- Secularism and Identity: Non-Islamiosity in the Iranian Diaspora by Reza Gholami
Reza Gholami’s monograph is an important contribution to the under-researched field of study on Iranians in London. Focusing on modes of secularism and intra-diasporic dynamics among Iranians from Muslim backgrounds, the book begins by posing two overarching questions:
(1) How is the secular implicated as a mechanism in processes by means of which people effect major changes to their lives – that is, the whole of their living experience – as they continuously attempt to ‘stylise’ their desired self and achieve ‘freedom’?(2) How can we better understand the power relationship between secularized and secularizing freedom practices/experiences and devout Muslim diasporic consciousness and subjectivity?(1)
He engages these questions by applying a novel theoretical framework to data generated from interviews, ethnography, and diasporic media and cultural production.
The introduction to the volume clarifies what the author means by ‘secular’ along with his other key concepts, including non-Islamiosity, freedom and diaspora. The heart of Gholami’s strong argument is that ‘diasporic Muslim religiosity’ cannot be studied without a full examination of ‘diasporic Muslim secularity’. In other words, instead of focusing on Muslim communities living in secular Western nation-states, with a focus on religion, there is a need to examine the internal subtleties of a diasporic community and the intra-diasporic modes of the secular. Gholami challenges the religious-secular dichotomy by [End Page 241] conceptualizing the secular as a means to eradicate the ‘religious’ aspects of the self. The secular is therefore not an end goal that is coupled with modernisation and democratization but a mechanism to overcome religious ideas that are believed to hinder freedom. In order to shed light on this new mode of the secular the author coins a new concept and methodology – ‘non-Islamiosity’ – which in his own words ‘is a mode of the secular by means of which some Iranian Shiʿa construct, live and experience diasporic identity, community and consciousness in a way that marginalizes, excludes or effaces (only) Islam – it aims to eradicate ‘the Islamic’ from ‘the Iranian’ (6). The rest of the volume employs the notion of non-Islamiosity by showing the ways in which groups and individuals distance themselves from the Islamic aspects of Iranian culture and heritage.
Chapter 1, entitled ‘Postmodern Fixations: Muslims, Migration and the Secular’ begins with an excerpt from the author’s ethnographic notes about a New Year’s Eve celebration at a night club – which happened to fall a few days after Ashura during the month of Muḥarram. After describing the music, dancing, alcoholic drinks, and dress (which the author stressed was the normal and desirable way for his respondents to socialize every week), Gholami argues that Iranians who carry out such social practices make a choice to be Iranian in a particular non- Islamious way. ‘Non-Islamious’ is an appropriate description, Gholami contends, as there is a consciousness that many of these social practices are not ‘by default’ part of their culture (37). Although ethnographic observations are offered in later chapters, the argument would have been stronger with additional details about the lives of the people at the party and how they explained (in their own words) the apparent connection between their social practices at the party and their intolerance of Islam in Iranian culture.
Chapter 2 takes a step back and traces the historical roots of nonIslamiosity and freedom in Iran, on the one hand, and post-World War II immigration politics in Britain on the other. Gholami provides a succinct summary of the complex political and social strands that eventually led to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and considers how they relate to his data. For instance, the section on Siyāmak, a former member of the Marxist/Leninist party, the Organisation of Iranian People’s Fedāʾī Guerrillas, was particularly interesting to think about in relation to the notion of non-Islamiosity. For those who followed Marxist doctrine, not only in [End Page 242] Iran...