[Maydan Book Forum] Peaceful Families: American Muslim Efforts Against Domestic Violence by Juliane Hammer (Princeton University Press, 2019) | Contributions by Micah Hughes, Traci West, Anne Joh, Ali Mian, Zareena Grewal and Juliane Hammer
Juliane Hammer’s powerful new book, Peaceful Families: American Muslim Efforts Against Domestic Violence, is an ethnography of Muslim advocates against domestic violence (DV) in and around American Muslim communities, yet it is also more. It is an intervention and an invitation. First, Peaceful Families is an intervention into a discourse of gender-based violence, feminist critique, Islamophobia, and the politics of representation. As an intervention, it unravels the ethically fraught divisions between theory and practice, which at times have been used to mine human experiences of violence and testimony for academic reflection and theorization. In unraveling this tension, Hammer’s intervention is also a praxis, a commitment to bearing witness to pain, suffering, trauma, and struggle.
Second, Peaceful Families is an invitation to what Hammer calls an “ethic of non-abuse.” This ethic infuses both the ethnographic sites Hammer explores—the life-stories of activists, organizers, and community members—and the labors of ethical responsiveness Hammer enacts as a feminist scholar-activist in her own right. Importantly, this invitation to an ethic of non-abuse is not just a call for more informed scholarship or more nuanced study, it is also a demand for action that applies to lay readers and specialist scholars alike. Peaceful Families recognizes no boundaries between domestic violence somewhere amorphously out there in the world, shrouded by statistics and other forms of quantitative data, and the intimate relations that compose our own lives and communities.
These two strands of Hammer’s thought are braided together throughout Peaceful Families in a feminist critique, a call to political action, and an act of radical care. Her intervention and invitation are, of course, found in each chapter but they can also be glimpsed in her acknowledgements as well: “To those who have been victims of domestic violence and to those who are fighting to end domestic abuse: I see you. This book is dedicated to those who continue the struggle and to those who had to rest for a while” (xi, emphasis added).
This act of seeing is in many ways a labor of care and exhaustion. It is a labor of care for the communities who struggle to end abuse, many of them victims of the violence they work so tirelessly to combat and to end. And it is a labor of exhaustion because it struggles endlessly to bring to the fore an issue that many wish, and indeed do, ignore. But as Hammer shows in her book, to be made nearly invisible by the powers of the state, to be marginalized by structures of patriarchy, and to be targeted by the violent practices of security and Islamophobia do not render one powerless, without agency, or removed from community and support. In this way, her intervention and her invitation set the grounds to speak more seriously about intimate violence while also building resources to struggle against it.
To this end, The Maydan has invited four scholars (many of whom are also activists) to engage with Peaceful Families in hopes of inaugurating a conversation not only about the book, but also about the ethical demands it makes. This forum begins with a short, introductory essay by Juliane Hammer highlighting her book’s main arguments and themes. What follows are three essay responses from Ali Mian, Traci West, and Anne Joh. Each of these essays explore Peaceful Families’ various questions, analyses, and insights in a rich and detailed manner. Lastly, Zareena Grewal concludes with a response to both Hammer’s book and the forum as whole. We’d like to thank Juliane, Ali, Traci, Anne, and Zareena for their participation in this event and their willingness to make this happen even in light of those forms of violence, oppression, pain, and suffering that comprise our present moment.
Micah A. Hughes is completing his PhD in Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. His dissertation, “Religion’s Revolution: Islam, Social Science, and the University in the Republic of Turkey,” analyzes the creation of the first Faculty of Theology as a site of Islamic reform in the early 20th century. He is also a member of the Durham-based Prison Books Collective, which sends books and political zines to incarcerated folks in NC and AL.
Domestic violence is a pervasive problem in American society and it is almost entirely hidden from public view: no one wants to talk about it. American Muslim communities are no exception, except that their targeting as not-American, as not belonging, through racist and exclusionary representations as uniquely misogynist and oppressive of women, makes their individual and communal efforts to raise awareness of and put an end to DV even more challenging. The book brings together the stories, motivations, and experiences of Muslims who work in three broad areas: raising awareness of DV in Muslim communities, providing services to victims and survivors, and educating mainstream providers, advocates, and law enforcement on the specific needs and dynamics of Muslim DV victims and their families. Much of this work takes place outside of the Muslim American and broader American public square.
