Second Research Fellowship Programme Seminar

Second Research Fellowship Programme Seminar

The Second Research Fellowship Programme Seminar provided the opportunity for two of the Institute's fellows to provide an update on their research.

The second Research Fellowship Programme Seminar was held at AKU-ISMC in two parts, on the 25 February and 16 March. The Seminar provided the opportunity for the Institute's Research Fellows, Habiba Fathi (France/Algeria) and Iftekhar Iqbal (Bangladesh) and Bakary Sambe (Senegal) to provide an update on their research projects since the first seminar, held on 4 December 2008. The Seminar was moderated by Jeff Tan and Kathryn Spellman Poots.

Iftekhar Iqbal: Beyond ideological paradigms: an exploration of the relationship between the secular and Islamic civil societies in Bangladesh

Iftekhar Iqbal presented a paper outlining the progress of his research entitled Beyond Ideological Paradigms: towards a post civil society space in Bangladesh. Iqbal's research explores the tensions (or points of engagement) between religious and secular civil society organisations, and their role within the development context.

His research seeks to answer the key question of whether civil society organisations in Bangladesh (both religious and secular) are performing or delivering within the development space.

As an extension of this research question, Iqbal plans to explore whether alternative civil society paradigms (ie, those beyond definitions of the 'secular' and 'religious') would better serve development goals within the Bangladeshi context.

Using Amartya Sen's concept of 'development as freedom' as the starting point of his enquiry, Iqbal noted five criteria that should be met to have a meaningful space in the development sector. These, as defined by Sen, are: political freedom; access to economic resources and facilities; access to economic opportunities; transparency; and protection guarantees.

Against these criteria, Iqbal's research seeks to assess how both religious and faith-based civil society organisations are faring in their ability to influence effective development. To illustrate this, Iqbal introduced the example of the provision of microcredit in developing countries.

The provision of microcredit as a development tool has been criticised due to the contradiction that the more microcredit is offered, the more it seems to be required. In this regard, it appears that rather than microcredit being used in a sustainable manner (ie one which promotes economic development and independence), it is being used as a source of income for short term use, leading to an emerging dependence on these short-term loans.

Research Fellows Iftekhar Iqbal and Habiba Fathi (left to right) are both conducting research on aspects of social and cultural change in Muslim contexts.

After providing a brief survey of the landscape of secular and religious civil society organisations in Bangladesh, Iqbal introduced two specific problems that he hopes to investigate further in his research.

The first problem identified by Iqbal is the categorisation of civil society as either secular or sacred. In this regard, civil society organisations are perceived to be either essentially secular or sacred - an approach which, Iqbal argues, does not support a plurality or diversity of perspectives.

The second question that Iqbal has identified concerns what problems have arisen in the post-colonial state, especially in the context of the relationship between the secularist and religious spheres.

A major theme that Iqbal hopes to investigate is the displacement of the social dynamics between the state and the individual. He argues that the prevailing political force within the neo-liberal environment has tended to be secular or sacred civil society organisations, leaving out the question of broader social dynamics that both include and overcome the categories of the secular and the sacred. 

Habiba Fathi: Farmer Mullahs as a Network of Solidarity in Post-Soviet Central Asia

Habiba Fathi's study seeks to illustrate that the transformation of the rural space in post-Soviet Central Asia has led to the re-composition of solidarity spaces in which traditional values are being mobilised. Fathi's project approaches this transformation through the land reform policies launched in all Central Asian states following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fathi's research project is entitled Islam, state and the transformation of the rural space in post-Soviet Central Asia: a study of the family through its exchange strategies.

Fathi's research concerns three types of networks which have resulted from land-reform policies: family networks resulting from the newly acquired land; networks of the presidents of the newly transformed collective farms, linked both to local political authorities and to state power; and networks of official mullahs or 'clerics' who act as state civil servants and who became 'independent farmers' upon gaining access to a plot of land. Fathi's presentation introduced her research on the topic of 'farmer mullahs' - a network of state-sponsored religious leaders who have been granted land.

After more than a decade of political and socio-economic changes in post-Soviet Central Asia, land reform has not met the expectations of international aid agencies. Land reform has not led to a class of rural entrepreneurs; rather, it has seen the development of a class of rural farmers. Fathi's research seeks to investigate how and why state mullahs have been integrated into the economic sphere.

The concept of transition was largely used in the early 1990s to describe the process the former communist republics of the Soviet Union had entered: a process that would lead post-Soviet independent states of Central Asia from real socialism and authoritarianism to democracy, and from a command economy to a free market economy with integration in the global economy. In support of this, a policy of land reform was imposed on Central Asian countries.

In her presentation, Fathi discussed the relationship between Islam and the independent state, and presented three cases of 'farmer mullahs'.

Following their independence, the Central Asian states sought to resolve their position vis-à-vis religion, remodeling their constitutions, in which religion was strictly separated from the state, while endowing Islam with an official status.

The body with which official 'clerics' is affiliated is the National Spiritual Board, which is a national Muslim authority. This board has its roots in the Soviet-era administration, particularly the Soviet Spiritual Board of Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, created in 1943 by Stalin to foster support for the war among the Muslim population. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this institution was reformed in the context of each state. In all cases, the Board's goal has been to control religion, by defending the state's position on Islam and secularism to Muslim constituencies.

The Seminar was chaired by AKU-ISMC Assistant Professors Jeff Tan (pictured) and Kathryn Spellman Poots.

In order to inform her research, Fathi conducted fieldwork in four countries between 2002 and 2003. Fathi interviewed 14 mullahs in different parts or Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, of which only four were not official 'clerics' (in that they were not employed by the state).

