Looking back, I knew that I never wanted to be a student in religious studies, but oddly enough, here I am digging into it and taking apart the psyche of believers (and non-). If the case is still true in today’s terms, being a scholar in religious matters in Malaysia would really mean studying Islam, wearing the pre-requisite tudung labuh, and doomed with career prospects as expansive as the opinions of the cow-head protesters on non-Muslim places of worship. Because as a woman, that would invariably mean teaching pendidikan Islam (Islamic education) at primary and secondary school level, and not at the helm of any of the many Islamic learning and research institutions around the country.
But mind you, it’s not the theological aspect of religious studies that appeals to me, but rather the strictly secular and emotionally uninvolved analysis of world religions; its historical, sociological, psychological, and philosophical dimensions of faith, from a so-called “objective” point of view, and most importantly how religious teachings have impinged on gender relations in the postcolonial context (and just as importantly, outside of that context). Being at the School of Oriental and African Studies in theory should be a good place to study religions given its wary stance towards Eurocentric academic culture and well, hippie outlook to the cultures of Africa and Asia.
But imagine my groans of disappointment when I realised that I had to immerse neck deep into the world of 20th century French intellectualism personified by Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, to understand the mystical and practical mechanisms of religion. My disappointment can be summed up in, ironically, Foucauldian terms, in which the study of religions as a discourse (specific to SOAS) is governed by principles, statements, and analytic approaches dominated almost entirely by the theses of dead White European male philosophers (with Claude Levi-Strauss who’s just joined in). And as a result of these governing structures, how we produce academic analyses or “truths” about world religions are done pretty much by the guiding hands of these men. And according to Foucault, how these structures arise are determined by who wins the competition of discourses. Emerging victor in the power struggle of discourses are the notoriously difficult post-existentialist French thinkers. Hurray!
It would be fair to assume that the most useful analytic tools are also the latest ones, those that have yet to be proven obsolete and irrelevant. The same way scientific analysis today relies on the latest research and the latest lab techniques and equipment. But is this really true for the study of religion? The search for the origins of spiritual worship became the main agenda of anthropologists in the 19th century, dominating the discourse on religion at the time. Emerging from the discourse were terms like “primitive cultures” and “totemism”. And yes, this led many anthropologists to “backward” communities in Africa and Latin America that were thought to be at the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder. The anthropology of religion later took a different course when more and more researchers found that there was no basis in their racist assumptions, and developed other critical outlooks. Then feminist approaches to religion arrived, which I will talk about soon.
So, what can we say about the implications of Western thinking on the study of world religions? If put in other words, what can institutions in economically-developing nations learn from this discourse which obtains its authority from mainly White male academics? Anything useful, or nothing at all? How useful are the thoughts of philosophers, hailed as experts at explaining the mysteries of faith, particularly when some are not afraid to be personally (rather than empirically) biased against one religion from another? I’m talking about Levi-Strauss here, and his ill-informed Orientalist comments about Islam which he had conveniently constructed as Buddhism’s opposite:
Symbolic of Moslem culture … [is the accumulation of] the most subtle refinements – palaces made of precious stones, fountains of rose-water, dishes of food coated with gold leaf and tobacco mixed with pounded pearls – and uses them as a veneer to conceal rustic customs and the bigotry permeating Islamic moral and religious thought… This great religion [Islam] is based not so much on revealed truth as on an inability to establish links with the outside world…Moslem intolerance takes an unconscious form among those who are guilty of it; although they do not always seek to make others share their truth by brutal coercion, they are nevertheless (and this is more serious) incapable of tolerating the existence of others as others (Levi-Strauss, 1992).
Returning to the structure of the study of religion in Malaysia, where the primacy of Islam permeates all levels of public education, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, can a secular study of faith be possible and not maligned as something with an evil agenda? Like inter-faith dialogue, all religions in question are viewed as equals as are the participants in the dialogue. For the case of the study of religions as an academic discourse, this means an open arena for teachers, students, and teaching material, regardless of the participant’s religious backgrounds. Those involved in the study of religions can develop an appreciation of other cultures and systems of worship, and from a structuralist’s point of view, discover deeply connected links and similarities that we all in this global village share. Perhaps these are just some things many Muslims in Malaysia can learn to appreciate.