October 23-26, 2008, in Boulder, Colorado

University of Colorado at Boulder
schedule | abstracts
Hotel Boulderado | Boulder SuperShuttle
Ruth Mas | Carla Jones
Department of Anthropology | Department of Religious Studies | University of Colorado at Boulder

Transnational Discourses of Islamic Community


The confirmed list of participants includes four off-campus guests and the seven University of Colorado faculty who have been involved in our year-long grant on globalization, mobility and Islamic faith communities. Peter Mandaville, of George Mason University; Andrew Shryock of the University of Michigan; Paul Silverstein, of Reed College; and Engseng Ho, currently of Harvard University, soon to be moving to Duke University. Each of these outside scholars promises to bring a particular disciplinary strength and world area expertise to our broader conversation about the intersection of transnational imaginaries and forms of identity. In spite of the diversity of world areas and disciplinary perspectives in this group, we are excited about the potential our two days together holds for developing and challenging our individual scholarship. Indeed, this diversity should prove helpful, as we move among approaches, from history to contemporary political theory to anthropology. At the center of our inquiry remains the question of what sorts of cultural and political conditions generate forms of community identity around Islam.

University of Colorado faculty include Nabil Echchaibi (Journalism and Mass Communication), Najeeb Jan (Geography), Carla Jones (Anthropology), Ruth Mas (Religious Studies), Dennis McGilvray (Anthropology) and John Willis (History).


The day-long October 24 conference will be open to the public and will take place in the British Studies Room, M549 Norlin Library.

All are welcome. A detailed presentation schedule is available below.

Workshops on October 25 will be limited to invited participants.

October 24

9:00-9:30-Welcome and conference introduction

9:30-10:30-Contested Islams in South Asia

Introduction: Carole McGranahan

9:30-Dennis McGilvray: Sri Lankan Muslims between Ethno-nationalism and the Global Ummah

10:00-Najeeb Jan: Borders of the Ummagination: Islam and the Political at the Ends of the Pakistani Nation


10:45-11:45-Modular Nationhood? Colonial and Postcolonial conversations between Nation and Islam

Introduction: Michael Zimmerman

10:45-John Willis: Nationalism, Race, and the Caliphate Idea in India and the Middle East, 1920-1934

11:15-Carla Jones: Projected Community: Nationalism, Independence and Islamic Subjectivity in Contemporary Urban Indonesia


12:00-1:00-Lunch Break

1:00-2:00- Popular Islams and Transnational Subjects

Introduction: Stewart Hoover

1:00-Peter Mandaville: Mystical Entrepreneurs & Salafi Hip-Hop: Post-Islamism and New Transnational Movements in the Muslim World

1:30-Nabil Echchaibi: From Audiotapes to Videoblogs: the Delocalization of Authority in Islam


2:15-3:15-Subjects of Migration: Transnational Mobility and National Anxieties

Introduction: Carla Jones

2:15-Ruth Mas: Imagined Communities of French Secular Islam: French Nationalism and The Transformation of al-Umma al-‘Arabiyya

2:45-Andrew Shryock: Ummah and Empire in Detroit: Lessons in Moral Geography


3:30-4:30-The Pious and the Political: Civil Society, Pluralism and Sovereignty

Introduction: Ruth Mas

3:30-Paul Silverstein: Amazigh Activism, Islamic Secularism, and the Discourse of Religious Pluralism in France and North Africa

4:00-Engseng Ho: Ballots for Bombs: War Beyond Sovereignty, Peace Beyond Representation




