In my ongoing series of interviews with Asian American academics that highlight new books and research that illuminate different aspects and details related to the Asian and Asian American experiences, I am very happy to present an interview with fellow colleague in the Department of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Assistant Professor Fareen Parvez, highlighting her new book Politicizing Islam: The Islamic Revival in France and India. Her book explores the political, social class, gender, and religious dynamics of Muslim communities in Lyon, France and Hyderabad, India within the context of growing anti-Muslim sentiments locally and globally. The book’s description:
Home to the largest Muslim minorities in Western Europe and Asia, France and India are both grappling with crises of secularism. In Politicizing Islam, Fareen Parvez offers an in-depth look at how Muslims have responded to these crises, focusing on Islamic revival movements in the French city of Lyon and the Indian city of Hyderabad. Presenting a novel comparative view of middle-class and poor Muslims in both cities, Parvez illuminates how Muslims from every social class are denigrated but struggle in different ways to improve their lives and make claims on the state.
In Hyderabad’s slums, Muslims have created vibrant political communities, while in Lyon’s banlieues they have retreated into the private sphere. Politicizing Islam elegantly explains how these divergent reactions originated in India’s flexible secularism and France’s militant secularism and in specific patterns of Muslim class relations in both cities. This fine-grained ethnography pushes beyond stereotypes and has consequences for burning public debates over Islam, feminism, and secular democracy.
- Can you elaborate on your initial motivations for studying this particular topic in these two specific nations, France and India?
The initial motivation was to see how Muslim minorities in secular democracies were responding to the war on terror and what their politics (if any) looked like. France and India have very different models of secularism, so I was also able to compare how this difference between states affected the types of politics minority Muslims could pursue. When I first started, this seemed like an odd comparison. But today more scholars are talking about what Europe might learn from India’s history of managing diversity. Social class has also always been an important lens for me, so I wanted to look at two places where most Muslims were at the bottom of the class structure. Besides these intellectual motivations, as an ethnographer you have to think about your skills and connections. In this case I spoke enough French and Urdu to carry out the research.
- In the course of doing your fieldwork, what was your most notable memory or personal observation when you were in either Lyon or Hyderabad?
I have two very negative memories, though now, they make me laugh! In Lyon, France, I had a lot of trouble gaining access to a field site in the banlieues (suburbs). I didn’t realize at the time how much surveillance people were under and how fearful they were as a result. So I naïvely walked right up to someone working at a café in a housing project building and told him about my research. When I asked if he might help me, he started yelling at me for asking questions. He went on for several minutes, and I felt traumatized. The second memory, in Hyderabad, India, was at a regional conference of the women’s wing of the Islamic association, Jama’at-i-Islami. It was a scorching hot day, and 40,000 women attended the gathering. The speeches were intense (about the rights of women in Islam and all the problems with western feminism) and terribly loud, and I became overwhelmed. I collapsed in the heat, until a group of village women came to help me. Even ethnography has its occupational hazards!
- Even though your research focuses specifically on France and India, what might be some ways in which your findings can be applicable to Muslims in the U.S.?
On a broad level, comparing French and Indian secularisms puts American secularism into sharper perspective. American secularism is relatively flexible, and religious liberties are robust. But they also cannot be taken for granted, especially in the current climate. As Muslim identity in the U.S. becomes an object of political debate, it might become harder for Muslim activists to focus on issues of class and economic justice. This is what I observed in the French case. Also, one of the themes of the book is that Muslims do not necessarily want to make a public issue of their faith. In fact, faith is something deeply personal and private. But because the state has politicized them, they have to deal with the consequences of that. In part that means having to always define and defend what it means to be Muslim, which is invariably constraining and oversimplifying. I think this process of having to define (and thus, reduce and simplify) what it means to be a Muslim is well underway in the U.S. too.
- In your analysis of the intersection of religion, social class, and gender, do any of these points of focus seem to be emerging as more significant in terms of their impact on Muslims communities as we move forward in the 21st century?
Since inequality has risen across the world, issues of class and gender justice are critical for most communities. And these might interact deeply with religious faith. My book in some ways highlights how concerns for social and/or economic transformation become sidelined, as communities face the urgency of mobilizing specifically around religious identity.
- Clearly, these are very challenging times for Muslims around the world, particularly those in western nations such as the U.S. What are some points of connection between Muslims and other racial, ethnic, or cultural minority groups that might allow them to work together to achieve social equality and justice?
This is an interesting and important question. Personally, I think there is so much to learn from the powerful vision put forth by Black Lives Matter activists. And actually, there are some exciting coalitional events and conversations happening, bridging issues like respecting faith, dismantling racism, and supporting Native resistance. The main unifying point across these groups is that people are looking to protect their communities in a context of surveillance, violence, and rise in hate crimes.
- What are some pieces of advice that you can give young Muslims around the world as they try to balance asserting their religious identity, while also integrating themselves into mainstream society as much as possible?
Well, I grew up in a time and place where staying quiet about religious faith and ethnic identity was the default way to stay safe and avoid judgment and harassment. But remaining silent also carries a psychological cost. I admire young people today, of whatever persuasion, who have the courage to not be ashamed of their histories and traditions and to stand up for others who are marginalized. My advice is to find a supportive community and have faith that you belong — even when xenophobic nationalists tell you to “go home!”