Do we need to re-think the meaning of Tradition ?

In International Relations, Development theory as well as cultural analysis, often one hears that ‘tradition’ ideas are evil, and must be gotten rid of, on our way to ‘modernity.’ Indeed, if one looks at the development of the West, on is way to Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, much of the tension was between ‘tradition,’ exemplified by the Church and ‘modern’ ideas, that were ‘secular,’ ‘modern’ and ‘progressive.’ Especially, in liberal, progressive circles, tradition is a taboo word; that connotes backwardness, illiteracy and a lack of ability to ‘move with the times.’

In America too, this tension has played out and continues to animate itself in media discourses, popular debates and everyday scenarios. But the question is,  is ‘tradition,’ really all that it is made out to be? And is ‘modernity’ all that ‘modern.’ And how are the two linked together, in contemporary ethical life? I will try to answer this, in this short post.india-culture-heritage

Two scholars are helpful in understanding the notion of ‘tradition’ and its relation to modernity. One of them is Alasdair MacIntyre, a Philosopher and the second being Talal Asad, an Anthropologist, who is most well-known for his writings on Islam. Both are considered authorities in their field of study and have contributed much to our understanding of the world we live in. First off, let us start with the definition that each offers of tradition. Asad says that tradition consists of ‘discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history. These discourses relate to a past, and a future, through a present.’ (1986, p.14). His definition of tradition is one of inherited discourses, and he goes on to build the idea of a ‘discursive tradition,’ meaning one which is constantly in dialogue with the others and with itself and hence, is ‘alive.’

On the other hand, MacIntyre argues that a tradition is a shared conversation between a set of people and one that is often born into. I did not choose to be born into an Indian, Muslim family and inherit the traditions that came with it. I may have adopted a few others, along the way, through travel, reflection and life-experience; but the ones that I most closely relate to, are the ones that I am deeply ingrained in. Tradition, then, according to MacIntyre is a ‘shared conversation through time about the rule, ends and overall direction of a given set of practices,’ (Hannan, 2012. P.394).

So, between Asad and MacIntyre’s definitions, we have a lot of similarities in how they understand the role of tradition. Both see it as something that one is born into, one that one inherits. How does one deal with it, then? MacIntyre develops his notion of tradition to talk about one’s ‘narrative self,’ as embodying the stories that one tells and how  these impact our sense of our own self, own sense of our ‘traditions,’ and how we keep them alive. Similarly, Asad talks about a ‘discursive tradition,’ as being a dynamic formulation of tradition, in that, one seeks to relate one’s tradition to current practices, based on how one understand how things were done in the past. This necessarily doesn’t mean that one kowtows to what was done in the past and preserves everything therein. A ‘discursive tradition,’ in Asad’s view is ‘alive’ and ‘active’, in that it seeks to question both the present and the future, and also the past.

Both scholars make a very important point that no matter how ‘modern.’ Our conceptions of our life, they are deeply rooted in some ‘tradition.’ For example, all talk of ‘justice’, ‘mercy’, ‘progress,’ are not just Western constructs that are post-Enlightenment ideals, but have evolved over centuries and under certain specific historic conditions. To deny this is to lie to oneself, both Asad and MacIntyre seem to be saying.

The difference between them seem to be in the amount of focus that each puts on the power relations. While Asad words in a Foucaldian tradition, that seeks to understand power-relations between those who create knowledge and those who are at the receiving end of it, MacIntyre seems less interested in these aspects and he is interested more in the ethical dimensions of the problems at hand.

These two formulations of tradition challenge us to re-think what tradition is. In a classical Burkean sense, tradition is seen as something that had no scope for disagreement or reasoning. Asad shows, through his work that this is not the case and in the particular case of Islamic tradition, there has been and continues to be contestation, debate, arguments – in the realm of tradition. Even in the ‘Western tradition,’ for instance, one can see that our conceptions of justice, equality and law and order have evolved and continue to evolve, making it ‘discursive.’

References:

Hannan (2014) Ed. Philosophical Profiles in the Theory of Communication: With a Foreword by Richard J. Bernstein and an Afterword by John Durham Peters. Peter Lang Publishing Inc.

Asad, T (1986). Towards an Anthropology of Islam. Georgetown University Press.

Singapore, Dubai and the limits of Freedom?

