Islamic Revivalism and Political Opposition among Minority Muslims in Mauritius

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This article analyzes the role played by Islamic revivalism in the construction of ethnic and religious identity and for political opposition among minority Muslims in Mauririus.(1) How Islamic revivalism is articulated locally can be understood in relation to internal religious discourses and the presence of other ethnic groups with whom Muslims must interact and compete for scarce resources. Islamic revivalism (fundamentalism) has been seen as the outcome of colonial oppression and thereby interpreted as political resistance (Metcalf 1982; Gellner 1981), or as a reaction to political inequality, which seems applicable to the Muslim minority in Mauritius. The importance of Muslim identity, expressed through Islamic revivalism, is related to and confirmed by their subjective feeling of being an endangered minority. Muslims in Mauritius are influenced by the religious interpretations offered by the International Brotherhood of Muslims (Tablighi Jamaat) which indicates that geopolitical forces affect Muslims living in the periphery of Islamic dominance. There also is a connection here between Islamic revivalism, social and cultural change, and minority Muslims' opposition to the Hindu-dominated political majority. Although Muslims may appear to others as a relatively homogeneous and united social group, they are in fact internally divided into sects and schools of thought. Not only is there a distinction between the relatively small Ahmadiyya sect and the majority of Sunni Muslims, but among the latter there is a further religious division between those following the Sunna Jamaat and those supporting the Tablighi Jamaat and their Tawheed ideology. This division is marked by the presence of different mosques and religious associations (Jamaat, or mutual aid societies) in most villages and towns where there is a substantial number of Muslims.

Some common misconceptions are that religious fundamentalism is primarily an Islamic phenomenon (a view that often neglects fundamentalism among Christians in Northern Ireland and among Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka, for example), and that religious fundamentalism is primarily a violent expression carried out by religious fanatics. Hage (1992) argues that religious fundamentalism is a political strategy for controlling communal space. Caplan (1987) makes the important point that all fundamentalist groups have a strong sense of otherness, evident in the new ways Muslims try to distinguish themselves from Hindus. Among Muslims in Mauritius, Islamic revivalism does not display any of the aforementioned characteristics.

Mauritius is a multi-ethnic island state comprising 720 square miles, situated in the Indian Ocean about 500 miles east of Madagascar. Despite its small size, the island is inhabited by one million people who are heterogeneous in terms of ethnic group, language, and religious differences. Uninhabited until the seventeenth century, it had no indigenous population, but became populated by waves of immigrants due to colonialism, plantation slavery, the indenture system, and French (1715-1810) and British (1810-1968) colonial mercantile interests, which shaped the sociocultural environment of the island.(2) Mauritian independence in 1968 also marked the transfer of political power to Indians, in particular Hindus. The national economy, predominantly a plantation economy until the mid-1970s, has undergone a rapid transformation toward greater diversification, with increasing importance played by light manufacturing industries (textile factories) and tourism. The economic growth resulted in a very low level of unemployment (2.5 per cent) and a higher standard of living for most Mauritians. Not only did Mauritius establish a stable and democratic political system, it represents a successful case of a policy to accommodate multiple traditions while containing ethnic conflict.

Mauritius has no single ethnic group that can maintain itself in political power by forming a majority government without relying on support from an alliance of some sort. …