The Politics of Diaspora and the Morality of Secularism: Muslim Identities and Islamic Authority in Mauritius./Politique De la Diaspora et Moralite Du Secularisme: Les Identites Musulmanes et L'autorite Islamique a Maurice

By Eisenlohr, Patrick | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2006 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Diaspora and the Morality of Secularism: Muslim Identities and Islamic Authority in Mauritius./Politique De la Diaspora et Moralite Du Secularisme: Les Identites Musulmanes et L'autorite Islamique a Maurice


Eisenlohr, Patrick, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Recent anthropological studies of diasporas have highlighted their transnational orientation towards multiple political locations, which frequently places diasporas at odds with a prevailing global political order. Diasporic identifications do not, however, always stand in tension with national belonging. Indeed, the public performance of such identifications in ethnic holidays, religious festivals, ethnic cultural centres, and the state-sponsored cultivation of ancestral languages is one of the ways in which full membership in a Mauritian nation is claimed and demonstrated (cf. Eriksen 1994). Mauritians, who publicly celebrate a continuing memory of their origins in another part of the world through such activities, often experience diasporic belonging through the prism of purist, clearly demarcated, and officially recognized 'ancestral cultures'. These two themes come together in a hegemonic sense of cultural citizenship according to which Mauritians are primarily conceived as subjects with origins elsewhere and ongoing commitments to traditions whose diasporic character is highlighted (Eisenlohr in press). Although in the 1970s and early 1980s a political movement promoted a new Mauritian nationalism privileging locally created cultural forms, in particular the dominant local vernacular language Mauritian Creole as a base for Mauritian postcolonial nation-building, Mauritian state institutions clearly emphasize support and recognition of cultural traditions perceived as diasporic. (1) That is, the cultural politics of the Mauritian state privileges 'ancestral cultures', experienced as diasporic insofar as their origins elsewhere are publicly emphasized, over those traditions which can be constructed as indigenous, such as the practice of Mauritian Creole. (2) At the same time, since these recognized 'ancestral cultures' circumscribed by the state are largely identified with different religious traditions, the Mauritian politics of diaspora raises the question of equitable coexistence in an officially multi-religious polity.

In this article, I investigate how a politics of diaspora privileging the performance of 'ancestral cultures' centred on religious traditions is predicated on a particular understanding of secularism. In this I recognize the close interrelationships between the advent of a modern nation-state based on the conception of a society subject to secular techniques of social transformation and the concept of 'religion' as a separate sphere of life distinct from politics, society, and law (Asad 2003). Religious traditions in the Mauritian case become the object of modern secular statecraft, to be managed as potentially dangerous forces while at the same time mobilized for the good of society. This is because they are considered indispensable for providing the kind of self-discipline among citizens that enables toleration and peaceful coexistence between members of different religious communities in a common polity.

In what follows, I problematize the antinomy between the secular and the religious by investigating local understandings of secularism among Mauritian Muslims. While others have suggested that modern concepts of 'religion' are an outcome of the rise of secular perspectives on social life (Asad 2003: 190-3), I argue that the relationship between secularity and religion should be seen as a productive tension in which the religious crucially shapes secular practices and visions of social life. Indeed, central symbols and ideologies of secularism may be mediated through the mystical and the religious (Navaro-Yashin 2002: 188-203). While parallels between the engagement with, for example, secular symbols of nationality and what is readily recognized as religious practice have frequently been remarked, my concern here is morality as a sphere in which the secular and the religious are in a dialectical tension. Secularism in Mauritius is constituted as a field of morality focused on the shaping of dispositions conducive to coexistence, which are never separate from those practices and traditions aimed at shaping pious subjects. …

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The Politics of Diaspora and the Morality of Secularism: Muslim Identities and Islamic Authority in Mauritius./Politique De la Diaspora et Moralite Du Secularisme: Les Identites Musulmanes et L'autorite Islamique a Maurice
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