Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Review of “Islamic Revival in Nepal: Religion and a New Nation” by Megan Adamson Sijapati

I love living in Nepal. One small aspect of that love is that Routledge publishes a “Special Nepal Edition” for any of their works pertinent to the country. These works run between 500 and 1200 rupees (between $5.25 and $12.65) for a new copy—as opposed to $45 upwards to $150 for their US counterparts! Granted, the paper is of lesser quality, so the book will fall apart in less time than those copies in my university library. And with all the “For Sale In Nepal Only” warnings on the covers, I feel like I’m buying contraband. But I tell myself that, by the time they do fall apart, perhaps I’ll have a job (tenured professor?!) that will allow me to actually afford purchasing new, good copies of these books.

The lure of cheap academic books makes me browse Mandala Book Point and Wisdom Books more frequently than I should. One of my browsings brought me to the book under consideration here, on Islamic revival in Nepal. Despite the fact that Nepal was a Hindu kingdom until 2006, it has always harbored multiple religions and more recent scholarship has drawn attention to some of those other religious practices. Because most of it has centered on various forms of indigenous practices (usually some derivative of Buddhism), I was pleasantly surprised to see a title looking at Islamic revival in Nepal. This peaked my interest in two ways.

First, growing up in Nepal, my family would regularly pass the mosque at the end of Durbar Marg, or King’s Way, in the area of town known as Ganta Ghar (Clock Tower), on our way to find a taxi or bus to take us back to Patan after a day of shopping between New Road and Thamel. As a young girl, I was also mesmerized by the glittering glass beads and bangles on display in the bead market at Indra Chowk, but I was equally taken with the Arabic script that decorated many of the shop doorways. It was such a contrast to the Hindu temples that dominated street just outside the enclave of bead shops. Where did these Muslims come from, and what were they doing in Nepal? was something I had wondered as a young girl.

Second, Islam is grouped with Judaism and Christianity as a monotheistic and Abrahamic religion. Familiar with the challenges that Christians faced as a minority religion in a Hindu state, I had often wondered when passing the mosque in Ganta Ghar when I was younger if Muslims in Nepal had similar experiences? As a scholar now looking at this book, I wondered what light this might shed on my own thoughts, research, and writing concerning Christian identity and practices in Nepal?

Sijapati—a Fulbright-Hayes scholar in 2005-2006 (an interesting time to be in Nepal, when it was becoming a secular state)—outlines in her book why Nepali Muslims are consciously creating a distinct Nepali Muslim identity: this is their response to centuries of marginalization and more recent religious violence due to their presence in a historically Hindu state, in addition to all the new identity politics that abound in Nepal now as a result of secularization, but also in line with a global Sunni Muslim revival, which has provided them with tools to participate in Nepal’s identity politics.

Sijapati does an exceptional job of outlining the historical alterity of Muslim identity in Nepal, in regards to the Hindu kingdom in Chapter Three. This is perhaps my favorite chapter. Drawing on historical texts written by Hamilton ( 1971) and Hogdson (1880), Hofer’s famous analysis of the 1854 Muluki Ain, and works by Gabrorieu and Burghart, she shows how Muslims were the “Other” for the Hindu kingdom of Nepal, where much of the definition of Hinduism was made against the “Otherness” of Muslims. She shows how new concepts of nation that came into play in the 1990s and early 2000s opened up new spaces for Muslim identity in Nepal, but at the same time shows how the idea of Nepal as a Hindu kingdom still prevails through Hindu extremist groups at work in Nepal.

Sijapati also outlines the diversity of religious thought, as well as cultural and linguistic diversity of the Nepali Muslim population, primarily in Chapter One. This diversity within the population has caused tension as to how the community is to present a unified front to the rest of Nepal, which many Muslim leaders see as essential to their recognition. Yet despite all this diversity, for non-Muslims in Nepal Muslims are seen as one homogenous group. The religious violence perpetuated against them during Kalo Buddhvar (August 30, 2004)—where, in reaction to Nepali migrant workers being killed by Islamic extremists in the Middle-East, Islamic mosques, schools, businesses and even homes were attacked by enraged mob violence—helped propel Muslim leaders to seek to educate the wider public about Muslim beliefs, way of life (especially distilling the idea that madrasas were incubators for terrorists), and place in Nepali society. Sijapati outlines the incidents and community reactions to Kalo Buddhvar (Black Wednesday) in Chapter Four.  

