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Visiting scholar examines religion and politics in southeast Asia
By CSLR | Emory Law | Oct 23, 2017 12:10:00 AM

Giovanni Maltese, postdoctoral scholar at the University of Heidelberg and the University of Bonn, is a CSLR visiting scholar, where he is studying the relationship between religion, identity-making, and politics in British Malaya. His visit is funded by the Karl Schlecht Foundation Grant for International Exchange in cooperation with the Global Network of Research Centers for Theology, Religious, and Christian Studies.

His familiarity with the work of Center Fellow Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im drew him to Emory, where he will have two months of uninterrupted time for reading, research, and drafting.

Maltese recently published his dissertation, which focused on Pentecostalism and politics in the Philippines, a topic he was drawn to when the founder of one of the country’s largest megachurches ran unsuccessfully for president, forming an alliance with representatives of the Islamic minority, who make up 7 to 10 percent of the population, including those with ties to to militant groups.

For his postdoctoral work, Maltese wanted to stay in southeast Asia, where the Islamic presence is generally overlooked in academic research. But he shifted his focus to Malaysia, where Islam is the religion of the state, though the large Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities are free to practice other religions. He is researching how terms like Islam, religion, law, progress, nation, west and others are used in periodicals published between 1910 and 1950 in various processes of collective identity-building. The terms are embedded in power struggles, and in different ways relate to colonial hegemony and negotiation between global and local knowledge.

“A thorough genealogy will help us understand current debates and conflicts in Malaysia, such as the question of freedom of religion, which de jure is granted to non-Muslim Malaysians and is yet a restricted freedom, depending on the power balance between the governing coalition and its conservative Islamic opposition party. At the same time, if you are born a Malay, by default you are a Muslim, and thus you are subject not just to the civil code, but also to Sharia law in certain cases, such as 'personal religious matters.' Hence you are de facto prohibited from converting to any other faith," Maltese says. "What is the condition of this socio-political configuration? How do particularism and universalism relate to each other, given this definition of ethnic identity based on religion and Malaysia's self-understanding to be an inclusive, modern nation? What are the implications for areas like family law and civil rights and for socio-political co-existence?"

Maltese follows the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall and draws from the political theories of Ernesto Laclau and Judith Butler. “I look at Islam as a name for different ways in which concrete subjects are positioned and position themselves within the narratives of the past in social contexts constituted by inequalities and power asymmetries,” he says. “I don’t approach my data with preconceived definitions of terms such as Islam, religion, and law, as these words never occur outside of a sociopolitical context. Rather, I ask, ‘When are these terms being used? By whom? With what interests? Against which other ways of using them? At whose profits and at whose cost?’”