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Islamic Veil and Public Space: Notes on Some Geertzian Concepts

Abstract of paper presented by Mondher Kilani, University of Lausanne, at the conference "Islam Re-Observed: Clifford Geertz in Morocco"

In his text “Thick Description” (1973), Clifford Geertz puts forward the idea that culture is “public” because “meaning is public,” and that meaning is incorporated in action and decoded by it. We will start from these premises in order to question, first, the link between what the social actor says with his words, gestures, or behaviors, and cultural forms, symbolic systems, or structures of meaning that inform the saying. The notion of “social discourse” is not very explicit in Geertz's work: does it correspond to the actor’s discourse, or is it the “text” manufactured by the scholar in order to “read” people’s culture? We will also question the way in which the anthropologist connects ethnographical microsituations with the global context, and how he manages to avoid naturalizing the reference context and considering it as an unalterable background. For this purpose, we will consider the definition of “religion” Geertz gives in his article, “Religion as a Cultural System” (1966). His definition sounds substantivist (because of religion being thought of as a conceptual system, something to which the social events can be causally connected). In this way, Geertz’s definition of religion is in contradiction with his definition of culture in his article on “Thick Description” (1973), where culture is presented as a “symbolic action,” a network of meaning, a context within which social actions can be accurately described.

I will discuss some religious expressions of everyday Islam in terms of these questions. I will start with the religious formulae “Bismillah" (in the name of God) and “Tawakkaltu `ala Allah” (I rely on God), and I will discuss the divergent interpretations people give them in Europe or the United States of America where they sound exotic. Then I will focus on the contradictory “social discourses” produced by the different social actors in regard to the “Islamic veil” worn by some women and young girls of North African origin or descent in France. I will try to define the controversial cultural space where the conflicts emerge and explain why some people struggle to affirm a religious sign in the public arena and why others want to suppress it as an “alien” sign. The aim of this discussion is to elaborate on the Geertzian concepts of “social discourse,” of symbol as “meaning in action,” of culture as “public space,” and to discuss the nature of the anthropological discourse. Does it actually consist of “explaining the explanations,” and if so, what kind of procedures are to be used?

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