Nabil Echchaibi

From Audiotapes to Videoblogs: the Delocalization of Authority in Islam

This article is about the rise of a mediated apolitical Pan-Islam as a new form of religious nationalism across the Muslim world. The transnationalization of Islamic teachings through media technologies is not a new phenomenon. During the 1980s and 1990s, religious preachers distributed across Muslim nations both covertly and overtly audio and videotapes of their lectures on political reform and religious virtue. Their reach, however, was limited to fringe segments of the Muslim population and their styles and topics were overwhelmingly traditional. Today, a new breed of charismatic and media savvy religious figures are reinvigorating internal debates on Islam by drawing large audiences across the Muslim world and the Muslim diaspora in the West. Using satellite media, websites, blogs, and videoblogs, these new religious celebrities are changing the nature of debate in Islam from a doctrinaire discourse to a practical discussion that focuses on individual enterprise as a spiritual quest. These leaders themselves have become religious entrepreneurs with sophisticated networks of message distribution and media presence. From Amr Khaled and Tariq Al-Suwaidan, two leading figures of Arab Islamic entertainment television, to Baba Ali, a famous Muslim videoblogger from California, Islam has never been better marketable. Satellite television and the Internet are becoming fertile discursive spaces where not only religious meanings are reconfigured but also new Islamic experiences are mediated transnationally. This delocalization of Islamic authority beyond the traditional sources of Egypt and Saudi Arabia is generating new producers and locales of religious meaning in Dubai, London, Paris, and Los Angeles. This article examines the impact of celebrity religious figures and their new media technologies on the relativization of authority in Islam and the emergence of a cosmopolitan transnational audience of Muslims. I ask if this transnational and seemingly apolitical effort is generating a new form of religious nationalism that devalues the importance of national loyalties. My findings are based on extended interviews with some of these prominent religious figures in Dubai, London, and Los Angeles.

Engseng Ho

Ballots for Bombs: War Beyond Sovereignty, Peace Beyond Representation

The 3/11 Madrid train bombings and the Spanish elections that follow (and bin Ladin's offer of a truce) provide a series of events in which I ask whether democracies can find an interlocutor on the other side called terrorists to talk terms with, even to make a peace treaty with. The transnational Muslim aspect appears in a mirror as it were, reflected through the statements of the Spanish populace in their response to acts of violence. A number of issues coalesce around the question of representation in its three guises: electoral representation, media representations, collective representations, and these connect the Spanish side with the other. We will try to see whether we can think of a transnational Muslim entity not as a social group, but as the residue of an international politics with international law applied in a skewed way, in which civilians are targets of war but have rights to neither wage war nor make peace.

Najeeb Jan

Borders of the Ummagination: Islam and the Political at the Ends of the Pakistani Nation

Based on research to be conducted during the summer of 2008, this paper shall take as its general domain of concern the transformations in the modalities of ‘ulama governmentality and the broader question of the biopoliticization of the ummah.

The papers first section is historical and begins by noting how the Deoband has always stood in a precarious relationship with Pakistani nationalism, given that the bulk of the early ‘ulama political community, the JUH (Jami‘at-i ‘Ulama-e-Hind) opposed the Muslim League in its 1947 bid to carve out a separate Muslim homeland. I then discusses the ways in which the Deoband ‘ulama deployed of a variety of political technologies that have enabled them, under the catalyst of state intervention, to transform the otherwise politically marginal communities of Islamic orthodoxy — traditionally focused on scholarship, piety and quiet social reform (dawah and tableegh) — into agents of jihad and brokers of increased socio-political power, a power enhanced through their governance of a vast and proliferating network of transnational religious schools and seminaries (madrasas, madaris).

The paper will then address the biopolitical question of the present, through a more specific examination of the ways in which the recent violent and radical reversal of the Pakistani Military State’s policy towards the Taliban (in both Afghanistan and Pakistan) and its pacification campaigns against the autonomous Pakhtun tribal areas (FATA), have produced a series of new tensions between the Deoband establishment and the Pakistani Nation State. It is critical to keep in mind not only the formerly parental relationship between the Pakistani State (specifically the ISI) and the Taliban, but also the fact that these new redirections of State Military practices are being impelled by the security logics of the war on terror, and are hence widely regarded as a new imperial formations. I seek to examine then how the violent interplay between local, regional and international sovereign powers, are producing new biopolitical ruptures within the already complex and fractured landscape of political community in Pakistan.

In this way the paper seeks to demonstrate the inadequacies of reductive approaches that privilege “Islam” or the “ummah” as some kind of transhistorically invariant, monolithic and self-evidently autonomous body. Consequently the paper emphasizes the “secular” processes and forces (global and state actors, political-economy etc.) that bear on the formation of a range of Islamist politics and subjectivities. Finally the paper argues that the contemporary tensions between what it means to be a Muslim and what it means to be a Pakistani, cannot be considered in isolation from regimes of global governmentality on the one hand and an examination of political ontology on the other.