In the book, I identify an ethic of non-abuse as the baseline for the advocates’ commitment to anti-domestic violence work. In my years of working with Muslim advocates I often asked why they engage in this work. The same way they wanted to know what compelled me to write this book, I was interested in their motivations for dedicating much of their energy, passion, and time to this difficult work. I had approached the project with the assumption that Muslim advocates would point me to scriptural and exegetical resources in order to explain how Islam/the Qur’an is opposed to domestic abuse. And they often did point me to such resources, but the process of constructing them as authoritative tools in their fight against DV seemed to never have started in the places where the texts dwell. Instead, they spoke of witnessing and/or experiencing abuse and instinctually recoiling from it as something deeply unethical and morally wrong. In other words, their own experiences and their affective responses to them lead to their activism. This ethic of non-abuse prioritizes change through praxis over change through discursive engagement. It is an ethic that is non-negotiable as a foundation, even though their notions of what constitutes non-abuse, which is more than the absence of violence, are more multivalent and complex.
I approached the project from my own position as a Muslim feminist who rejects all forms of gender-based violence and sees patriarchy as at least one of its sources. I was deeply challenged by some advocates’ arguments that domestic violence can and should be countered by an appeal to good patriarchy, a concept that I describe in the book as “protective patriarchy.” This concept identifies domestic abuse as a failure on the part of the husband and father to fulfill his function as a protector, rather than considering the hierarchical structure of patriarchal Muslim marriage models as a potential source of the abuse of power and exertion of control over wives and children. I recognize protective or benevolent patriarchy as a powerful tool in the fight against DV and my struggle with it brought to the fore broader questions of the ethics of scholarship and the place of responsible critique.
It is on the question of responsible critique, inspired by the work of Rochelle Terman, that I see the book offering a significant methodological intervention. Woven through the book, I reflect on the ethics of scholarly critique of activism and activists which raises the question of the purpose of (my) scholarly inquiry. What do I hope to accomplish with this study of Muslim activists in the United States who are dedicated to various forms of struggle against domestic violence? Can my analysis and potential critique be useful for them, for Muslim communities?
The second methodological intervention became necessary as I was analyzing almost six years’ worth of ethnographic research materials, including interviews and participant observation notes and recordings. The Muslim anti-DV community I interacted with is not small but there is still a significant risk involved in sharing their stories, especially with regards to their motivations, experiences and struggles. Beyond the customary use of pseudonyms, I decided to create composite stories that I hope provides an additional layer of confidentiality that would protect my interlocutors somewhat better from both potential stigmatization for doing this work and/or the inevitable risks to their own safety inherent to DV work.
Most broadly, the book contributes to discussions on Muslim constructions and negotiations of gender norms, specifically in the US context, and to important conversations about the relationship between religion and culture, in Islamic studies, as well as in the study of American religions. I explore and analyze the religious interpretations of texts such as the Qur’an and the Sunna in the service of unequivocally rejecting domestic abuse in all its forms. In creating a religious framework for ending DV, the advocates have to wrestle with issues of religious authority and authenticity, and ultimately with gender, patriarchy, and Islam as powerful normative constructions that operate in Muslim contexts. The book engages with academic literature on DV in Muslim contexts (which is a relatively small body of work) but also looks more broadly at anti-domestic violence efforts in relation to the state, the feminist movement, and efforts in other religious communities and interfaith efforts against gender-based violence. It represents American Muslims as active participants in US civil society and in political and social transformation, thereby challenging notions of Muslims as not fully belonging in the United States.
