17 October. Revolving around the theme Transcending Borders: Asia, the Middle East and the Global Community, this year's conference was jointly organised by the academy's Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies, the Library of Congress Asia Division Friends Society (LCADFS), and Shanghai
International Studies University (SHISU).

In his talk about 'Minority Citizenship: Lessons from Africa and Asia', Lawrence drew on his recent research in the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia, focussing in particular on his experiences in Indonesia and the Philippines.

His views on the issue of religious and ethnic pluralism are informed by his objection to the 'dangerous dichotomies', which posit 'fundamentalism' or 'Islamism' over and against forms of 'liberal Islam', and his agreement with the argument put forward by the Sudanese-born but US-based legal scholar and human rights theorist Abdullahi al-Na'im that -- also in Islam -- state and religion are separate, for the simple reason that states in their role as key actors in the current world order define what 'Islam' is. On these grounds, say al-Na'im and Lawrence, the conflation of Islam and politics becomes untenable. This in turn has major consequences for the interpretation of minority positions within varuying systems of political order.

Inspired by Peter Berger's The Sacred Canopyand the frequent references in recent social theory to the notion of cosmopolitanism, Lawrence suggests redefining the relationship between Islam and politics within the context of a 'Cosmopolitan Canopy' in which he seeks to accomodate three dyadic contrasts: the nature of the state (secular, not religious, as defined by Rawls), the function of what Habermas has called the 'public square' (agonistic rather than antagonistic), and the scale and scope of citizenship.

On a generic level this is currently developed at Princeton by the Oxford trained political scientis Andrew March as well as the earlier mentioned Abdullahi al-Na'im, who aside from his legal expertise is also a student of the Sudanese activist and Sufi leader Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (see the post of 11 September 2008).

In assessing the role of the extent to which religious beliefs inform experiences of citizenship and belonging, Lawrence proposes a further distinction between a vertical scale of belief/unbelief and a horizontal dimension expressing levels of citizenship. Finally the explanatory model must account for the divides between collective identity and individual voice, expressed in answers to five questions: (1) where am I? Who am I? Who claims me? (family, ethnic group, nation) What do I believe/practice/accept? (religion, language, race) Who represents me? (state, official custodians, or less formalized new voices).

Because of the complexities surrounding the unsuing tensions between collectivity and indnviduality, Lawrence believes that only ethnographies with their 'thick descriptions' can adequately capture the nuances of individual voices. It also provides opportunity for minorities to demonstrate how they see themselves. As a case in point he quoted the Indonesian writer Pramudya Ananda Toer, who once said that 'Indonesia' is not a designation chosen by the inhabitants of that Southeast Asian island republic -- who often use the word Nusantara instead.

In a further discussion of his findings in the Philippines and Indonesia, Lawrence stressed the importance of conceiving of these two nation-states as part of a continuum, a geocultural formation consisting of islands not separated but connected by water. This alternative understanding of insular Southeast Asia makes it easier to appreciate this maritime world as essentially an 'open society'. Such a less strictly circumscribed 'Phil-Indo Archipelago' can also accommodate the pre-Islamic aspects of the region's history. This kind of revisionist historiography can be found in Shinzo Hayase's Mindanao Ethnohistory Beyond Nations and the writings of former Swarthmore College President Theodore Friend.

Based on his own investigations, Lawrence concluded that the public sphere in this Phil-Indo Archipelago is characterized by a top-down, region-directed, centrist approach in which nation-state policies continue to privilege the metropole and its elites at the expense of minority groups often located at the geographical peripheries. In regards to Indonesia he added that the Indonesian 'sense of self' is still far removed from an 'Arab-Islamic' identity -- meaning that the sustained, intensive and enduring connections of Indonesia's Muslims to the centers of Islamic learning in the Middle East are maintained through processes of subtle negotiation.

Bruce Lawrence is the author of the following books:

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