Formations of the Secular

Talal Asad has produced some interesting books, his 2003 book "Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity" is somewhat less powerful as a collective narrative since it draws on previously published materials (as opposed to a narrative that is linked throughout), nonetheless some interesting ideas from two decades past:

"What is the connection between "the secular" as an epistemic category and "secularism" as a political doctrine? Can they be objects of anthropological inquiry? What might an anthropology of secularism look like? This book attempts, in a preliminary way, to address these questions." (p. 1)

"The terms 'secularism' and 'secularist' were introduced into English by freethinkers in the middle of the nineteenth century in order to avoid the charge of their being 'atheists' and 'infidels,' terms that carried suggestions of immorality in a still largely Christian society. These epithets mattered not because the freethinkers were concerned about their personal safety, but because they sought to direct an emerging mass politics of social reform in a rapidly industrializing society. Long-standing habits of indifferences, disbelief, or hostility among individuals toward Christian rituals and authorities were now becoming entangled with projects of total social reconstruction by means of legislation." (p. 23-24)

"In fact liberal democracy here expresses the two secular myths that are, notoriously, at odds with each other: the Enlightenment myth of politics as a discourse of public reason whose bond with knowledge enables the elite to direct the education of mankind, and the revolutionary myth of universal suffrage, a politics of large numbers in which the representation of 'collective will' is sought by quantifying the opinion and fantasy of individual citizen-electors. The secular theory of state toleration is based on these contradictory foundations: on the one hand elite liberal clarity seeks to contain religious passion, on the other hand democratic numbers allow majorities to dominate minorities even if both are religiously formed." (p. 61) 

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The Act of Living

NOTE: This was a book review that was published in 2020.

As a country with sustained levels of high macro-economic growth, Ethiopia has been suggested as amongst Africa's Lions (Bhorat and Tarp, 2016), an economic grouping envisioned as potentially following the Asian Tigers of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Macro-economic growth does not benefit everyone in the same way. Such narratives may not explore how growth can fail the poor (Shaffer, Kanbur and Sandbrook, 2019) or make invisible the processes of how exclusion occurs amidst growth. Di Nunzio presents detailed ethnographic description in The Act of Living to explore the complexities of development, for which the author draws upon nearly a decade of research in Arada, a subcity of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The richly contextualized life stories enable readers to understand the processes of exclusion and marginalization, which are often lost in statistics about winners and losers. What makes this book an engaging and unique read are the windows it offers into the worlds of those left behind as well as their constant grappling with, and cajoling of, possibility. In so doing, The Act of Living is a book about agency: decisions amidst deprivation, capacity to control within constraint, meaning within marginalization. The Act of Living is not a celebration of street life, but it is a recognition of how the tensions of 'history and becoming unfold as people's attempts to be something other than their constraints coexist with the experiences of being acted upon by marginality, subjugation, and oppression" (p. 27).

Di Nunzio brings us into worlds that are underrepresented and under researched. These are interconnected people and places, about which anecdote may be our main point of reference. Far too often their voices are silent and their perspectives misunderstood. In the context of praised economic growth and positive development, these life stories highlight glass ceilings, where marginal difference and raising inequality are the norm, while transformative change a rarity. As the author describes, growth and development are viewed differently from below: "Wealth, success, and, broadly, growth and development remain inexplicable, despicable, and unjust" (p. 218).

In this book, Di Nunzio deconstructs a common economic mantra: the need for inclusion for growth and development to benefit everyone. In the urban Ethiopian case, there are processes "of inclusion that deepened rather than challenged marginality," in brief, Di Nunzio demonstrates how "inclusion can marginalize" (p. 105). This occurs as the political apparatuses of support also acted as means of control. Continued participation as newfound members of government initiatives also meant political allegiance, which, the author argues, offered no "ways of achieving social mobility or even relative improvement" (p. 105). As a result, those being left behind in the development process had fewer spaces and opportunities to contest their positionality as members. From the streets of Arada in Addis Ababa, politics were viewed as fake, "actively producing narratives, discourses, and expectations of improvement and collective development that their own condition of marginality and oppression taught them to distrust" (p. 184)

The 'weight of place' and trajectories of life that Di Nunzio presents throughout are a welcome contextualization to expressions of social differentiation and the development of the urban landscape. The two main characters – Haile and Ibrahim – were born in the capital city, as children of migrants (p. 29). Albeit it briefly, in Chapter 1 readers learn of their deeper family histories, providing some insight into the potential intergenerational nature of marginalization. This is important because not all migrants to the center are the same; some arrive with resources and networks, some arrive with opportunities due to language and identity, and some arrive to encounter fear and suspicion. In these instances, personal and family history are not just a matter of economic class, but also of livelihoods, political affiliation, social class and status. Readers learn of other components of social differentiation, such as ethno-linguistic identity and religion. For example, Mesfin's dislike of Tigrayans and Eritreans resulted in his specifically targeting them for thefts (p. 64). The gravity of religious and ethno-linguistic identities and their respective relationships as a factor of social differentiation continues within the cosmopolitan center, and arguably has gained in gravity over the time period of study. These expressions of social differentiation or broader social determinants of marginalization and subjugation were implicitly positioned as secondary to the political processes. At the same time, Di Nunzio makes a convincing argument throughout the book about the ways that marginalization is a "political product" (p. 104).