The question of Muslim belonging in the United States points to an important fact that I should state here: all of my work on American Muslim efforts against domestic violence exists, like the anti-DV efforts themselves, under the dark shadow of anti-Muslim hostility, produced in the triangle of the state, the media, and the American public. American Muslims, including my interlocutors, are acutely aware of the surveillance, racialization, criminalization, discrimination, and pervasive othering of Muslims and carry out their work despite the additional obstacles it poses. And unfortunately, the book itself is caught in the double bind of focusing on domestic violence in Muslim communities, thereby confirming anti-Muslim perceptions of Muslims and Islam as uniquely inclined towards violence while intending to contribute to the eradication of domestic abuse. It is my insistence that multiple and responsible critique are both possible and necessary, however many times that statement needs to be repeated.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not emphasize that throughout the book I participate in and further existing conversations with the work of Muslim feminist scholars and activists who have inspired and nurtured my own commitments to gender justice. I see the book as part of a collective effort that honors, recognizes, and engages those who laid the foundations for Muslim work for gender justice.
Juliane Hammer is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She specializes in the study of gender and sexuality in Muslim societies and communities, race and gender in US Muslim communities, as well as contemporary Muslim thought, activism and practice, and Sufism. She is the author of Palestinians Born in Exile: Diaspora and the Search for a Homeland (2005), American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer (2012), and Peaceful Families: American Muslim Efforts against Domestic Violence (2019) She is also the co-editor of A Jihad for Justice: The Work and Life of Amina Wadud (with Kecia Ali and Laury Silvers, 2012) and the Cambridge Companion to American Islam (with Omid Safi, 2013). Dr. Hammer is currently working on a book project on patriarchal perspectives on marriage and sexuality in American Muslim communities.
What do we know about the actual responses of United States Muslim leaders to domestic violence within their faith communities? When we are able to identify some of those varied strategies for addressing domestic violence and abuse within U.S.-American Muslim communities, how do we critically analyze them? In particular, what would it mean to assess these Muslim leadership practices through a Muslim feminist lens of ethical analysis? Julianne Hammer’s Peaceful Families enables us to explore these questions and calls attention to some of the complexities of gender and racial justice that they surface.
Most scholarly and community-based discussions that address domestic violence and abuse within religious faith communities emphasize either the experience of victimization by their members or interpretations of relevant aspects of their religious traditions. Attention to the experiences of victim-survivors can restoratively and poignantly highlight the testimony of religious women who have been abused and whose suffering has too often been disbelieved, ignored, or minimized. In approaches that focus on religious traditions, scholars and community leaders usually offer prescriptive advice that can assist in clarifying which interpretations of their traditions should be relied upon to helpfully address the violence and abuse and which ones should not be regarded as authoritative on this subject. These standard emphases provide valuable insights about individual experiences of victimization and how to analyze religious teachings that may significantly impact those experiences. But these approaches do not reveal very much about what happens when such insights are shared in community settings. In Peaceful Families, Julianne Hammer skillfully provides a wealth of rarely considered, lived examples of what leaders are doing and saying in their roles as advocates and service providers. In short, Hammer allows readers to understand how ethical communal change occurs. Peaceful Families teaches us what responsive religious practices that communally address domestic violence and abuse look and sound like within actual community settings. It also scrutinizes related implications surrounding the leadership choices that are made to produce more responsive practices.
Hammer’s insistence on inviting her readers into a method that centrally involves critical assessments of U.S. Muslims carries political risks. There is a risk that the nuances of her discussion may be eclipsed by the influence of recently intensified U.S.-American Islamophobic attitudes and state surveillance of Muslim communities, anti-immigrant policies and public rhetoric, as well as public assertions of white supremacist ideas (especially in social media) and violence. To varying degrees, U.S.-American Christian readers are likely to have been swayed by these prevalent phobic messages and practices. Afterall, we reside in a politically and culturally Christianity-dominated U.S. society with expressions of Christian nationalism prominently on display at some of the highest levels of government. Christian readers might not be able to distinguish between Hammer’s critiques and their preconceived anti-Muslim beliefs and fears. She boldly embraces the risks and incorporates analysis of this intensified religious and political reality. When describing some of the issues with which Muslim women who have experienced domestic violence and their advocates must contend, she demonstrates how “Muslim women are at the center of anti-Muslim discourses” (p. 38). In addition, Hammer also risks criticism from non-feminist and anti-feminist Muslim insiders who may fear possible negative consequences of drawing outsider attention to domestic violence and abuse within Muslim communities. She directly takes on “the problem of delineating the boundaries of what is identified as anti-Muslim hostility as opposed to critical feminist discourse, secular critique, and intra-Muslim reform” (p. 39). Hammer’s approach presents a model of “responsible critique” that combines deep respect for activists together with transparent acknowledgements of the questions and tensions that sometimes emerge in her engagement with their perspectives.