ON March 23rd, the founder of modern day Singapore – Lee Kuan Yew died – and with him, an era of change and reform in Singapore passed. While the man is remembered for ‘building’ Singapore, he is also known as the man who brought into sharp focus the idea of ‘tradition’ and ‘Asian values’. The discourse of Liberal Democracy got its strongest challenge from him, in South East Asia. Even his arch enemies acknowledge that he did well, both for himself and for his country. By imposing order, discipline and a level of authoritarianism; he brought the country prosperity and recognition. But the question really, in my mind is, what does LKY represent. Does he represent the possibilities of a repressive regime, or the

limits of democracy?LKY

Most people who live in democracies take them for granted. I grew up in the world’s largest democracy, India, and not until I moved to live in Dubai, UAE in 2008 did I begin to appreciate the value of what it is to live in one. For the first few months, all I could see was the dazzle and glitter of Dubai. Remember, it was 2008, Dubai at its best. The real estate market was still booming – though there were signs of slowdown in the U.S.- this had not hit the Middle East market yet. Life was good. People talked about buying apartments, moving to new jobs, taking vacations in Bali. In casual conversations with taxi drivers, they would tell me things like ‘The King cares about the country. What if he rules forever? The corrupt politicians back home (India, Pakistan or Bangladesh) care about their own good and not the country’. This was repeated time and again.

While media and intellectuals in the West talk about the greatness of liberal democracies, they also often do not mention that in most countries, including the U.S. – considered the oldest democracy in the world – it is still an experiment of sorts. In many cases, it works, but there are also egregious cases of violations of the very spirit of democracy. Consider the idea that powerful groups of people or institutions controlling all the decisions being made in a country, as in the case of interest groups lobbying for their interests and the notion of ‘common good’ being relegated to the backburners. What sort of a democracy would that be? We see this exact phenomenon occurring in the U.S. and other advanced democracies. While in the developing and emerging democracies, corruption is an issue; the same problem manifests itself when we speak of interest groups and oligarchies. Concentration of power, nepotism and lack of transparency are endemic issues that every society has to deal with. Just having a form of government that promises it is not sufficient. Anyone who has worked in or with a bureaucracy closely will testify to this phenomenon.

Do Singapore and Dubai offer a high standard of living? Yes, for many of those who choose live there. If you are educated, middle-class and of a certain disposition. But if one is not so educated, is a laborer or a low-income earner, then Dubai and the Gulf can be living hell. The visa sponsorship system, combined with the potential to abuse power is rather high in such societies that place ethnic loyalty over other norms. These societies are in that sense ‘illiberal democracies’ as Fareed Zakaria called them. There are local elections to the Federal National Council in the UAE, but who gets to run and who decides that is extremely restricted. Zakaria argues that countries that have elections, yet have a lot of restrictions, that go against the spirit of democracy are not helpful in maintaining ‘order’, as eventually they give rise to dissent and chaos. They offer us the illusion of freedom, but in a restricted way. Saying the wrong thing, acting in the wrong way and expressing oneself in a certain way or going against the ruling elite can cause one to lose one’s job or even worse. This is the price one pays for the comfort of living in these societies.

This brings us back to the point: Do societies such as Singapore and Dubai (which is modelled after Singapore, as a city-state) offer ‘freedom’?. Is choice defined in terms of economic liberty and freedom; in terms of being able to live lavishly and in comfort. What about those who cannot afford this? Or is a society about the greater common good – if one even believes in such a thing- these are questions that one has to grapple with, when analyzing the role of society and form of government, that one seeks to build.

How to write about Islam?

Amidst all the noise about the end of the world scenarios being portrayed as a result of ISIS conquest of parts of Iraq and Syria and equally banal assertions that Islam is somehow inherently violent, and needs ‘reformation’, the common man out there is left confused. As someone studying Islam in America, I am at a loss for words, at times, and have to remind myself that unfortunately much of what we read and hear is from people who have no clue what they are talking about. Propaganda, vested interests, media hype make a clear political or sociological analysis of what is going on in the MiddleEast and the U.S. very hard, if not impossible.Blue mosque

What is the best way to write about Islam, then? Is it to be an ‘apologist’, and ‘defend’ Islam against all the attacks and criticisms? Though this approach is needed sometimes, it doesn’t sound very helpful, because there are genuine criticisms of Islam and Muslim societies that should be considered and weighted in, if one is writing in an honest manner. The alternative is to take a critical stance and call for a radical reform of Islam, as several atheists and former Muslims have done. The most egregious and distasteful manifestation are people like Irshad Manji and others like her, who are often seen coddling with the pro-Israeli or extreme Right-wingers in the U.S. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how these two groups get along. The criticisms that they level are often steeped in broad stereotypes and an almost anti-intellectual approach to Islam and its rich intellectual and cultural heritage. The third way to write about Islam is to write it from a perspective of how Muslims themselves understand Islam and I will delve into this approach, in a bit of detail here.