The Act of Living is a welcome addition for Anthropology, Sociology and Development Studies, as well as for qualitative courses in Geography, Political Science, African Studies and Urban Studies. While the Ethiopian urban has been subject to research (see, for example: Mains, 2012, 2019), relatively little has been published on 'street life' in urban Ethiopia. Di Nunzio has contributed a collection of published articles in this subject area, which this book builds upon. In this regard, The Act of Living is a welcome contribution to an under-researched aspect of urban experiences, and in particular in relation to ideas of development. The text was written in an accessible way, making it suitable for upper undergraduate courses. Although it is an academic book that compiles nearly a decade of data and engages a range of theories and theorists, it is one that will be read and engaged by those outside of academia, which is demonstrative of a well written and thoughtful text.

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Islam, Ethnicity, and Conflict in Ethiopia

With Islam, Ethnicity, and Conflict in Ethiopia, Terje Østebø contributes a historical ethnography to two under researched domains. First, to African and Ethiopian studies and secondly to Islamic studies. As a field of study, African studies, and Ethiopian studies in particular, have tended to focus on dominant themes, such as the largest populations, key livelihoods, or centers of political power, leaving many issues in the periphery (including the role of religion beyond religious studies). This is not only a matter of coverage in content, but also a matter of the vantage point from which those perspectives are told (e.g., from whose perspective are histories constructed). Similarly, the knowledge produced in Islamic studies that focus on the experiences and contributions south of the Sahara is comparatively less relative to political-economic centers. Scanning the Journal of Islamic Studies, as an example, there are more than 600 publications on Egypt, around 50 on Ethiopia and less than 20 on Tanzania. What makes this book notable is it being one of the exceptions. Further, while the subtitle, The Bale Insurgency, 1963-1970, suggests the book might be specific to Bale and to the 1960s, it offers much more in breadth and depth. One of the strengths of the book is its attention to the perspectives and experiences of key local actors who were involved in the insurgency. The author's ethnographic fieldwork provides a nuanced account of their strategies, tactics and motivations.

The chapters that cover the history, organizational structure, international linkages and leading individuals involved in the Bale movement are fascinating. As an example of the richness of the historical work, the leaders presented in Chapter 5 (and elsewhere) bring to life people who were international figures, having studied in Harar and Yemen, were travelling to Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Djibouti, and had ties to Egypt and Iraq. These geographies further emphasize the importance of the re-orientation that this book attempts, in centering religion within a context wherein it has often been periphery. While enjoyable to read, there are points that readers might have expected to be questioned or critiqued. For example, the author describes these leaders as having "little to no education" (Page 129), drawing on what appears to be Euro-Western assumptions and conceptions of what is considered valued and valuable forms of learning (discounting the immense expertise and learning that these leaders embodied).

The richness of this historical ethnography presents theological aspects as well as theoretical insights. For example, the author explores the nature of the emergence and syncretisms of Islam within Bale, which are often descriptive, and while lacking analyses are interesting and informative (as the author says: the process of the "Islamization of the Oromo and the Oromization of Islam"; Page 52). This continues with describing how Islamic practices were integrated into identity, resulting in a distinct form of Islam. Chapters 6 and 7 not only provide a contestation of how the conflict is classified but also provides a wealth of data, history and insight that will be useful for scholars and students for exploring other research questions.

One of the primary academic investigations that the author engages in is with forms of identity. Terje uses the concept of peoplehood or imagined peoplehood (Page 5) to conceptualize descriptors of ethnic and religious identities (which he defines as the foundational dimensions of peoplehood). While this concept does offer flexibility, it remains somewhat unclear why certain aspects of identity are emphasized at certain times, by certain people, and why this changes. In other words, how association with identities varies based upon time and circumstance (or, as Terje puts is: how an individual self defines in relation to a continuum of realities; Page 8). The application of this concept as an analytical tool is not as interwoven into the chapters as readers interested in the concept might like (references to it are largely in the opening and closing chapters. Between Chapters 3 and 8 / Pages 66 to 208 the concept is rarely mentioned, which seems a missed opportunity to integrate perspectives using the historical and ethnographic content). Nonetheless, peoplehood is a useful approach to enable a rethinking of identities, and specifically a centering of religion within the continuum of realities. This book does well in contesting binary forms of assessing identity, and the rebalancing that Terje offers is warranted and valuable.