The intentional methodological choices that reflect Hammer’s emphasis on transparency invite readers to seriously reflect on the politics of insider-outsider status that can complicate efforts to stem domestic violence within U.S. Muslim communities as well as the study of those efforts. More broadly, this emphasis provokes consideration of how one’s insider-outsider communal relationships can function to stifle, enable, distort, or distract in the struggle to increase public awareness of the occurrence and characteristics of domestic violence within any such socially stigmatized group. I find her approach compelling because of its candor and attentiveness to the dynamic challenges that confront leaders seeking to interrupt social and religious patterns that protect abusers and rationalize patterns of abuse within such groups. It pushes me to analytically reflect upon the relationship of my own commitments to the leadership focus in Peaceful Families, especially as related to insider-outsider dynamics.
Hammer’s risk-taking method calls forth my own consciousness about what it means for me to be an African American, Christian, cis-woman reader whose scholarship and teaching has emphasized gender-based violence mainly within African American Christian communities. I can easily identify the overlap in our shared feminist, anti-violence, and gender justice commitments. And I, too, have experienced the challenge of navigating the political risks of our racist context as I publicly call attention to intimate violence by black men against black women. But, because her approach includes such an explicit refusal to ignore the complications in how the personal is political in knowledge production, this book also evokes my reflections on the differences in the perspective that I bring to this work by Hammer, a white Muslim woman (p. 5) scholar who is studying the leadership of Muslim communities. Adherents within their faith communities are often predominantly comprised of South Asian, Asian-Pacific, and Middle Eastern immigrants and their children together with African Americans. Her feminist discussions of gender issues and domestic violence mainly focus on Muslim leaders’ responses to violence and abuse by men against women in heterosexual intimate relationships and the influence of concomitant issues of race and culture generated by the broader U.S. context of anti-immigrant xenophobia and antiblack racism. In my own black feminist focus on gender violence I have stressed the influence of Christian heteropatriarchy and white supremacy in relation to black, heterosexual, male perpetrated domestic and sexual violence as well as hate violence targeting LGBTQ+ community members.
Some of the divergences in the emphases in our work that elicit questions and a desire for further discussion involve issues of sex/gender and race. For instance, Hammer’s critiques of the insufficiency of Muslim leaders’ strategies that rely upon “protective patriarchy” to stem domestic violence in Muslim communities made me wonder what it might mean to explore some of the heteronormative assumptions that infuse those expressions of protective patriarchy. And in our white supremacist U.S. context, how might whiteness or emulation of white patriarchal control be implicated in the valuing of protective patriarchy as a Muslim American response to domestic violence? Or, when Hammer describes the unavoidably fraught dynamics that sometimes surfaced for her as a Muslim researcher interviewing Muslim leaders because she was a “feminist engaged in ‘reform’ work” (p. 114), I was curious about whether issues of race and white feminism also helped to further complicate these dynamics in interviews.
Specific, religious, insider-outsider dynamics may be present in how the differences in our racial and religious identities and the communities we study might matter for my engagement of her ideas, especially related to Christianity. As a Christian outsider whose scholarship has been primarily located in Christian Studies with decades of teaching experience based in a Christian seminary, I have doubts about my capacity to fully comprehend the distinctive, variegated contours and range of Muslim traditions represented by the Muslim leaders and scholars Hammer engages. A standard default reliance on seeking qualities of sameness in order to enable my recognition of what matters most in her discussion might not be the most helpful approach. How do I find a way to recognize the distinctiveness without exclusively seeking ideas that appear to be the same as, or similar to, the ones I might find in Christian texts, traditions and practices, or ideas espoused by Christian leaders?