Carla Jones

Projected Community: Nationalism, Independence and Islamic Subjectivity in Contemporary Urban Indonesia

This article will analyze the way one self-identified pious, middle-class community in central Java negotiate their sense of national and religious identity. Few post-colonial nation-states have exemplified the power and challenges of national cohesion than Indonesia. As detailed in Benedict Anderson’s pathbreaking scholarship on nationalism (1981), both the colonial Indies and the independent nation of Indonesia revealed how particular forms—mass media, collective events, museums—are central to (re)producing community. Yet throughout the 20th century, foreign scholars and Indonesian nationalists alike have considered forms of political and transnational Islamic community a threat to the Indonesian nation. This discourse has been revivified since the end of the New Order regime (1965-1998), suggesting that the rise of public piety in contemporary Indonesia comes at the price of Indonesian national identity. Indonesians who increasingly argue that they are guided by the ethics of a pure Islam are often thought to have allegiances first with other Muslims around the world, and only secondarily with the Indonesian nation.

This tension is perhaps most apparent during occasions of national celebration, especially Independence Day marked on the 17th of August each year. During the 32 years of the Suharto regime, this celebration was commemorated in nearly uniform fashion in neighborhoods across the nation. Based on two summers of fieldwork (2007 and 2008), this article will analyze how neighborhood leaders and members of a middle-class housing complex marketed as an Islamic subdivision debated and celebrated Independence Day. From concerns about how to replace typically raucous games with more decorous community fun, to children’s recitation and fashion shows, to high-tech powerpoint presentations that linked the neighborhood to an imagined transnational community of fellow Muslims, to the striking absence of the usually ubiquitous red and white Indonesian flag, on the grounds that pious Muslims should not revere anything prior to God, the entire four-day event selectively adopted and adapted elements of the standard celebration. Yet the easy interpretation that this transformed version of memorializing the nation comes at the cost of national identity among community members would be inaccurate. As interviews and participant observation in this community reveal, the particular transnational connections and disconnections emphasized during the events, and the intended audience for their form of celebration is significantly local and national. Hoping to influence neighboring subdivisions and to improve the morality of the entire nation, community leaders and members of this small community consider themselves centrally invested in creating a better Indonesian nation. As a result, what might appear to threaten the nation arguably keeps the very concept alive, reinvigorating it as the unit of concern, action and salvation.

Peter Mandaville

Mystical Entrepreneurs & Salafi Hip-Hop: Post-Islamism and New Transnational Movements in the Muslim World

This paper represents an attempt to tease out the relationship between neoliberal consumption, everyday social activism, and transnational Muslim movements. The term 'post-Islamism' has had considerable currency of late in debates about the future of Muslim politics. In its best known formulation, that of Olivier Roy, post-Islamism refers to the privatization of religion and the decline of political Islam as manifested in groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Drawing on, but simultaneously critiquing the limits of Roy's approach, this presentation will provide an analysis of several new transnational religious movements in the Muslim world that seek to reformulate the meaning of Islamic social activism in a global world. My approach owes much to Alberto Melucci’s concept of ‘social movements of the everyday,’ but here extended to contexts beyond Europe. Most of the movements treated here are not generally thought of as ‘political’ or ‘Islamist’ in the conventional senses of those terms. I will argue, however, that in fact these groups represent a new way of doing politics that becomes legible when we move away from a concept of the political premised on the capture of the state towards one that appreciates the multiple and heterogeneous sources of contemporary social power. As I will illustrate, some of these movements—such as Fethullah Glen's educational network and Amr Khaled's social entrepreneurship—seem to embrace neoliberal practices, while others—such as new media neo-Salafism and the Muslim hip-hop movement—organize themselves in explicit resistance to the dominant political and economic orders.