Chapter 2, with details on the geography, infrastructure, and demographics of Bale, could have been strengthened with additional specific data and clarity of sources. In Chapter 3, similarly, the sources given for parts of the historical narrative are not always clear for follow-up research. While readable and enlivened with personal experiences, from a university press book, one would typically expect altitudes and areas to be provided with more references, and for the references used, more recent data than what was obtained in 2004 from a zonal administration report. This is not just a matter of academic style and acknowledging the contributions of others, utilizing the available data from the Central Statistical Agency as well as the regional and zonal administrations would have given this chapter another layer of depth.

On the theoretical side, the author discusses why he does not categorize this movement as "separatist" or "nationalist" but does not consider the possibility of its being a liberation struggle (Pages 90, 117-118, 268). Terje draws on the typology of Clapham (Page 90) and opts to use the language of "insurgency" and "insurgents" throughout most of the book (although some informants the author spoke with used the word "struggle", see Page 89, which the author himself uses more often in Chapter 5. Later in the book, the author notes that people he spoke with positioned their movement as striving for freedom; see Page 269). The choice of terms might have been done as an effort to select a more value-neutral framing. However, as the author notes the connotations in Ethiopia are negative and the apparent lack of recognition of the potential of liberation are both value assessments. As the author describes, the struggles for freedom and dignity in the Horn were not new occurrences in the 1900s, nor were they limited to struggles against colonizers. The author describes the treatment experienced by the people of Bale (e.g., the targeting and indiscriminate killing and bombing of civilians), and a long-lasting collective experience of marginalization and discrimination against non-Ethiopian Orthodox Christians by the government (as the author describes in Chapters 8 to 10). It seems worth considering that this pursuit of freedom and dignity might be one of seeking liberation (at least as a possibility).

The author is a scholar interested in religion and has written a book seeking to center religion in discussions of identity. However, in many of the chapters the Islamic perspective is missing. By that I do not mean a lack of references to Islam or the identification of individuals as Muslims, but rather regarding discussions about how Islam and being Muslim influenced the decisions made. For example, the author is surprised at an apparent false testimony (Page 152). Readers familiar with Islamic history, however, might wonder the extent to which these leaders considered this acceptable as either occurring in the context of war or due to the necessity of the situation (from the lens of Islamic jurisprudence). Similarly, did people in Bale make analogies to the Mekkan era when traders carrying stolen goods were raided? (Page 93) Readers do not know whether, or how much, Islamic jurisprudence influenced or informed these decisions or the positions taken regarding such choices. Similarly, Chapter 7 offers substantial contextualization of the epistemology and ontology of what the author calls the "pre-Islamic religious universe of the Arsi Oromo" (Page 189) but relatively little on how Islamic perspectives changed or were woven into that worldview (such as conceptualizations regarding land, which are focal to that chapter). The answer may be, for these or other aspects, no consideration at all. However, the text does not provide these answers. Given that at least some of the leaders of the movement in Bale undertook Islamic studies, including abroad (as outlined in Chapter 5), it seems probable that Islamic jurisprudence played a role in these decisions (as emerges in Chapter 10, the implication is that Islam may have been focal). Particularly as the author seeks to reorient religious roles, the consideration of decision making from an Islamic perspective seems to this reader a valuable consideration to have included (which furthers the depth to which religion can be associated with the movement in Bale).

I recommend this book and I anticipate it will be used in many anthropology classes as well as African studies ones. The contribution is stronger in African studies than Islamic studies (hence its inclusion in the African Studies series). However, for those interested in Muslim experiences in the Horn of Africa, this book is a unique contribution and well worth reading. The text might be a challenge for first and second year undergraduates but would be a great text for in-depth upper undergraduate and graduate level courses. The above notes on the book could be entry points for further classroom discussion, providing pathways for further study in the historical, anthropological and Islamic studies domains. 

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Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia's Somali Region

Lauren Carruth provides a useful introduction to Ethiopia's Somali region, to the practices of global health, to 'humanitarianism', and to anthropology / ethnography with her 2021 publication: Love and Liberation: Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia's Somali Region (Cornell University Press). The book helpfully deconstructs international / Euro-Western conceptualizations of humanitarianism and re-orients that within the Somali context (linguistic, socio-cultural, political, historical, religious). The book is accessible and likely will find a home in undergraduate many courses. Additionally helpful for readers is the extensive use of narratives and personal stories, which makes the book very readable. Far too little research focuses on Ethiopia's Somali region, and this is a welcome addition.

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