With regard to practices, for instance, Hammer explores the claims of leaders who advocate for the unique sensitivity and appropriateness of more exclusive Muslim responses to Muslim women victim-survivors of domestic violence that only Muslim community-based shelters can offer (pp. 176-7). Her discussion of the broader context for this kind of Muslim advocacy describes barriers such as Christian religious coercion that Muslim victim-survivors might encounter in shelters run by Christians who require all shelter residents to participate in Christian bible study and prayers before meals (p. 171). Within a Muslim communal context, Hammer’s probing analysis includes an example of internal pressure by leaders that might occur in a Muslim-run shelter where all residents are encouraged to wear headscarves, including residents who did not wear them before they came to the shelter, in part, “to remind them that they are all Muslims,” the leader explained to Hammer (p. 175).
In my view of these examples, the Christian and Muslim perspectives easily elide as the same kind of impulse to enforce religious conformity on shelter residents and they need the same kind of critique. For, even residents with Christian backgrounds who flee to Christian-run shelters may not be interested in daily bible study or prayers before meals and may experience such practices as oppressive. In both the Christian and Muslim religious shelter practices of encouraging adherence to religious uniformity can be found the danger of harmful coercion of those trying to escape the coercive control of abusers. At its worst, religious community service and mission imposes its traditions and practices on those most vulnerable and desperate who are seeking supportive, trustworthy space, and may feel obligated to be compliant in order to receive help.
However, in our Christianity dominant U.S. context, coercion of Muslim women victim-survivors to conform to Christian religious practices represents an outside political phenomenon that ought to be distinguished from Christian coercion of Christian victim-survivors. The politics of religion matter. Among other political realities that need acknowledgement, coercive Christian practices in a Christian led shelter are supported by and actively reinforce broader cultural dominance. In the instance of the Muslim shelter, the need for residents to remember their common, shared identity as Muslims that the leader expressed as justification for encouraging them to wear a hijab may have a distinctively political register beyond religious conformity. Politically, it could represent an attempt to mitigate the outside Islamophobic cultural content surrounding the victim-survivors. I am not denying the presence of problematic religious coercion, but rather acknowledging the coexisting forms of outside political factors attached to religious identity that are also at work and preclude a simplistic, falsely equivocating conclusion about all religious impulses toward uniformity as in need of the same critical appraisal.
Moreover, Peaceful Families helpfully challenges Christian activists and leaders to re-examine their practices of interfaith solidarity. Hammer’s examples illustrate a lack of sensitivity to Christian dominance, even among advocates and service providers at multifaith events on domestic violence. Hammer cites an interfaith event on domestic violence where Muslim advocates provided a resource table but were not invited to be speakers or workshop leaders. And at one interfaith event on domestic violence, the only direct reference to Muslims was a comment by a Christian pastor who stood up from the audience and identified Muslim women as particularly vulnerable to domestic violence and in need of more help than others (presumably than Jews and Christians) because of the oppressive secrecy about it in Muslim communities, as if this was the only religious community in which such denial existed (p. 201). These examples in Peaceful Families made me feel more accountable with regard to my own practices of interfaith solidarity. I recognized my culpability in the ways in which I have participated in and failed to correct African American Christian discussions of how local communities should address the religious needs of victim-survivors of gender violence as if black communities were exclusively comprised of Christians active in black churches.
One cannot read this book without being compelled to seriously re-examine religious understandings and practices that are intended to thwart domestic violence and what it means to publicly deploy them. By studying a wide array of Muslim leadership strategies, Peaceful Families enhances our understanding of how practices generate ideas, and conversely, how scholarly conceptualizations can deepen the integrity of practices in the formulation of gender justice that will not tolerate gender-based violence within religious communities. In centering the pursuit of ethical practices by Muslim leaders and the transparency of her research methods, Hammer confronts our recalcitrance about acknowledging multilayered and intersectional socio-religious and political dynamics that perpetuate gender violence. The book’s unflinching commitment to taking on risky demands of critical thinking and actions for the sake of ending domestic abuse and violence compels one to do likewise.
