Institute Fellow Elisabeth Becker-Topkara discusses her research in Europe’s Islamic communities.

Posted By on October 19, 2019


Hi. I’m Ryan Olson. I’m with the Institute
for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, where I serve as
the Director, and I’m here today with Elisabeth Becker. Welcome, Elisabeth. Thank you. Elisabeth earned her PhD in sociology at Yale University and will be
joining us at the Institute as a postdoctoral fellow next year, so we’re
really glad to have you. I know you’re completing a book project. Could you tell
us a bit about your book? Sure. I am completing my book project, which is
based on my dissertation. The working title is “Unsettled Islam: Virtuous
Contention in European Mosques,” and this book is based on a comparative study of
two of Europe’s largest mosques, one in Berlin, the Şehitlik Mosque, which is
with Turkish community predominantly, and the other in London, the East London
Mosque, predominantly a Bangladeshi community. And in this book, I really try
to push back at assumptions that we have about Islam in Europe, which has risen as one of the main dominant social conflicts across the continent and the
UK, not arguably on the content today, by looking at the ways in which religious practice and self-
understanding, so identities, come to the fore in a collective and institutional
form, so the form of the mosque and whether this has effects on the cities
at hand, so it’s really an urban study of these two mosques but as well as the
country and the continent. And so in this book, I spent about…in order to write
this book, I spent about two and a half years in these two mosque communities, so it’s predominantly an ethnography of the mosques. But I also interviewed religious
leaders and other kind of important figures in the mosque, including police
officers, local political figures… working with the mosque. And my argument really, I have to say, is I felt a wolf in sheep’s clothing because while my area of study is clearly Muslims in Europe, I am making an
argument about Europe and the unsettled nature of the European identity, and so
what Muslims in Europe today show us about Europe as a whole, both
historically…so I really began in the Reconquista, making it somewhat of a
comparative historical project as well. What it tells us about European history
but also these ongoing conflicts that are…we’re seeing them really
in Europe right now, over European identity, how Europe can remain cohesive, if it can remain cohesive, and what a truly plural Europe looks like. What did you
find that surprised you? I expected the Mosque that I visited or researched in
Berlin…. It’s often been hailed as a quote- unquote model mosque., The reason for this is it is seen to be progressive, although it’s highly traditional and the the sort
of forms of Islamic practice are very traditional. But this is because it’s
very engaged with the local community, and it really values cosmopolitanism and
this sort of global, both like a local and global identification. So while all
the individuals that I spent time with would identify as quote-unquote Muslims
first, as they often would say, they would also very much identify as Berliners and
they would seek to build bridges to local society. So for this reason
politicians, media, everyone loved this mosque. So I expected it to be quite easy to undertake research there and quite difficult in London, because it’s a more
complicated mosque in terms of its theological and social underpinnings. I’m
often asked when I write papers to say whether this is a Salafi mosque or
Wahhabi mosque, but it’s not really that simple. It has a lot of influence
and it’s from different schools of thought in Islam, but it does have this sort
of purist vision, and in fact it was extremely…It was much easier in some
ways. I mean, I could take the research of this community. It was extremely open to
me and my project. I was explicit about who I was and what type of research I
was doing, and I actually felt that a community that is often very
marginalized and that is seen to be very problematic in British society
wanted to engage me, extruding, I mean, so deeply, inviting me to their houses, to come to a
level I actually… I mean, it took me a year, let’s say, to build that up in
Berlin, and it took me maybe a month in London. And so I think I came in with
with presumptions too about these different forms of Islam and what it
would mean for social science research. How is your work different from other
projects like this on Islam? So in terms of sociological research, my work takes very seriously the religious underpinnings and expressions
of the communities. For this reason, I had to really immerse myself in theological
learning and debates, which I think in sociology is not necessarily the norm. I was trained in cultural sociology, which… and in that way this does
make sense, um, that I would turn toward kind of…the cultural normative
structures of the communities themselves. But I felt that I was trying to not
just understand how these communities thrive or integrate or incorporate in
Europe, but also understand them in their own sort of normative terms. And that
meant for me, like, so much learning. Even when I submitted the first
draft of my book manuscript, one female Muslim scholar came back and said, “Things that you’re perceiving as microaggressions, those are just pedagogical approaches in these communities and so your sort of
liberal subjectivities still come through, although, you know, I, you know, admire that you’ve…a lot of the book isn’t written in that way, I can still
see these pieces where you’re uncomfortable or uncertain. And so I feel
like for me, it was this really fantastic process and project of learning not only
about Islam and Muslims in Europe, but also learning so much about, kind of,
western normativities that span the United States and Europe
and learning to think outside of my own cultural conceptions and norms. In what
ways is your work important for American leaders in any number of areas of
society: business, religion, politics? So my work, well, my book project, is
focused on Europe, I focus now on Muslims in Europe and the United States. I’ve
also led research in New York City on the impact of Muslims across various
fields and created a lot of bridging projects with other institutions or
cultural…with cultural and social institutions like the New York Public
Library and the Tenement Museum, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, to sort of
think through major social issues. Now, Islam in Europe and the United States is
always in the media. There are a lot of misperceptions and misconceptions that I think are extremely dangerous. I think that they make their
way into academic work because we all live within our own kind of social
subjectivities. I do think that my work helps. I mean,
it’s one of many scholars’, but to break through these liberal subjectivities and
I am really active and engaging, especially through writing, so I do make
time and now have outed myself as a public scholar to write more publicly
and to kind of think through these things in more common vernacular so that at least there is factually, like, there are accessible facts and accessible
narratives that might be garnered through really deep research over years
but then can be spread or or accessed by the public at large, and so I think my
broader goal has been to write both in a way that success will even in some of my
academic work and to write for media outlets and then to create partnerships,
whether it’s with journalists or with cultural institutions, where we could be
having these conversations. They’re not divided between just the Academy talking
amongst itself and then just sort of these broader publics talking amongst
themselves, but rather bringing them together. That’s great. That’s very
fascinating. Thank you so much.

Posted by Lewis Heart

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