Raphael Susewind – Being Muslim and Working for Peace

Raphael Susewind, author of Being Muslim and Working for Peace - Ambivalence and Ambiguity in Gujarat, speaks to Mark Ulyseas


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Raphael Susewind, author of Being Muslim and Working for Peace – Ambivalence and Ambiguity in Gujarat, speaks to Mark Ulyseas.  Published by Sage Publications

What does it mean to be Muslim and working for peace? And what is this peace? And how is it defined?

What came out most clearly from my research in Gujarat is that there is no single way in which religion and politics relate to each other if one takes individual lives seriously. Muslims work for peace in a variety of ways. Some will draw strength from a strong sense of community and be inspired by religious sources, perhaps even consider peace activism their moral duty. Such “faith-based actors” are perhaps the most well known kind of Muslim activist. Other Muslims, however, do not care much for religious sources or community. As “secular technocrats”, they are not necessarily opposed to these dimensions of life, but experience themselves as “religiously unmusical”, as Max Weber famously coined it. In a world where many believe that Muslims are religious by default it is important not to forget that this is not true for everybody, perhaps not even for most. Still another kind of Muslim peace activists are the “emancipating women” whom I encountered in Gujarat: victims of the pogrom, who regain their agency through activism in a challenging struggle with the ambivalence of religion. “Doubting professionals”, finally, discovered the complexity and ambiguity of religion in conflict after 2002, and began to question their own previous certainties about development as well as about their own identities.

Like there are many ways in which Muslims work for peace, there are also many ideas of what exactly it is that they are fighting for. This begins with the term “peace” itself; alongside the English word, activists in Gujarat spoke of shanti, sukun, aman or nyay: peace can be personal healing and reconciliation, basic absence of violence, or a comprehensive pursuit of social justice. Peace activists not only argue about peace, but also about the best way of reaching it. Some for instance work in conflict, systematically including people from different groups in programs that otherwise don’t specifically address the riots (for example in micro-credit schemes where both Muslims and non-Muslims participate). Other activists argue this would not be enough, that one should work directly on conflict (for instance in religious education, or inter-communal celebration of religious festivals). Unfortunately, the various kinds of activists do not always recognize each other, a tension particularly pronounced between expressly Islamic charitable organizations and traditional NGOs.”

In your opinion, are Indian Muslims generally considered ‘aliens’ by the dominant Hindu culture and therefore ‘viewed’ with some degree of suspicion? And has this acted as fuel to ignite areas of disagreement across India, Gujarat being a case in point?

I have done research in India since more than five years now, and came across many Hindu friends who do not consider Muslim Indians ‘alien’ or suspicious. One should not let Hindutva define Hindu culture, as one should not reduce Islam to a narrow set of moral commandments or a specific theological position.

This is not to deny that many people, in India as much as elsewhere, strive hard to clearly classify people and to collapse various contextual ways of being in the world (being Muslim or Hindu, being religious or not, being Indian or German, being nationalistic or cosmopolitan, to name just a few) into narrow sets of acceptable “cultures”. Such intolerance of ambiguity is, however, more a characteristic of modernity than one of religious tradition. Modern people, or more specifically those aspiring to a specific kind of modernity (often those in India’s “rising middle classes”), often find it hard to tolerate differences, particularly if these differences are muddled and ambiguous.

In the case of Muslim Indians being reduced to ‘aliens’ in their own country, however, another, wider tendency is very troublesome – a tendency which the sociologist Rogers Brubaker called “groupism”. Often, Muslim Indians are not only reduced to being Muslims, but also conflated with each other and collectively made responsible for acts that might have nothing to do with them in the first place. Nobody living today is responsible for the partition of the subcontinent, nor for the historic role of Moghul emperors (who often ruled in collusion with Hindu kings, but this is another debate).

Most Muslim victims of the Gujarat riots had nothing to do with the Godhra incident, either – even if one were to see revenge as an acceptable medium of justice, it is hard to see why such “revenge” had to target innocent people. But contemporary Muslims are neither allowed to be individual people, nor to be people for whom being Muslim isn’t all that important. They are not allowed to be innocent, either.

While such “groupism” isn’t confined to India – we find it in Germany, too – the ignorance towards individuals even among some of the peace activists I spoke with is very widespread still. I frankly find it very problematic.

What do you hope to achieve by writing this book?