Ruth Mas

Imagined Communities of French Secular Islam: French Nationalism and The Transformation of al-Umma al-‘Arabiyya

This study is focused on secular-liberal interpretations of Islam in the postcolonial context of France by very highly profiled Muslim reformers (Mohammed Arkoun, Fethi Benslama and Malek Chebel) who have striven to consolidate fundamental precepts of liberal political thought with Islamic modes of reasoning. I focus on their critique of tawhid (unity) and normative definitions of the Islamic ummah (community) as the conceptual sites for the rethinking of national politcs and identity within Islam that makes the latter compatible and relevant to the political aims of French forms of governance. I will analyze the transnational propagation of global visions of Islamic community from North Africa to France and how these both depart from and coalesce with both traditional Middle Eastern conceptions and postcolonial structures of French secularism. To do so, I depart from theories of globalization and empire that seek to decentre the nation and that see globalisation and nationalism as antithetical one to the other. Instead, in examining the transnational politics between Algeria and France and how these manifest in the thought of secular-liberal Muslims, I argue that the French nation-state is the “conceptual container” from which identities, imaginaries and subjectivities emerge.

Dennis McGilvray

Sri Lankan Muslims between Ethno-nationalism and the Global Ummah

How does the Muslim piety of an ethnic minority influence their sense of identification with the nation-state in a situation of violent ethno-nationalist conflict? The Tamil-speaking Sunni Muslims of Sri Lanka are a small minority (8%) submerged within a non-Muslim polity, one dominated by Sinhala-speaking Theravada Buddhists. Even the Muslims’ rebellious linguistic compatriots, the minority Tamils (18%), are primarily Hindus. While they conceive of themselves as members of a global Muslim ummah, the Sri Lankan Muslims – like neighboring Muslim minorities in India (13%), Nepal (4%), Burma (4%), and Thailand (5%) – retain a sense of indigenous ethnicity as veterans of colonialism and as enfranchised citizens of the nation-state. Questions remain, however, about underlying Sri Lankan Muslim ethnic, linguistic, and religious consciousness, and about the degree of Sri Lankan Muslim national identification. The Muslims (or “Moors”) have been alternately manipulated and ignored in Sri Lankan ethno-nationalist politics, a topic that has been the focus of recent scholarly studies. What has not been explored, however, is the religious outlook of the Sri Lankan Muslims themselves in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. How do they reconcile their local Tamil-speaking ethnicity, their Sri Lankan citizenship, and their participation in the world Islamic community? My paper will view these issues through the ethnographic lens of a local-level Sufi kalifa or sheikh (mystical preceptor) who has a popular following in the Tamil-Muslim agricultural town of Akkaraipattu on the east coast of the island. Typically viewed by Sri Lankan Muslim fundamentalist factions as heretical, this self-made Sufi sheikh nevertheless has a growing number of disciples in Sri Lanka as well as abroad in places such as Dubai, where he has visited. This poses intriguing questions about contemporary trans-national Islamic currents as well as about the locally-rooted basis of Muslim identity and national loyalty. My summer 2008 fieldwork in Sri Lanka will explore these issues through participant-observation and interviews with this local religious leader. The resulting article will be contextualized by more than three decades of anthropological research I have conducted in the matrilineal Tamil-speaking Hindu and Muslim eastern region of the island starting in 1969.

Andrew Shryock

Ummah and Empire in Detroit: Lessons in Moral Geography

Greater Detroit is home to at least 50 mosques and over 100,000 Muslims. This population is old, tracing its origins to the late 19th century, and internally diverse. In addition to ethnoracial and linguistic differences that limit interaction, Detroit's Muslims are divided into Shi`a and Sunni congregations, into newly arrived and American born cohorts, and along class lines. These distinctions are institutionalized and durable. The idea that Muslims, despite their particularities, belong to one community (ummatun wahidatun) that transcends human boundaries is not new. It was popular in Detroit in 1921, when Muslims from several Eurasian and African countries established the first, purpose-built mosque in the U.S., and it remains popular today, during a "war on terror" that has cast the global ummah as a threat to national security and a zone of resistance to American empire. Muslims in Detroit are now under relentless pressure to Americanize their Islam, and this pressure has made talk of the global ummah more urgent, and more critical, than it was before 9/11. Ironically, this discourse, as spoken by local Muslims, is often contrastive and paternalistic, with "homeland Muslims," or "Middle Easterners," or "Arabs," or "new immigrants" portrayed as representational problems that American Muslims are ideally equipped solve, usually by promulgating a more genuinely universal Islam that is not contaminated by ?immigrant culture.? This way of moralizing difference within a global Muslim community bears an uncanny likeness to American imperial discourses, and many American Muslims find this resemblance attractive (as a potential source of political influence in the U.S. and the Muslim world). I will discuss several ways in which Detroit Muslims use the global ummah as an ideological device that allows them to criticize fellow Muslims, defend and assert their own American identities, and participate in a public culture that is often hostile to them.

