‘It’s not Islamic, it’s tribal/cultural’
July 25, 2013
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I’ve seen some discussions recently, both academic and casual, in which people want to say that things like honour killings, arranged/child marriage, or even burka-wearing should not be understood as Islamic because they are cultural customs which predate the arrival of Islam to a community and which appear to be unsupported by Islamic orthodoxy.
This attitude is wrong-headed.
Islam is neither monolithic nor abstract. There are many Islams, and they are defined by the principles and practices of Muslim communities. There is a story to tell, for example, about how Islam arrived in South-East Asia and how it assimilated pre-existing ‘tribal’ customs. But that doesn’t mean that Islam, as religion, has not played a causal role in maintaining those customs. Islam isn’t a discrete variable here; the fact that we might have had a Christian or Jewish ‘tribalism’ doesn’t mean that particular interpretations of Islam haven’t been essential in legitimising and enabling god-awful customs like honour-killing. It just means that there is a non-deterministic relationship between being a Muslim and thinking that being a Muslim means you have to do the things that Pashtuns do which make some of them our enemies.
To put it another way, religion is deeply involved the social mechanisms and dynamics that preserve gendered norms, marital practices, attitudes towards authority, when violence is legitimate, and so on, and differentiating between those things and the religion of a community is rarely coherent. Social scientists might observe similar patterns of action or similar social structures across different communities with different religions, but that doesn’t mean that you can ignore religion as a causal factor.
I’ve often heard the ‘it’s not Islam, it’s culture’ line from people seeking to distance Islam from repugnant practices such as honour-killing. It relies on an essentialised and singular conception of what Islam is, and I suspect it’s designed to be a rhetorical move either for undermining perceived bigotry against Muslims or for undermining the encroach of those highly restrictive practices into less conservative Muslim communities. Either way, it’s not a useful perspective for a social scientist to take and in many respects is essentially a theological argument about what True Islam really is.