Emmy Noether Group – The Bureaucratization of Islam and its Socio-Legal Dimensions in Southeast Asia

This DFG-funded Emmy Noether Group was based at the MPI for Social Anthropology between October 2016 and December 2019. Subsequently, it was transferred to FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg, following the appointment of the project’s Principal Investigator, Dominik Müller, as Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology there. Müller and his project are now affiliated with the MPI through a cooperation partnership. The project will run until September 2022.

Following the waves of Islamic resurgence that swept Southeast Asia throughout the 20th century, state-sponsored Islamic bureaucracies have become increasingly influential societal and political actors. The governments of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore have all empowered “administrative” bodies to guide Islamic discourse and promote desired forms of Muslimness and religious citizenship. Notwithstanding national differences, state actors in all these countries have tirelessly tried to influence the parameters of “authentic” Islam and Muslimness while multiple non-state actors have tried to influence the state’s governance of Islam, resulting in mutual attempts to engage and transform each other. These relational dynamics across the blurred boundaries of state and non-state spheres have been at the centre of the Emmy Noether Group’s conceptual understanding of “the bureaucratization of Islam”, viewed as a socio-cultural phenomenon that transcends its organizational boundaries into various non-state spheres.

The project has focused on “the state’s” attempts to exercise its classificatory power in Islam-related fields and its contested social workings on the micro-level. Simultaneously, the Group has investigated competing aspirations – both within and beyond the fragmented, often contradictory spheres of “the state” – to either de-bureaucratize Islam or find improved ways to re-bureaucratize it. Furthermore, the project has scrutinized how the translation of Islam into the languages of bureaucracy, the nation state, and other registers has transformed Islam-related public discourses and the everyday lives of specific social actors, and how the categorical schemes of bureaucratized Islam are diffusing into society, typically with unintended consequences. The Group has also asked how various actors engage such bureaucratic schemes – how they contest, co-create, and at times re-direct the state’s Islam-related classificatory power. We have combined a “hermeneutic” focus on the social meaning-making associated with the bureaucratization of Islam with “functional” analytic enquiries into power-dynamics.

This initial conceptual framework was to be tested, critically re-considered, and deepened in a bottom-up way during the group’s collective work, especially following the completion of the four PhD sub-projects. Within these sub-projects, four PhD students have each conducted 13–14 months of fieldwork (2017–2018), comprising an initial explorative stay (ca. 4 weeks), the main fieldwork period (ca. 12 months), and a short final follow-up visit.

The first sub-project (2017-), by Fauwaz Abdul Aziz, is an ethnography of the National Commission of Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) and the role of its employees in the heavily contested bureaucratization of “halal” certification in the Philippines. The project provides an in-depth study of struggles over classificatory power and hegemony in the Philippines’ Islamic-bureaucratic field, in which the state’s main Islamic body, NCMF, and its predecessor have continuously, albeit “productively”, failed to secure their exclusive authority over certification in the halal market.

The second PhD project (2017-), by Tímea Gréta Biró, examines the generative interface between the spheres of Islamic state-based institutions and Muslim transgender communities in Malaysia. The project makes a ground-breaking contribution to the study of “re-education” programs for transgender people and other “sinners” in Malaysia, with wider comparative implications. Biró has ethnographically observed these re-education activities (as attempted exercises of the Malaysian “Islamic State’s” classificatory power) primarily through the lens of transgender people’s narrations, but also through interactions with the state’s Islamic authorities (including “ex-transgender Muslims” funded by the bureaucracy) which seek to guide them “back to fitrah” (original human nature). Her ethnography illustrates how these state and non-state actors mutually attempt to educate and manipulate each other beyond the state’s official scripts, and how they (re-)negotiate the state’s attempts to exercise classificatory power in people’s everyday lives.

The third PhD project (2017-), by Rosalia Engchuan, engages with “film communities” (komunitas film) across Indonesia. Adopting an Actor-Network-Theory approach, Engchuan aspires to collaboratively think and write with (rather than about) komunitas film instead of exploiting them as “study subjects”. While largely autonomous, komunitas film are still sometimes indirectly affected by, and respond to, state-promoted attempts to classify “authentic” Muslim citizenship, as depicted in short films on Muslim transgender persons claiming their right to (re-)define Muslimness for themselves. This project, however, is most interested in the groups’ worldmaking and their own concerns. Rooted in her insights on filmmaking as a performative, material, processual and collective act, Engchuan’s ethnographically informed film analyses offer new insights into acts of nation-making through cinematic practices, covering topics such as ethnicity, gender normativity, history-altering, and human–environment relations in the Anthropocene.

The fourth PhD project, externally funded by the DAAD and starting a year after the others (2018-), by Mohammed Wasim (Waseem) Naser, contributes to the study of the (re-)making of “Indian” Muslim identities in Malaysia, where “Indian” denotes anyone of South Asian descent. Members of these communities must navigate a paradoxical position within the nation state: while they adhere to the state’s official religion, Islam, and thus theoretically enjoy structural privileges, they are also disadvantaged because they do not belong to the ethnic Malay majority population, whose members are structurally privileged as “indigenous” (bumiputera). Because ethnic Malays largely shape the social hermeneutics of Malaysia’s bureaucratization of Islam, this study addresses the Group’s overarching framework by focusing on non-state groups who navigate an ambivalent position vis-a-vis this locally specific modality of bureaucratizing Islam. Analytically focusing on personhood, his ethnography elucidates complexities of such navigating in various domains of social life.

The PI, Dominik Müller, has also contributed empirical work on the bureaucratization of Islam in Brunei Darussalam and Singapore.

While based at the MPI (roughly the first half of the project duration), the Group organized many events, including two semester-long lecture series in 2017 and 2018, a two-day international “advisory workshop” for the PhD students before their field orientation trips in 2017, and two large “fieldwork-break workshops”, both in 2018, held at the University of Oxford and the National University of Singapore respectively. After all fieldwork was completed, the Group organized another two-day workshop at Harvard University’s Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World in 2019, and it has convened several conference panels. As well as many individual presentations and engagements, each Group member has also secured additional research and travel funding and published first writings in internationally reputable formats.

Upon the project’s completion (September 2022), the Group and some of its international partners plan to produce an edited volume that will present the project’s conclusions pertaining to the individual sub-projects, its collaborative findings and retrospective reflections, and methodological considerations.

Selected publications

Müller, Dominik and Kerstin Steiner. 2018. The bureaucratisation of Islam in Southeast Asia: transdisciplinary perspectives. Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 37(1): 3–26.
Müller, Dominik. 2018. Bureaucratic Islam compared: classificatory power and state-ified religious meaning-making in Brunei and Singapore. Journal of Law and Religion 33(2): 212–247.
Müller, Dominik. 2018. Hybrid pathways to orthodoxy in Brunei Darussalam: bureaucratised exorcism, scientisation and the mainstreaming of deviant-declared practices. Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 37(1): 141–183.
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