Paul Silverstein

Amazigh Activism, Islamic Secularism, and the Discourse of Religious Pluralism in France and North Africa

Based on ethnographic research conducted with Berber (Amazigh) activist communities in France and Morocco, this paper explores the increasing political salience of discourses of secularism and religious pluralism within an Islamic idiom across the western Mediterranean. If the Mediterranean is currently a transnational space for mass-mediated articulations of a pan-Islamic ummah envisioned to transcend ethnic divides and local practices, it has simultaneously witnessed the rise of Muslim ethno-nationalist movements that have embraced heteropraxy, imagined greater inter-confessional dialogue, and opposed efforts to impose a singularity of religious subjectivity. Amazigh militants -- operating both from North Africa and the diaspora in France -- have been particularly active in envisioning a Muslim identity consonant with state secularism and local religious practices (including regional pilgrimages, healing rituals, and membership in Sufi orders) . In the process have become ardent defenders of lacit, seeing in the new European laws a model for the privatization of religious practice in North Africa. Moreover, in direct opposition to Islamist political tendencies, they have adopted philo-Semitic attitudes, espousing rapprochement with Israel, and nostalgically underlining the central place of Jews in North African culture and history. While the borders of the resultant imagined community are thus more fluid and fragmented than those of a salafi ummah, Amazigh activists remain committed to their place within a larger Islamic world of discourse and debate. The paper charts the ambiguities and ambivalences of this particularly fraught subject position.

John Willis

Nationalism, Race, and the Caliphate Idea in India and the Middle East, 1920-1934

This paper explores the varied attempts to imagine the formation of a modern caliphate in the period between 1920 and 1934 from the perspectives of the Middle East and South Asia. The period between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of the post-colonial nation states was characterized by intense debate between Arab and Indian Muslims concerning the type of Islamic political community that should or could be constructed in the wake of the First World War and the foundation of the secular Turkish Republic. The focus of the paper is a reading of two texts on the caliphate by the Syrian Rashid Rida and the Indian Abul Kalam Azad and their subsequent writings on the possible formation of an Arab caliphate in Arabia under ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Sa‘ud.

The collapse of the movement to restore the caliphate in the 1930s was due in large part to the radically different visions of the Islamic community held by Arab and Indian Muslims that were embedded in regional movements of national liberation. In the Middle East Islamist activists increasingly defined the caliphate in ethnic terms, influenced by a growing Arab nationalism. Rashid Rida gave Arabs a preeminent place in a hierarchy in which religious virtue was inherent to particular ethnic groups. His vision of an Arab caliphate led to his vocal support ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Sa‘ud as a symbol of ideal religious leadership and Arabism. India’s ethnic diversity and the experience of the exclusionary politics of Arab Muslim activists, however, pushed its Muslim intellectuals to formulate the idea of a “de-racialized” caliphate that would provide spiritual guidance rather than political leadership. Abul Kalam Azad ultimately rejected Rida’s view on the caliphate as well as the role of Ibn Sa‘ud as a leader of the Islamic community and instead adopted the nationalist platform of the Indian National Congress.

I suggest that the power of the caliphate idea stemmed from its inherently ambivalent meaning, which accommodated both complimentary and competing political movements. Rather than signifying the binary opposite of the nation form as its European critics argued, the caliphate can be better understood as a discursive field in which arguments about imperialism, race, sovereignty, and community were conducted that spoke more to the local struggles of Indian and Arab nationalists than universalist forms of political organization.

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