These modern and historical instances inform the activities of Nepali Muslims. Sijapati examines the activities of two organizations—the National Muslim Forum and the Islami Sangha—as windows into how the Nepali Muslim community is responding to these circumstances. The National Muslim Forum is rather political in nature (though as of yet, it is not a registered political party) seeking both to realize an (somewhat unified) Islamic community, while also acting as a platform to articulate Muslim needs to the Nepali government, while the Islami Sangha is more culturally oriented. Both however have goals and activities that are inward facing (for Nepali Muslims) as well as outward facing (for non-Muslim Nepalis).

Chapter Five focuses on the work of the National Muslim Forum, which seeks to create a community feeling for Nepali Muslims by drawing on what they perceive as shared experience of being Muslim in Nepal, despite internal differences, namely: being citizens of Nepal; experiencing hardship, marginalization and victimization as Muslims in Nepal; and sharing religious symbols like the Prophet and the Quran. Their activities include mapping the Nepali Muslim population (as there are huge “methodological errors in the census data collection” [pg. 89] and thus the census doesn’t accurately represent the Muslim population of Nepal. This is not ill-founded; its rather common knowledge that census takers, upon arriving in a remote village, will only talk to a village headman about the religious composition of the village, and even if they go house to house, only talk with a family head about the religious composition of the household. But more often than not, they will just assume someone is Hindu and not even ask the question pertaining to religious affiliation), attempting to standardize Islamic institutions (such as madrasa education and moon siting), and using print and electronic media as a tool to cultivate this unity.

Chapter Six focuses on the work of the Islami Sangha, which draws from a variety of strands of revivalist Islamic thought to piece together a discursive religious vein applicable to the Nepali Muslim situation as a minority religion rather than the majority one. Their activities seek to educate Muslims about their religion (cultivating “an epistemology of discursive learning that is open to the individual and group,” pg. 130), to reform culture (in essence, purging what they see as Hindu cultural practices from their own society. Many of these actually focus around the lives of women—remarrying widows [Hindu widows do not remarry], women covering themselves in public [Hindus women do not], and limiting interactions with men to whom they are not related [though the increasing mobility of Nepali women can be attributed more to modernity than Hindu mores]), and to educate non-Muslims about the principles of Islam (in a way that is non-proselytizing) and Nepali Muslim way of life.

Sijapati clearly meets her goal of showing how Nepali Muslim identity creation is deeply seated in a specific local history of Muslims as the alterity in a Hindu state and new identity politics that characterize Nepal. She did an exceptional job showing the construction of Islamic alterity in a historical and cultural context of a Hindu Nepal in Chapters Two and Three. For someone like myself who is more familiar with the texts and concepts she exposited these chapters, I found her engagement exhilarating, and for a scholarly audience perhaps more familiar with Islamic religion and cultural context than the Nepal context, such exposition is probably necessary. However, I didn’t feel that she adequately showed how this identity formation was also related to and informed by an “increasing exposure to global ideologies of Sunni revival” (pg. 134). As a result, I felt that I had a good grasp of Islamic alterity in Nepal and thus an idea for how this history motivated some of the decisions and actions of the Islami Sangha and National Muslim Forum, but I wasn’t as sure how their actions fit into or were influenced by (or perhaps counter or an anomaly to) the wider Sunni revival.

The other disappointment was that, even though she said Nepali Muslims sought to distance themselves from Christians, seeing them as competition for rights and resources (pg.72), Sijapati mentions Christians multiple times, implying that Christians have similar experiences of alterity in Nepal as do Muslims. However, she rather off-handedly included this label of “Christian,” and I wish she had provided more substantial commentary on specific instances of Christian experience in Nepal in footnotes or references. While apart from two PhD dissertations (Perry 1997 and Sharma 2012), there hasn’t been research done on Christian communities in Nepal, there is a dearth of public commentary on their work and presence in Nepal, found in local newspapers (Nepali and English) and magazines, which she could have referenced. Well, doesn’t this just leave more space for research…?