During the land reform process, land was distributed to carefully chosen members, who were among the privileged in the system. The land reform process looked to dismantle two Soviet-era rural enterprises. These enterprises were the kolkhoz (collective farms) and the sovkhoz (state farms). These state and collective farms were created in the rural parts of the Soviet empire during the collectivisation policy at the time of Stalin at the end of the 1920s..

Fathi introduced three case studies from the 'farmer mullahs' that she interviewed. The fieldwork conducted with the three 'farmer mullahs' provided insight into a variety of different aspects of the networks - including the backgrounds of the mullahs (eg, where they had received their religious training), the legal framework in which land had been acquired (eg, the land as state property, but with the mullahs granted the right to use it), and the role of the family unit (and therefore changes to the family unit) with regards to cultivation.

In conclusion, Fathi noted that the interpersonal relations have been built on and reinforced the community basis of traditional society. In addition, Fathi identified a 'vote-catching logic' of the farmer mullahs in both their religious and social activities. Using Ibn Khaldun's notion of asabiyah, and quoting French scholar Olivier Roy, Fathi noted that the 'farmer mullahs' constituted a specific class unified by a clan spirit which is namely, as Roy writes, 'a socio-economic category with shared interests combined with matrimonial networks, a common culture, vote-catching logic and common ties, and the capacity to mobilise extremely varied segments of the population'.

Fathi's research shows that religious officials were chosen to benefit from the advantages of land reforms. The Central Asian governments distributed land to trusts led by selected individuals, as they would rather deal with people who had displayed loyalty to the state. This, Fathi concluded, showed that indeed, interpersonal relations based on submission and domination, gave rise to solidarity networks that helped reinforce the community basis of traditional societies.

African Islam: Evolution, Networks and Impacts of Social Change

Bakary Sambe presented an overview of his research and an introduction to the historical context of scholarship about Islam in Africa, with particular emphasis on French academic work in the context of colonialism and the post-colonial state. Through his research, Sambe seeks to go beyond academic preconceptions that have tended to treat Islam in Africa as 'inferior' in relation to Islam in the Middle East.

More specifically, his research project seeks to explore the process of Islamisation marked by the strong presence of the Sufi brotherhoods in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sambe's research is an exploration of the evolution of Islamised African society through factors that are not necessarily religious, do not follow global Islamic norms, and are able to preserve indigenous characteristics in spite of their interactions with the rest of the Muslim world.

Sambe's research will extend to an examination of the history of the early spread of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa through a variety of neglected written and oral sources. In particular, Sambe will explore the trade networks linking Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa and the Middle East, which facilitated the exchange of materials, people, ideas, cultures and religion.

Having conducted a survey on the state of Islamic studies in European and Muslim contexts, Sambe argues that the evolution of Islam within Sub-Saharan Africa is not a very well researched field, despite the fact that in Sub-Saharan Africa, Islam is practiced by millions of Africans with varied traditions and interpretations of the religion.

Interestingly, the region has seen Islam practiced for more than 1000 years without any serious conflict between it and local social frameworks. Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa and its evolution and change are not considered seriously within the field of modern Islamic studies, despite the fact that its adaptation to local cultures remains the most important factor in African Islam's peaceful experience.

The mass adoption of Islam in Africa began with the arrival of the Muslim Sufi brotherhoods (turuq) in the nineteenth century. At that time, African Sub-Saharan countries were mostly colonised by European powers. Sambe argues that within this context, the adoption of Islam en masse can be understood as a reaction or opposition to the colonial system, which sought to destroy the existing African political and social organisations. Sambe's research will attempt to explain why, in many African societies, Islam represented a framework through which to oppose the colonial system.

Sambe's research will study how Islamic society in Senegal, while strongly connected to the Arab world, remains sheltered from violence and extremism despite the re-emergence in some societies of violent political movements that use Islamic symbols. Despite the Wahhabi influence and the development of new Salafi movements, Islam in Senegal remains peaceful and incorporated within local cultural systems.

Sambe's research is based largely on fieldwork conducted in Senegal and consisting of meetings with religious leaders and Islamic associations. His findings seek to help to provide an understanding of the process of change in this society and better anchor his research in lived realities. In addition to his fieldwork, largely neglected Arabic sources inform Sambe's research project.

Concluding Remarks

In their concluding remarks, seminar moderators, Kathryn Spellman Poots and Jeff Tan remarked on the role of the state in the case studies presented by the fellows, in particular the emergence of the role of certain classes in the development process. In the case of Bangladesh, it can be seen that there is a withdrawal or failure of the state in the development process - and civil society has moved to fill this void.

In the case of post-Soviet Central Asia, the state has failed to replace pre-existing social structures with more 'modern' social actors and hence the subsequent emergence of a new class which can be traced back to traditional clan ties. One question that emerged from the discussions was what exactly the role of Islam was in both of these cases.

In addition, the moderators emphasised the overall approach of the Research Fellowship Programme and of the Institute, which locates Muslims as social actors in a range of diverse contexts - contesting and debating through networks or as individuals, in order to explain the social and cultural changes happening around them, while redefining and reshaping their own cultural landscapes.

The Fellows' research raised pertinent questions related to the role of Islam, particularly whether these groups were simply appropriating Islam to justify their role or whether Islam continues to have a more meaningful purpose. In addition, the research raised critical questions related to the impact of the neo-liberal paradigm of the free market economy which continues to be promoted within what is essentially a subsistence economy in Central Asia.

The Research Fellowship Programme Seminars will culminate in an International Workshop, leading to a publication. The Workshop will seek to promote scholarly dialogue on the dynamics of networks and institutions of social change in predominantly Muslim contexts.

Online Resources

Research Fellows