Category Archives: state

The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan

In this third lecture that I will be giving while residing in Paris as a DEA-fellow, I will  present the key findings of my recent book  “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan” (2016, Pittsburgh University Press).

In this monograph, which covers a decade of anthropological fieldwork and scholarly engagement with Central Asia, I take up a particular counterintuitive perspective by looking at how my informants in rural Kyrgyzstan order their everyday lives and rationalize their recent history. I reveal how rather than conforming to a predictable ‘post-socialist’ pattern, my informants instead show a great capacity to hierarchize and create order on their own terms.

My approach investigates the ways in which actors tactically and persuasively invoke different kinds of law to constantly create a hierarchical model of socio-legal order in which the umbrella concept of custom (salt) comes to dominate their everyday life.

Invoking salt enables actors even as they claim to be constrained by it, it opens up possibilities to conceptualize, classify, and contextualize large- and mid-scale developments in an intimate idiom. It also is a way to communicate to others that one is an expert in and of one’s own culture.

I thus offer a unique critique of the concept of ‘postsocialism’, a new take on the concept of legal pluralism, and a serious plea to bring ethnomethodological approaches into correspondence with ethnographic data.

Location: Monday March 12, 13-16h. EHESS on 54 Boulevard Raspai.

Shari’a, tradition and the state in Kyrgyzstan. Competing repertoires of order: the case of mortuary rituals

This will be my second lecture while I am in Paris, this time as part of the “Séminaire Transformations de la Normativité Islamique” organized by Professors Baudouin Dupret, Nathalie Bernard-Maugiron, Jean Philippe-Bras, and Marième N’Diaye

Jeudi 8 mars de 10h à 13h, en salle de réunion de l’IISMM (96 boulevard Raspail, 1er étage)

Abstract:

In Central Asian Kyrgyzstan, shari’a and tradition are best understood as two interrelated répertoires of order. Historically, they have developed alongside each other and the population has learned to reclassify social practices or local institutions that might be regarded as unlawful or illegal by Islamic clergy on the one hand or the state on the other by reinterpreting them ‘according to custom’. I refer to this process as ‘customization’.

In this lecture, I will use the example of elaborate gift-exchange practices during mortuary rituals in order to show how imams, state officials and the local population try to grapple with the disputed social practice of giving large carpets during funerals and mortuary rituals that is considered against shari’a and also contradicting new state regulations. Nevertheless, gift exchange continues and has even intensified in the last decade.

This lecture investigates emic local understandings of shari’a and tradition and positions these in the context of a changing social and economic environment where formerly Russian and Soviet state practices aimed at curbing ‘irrational’ local behaviour and where nowadays remittances from Central Asian labour migrants fuel the local ritual economy.

Being Muslim in contemporary Myanmar. On community and the problem with ‘communal violence’ – Talk in Paris.

During my upcoming stay in Paris, I will be giving several lectures, the first one taking place at the Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman. Come join me!

March 6, 17h-19h – Salle des étudiants. 1er étage, 96 bd Raspail 75006 Paris.

Organized  by:  Séminaire de l’équipe « Anthropologie comparative des sociétés  et cultures musulmanes » (LAS)

In my talk, I take the example of Muslim communities in Yangon, the former capital of Southeast Asian Myanmar, in order to investigate the various groups’ strategic useage of their religious property (mosques and graveyards) as a form of material, symbolic and political capital. I argue that it is through their religious property that Muslims in Yangon make claims to their right of existence as communities in the public sphere. They thereby manage to fend off both the Buddhist majority, the state and private investors. In a time of increasing ethnonationalism, which results in the destruction of mosques and the writing of discriminatory laws against religious Others, property becomes part and parcel of these communities’ survival strategies. While the creation of ‘communities’ along ethno-religious lines had been part and parcel of colonial and post-colonial state-making, some communities who understand themselves in this way or have come to present themselves in this way, are now being pushed to the very margins of their own society and their own country. Some of them have been denied not only citizenship, but with it the right to exist and their name to even be mentioned. However, religious minorities were among the first inhabitants of Yangon in the 19th century. Burma, as the country was called formerly, had been part of the British Empire during the colonial period of 1824-1948 and was under colonial legislation of British India. Muslims were brought to the country from India in 1840. They worked in the colonial administration, as soldiers or as unskilled workers on the shipping docks. Around 1880, Burma became the third largest destination for Indian workers worldwide. This lecture questions the contemporary portrayal of communities in the country in terms of  ‘communal violence’ only. It traces the historical development of the ‘community’ concept from British colonial times to the contemporary era. Using ethnographic fieldwork data gathered between 2013 and 2018 as well as textual data, legal documents and other sources, I explore why the current invocation of  ‘the Muslim community’ has made living together in Myanmar more difficult.

Bibliography:

Amrith, Sunil. 2013. Crossing the bay of Bengal: The furies of nature and the fortunes of migrants. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2009. Community. Seeking safety in an insecure world. Polity.

Cheesman, Nick (ed.) 2017. Interpreting communal violence in Myanmar. Special Issue of Journal of Contemporary Asia.