I want to shed light on the diversity of Muslim civil society and Muslims in civil society, and through this example to better understand the role of religion in contemporary India. On an academic level, I also wish to contribute to an ongoing debate on the “ambivalence of the sacred”. With this, conflict researchers sum up their insight that religion and religions are not per se violent or per se peaceful – they bear the potential for both. Religion has produced terrorists and peace makers. I think this is an important step beyond perspectives that declare religion either irrelevant (which it is not) or inherently violent (which it is neither). But most scholars still attribute this ambivalence neatly to specific people: terrorists versus peace makers, this-worldly versus other-worldly religion, spiritualism versus political involvement, etc. My research demonstrates that such neat categories overlook how the ambivalence of the sacred is experienced on an individual level. One need not contrast terrorists with peace makers to discover ambivalence; ambivalence is felt by either kind of activist.

Furthermore, I argue that scholars should more carefully distinguish between ambivalence and ambiguity. Ambivalence is a relation of either-or: religion is experienced as either good or bad. Ambiguity in contrast is a relation of neither-nor: religion is experienced as both good and bad, or more precisely: as neither clearly good nor clearly bad. My book explores the implication of this distinction for the personal lives and political projects of Muslim peace activists in Gujarat. I argue that the transformation of ambivalence into ambiguity, in fact the recovery of an ambiguity which has long been celebrated in Islam (and perhaps in India at large), but is increasingly under threat, might be a central requirement of our time.

What is the difference between the Gujarat riots and those in other parts of the country, if any?

The key difference for me was not the involvement of the state, as many argue – but more specifically the fact that the state never made even a shallow attempt to acknowledge this involvement, acknowledge wrongdoing on the part of politicians, police, and the judicial system. While I do believe that the non-apologetic involvement of the state sets the Gujarat riots apart, however, I also believe that it is important to widen the debate beyond a focus on the state, or a focus on Narendra Modi as an individual who might become the next Indian Prime Minister. I do not want to release the state from its responsibility, but think it equally important to unpack the complicity of large sections of Gujarati society which sustains the state’s culture of impunity – and enabled the pogrom in the first place. It is too easy to blame it all on politics, or the politicians, avoiding to ask more uncomfortable questions: what is the relationship between aspirations to a specific kind of neoliberal development and hatred for ‘alien’ Muslims?

Communalism is a byword in India and in a way defines the relationship between Hindus and Muslims. Why does this conflict arise? Does it have its roots in history from the time of the first Muslim invasions? Or, is it a potent mix of religious fundamentalism, political septicaemia, matters to do with land or commerce?

I think decades of research have clearly demonstrated that communalism is a fairly modern phenomenon.  This is not to deny earlier conflicts between different sections of society – but the idea that Muslims and Hindus constitute two mutually exclusive groups, that each Indian (and not just the rulers or religious elite) have to belong to one of these groups, and that they are naturally opposed is a fairly new thought.

Such emphasis on the modern character of communalism should, however, not be confused with instrumental explanations. While politics, land, etc all play a role in explaining communal riots (as foremost the research of Paul Brass has shown), it is wrong to release religion of the hook too easily: as I argued earlier, and more comprehensively in my book, religion is an ambivalent force – and it is an independent factor, which cannot be fully reduced to an instrumental front for political ends. But importantly it is modern religion that struggles to come to grips with ambivalence, including with its own ambivalence.

Does true secularism exist in India or is it a catch phrase for votes?

Can’t it be both? I think with such “catch phrases”, it is always instructive to look at lived realities, which by default are more diverse, complex, and ambiguous than ideology suggests. Clearly, secularism as an ideology is a potent rhetoric tool in the political arena, both for those promoting it and for those opposing it (or propagating different versions thereof).

But my research in Gujarat – particularly the experience of those activists whom I called “secular technocrats” – is instructive to see how secularism is experienced in everyday lives. Unfortunately, scholars only now start to examine lived secularism with the same earnesty that they examine lived religion.

For the “secular technocrats” I encountered, for instance, secularism as an ideology isn’t very important. They live by what I call a “secularized secularism”, a secularism devoid of quasi-religious zeal, a relaxed everyday practice. This need not be the only way in which one can live a secular life, but it shows that secularism has made deep inroads into Indian society despite heated ideological debate, and can even be found in such unexpected circles as among Muslim peace activists.

Violence does erupt between Shia and Sunni in India. How can a Muslim peace maker work effectively without identifying oneself as either Shia or Sunni? Or for that matter violence between two different castes – how does a Muslim working for peace operate?

