Bureaucratization of Islam – a short reflection on the workshop

The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology hosted a workshop entitled ‘Conceptualizing the Bureaucratization of Islam and its Socio-Legal Dimensions in Southeast Asia: Anthropological and Transdisciplinary Perspectives’ on 7 and 8 September 2017.

October 16, 2017

Organized by group leader Dominik Müller and the doctoral students of the Emmy Noether Junior Research Group 'The Bureaucratization of Islam and its Socio-Legal Dimensions in Southeast Asia', the workshop brought experts from Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia, and the United States to Halle to discuss the role of state actors in the political and legal Islamization happening in Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines. The research group is particularly interested in how the "classificatory power" of the state is negotiated in society and how the discourses of Islamic bureaucracies spread and become integrated into non-state forms of culture. On the basis of extended anthropological field research in various locations in Southeast Asia, the group aims to theorize the "bureaucratization of Islam" and identify what commonalities exist in spite of profound differences in national contexts, discourses, and the social production of meaning connected with this. At the same time, the project contributes to discussions of social anthropological methodology in fieldwork involving bureaucratic spaces.

Intense discussions across disciplines
The workshop was divided into four parts: after a welcome address by the Institute’s Managing Director Marie-Claire Foblets and an introduction by Dominik Müller outlining the concept of the workshop, doctoral students Fauwaz Abdul Aziz, Timea Greta Biro, and Rosalia Engchuan presented their research projects. Subsequently, the guests talked about their own projects, both in-progress and recently concluded, which were relevant to the work of the Emmy Noether Group on relations between Islam and the state in Southeast Asia. Speakers included Patricia Sloane-White (University of Delaware, USA), Michael Feener (University of Oxford, UK), Michael Peletz (Emory University, USA), Kerstin Steiner (La Trobe University, Australia), Intan Paramaditha (Macquarie University, Australia), Dian Shah (National University of Singapore), Alicia Izharudin (University of Malaya), Mirjam Künkler (Käte Hamburger Center “Law as Culture”), Saskia Schäfer (FU Berlin), and Scott MacLochlainn (University of Göttingen). The talks were grouped into three sessions, each of which concluded with comments by one of the participants on how the papers related both to one another and to the research of Emmy Noether Group. For example, Patricia Sloane-White, author of the recent monograph Corporate Islam (Cambridge University Press, 2017), took a critical look at the applicability of established anthropological field research methods in settings such as state bureaucracies or banks and finance institutions. In her talk on "Ethnography by Appointment", she reflected on her experiences of more than two decades doing field research among government and financial elites in Malaysia. Other presentations, such as the talk by legal anthropologist Michael Peletz, who has been conducting research in Malaysia since the 1970s, likewise drew connections between the scholars’ own experiences and the work being conducted by the Emmy Noether Group.
The third part of the workshop was dedicated to one-on-one discussions between the three doctoral students and several of the guests. Each student took part in six 50-minute meetings during which they gathered suggestions on their dissertation projects; workshop guests had been provided with project descriptions two weeks earlier in order to prepare for the advisory sessions. The Institute welcomed Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, who headed the MPI’s project group ‘Legal Pluralism’ from 2000 to 2012, as a participant in these discussions.

State organisations and their challenges for anthropological fieldwork
In the final part of the workshop participants came together again for a plenary discussion. The doctoral students opened with reflections on the meetings, the suggestions they had received, and how these might influence their work going forward. Subsequently, the group explored ideas about how to refine and elaborate the overall project in light of the individual case studies. Comments included Sloane-White’s suggestion that methodological findings are also important results of the project and should be published, because they are likely to be of interest in anthropological debates beyond the specific thematic and regional context of the project. She additionally argued, based on her own experiences, that scholars should be mercilessly self-critical regarding the methodological paradigms of social anthropology and the conventions of self-representation that go with this. The group, she suggested, should be willing to experiment with various approaches and reflect on their applicability (or lack thereof) and ways they could be adapted to research involving state organizations; for it is important to avoid a dogmatic adherence to "participant observation" (or the equally proverbial anthropological practice of "deep hanging out"). Michael Feener offered concrete suggestions on how to develop the comparative component of the meta-project, which spurred intense discussion amongst all workshop participants. In closing, Dominik Müller talked about the perspectives for future collaboration with the guests.

Preparation for field research
The doctoral students, whose research and the development thereof was at the core of the workshop, found the intensive discussion with leading international scholars, who were selected for their suitability to provide advice on the individual dissertation topics, to be extremely beneficial. The students joined the doctoral programme in April 2017 and prior to the workshop they had just returned from a one-month “field orientation trip” in Southeast Asia. Building on insights from the event and their initial experiences in the field, they will modify and expand their conceptions of their projects before they embark on their main fieldwork trips, which will last eleven months, at the end of November. The workshop also proved valuable for the continued development of the meta-project – for example, how to approach the comparative dimension and elaborate the idea of “bureaucratization of Islam” as a social phenomenon that extends beyond its institutional framework in diverse ways and is closely linked with cultural and societal transformation processes.

Anthropology and viewing bureaucratization from within
An additional goal of the workshop was to reflect on the anthropological character of the project through a transdisciplinary exchange of ideas with social anthropologists and scholars from other disciplines, thereby discovering the strengths of the anthropological approach and simultaneously discussing how a specifically anthropological perspective on the bureaucratization of Islam might also be relevant for other disciplines. Workshop participants from neighbouring disciplines – who are also interested in the bureaucratization of religion, but seldom have access to the anthropologist’s first-hand “view from inside” – considered the qualitative data that are collected in the field at the micro-level over long periods of time and through close interaction with the actors involved to be a highly valuable contribution. Another benefit of the social anthropological perspective was identified as the formulation of knowledge interests of a different nature than the functional and institutional interests of political scientists studying the bureaucratization of religion, who generally concentrate on political strategies, official positions, elite discourses, and issues related to the legitimation of power or the co-opting of religious opposition. At the same time, disciplinary differences became evident, for example, between a legal scholar’s understanding of “bureaucracy” as necessarily based in the state, and the much broader understanding of bureaucracy and bureaucratization that is prevalent in social anthropology. The social anthropologists at the workshop emphasized their determination to go beyond the self-representation, internal logic, and language of states and bureaucracies and to think about these phenomena outside the limits of these entities’ own categories.

Next meeting in Oxford
Building on the results of this workshop, participants in the research project are organising a subsequent workshop in May/June 2018 at the Asian Studies Centre of the University of Oxford, one of the research group’s cooperation partners. At this point the doctoral students will have completed half of their fieldwork, and the workshop will give them an opportunity to present their interim results for the first time. Just as they did at the first workshop, the doctoral students will consult with international experts on their progress, plans, and next steps. Two of the workshop participants, social anthropologist Patricia Sloane-White and political scientist Mirjam Künkler, will come to Halle and spend time at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in early 2019 in order to advise and mentor the doctoral students as they begin work on writing their dissertations after the conclusion of fieldwork, as well as to discuss the implications of the results of the individual projects for the broader comparative project.

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