Young muslims are moving from an Islam based on the culture of their homeland to an increasingly transnationally embedded Islam of Muslims from many different countries and cultures. That's one of the findings in the doctoral thesis by Norwegian anthropologist Christine M. Jacobsen that is now available online.
Contributing to an emerging “anthropology of Islam in Europe”, she writes, her thesis is concerned with exploring continuities and discontinuities in religious identities and practices in a context of international migration and globalization. She has conducted fieldwork among youth and students who participate in two Islamic organizations in Oslo.
The situation of belonging to a minority group, she writes, means that young Muslims cannot take their religion for granted, and that they must engage in the redefinition of identity/difference and of Islamic traditions. And in this redefinition, young Muslims increasingly aspire to engage directly with Islamic texts in order to “choose” which position or interpretation to adhere to. They increasingly engage in discussion and debate on issues that were previously mainly an area of scholarly debate.
In order to make this thesis relevant to the broader comparative field of studies of Islam in Europe, Jacobsen draws on insights from studies of young Muslims elsewhere in Europe.
She criticizes the prevailing methodological nationalism in studies on immigrants and migration (the paradigm of the nation-state as the principle organizing unit of society). She writes:
Discussions about integration often ignore distinctions related to e.g. class, generation, gender, and urban processes, and tend to reify the distinction between “Us” (the Norwegian society representing Norwegian values) and “Them” (being the foreigners that must be integrated). Often, such discussions proceed without questioning the premises upon which our understanding of “integration” depends, and the way in which integration is part of a nation-making process.
In research that is based in political-administrative and methodological nationalist perspective, immigrants and the cultural and religious forms they represent tend to be constructed as “social problems” and “deviance” that need to be solved and brought into order through governing processes (Lithman 2004).
An example is the issue of arranged marriage:
Depending on the perspective adopted, arranged marriage might appear as an issue of deviancy among immigrants or as a part of how a majority of mankind organizes its social life. The consequences for anthropology as cultural critique are obviously important. When immigrants and the social and cultural forms they represent are constructed as “social problems” and “deviance”, they can neither allow worthwhile and interesting critiques of “our own society”, nor enlighten us about other human possibilities, to paraphrase Marcus and Fischer.
Within this nationalistic perspective, Islam is usually approached in terms of how it hinders or facilitates the “integration” of “Muslim immigrants” into “Norway” (or other European societies, “the West”). Studies of Muslims in Europe based on what Lithman calls “wonderment over society” seem to be less frequent, she writes:
When framed within the perspective of a nationalist methodology, this endeavour necessarily must result in ethnocentrism. Furthermore, this perspective has certain consequences not only for the description of the social and cultural aspects involved in migration, but also for its moral evaluation and as a basis for policy making.
She prefers "methodological relativism":
Even though it is impossible to exclude all value-assumptions from research, I find striving towards considering different practices and traditions on their own terms worthwhile. If not, it is difficult to grasp the meaningfulness of social and cultural practices to the people that engage in them, or to see them as alternative ways of organizing human life, rather than just as deviance from a norm.
>> Download the thesis Staying on the straight path: Religious identities and practices among young muslims in Norway by Christine M. Jacobsen (BORA, Bergen Open Research Archive)
For those who read Norwegian: I've interviewed Christine M. Jacobsen a few weeks ago, see Doktorgrad på unge norske muslimer: På vei til en transnasjonal islam