For starters, what is Islam? Is it a ‘religion’, as we understand it? There is serious debate among scholars of religion about what constitutes religion. Is Islam a religion by the classical definition, or is it an ‘exceptional’ religion, in that many definitions of religion do not apply to it- by virtue of its origins, growth and universal appeal? A few scholars that have written extensively on Islam. Dr.Talal Asad is one such scholar, who I will quote extensively in this article. Asad reminds us that Islam has been studied by Anthropologists – he names Ernest Gellner in particular – as someone who has tried to present Islam as a totality. This Islamic totality, according to Gellner, is formed as a result of social forces, political ideas as well as historical facts. This view that is often informed by Orientalism, and is premised on an opposition between Islam and Christianity – with Christianity located in Europe, while Islam is situated in the Middle East, Asad contends. Even current media representations of Islam use these binaries to define a ‘modern’ West and a ‘backward’ ‘Muslim world’. There are several problems with this binary approach, not least of which is how does one speak of Muslims in the West? Are they ‘negotiating’ with modernity in the West, or are they excluded from modern notions by virtue of their religious beliefs? No easy answers to these questions. With this in mind, Asad reminds us that writing about just social interactions or social constructs such as ‘tribes’ is not very helpful, as this approach, adopted by scholars such as Gellner reifies the Islamic norms, social relations and other aspects.

Another problem with this approach that Gellner and others take is that religion, power and political authority are often represented as having fused in Islam, while this has not occurred in Christianity. This view is not wholly accurate since there is a vast diversity in how power and religion interacted, historically, argues Asad. The perspective that Gellner and Clifford Geertz take is not helpful in understanding the perspective of Islam as an analytical concept that is as much part of the present as it is a construction of the ‘past’. Further, this perspective grounded in history misses out on the diversity of Islamic practices in contemporary societies.

Asad’s key argument about Islam is that it should be treated as a ‘discursive tradition’. He says “No coherent anthropology of Islam can be founded on the notion of a determinate social blueprint, or on the idea of an integrated social totality in which social structure and religious ideology interact.” This means that all that Muslims do is not ‘Islam’. What Muslims around the world do is not necessarily a reflection of their religious traditions, just as much as all Christians’ actions are not a reflection of Christianity. He suggests that the only way for studying Islam and its Anthropology is how Muslims would do, i.e., examine how their actions relate or should relate to the founding texts – the Qur’an and Hadith. He further argues: “If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” By tradition, he means: “A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history.”

Finally, it is helpful to remember that the ‘Muslim world’ is just a conceptual ideal, not a ‘social reality’. Asad reminds us that “It is too often forgotten that “the world of Islam” is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not the name for a self-contained collective agent. This is not to say that historical narratives have no social effect—on the contrary. But the integrity of the world of Islam is essentially ideological, a discursive representation.” This should be kept in mind, when we speak of a group of people that are over 1.6 billion in number and are present around the world – in every conceivable corner of every country.

One might also be tempted to ask: Why isn’t India a part of the ‘Muslim world’, since there are over 150 million Muslims there, despite being a minority? This is something every person who writes about Islam should consider. Broad generalizations, stereotyping and inaccurate analysis won’t help. On the contrary, such analysis will only confuse us, rather than clarify what we are seeking to study and understand. To quote Asad again, he says that the fatality of character among Muslims in Islamic society that Geertz and other invoke is the object of ‘of a professional writing, not the unconscious of a subject that writes itself as Islam for the Western scholar to read.’ As with Orientalist representations, what others write about Islam says as much about the author, as it does about the Islam or the actors they describe. A profound insight that should help us think critically before writing about a much misunderstood and misrepresented faith.

” Jamsetji Tata established his philanthropic foundation in India before even that of Carnegie,” – John Godfrey.

John Godfrey is a PhD Candidate at the Swinburne University of Technology, Australia, exploring High Net Worth Philanthropy in India. In this short interview, he explains how he got interested in studying Philanthropy in India, its dimensions – social, cultural and religions and how, if at all, it differs from Western notions of giving.

 

John Godfrey. Photo provided by Mr.Godfrey.
John Godfrey. Photo provided by Mr.Godfrey.

1. Please tell us a bit about how you got interested in High-net worth giving in India? 

 Like many Protestants I knew very little about traditions of giving other than the one in which I grew up – church collections on Sundays, occasional street day appeals and organized charity appeals for the likes of Oxfam, Red Cross and Save the Children.  Somehow I formed the impression that it was the West alone that provided relief and succour to the developing world.  I never read or heard discussions about indigenous traditions of charity or philanthropy other than my own – even in my early days as a professional fundraiser.

