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Questioning Religious Belonging in the Diaspora

Panel XIII-20, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • This paper examines how Muslim communities in Arctic Norway negotiate religious practices under circumstances very different to Muslim majority countries. The research questions guiding the study are: 1) How do Muslims negotiate doctrinally diverse but socially adjacent interpretations of Islamic traditions in small but heterogeneous Arctic communities? 2) How are transnational Islamic communications, movements, and institutions (Owen 2004) and “practices of local place making” (Tse 2014) reflected in these negotiations? The first known Muslims arrived in Tromsø in 1981. The small group travelled by car searching for a good place to live as Muslims. Having heard of an open-minded hippie collective up north, they found it on Karlsøya – a small island two hours north of Tromsø. Here, they established a Muslim congregation. Years later, they founded the Islamisk Senter for nord Norge (The Islamic Centre in Northern Norway, ISNN) in Tromsø (Bratsvedal, 2013). The search for a tolerant community in the far north is the point of departure of this paper. I study Muslim practices and understandings of religious authenticity in challenging geographical locations and within small, heterogeneous Arctic communities. The approach is theoretically informed by the paradigm of everyday religion as well as geography of religion as it aims to grasp the significance of the local Arctic environment for the ways in which these Muslims practice Islam (Knott 2005; Kong 2010; Sopher 1967). It is part of a larger project on modern Muslim subjectivity formation and community building in the Arctic. Empirically, the paper is informed by historical documentation of the mentioned Muslim communities as well as fieldwork in the two mosque communities in Tromsø in 2022-23. After the establishment of the ISNN in 1992, the Alnor Mosque was founded in 2009. Today, the ISNN is dominated by individuals of Somali origin whereas the Alnor is led by Norwegian converts. The Alnor mosque was at the centre of a controversy in 2010 when the idea of erecting a purpose-built mosque to mirror the large Ishavskatedralen (the Ice Sea Cathedral) produced not only scepticism but outright Islamophobia in the local press. Preliminary findings indicate that the controversy was connected to disagreements over adaption of prayer times to the extreme seasonal changes of daylight as well as resources (knowledge, language, time, money) and is thus useful as a prism to understand how Muslims negotiate religious practices in contemporary Arctic Norway.
  • How do Muslims make places in Arctic Canada? What do they need to feel home living so distant from the cradle of Islam? How to feel a sense of belonging in surroundings where Islamic ritual practices are – besides many other challenges – severely complicated by extreme changes in daylight? This paper provides tentative answers to these questions in taking up the case of mosque-building as a strategy of home-making for both Muslim communities and individuals. In recent years, three purpose-built mosques have been erected in Northern Canada – the Midnight Sun Mosque in Inuvik, Northwest Territories above the Arctic Circle, the mosque in Whitehorse, Yukon, and the mosque in Iqaluit, Nunavut. A fourth one in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, is in the process of being built. In light of the above questions, answers suggest that the building of these mosques has been driven by wishes for rootedness, visibility, and – most importantly – the desire to feel home. The mosque hereby fulfills different functions of home: It can provide a community home for gatherings, celebrations, and educational and leisure activities; a spiritual home and safe space for individuals; and a place of interaction with the local population. The members of these new mosque communities represent different ethnicities, generations, gender groups, and branches of Islam, thus raising questions of religious authority and the interpretation of Islamic traditions, i.e. regarding prayer times, qibla orientation or mosque governance. The paper looks at strategies of home-making and religious practice in these small but utterly diverse Muslim communities on an individual and communal level, thereby analyzing the complex interplay of local and transnational factors. In this way, the paper puts its focus on the study of Islam in rural and northern settings in Canada, a void in the study of Islam in the West so far. It contributes with insights to modern Muslim subjectivity formation through the lens of place-making strategies by ordinary Muslim individuals and communities. Thus, it forms part of a bigger research effort titled The Arctic Muslim aimed at taking the study of modern Muslim subjectivities into a new geographical direction by employing the concept of lived religion. Empirically, the paper presents an effort of extensive mapping drawing on a variety of data from local news outlets and social media to census data and fieldwork.
  • What are some connections between personhood, agency, causation, and destiny in complex predicaments of religious conversion and immigration? How do recent converts in a diasporic community in France from North Africa cope with suffering by drawing on cultural and religious resources from past memories and present predicaments? The focus here is on a group of Kabyles, an Amazigh (Berber) group, formerly Muslims, who converted to Christianity and immigrated to France from Algeria to escape political, religious, and regional/cultural violence during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Data are primarily based on this social/cultural anthropologist’s field research in a suburb of Paris among diasporic Kabyles, with some added insights where relevant from this anthropologist’s additional field research among Saharan Tuareg, another Amazigh group culturally and linguistically similar to the Kabyles. The paper builds on anthropological studies of personhood, agency, and causality/causation in contexts of intersectional religious, cultural, and political identities (Keane 2007; Mahmood 2003; McIntosh 2009; Robbins 2007). There is analysis of Kabyle converts’ reflections, discussions, and debates at church meetings, sermons, interviews, and informal conversations over how to cope with challenges such as racism, Islamophobia, marginal employment, and loneliness in France and remembered political, cultural, and religious traumas back in Algeria’s Kabylie region (Goodman 2005; Lorcin 1995; P. Silverstein 2004). The analysis shows multi-layered religious concepts and imagery emerging in moral discourses surrounding incidents of conflict, causal explanations of events, and advice for coping with suffering. Converts’ interactions in France reveal both continuities and transformations of orthodox and popular cultural Islamic and Evangelical Protestant Christian concepts of personal agency, theories of cause/effect and destiny, and structural constraints. More broadly, there is not merely the “sum total” of hybridized beliefs, but more nuanced contextual dynamics. The paper argues that there are overlapping rather than discrete or ruptured moral landscapes in continuing reverberations of pre-conversion and pre-diaspora memories, but also emergent moral landscapes informing current predicaments.
