"Right" and "wrong" beliefs: states as arbiters of religious doctrine

Conference at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology on the bureaucratization of Islam in Southeast Asia

September 01, 2017
On 7 and 8 September 2017 a conference entitled "Conceptualizing the Bureaucratization of Islam and Its Socio-Legal Dimensions in Southeast Asia: Anthropological and Transdisciplinary Perspectives" will take place at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle. Together with international experts, doctoral students will discuss the role of state actors in contemporary political and legal Islamization processes in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. The workshop is organized by the Emmy Noether Junior Research Group on the Bureaucratization of Islam headed by Dominik Müller and funded by the German Research Foundation.

Control through bureaucratization
Since the 1970s Islamic movements have developed into powerful political actors that have given rise to revolutionary upheavals and social transformation processes, resulting in major power shifts that continue to the present. In response, many Southeast Asian states have mobilized tremendous resources in an effort to control these processes by redefining Islamic rules and practices as bureaucratic norms. "States thus adopt, for example, Islamic banking laws, criminal legislation, or family law", explains Dr Dominik Müller, head of the Emmy Noether Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. "By doing this they attempt to pre-empt the demands of opposition movements and regulate and ultimately control Islamic discourse in the public sphere."

States as agents of Islamization
The wave of political and social Islamization that is currently sweeping Southeast Asia is thus not limited to oppositional, religiously motivated movements. "In Brunei, for example, an official national Islamic ideology, Melayu Islam Beraja, has been implemented systematically in a top-down fashion. In this way the state cements its power of definition in political and religious contexts, creates new traditions and new forms of living in society", Müller says. In Malaysia the state also determines what is considered correct Islamic teaching and what is to be condemned as deviant. Müller: "The Islamic bureaucracy has developed an elaborate set of rules. Take, say, the Malaysian state of Selangor: here the government has identified 70 deviant doctrines that may not be taught under pain of prosecution."

Transformation of social processes into state norms
The many state interventions in society have created a highly complex and muddled situation in which it is not always clear who is acting in the name of what interests and goals. "Social science research has paid little attention to date to Islamization tendencies within states", Müller explains. "However, states’ actions take many different forms, and they do more than simply react to the challenges posed by oppositional Islamist movements." How these bureaucratization processes – and with them the state’s attempts to influence political and social Islamization – will continue in the future remains to be seen. The doctoral students in the Emmy Noether Research Group are engaged in empirical investigation of this question. "In the working group we have been engaged in developing a broad conceptual framework that we are connecting with relevant insights from social anthropology on bureaucratization and anthropology of the state."

Insight through anthropological field observation
These Islamization processes are bewilderingly diverse. Consequently, Müller and his doctoral students are placing great weight on their upcoming fieldwork, which will allow them to gain insight into the specific ways that the bureaucratization of Islam is manifested at different locations. "Our goal is not primarily to merely compile individual case studies or national studies", Müller says. "It is much more interesting to find explanations for the social phenomenon of bureaucratization in Southeast Asia using theoretical social anthropological concepts. All the more so because the new cultural forms that have emerged from religious bureaucratization and are putting down roots in many aspects of people’s everyday lives are not just a product of state power." In other words, Islamization in Southeast Asia cannot be characterized either as a purely oppositional movement, or as a political strategy for gaining and maintaining power. Müller emphasizes the necessity of remaining aware of both processes: "For this reason we want to move beyond monocausal or functionalist explanations of Islamization. Instead, we will consider the dynamics of the production of meaning from a hermeneutic perspective and investigate what scope for action the actors have as a result of this."

Doctoral students in dialogue with international experts
The doctoral students, who recently returned from a one-month field orientation trip, will open the conference by presenting their research projects, which they will then discuss with established scholars from around the world. "This is what makes our workshop special", Müller notes. "Following general discussion among all conference participants, the doctoral students will each have the opportunity to talk about their project one-on-one with six invited experts. This intensive mentoring will provide excellent preparation for the doctoral students before they embark on their 11-month field research phase at the end of the year."

Studying global social change
The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology is one of the world’s leading centres for research in socio-cultural anthropology. It was established in 1999 by Chris Hann and Günther Schlee, and moved to its permanent buildings at Advokatenweg 36 in Halle/Saale in 2001. Marie-Claire Foblets joined the Institute as Director of the department 'Law & Anthropology' in 2012.
Common to all research projects at the Max Planck Institute is the comparative analysis of social change; it is primarily in this domain that its researchers contribute to anthropological theory, though many programmes also have applied significance and political topicality. Fieldwork is an essential part of almost all projects. Some 175 researchers from over 30 countries currently work at the Institute. In addition, the Institute also hosts countless guest researchers who join in the scholarly discussions at the Institute.

More information on the German Research Foundation’s Emmy Noether Research programme: here

More information on the workshop.

Contact for this press release
Dr Dominik Müller
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Department ‘Law & Anthropology’
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-333
Mail: muellerdo@eth.mpg.de

PR contact
Stefan Schwendtner
Press and Public Relations
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-425
Mail: schwendtner@eth.mpg.de

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