Around 2005 I was working for a firm of international fundraising consultants and through them met Major General Surat Sandhu, who had recently retired from Help Age India to become a fundraising consultant. Sometime later, knowing that I was visiting India, he invited me to give a workshop to some Indian fundraisers. For the first time I began to understand a little bit about NGOs and philanthropy in India. As time went on I became more a more struck by the scale and prevalence of philanthropy in India.

More recently when I was considering the focus of my research for the Ph.D. I wanted to do.  I was reading the extensive press coverage generated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s first visit to India to promote the Giving Pledge. There was a great deal of discussion by Indian HNWIs themselves about their practice of philanthropy. I had never seen that in the West!  It seemed to me here was a fruitful area for further research.  Especially, of course,  because Ph.D. research is supposed to cover topics that haven’t been researched before. The sad fact is there has been almost no academic research on any aspect of Indian philanthropy.

 2. What is your background and experience ?

 As I mentioned briefly above, I am a fundraising consultant. I also train fundraisers. I began my career as an actor, then an arts administrator, then I became a fundraiser first in the arts and then in higher education – universities.

3. What have you uncovered so far about giving behaviors in the subcontinent?

 It’s hard to give a simple answer. The subcontinent is a complex mix of religions, castes, ethnic traditions, geographies, histories, politics and social class. All of these are reflected in one way or another in giving behaviors. However once again I would like to reiterate that there is, or are, strong traditions of giving.

4. Any surprises?

 No surprises other than the initial surprise that philanthropy and giving are so much a part of Indian culture.

 5. What is unique about Indian philanthropy, as compared to western notions of giving?

 I wouldn’t necessary claim that there is anything unique about Indian philanthropy, in comparison to Western philanthropy. One thing to remember is that Western philanthropy grew from traditions that were introduced from the East. The first endowed universities and hospitals in Europe were the result of Medieval Knights returning from the Islamic territories of the Middle East where they had been introduced to the tradition of Islamic philanthropy and waqf.

US philanthropy is an infant in comparison to the traditions of the Middle East and Asia having been imported from Europe in the 19th century.

Jamsetji Tata established his philanthropic foundation in India before even that of Carnegie.

 

6. Noam Chomsky said recently in an interview that most Indians are indifferent to others’ suffering? Do you agree with this, purely from a philanthropic perspective

I have great respect for Noam Chomsky as an intellectual and a great liberal. I don’t think the reported comment was particularly profound. He made an interesting observation about the reaction of someone else – Aruna Roy. And he tried to generalize it through his own sensibilities. I think he missed the mark and I hope that it isn’t held against him.

 7. What is the role of philanthropy in a society such as India? How does this intersect with the state’s responsibility? 

 There is much debate about the role of philanthropy in societies around the world. The philanthropic sector is sometimes called the third sector to distinguish it from the state sector and the business sector. There are some things that can be achieved by philanthropy which cannot be achieved either through the state or by business. There are also some things that can be done in partnerships of all three – the state, business and philanthropy. Of these, I suppose it would be fair to say, philanthropy has the most freedom to innovate and take risks. Certainly this appears to be a growing trend both in the West and in India.

  

8. How do you foresee the understanding of philanthropy growing in India, going beyond Corporate Social Responsibility? The field is pretty nascent in India, is that right? 

 As I have said already philanthropy is far from nascent in India. In fact, in comparison, it is American philanthropy that is nascent! There is much confusion about corporate social responsibility not just in India but all over the world. Corporate social responsibility and corporate philanthropy are not synonymous. In India the debate about corporate social responsibility has been renewed as a result of the government making it mandatory for some companies. However the definition of corporate social responsibility is still far from determined.

You may be alluding to the fact that there is a strong tradition of philanthropy within the business classes and industrial dynasties of India. There is in the public mind some confusion between corporate philanthropy, family philanthropy and CSR because of this. Similar confusion may even exist amongst those business families themselves.

 

9. Any concluding thoughts.

 A strong motivation for my undertaking this research into philanthropy in India is a belief that the world should recognize that there is much more to philanthropy than there is contained in Western philanthropy. Until now, 90% if not more, of the research that has been published has been published either by American or British scholars about American, British and Western European philanthropy. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Middle East and was introduced to Islamic philanthropy. That began my curiosity and interest into other traditions of philanthropy.

India is remarkable because within one country there are so many different traditions. I think the world has a lot to learn from India.