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By Julius L. Geertz

The following are Christians: Adventists, Anglicans, Catholics, Evangelicals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Orthodox – Greek, Russian, Georgian, and Pentecostals. They are all distinct from each other. The German CDU is on the political right. The Presidents of Ecuador, El Salvador and Nicaragua are firmly on the left. All derive policy from Catholic teaching. Women have to cover their legs for modesty at the Vatican. They do not at Canterbury Cathedral. Christianity is not a homogeneous grey blob. There is not a “Christian Culture”. Cultural traits associated with Christianity are plastic, changing with place, time and individual interpretation. The point of all this? If a billion people are Christian, yet culturally, socially and politically diverse as to contradict each other – why do we keep expecting all one billion Muslims to be carbon copies of a very specific Arab culture?

The following are Muslims: Ahmadis, Ibadis, Qur’anists, Shi’ites (adherents of the more commonly known ‘Shia’ Islam [-Ed.]), Sufis, and Sunnis. Each has a distinct and unique identity. Ahmadiyya originated in the Punjab and advocates the pursuit of science as a religious duty – to understand God you must understand his work. Qur’anism rejects the Hadiths and refers to the Qur’an alone for scripture. Whereas the Shi’ites in Iran are perfectly comfortable displaying images of the prophet in their homes and do not need to be told what they do is wrong by Sunni orthodoxy. The branches of Islam demonstrate theological difference that puts them at odds with each other. Difference sufficient enough to cause divergence in self-identification. Every time a group forms and sets itself apart, a new cultural tradition is birthed. To a certain extent, the actual cultural traits matter less than the demarcation. Inside the fence is Sufi, outside is not. What goes on inside can change as often as it likes. The self-identified divide is the key. Brushing aside all of these traditions as generic ‘Islamic culture’ does each a disservice. If individuals and groups feel strongly enough that their traits mark them as distinct from other Muslims, then they deserve to be understood on their own terms – as Ibadi, as Shia, as Ahmadi.

“…why do we keep expecting all one billion Muslims to be carbon copies of a very specific Arab culture?”

Examining one trait can reveal how cultural diversity, or conformity, develops within a major religion: the covering of a woman’s head as a practise of modesty. If you ask for an explanation of this in London, chances are you will be told the lady is Muslim. Ask in Bucharest, you will be told she is Roma. Decades ago in Cairo most never wore a hijab – today it is dominant. In the intervening years the Sahwah (Islamic revival) has grown from strength to strength. True, varying Arab governments have engaged in re-Islamification but, in the West, a reengagement with faith has taken place. The wearing of the hijab is an expression of this. It is viewed as an overt display of Islam. Yet its importance has waxed and waned for centuries. Indeed, the practise began in the West long before the rise of Islam. The Sassanids acculturated it from the Byzantines, possibly centuries after the death of Muhammad. Orthodox Judaism may hold an even earlier claim to the cultural trait. This is in no way denying its importance to many Muslim women, but rather placing it in the wider context of eastern Mediterranean cultures. They may not call it a hijab, but throughout villages across southern and central Europe women can still be seen with their hair covered. They are not all Roma either. So is it exclusively part of a fundamental Islamic culture?

It will be if we as a society keep forcing it to be. The fact that generations of Muslim women in southern and south-east Asia have never engaged with the practise would suggest not. Adherence is mixed in sub-Saharan Africa. What it does show is how religions are changed by their geographic and cultural setting. Traits are picked up or dropped on their global travels. The covering can be a conscious badge of Islam, a Roma display of modesty, or a misogynistic expression of the shamefulness of sex (if Leila Ahmed is consulted). A cultural trait common to religions and societies of the region makes a more accurate descriptor.

This context is key for the interpretation of the Qur’an. There is consensus that the verses call for modesty in female dress; there is dispute that they call for the hijab. Relativists maintain that it is calling for modesty in a society specific manner. Traditionalists, particularly Salafists, proclaim that it is clearly referring to the hijab (they also refer to hadiths – neatly resolving that aspect of the argument for Qur’anists). Of course, in the context of the eastern Mediterranean a millennia ago, modesty practises were clear in the covering of a woman’s hair. It is the prevailing culture into which religion is introduced that provides the framework for interpretation – religion adapting to cultural norms.

“Islam is as diverse as Christianity and it cannot be distilled down to digestible soundbites”

Nowhere is this adaption more evident than in the differing development of Islam in Morocco and Indonesia, as documented by Clifford Geertz (no relation to me). The Indo-Buddhist culture into which it was introduced in Indonesia was radically different to Afro-Arab Morocco. The result? Different conceptions of Islam. In Indonesia, it was personal and introspective; Morocco, expressive and legitimizing. With regards to their political characteristics, Geertz links the former with Utopianism, the latter with Fabianism. Islam has been interpreted and deployed uniquely in each space as a result of the different cultural context. Even today when political Islam is so heavily associated with Salafism, there is room for divergence. Islamic socialism is found in Libya, Somalia and central Asia, and secular Islamism across North Africa and parts of Asia. Islam itself is used as justification and explanation in all cases. Nor are all of them necessarily wrong in their interpretation; their cultural context defining the perspective taken. If there is a link between all forms of political Islam, beyond faith, it is the manner in which it provides a strong core of identity through which to stand in opposition of the West. Not necessarily an outright rejection of Western values or norms, more an assertion of independence. Think pre-Erdoğan Turkey for a syncretic blend of strong Islamic identity, separate from both East and West. It does not have to be radical. Not like the CDU is prepping for the Second Coming.

The spectrum of Islamic identity is vast and the only real connection between Muslim communities around the globe is their belief in the faith. The idea of a homogeneous mass easily definable as a culture of Islam is false. The religion has been bent and shaped by the societies it has found itself in; cultures taking it and utilising it in a way unique to them. Politics, dress, behaviour, even mosque design vary depending on location. This does not mean one form is better than another; that one is right and the rest are wrong. The way we in the West essentialise it is wrong. Both Left and Right attempt to force it into a neatly delineated space based mainly on notions of the Arab world, then kick it around as a political football. In many ways there is a new orientalism at play, where many think they know what Islam is really about.

All religion is subjective and dependent on context. If we do not examine it in all the places it is found from Birmingham to Bali, with the Balkans and Baghdad in between, then we will only ever have a narrow blinkered view which is next to nothing. Islam is as diverse as Christianity and it cannot be distilled down to digestible soundbites just to make it easier to comprehend. Understand Yemen as Yemen, not as an outpost of the Islamic world and hopefully they will understand us as the United Kingdom, not just as a province of Christendom.

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