  • Forging belonging is a particularly complex experience for those who migrate before adulthood, or the 1.5 generation. The sentiments of, and oscillation between, being “neither here nor there,” commonly attributed to their relationship to the home and host countries, can lead to isolation, itself a driver of poor mental health. This oscillation may be more pronounced for 1.5 generation Iranians whose “in-between” state can further distance them from the homeland, due to their limited bonds and memories of it, and from the host land, in which they are perceived to be outsiders, due to negative public images, and turbulent political relationships between Iran and host lands. This particular position impacts the ways in which transnational connections with the homeland can be established, interrupted, or re-routed for 1.5 generation Iranians. Recognizing the vitality of mental well-being to participation in society, and the unique position of the 1.5 generation, my research explores how they experience, navigate, and forge belongingness. My research examines two questions: first, what are the experiences of belonging of 1.5 generation Iranians currently living in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), and Istanbul, in a transnational context? And second, what is the relationship, if any, of Iranian 1.5 generations’ sense of belonging and their experience of mental well-being? I will share preliminary results from using an innovative arts-based method of life mapping, along with semi-structured interviews with participants in the GTA. Life-maps allow a greater breadth of introspection, reflection, and expression from participants, by allowing them to convey important life events in an order they choose. Simultaneously, semi-structured interviews give them the space to co-construct knowledge, and demonstrate how they make sense of, and experience, home, belonging, and mental well-being. The results of this research emphasise the importance of contextual factors that impact how belonging is understood and experienced, outside of traditional markers of societal integration. Furthermore, the research highlights the role of transnational connections in influencing 1.5 generation Iranians’ ways of belonging, and in turn, their perceived mental well-being. Contributing to the emerging field of Iranian diaspora studies, this project considers exclusively the experience of 1.5 generation Iranians in both the Global North (Toronto) and the Global “South” (Istanbul). This timely research will provide insight on how events such as current uprisings in Iran might influence transnational connections, belonging and wellbeing, providing insight that can significantly impact the wellbeing and future success of immigrant youth.
  • This paper explores a form of Islamophobia in international law through which adoption from Muslim countries is being restricted. It looks at a case study, that of the Canadian ban on Pakistani adoptions, as a form of imperial amnesia. To former imperial subjects it is well known that Colonialism reframed legal relationships and the adoption of the common law was a revolutionary adjustment. Imperial subjects retained some autonomy in personal law, but that autonomy was still conditioned on recognition by imperial courts (Hallaq, 2009). Adoption was particularly vexatious as most interpretations of the sharia do not allow for the creation of blood relations through operation of law, but recognized instead a form of wardship (kafala) which functionally serves as an adoption (e.g. Pakistan the Wardship law of 1890). With Muslim immigration to Europe and North America as the inevitable consequence of the end of empire (Patel, 2021), the question of adoptions was raised anew. The Hague Convention of 1993 was created to form a new legal landscape for intercountry adoptions but posed a challenge to Muslim countries who took a principled stand on avoiding the word adoption and many did not sign. Canada continued to allow Pakistani adoptions till 2013 when they were banned, citing sharia law as the hurdle. The paradox here is that while Canada simultaneously restricted the formal use of the sharia in marriages or enacted sharia bans it was now interpreting the sharia to keep Muslims out. This paper explores the nature of this paradox through the legal history of these two former British colonies and how in the post-colony Canada’s actions function as a form of amnesia to support islamophobic policies. Islamophobia as recent scholarship indicates reifies the past over the lived realities of Muslims in the present (Zine, 2022). These amnesiac tendencies obfuscate long histories of entanglement in a refusal to recognize Muslim claims. This paper exposes this logic through which Muslim citizenship is subject to capricious state policies which ignore imperial genealogies. This paper will contextualize its claims in the historical Muslim traditions, and the practical legal solutions in the countries subject to the ban. Hallaq, W. B. (2009). Shari'a : theory, practice, transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Patel, I. S. (2021). We're here because you were there : immigration and the end of empire. London; New York: Verso. Zine, J. (2022). Under Siege: Islamophobia and the 9/11 Generation: McGill-Queen's University Press.