The Anthropology of Islam

By Gabriele Marranci | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Studying Muslims in the West: Before and
After September 1 1

FROM VILLAGES AND SAINTS TO METROPOLISES
AND IMMIGRANTS

In the previous chapter, we have observed that between the end of the 1960s and the end of the 1980s, ethnographic studies of Muslims observed mainly Middle Eastern and North African populations. Even recent article-reviews on the anthropology of Islam have overlooked western Muslims, and Muslims seen as actors within the 'global village' instead of the duar.1 The omission of westernbased research on Islam and Muslims does not mean that it does not exist. Indeed, young anthropologists and sociologists have increasingly paid attention to new fields of research, such as Muslim immigrants, second generation Muslims, Muslim transnational networks, virtual ummahs and the integration/assimilation of western Muslim communities. This innovative research, marginalized within mainstream anthropology, found refuge in other more interdisciplinary fields such as migration studies, gender studies, education studies and global studies. Yet as the 'exotic' ethnographies ended entangled in kinship, Sufi saints and segmentary theories, these western-based ethnographies of Muslim lives ended in a cultural hermeneutic suggesting Islam as the ultimate shaper of migrants' lives. The reason behind the essentialist views which some of these western-based ethnographies advocated, and the fascination with the role of Islam in the studied western Muslim community can be traced back to the history of Muslim migration.

During the 1960s, European states actively resourced migrant labour, often from Muslim countries, in order to complete their post Second World War reconstruction. Both the European states and the Muslim workers considered immigration as a temporary rather than permanent arrangement. North Africans, South Asians and Turkish Muslim guest workers left their families behind in their homelands. This first generation of underpaid Muslim immigrant labourers dreamt of their return to the motherland. Year after year, letter after letter, and in many cases, song after song,2 the desired and planned return metamorphosed into a myth of return.

Isham, who arrived in Paris in the 1970s, told me, after singing a popular chābi song, how the 'European dream' turned, for many of them, into the European nightmare:

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