I can only reiterate what I said earlier: there are many ways. In 2011-12, I lived in Lucknow for my next project – a city well-known for sectarian tension. In fact, my own neighbourhood witnessed a particularly violent episode when family members of the local (Sunni) corporator opened fire on a (Shia) religious assembly in January this year. Some people argue that it is important to emphasize one’s Muslim identity over one’s being Shia or Sunni in order to mediate in such situations.

Other activist claim the opposite, and argue that it is precisely their sectarian identity which makes them oppose sectarianism; many Shia in Lucknow for instance use the emphasis that their tradition places on solidarity with all human suffering to work for better Shia-Sunni relations. And others still argue that one should not stress religion too much in the first place, let alone sectarian identity – and highlight, for instance, that both the corporator mentioned earlier and his victim have been locked into a business rivalry for years. On what ground are we treating this incident as an instance of sectarian rather than, say, economic conflict? Again, it is perhaps both – only that we unlearned how to accept that, sometimes, neither one explanation nor the other are sufficient in themselves.

This complexity of social life also automatically means that there are multiple ways in which one should deal with conflict – and I think my work both in Gujarat and in Lucknow demonstrates this complexity fairly well.

Did you have any encounter with people in Gujarat which reflects the truth – that people wherever they maybe want to live in peace?

Obviously – but the question is what people mean by that word, and how they want to achieve it. While my book unpacked four various ways of “being Muslim and working for peace” – those which I encountered in Gujarat – one should not forget that most terrorists, too, claim to work for peace. Once you start to think about it: people who claim they do not want to live in peace are very rare indeed. But once one begins to look into the specifics, into what people actually mean when they say “peace”, into how peace comes to life, reality becomes more complex, more ambivalent, and more ambiguous.

Could you give us a glimpse of your own life and works? What are you working on now?

I was born and raised in Germany, and later studied in Germany, India and the UK. I am a practicing, liberal, islamophile Catholic Christian, a happily married husband, a young aspiring scholar in the multidisciplinary social sciences, someone privileged to be born in the richer part of our world. I try to not reconcile the ambivalences between and within these conflicting identities while navigating my life – but to embrace their ambiguity. I also try to ensure that this appreciation of ambiguity does not prevent me from taking a stance when it matters: to highlight injustice, to broaden freedom, to encourage deeper enquiry.

As an academic, I am intrigued by the resilience of the individual in groupist contexts, and by India in particular, where East and West met for centuries, and where both the problems as well as chances of living with diversity are very apparent. After my book on Gujarat, I am now more broadly interested in what it means to be Muslim and belong as Muslim in contemporary North India; as mentioned earlier, I currently explore this theme with a case study of Lucknow. I am especially curious to see in which various ways different Muslims with their respective personal biographies navigate, combine and ignore normative discourses on Muslimness. This project also included quite a bit of mapping, which has been fun – generally much of my academic work is multi-disciplinary and employs whatever method appears best suited for the task at hand. A few months ago, for instance, I became the first anthropologist who was granted access to the Oxford Supercomputing Centre – for an analysis of Muslim politics in the last elections in Uttar Pradesh…

More on this and on my different academic projects – as well as a more detailed introduction to the book and an interactive way to explore the typology of “being Muslim and working for peace” in contemporary Gujarat – can be found on my Website and . If you are interested to engage with my work, or just read what I am up to, you can also follow me on Twitter – and if you do find time to read my book, I am curious to hear what you have to say…


Raphael Susewind is a Doctoral Candidate in Social Anthropology (Universität Bielefeld) and Associate of the Contemporary South Asia Studies Programme (University of Oxford). In his research and teaching, he explores Muslim belonging, the ambivalence of the sacred and electoral politics in India; he also sometimes writes on Indian diplomacy. His diploma thesis analyzed various connections between religious identities and political agency among Muslim peace activists in Gujarat (monograph published by Sage, New Delhi); after a Master’s dissertation on India’s diplomatic culture (published in Journal of International Relations), his PhD concerns the formation of Muslim identities in Lucknow under the working title “How do strategic discourses combine with personal experiences to form Muslim belonging in a North Indian town? The politics and poetics of belonging” (more on this in his Blog). A spin-off from this is a comprehensive dataset on religion and politics in Uttar Pradesh published under an open license, which enables much more localized statistical analyses than previously possible. Given this diverse set of projects, his publications also frequently stress methodological fundamentals, building on ethnographic, psychometric and spatial data gathered during so far 17 months of fieldwork.

www.raphael-susewind.de          Twitter: @RaphaelSusewind

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