Comparing Notes: The Anthropological Approach to the Study of Islam in Europe
Marjo Buitelaar [+]
University of Groningen
The political implications of framing religion in specific ways, as addressed by Tarusarira, and the need to also look for religion in places other than situations of ritual density, as argued by Coleman, are the two main themes addressed by Marjo Buitelaar in Chapter 13, who focuses in her contribution on the study of Islam. The author starts by observing that, in response to the present situation in which “Islam” and “the West” are increasingly pitted against each other in public discourse and violent attacks are carried out in the name of Islam, there is a trend in academic research projects and educational programmes of focusing increasingly on the relation between religion, politics and conflict. Buitelaar argues that by singling out situations in which Islam is a foreground presence, particularly ones in which conflicts are framed in terms of existing between Muslims and non-Muslims, we run the risk of reducing Muslims to their “Muslimness” and producing too one-sided a knowledge about the meaning of Islam in the daily lives of Muslims. To demonstrate how this one-sidedness can be avoided by looking at instances in which Islam is only a background presence, the author discusses, for example, images circulating in social media of the ritualized expressions of grief shared by Muslim and non-Muslim fans at the fate of Ajax footballer Abdelhaq Nouri, who was in a coma for years after collapsing during a game. She points to the “normalizing” effect of the casual or background presence of Islam in these images in which the Muslim identification of the Nouri family is neither highlighted nor neglected. Buitelaar argues that the collective expressions of grief demonstrate the power of shared, immediate experiences to acknowledge both commonalities and differences between actors of different cultural and religious backgrounds. In turn this acknowledgement enables productive communication and interaction that cuts across diverse ways of being in the world; it is concrete, shared experiences that create common ground and space for “comparing notes” in the sense of opening up to the perspectives of others and scrutinizing our own in order to recognize, assess and learn from both commonalities and specificities. Buitelaar concludes by stating that taking an intersectionality approach allows anthropologists to compare notes more effectively and thus produce richer insights into the meaning of religion in the lives of individuals. In turn, sharing stories with the larger public that demonstrate both commonalities and specificities between Muslims and non-Muslims in a certain cultural context can contribute to de-exceptionalizing Muslims and creating a platform for a more productive comparing of notes between citizens of different cultural backgrounds.