Freitag, Sandria. 1989. Collective action and community. Public arenas and the emergence of communalism in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tönnies, Ferdinand. 2005 [1887]. Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundbegriffe der reinen Soziologie. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Yegar, Moshe The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group, Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1972

Podcast about my book

Sean Guillory of Sean’s Russia Blog spoke with me the other day about my book “The force of custom. Law and the ordering of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan.” You can listen to the podcast online here or download the podcast here.

In our interview, Sean asked me what inspired me to do a study on “custom” (Kyrgyz salt) and how we can understand the concept anthropologically, how it is communicated, what metaphors are associated with it and in what contexts we can observe it in action.

Sean was also interested in hearing my reasons for not anonymizing my main informants, how people in my fieldsite conceive of their history, what the historical trajectories of the local courts of elders (aksakal courts) are, how Soviet life has been unmade after Kyrgyzstan gained independence, how we should understand the role of the state in the countryside and what the roles of elders and their relationship with villagers, politicians and state administrators are.

Finally, we discuss my decision to end the book with a criticism of the concept of postsocialism which, I argue, is not central for understanding everyday life in Kyrgyzstan.

 

The spider

The thought crept into my mind today and refused to let go of my brain. It said “What if we have no f*ing clue?” Going to bed with images of crying fathers holding their children – ‘Are they dead? Oh thank God, only sleeping!’ – , waking up with stories of rotten bodies, locked into a van used for transporting poultry. Heaps of rotten meat. This is not happening in Syria. This is Syria happening in Europe. Those who survived are here. But what if the war that was carried out on their backs will follow them? Did it ever occur to you that Europe is not facing a “refugee crisis” but is already part and parcel of several wars that have forced hundreds of thousands of human beings – like you, like me – to leave everything behind to save bare life? Their crisis is our crisis, but we don’t pay the price yet that they have already paid. But we might, if we don’t act.

I feel I am responsible at least in part for their desperation. Because as a German citizen I have voted for a certain party, have legitimized a certain type of government, because my taxes are used in ways I cannot control any more. Because I live in an area of Germany, which is profiting from the military industry that is located all around me; that exports weapons, drones and military equipment to I don’t know where. The thing is, there are people who do know, who are responsible, who profit, who might even believe that this is needed for ‘security’, ‘stability’ or – probably the most honest reason – because a lot of German citizens earn their money with these kinds of endeavours.

Recent demonstration in Constance, Germany against the military industry located on the shores of Lake Constance in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Photo credit: Felix Girke

Recent demonstration in Constance, Germany against the military industry located on the shores of Lake Constance in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Photo credit: Felix Girke

This morning at a local farmer’s market in my small picturesque town in Germany an elderly woman approached the mostly well-off clientele with a request to donate whatever they could afford for “refugees from Syria.” She offered small bouquets of rosemary in return which she had collected from her garden, I overheard. I felt anger. In fact, I became so angry, I had to turn away. What made me angry was not her compassion and her initiative of wanting to “do something.” Where would we be without people like her? Or so many others in Greece, Italy, Jordan, Serbia – all devoting their lives to ease the suffering of thousands. My current anger is directed towards the nebulous “system”, towards “those in power” whom I consider responsible … but how do you hold “them” accountable? There is no way to trace the origin of a ‘crisis’, which has reached the scale of what we are witnessing right now, everyday. How can you prevent our grandchildren from accusing us that ‘they knew, but they did not do anything’ – Germany has been there before. So what to do? Donate money, children’s clothes and food products? Check. Write letters to politicians? Check. Be thankful for every calm and sunny summer day and hug your own child a little longer? Check. But still. The thought won’t go away: We have no f*ing clue how to make this stop.

Looking outside my window, I see a large spider spinning its web, waiting patiently for prey. I still want to believe we are not trapped. We are the net.

Photo-by-uditha-wickramanayaka-flickr-CC-BY-NC-2.0-330x330

Update on September 3, 2015:

In the last days I have began to communicate with a couple of people who do amazing work in different parts of Greece and Germany right now. All work privately and have financed their support for refugees through crowdfunding. Please consider helping them, and donate whatever you can .

1. Help for refugees in Molyvos    (you can also contact molyvosrefugees[at]gmail.com)

2. Natasha Tsangarides

3. Blogger für Flüchtlinge

4. Flüchtlinge Willkommen

5. Jillian York (she collects money and transfers it to Budapest so that technical supplies such as cell phone chargers can be bought for refugees currently stuck at the train station; also: check her own page for another list)

6. Eric and Philippa Kempson (they have set up amazon wishlists with important food products, medical supplies, clothes,…)

*****

On Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar – Interview for Radio France International, 27 May 2015

Radio Interview for Radio France International. ‘Buddhist Nationalism in Myanmar.’ May 27, 2015. available here (2 parts):

“Work in progress. Performing the state in Central Asia”

I will give a lecture at the Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca on May 12th, 2.30 pm.

The topic is based on a co-edited volume I did with Madeleine Reeves and Johan Rasanayagam called “Ethnographies of the state in Central Asia. Performing politics.” (2014. Indiana University Press).

EthnographiesState

The seminar is organized by Antonio De Lauri.

Here’s the link to the programme: seminario stato 2015