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Public Culture 14.1 (2002) 277-279

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Islam in Public Space

Ludwig Ammann

More and more Muslims are coming out in public worldwide as Muslims, making religious difference visible through veiling and other micropractices. "Second-wave" Islamism, a social movement that has turned cultural, in this way challenges a public imagined as secular and attempts to redesign the borders between public and private. The international and interdisciplinary research project Islam and Public Space, directed by Nilüfer Göle (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris) at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut in Essen, studies Islamic publics in the making--how Muslim actors create new (counter)publics and transform given publics. At the same time, it seeks to understand the implications of contemporary Islamic practices for theorizing modern public spheres. The reinvention of gendered space suggests that figurations of body and space matter more than Jürgen Habermas's logocentric theory of the bourgeois public sphere indicates. For this reason, the project highlights nondiscursive, embodied practices that through habitualized performance institute publics of their own, reimagining them from below.

Hypervisible Islamist movements certainly are bids for recognition by the public at large. But they are more: highly creative and ever more self-reflexive [End Page 277] instances of societal self-production, crossbreeding Islamogenic tradition and Eurogenic modernity. The result is ambiguity--or rather, modernity with a difference. Islamist collective imaginaries of private and public are a case in point. The importance attributed to visual privacy--the veil used as a symbolic shield in public space--is in a sense revealing of a desire to strike a new balance between public and private, to keep at bay the stranger that Western concepts of public life and address presuppose.

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Research was begun in spring 2000, with empirical case studies by graduate- and postgraduate-level sociologists focusing on three typologically contrasting regions: secularized Turkey, desecularized Iran, and Europe as pluralist diaspora of Muslim migrants. The case studies were presented--and engaged alongside theoretical and historiographical contributions--in a series of four workshops and conferences: Islam and Public Space (Essen), Public Space and Difference (Istanbul), New Islamic Subjectivities and Practices in Public Space (Essen), and New Islamic Imaginaries and Public Space (Istanbul). As a result, the case studies could be further developed, guided by the online and personal tuition of core-group members, and new topics, such as Islamic coffeehouses, were introduced.

The core group is made up of sociologist Nilüfer Göle, who directs the project, and two historians, Christian Geulen and Ludwig Ammann, specializing in discourse analysis and Islam respectively. Their contributions emphasize the potential of Hannah Arendt's performative concept of public space as a theoretical framework, on the one hand, and the traditional primacy of the private in Islamic urban life, on the other. Scholars ranging from anthropologists to political scientists were invited to collaborate as senior researchers. Two institutions are represented collectively: the school of sociologists established by Alain Touraine at Paris's Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and the public sphere experts affiliated with the U.S.-based Center for Transcultural Studies. The latter group, represented here by Craig Calhoun and Charles Taylor, continue a discourse initiated by Calhoun's edited volume on Habermas and the Public Sphere (1992). Project collaboration aims to link this discourse on the public sphere with the core group's emphasis on public space.

The following topics have been presented so far:

  • Case studies from Turkey on Islamic novels' discovery of subjectivity; Islamic coffeehouses' facilitation of religious debate and meetings between the sexes; Islamic foundations' sponsorship and education of [End Page 278] students; the Islamic instruction of secular publics by a religious leader; and public discussion of a celebrated "religious" marriage scandal.
  • Case studies from Iran on women in the public sphere; and women's periodicals.
  • Case studies from France and Germany on young preachers of the Tabligh movement; types of religiosity developed by young males in different national public spheres; and German configurations of Islam, gender, and the public.
  • Core-group contributions on ocular and corporal dimensions of the public; private and public in Islamic...


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pp. 277-279
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2004
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