Dr. Traci C. West is a scholar-activist who serves as the James W. Pearsall Professor of Christian Ethics and African American Studiesat Drew University Theological School (NJ). Her major publications include Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence (2019), Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter (2006), and Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics (1999).
Re-Situating Intimacy, Affect, and Critique: Reflections on Juliane Hammer’s Peaceful Families: American Muslim Efforts Against Domestic Violence
Juliane Hammer’s Peaceful Families elaborates compelling perspectives on certain urgent questions at the intersection of the academic study of Islam and North American Muslim communities (two important sites of identification for the author and for this reader). In this response, I restrict my focus to a triangulated set of concerns that especially resonated with me while reading Peaceful Families: (1) the necessity of drawing attention to intimate violence and the related need to politicize the private sphere; (2) the relationship between text and practice and the affective grounding of activism; (3) the ethics and politics of critique.
Intimate Violence & Politicizing the Private Sphere
“That the personal is political is a given for me” (Peaceful Families, 21).
Hammer’s book prompts us to rethink how borders are constructed between the private and the public in both academic discourses and Muslim communities. By listening to voices that are often depoliticized through their assignment to the private sphere (domesticity), and by politicizing battered women’s struggles and concerns as legitimate ones, Hammer centers the feminist principle, “the personal is political.” In fact, scholarship and activism that seek to analyze and to eradicate domestic violence are bound to interrogate broader social dynamics, such as the private-public binary and the regimes of recognition that dub certain concerns legitimate objects of politics and others illegitimate, apolitical. Peaceful Families brings us face-to-face with those sites where intimacy hurts, where certain bodies are vulnerable at the hands of loved ones. In other words, Hammer’s “composite stories” document forms of violence that can hide behind intimacy. She thus highlights the need to politicize the personal sphere in order to draw attention to the violence that lurks in intimate spaces and relationships. In this way, Peaceful Families is an extended demonstration of the salient, continued urgency of the feminist principle, “the personal is political.”
The fact that intimacy is not immune from sexual violence begs the question: how does one love without being and becoming vulnerable? Judith Butler tackles this question by humanizing vulnerability and by connecting it to an ethico-political vision of subjectivity that is grounded in relationality instead of autonomy. As she explains in a recent interview, “ethics has to become more than an individual project of self-renewal, since lives are renewed in the company of others. Those relations are what sustain us and, as such, deserve our collective attention and commitment.” Butler has therefore called on activists to “depart from the presumption of individualism” in their struggles to eradicate sexual violence. In fact, lived feminisms around the world have been an important site of struggle against capitalist exploitation, which is a vicious process that has historically consolidated heteropatriarchy and individualism. Here, American Muslim communities as such can raise collective consciousness and undertake communal action against domestic violence. Those activists whose efforts Hammer documents struggle to transform their communities so that Muslims’ homes become more peaceful. Their struggles involve embracing vulnerability and sometimes this means creating bonds of identification that go beyond blood and forms of intimacy that exceed the nuclear family. Relatedly, Hammer herself embraced vulnerability during her fieldwork. Reflecting on spending nine hours one day at a Muslim shelter, she writes: “I left the shelter emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed by the depth of grief, pain, and sadness that permeated the space itself” (176).
Scholars of American Islam and students of gender and sexuality in contemporary Islam can build on Peaceful Families by exploring how American Muslims might be elaborating and embodying alternative forms of intimacy and arrangements of the familial. This book also identifies, albeit implicitly, American Muslim communities as vital fieldwork sites for anthropologists of intimacy and kinship. Further research on genres of intimacy and relationality might document some additional ways that American Muslims curb domestic violence, not as a result of activists’ important efforts but as a consequence of doing other things with the idea and practice of family and domesticity.
Text & Practice and the Affective Grounding of Activism
“I had approached the project with the assumption that Muslim advocates would point me to scriptural and exegetical resources in order to explain how Islam/the Qur’an is opposed to domestic abuse. And they often did point me to such resources, but the process whereby they constructed them as authoritative tools in their fight against DV [domestic violence] seemed to never have started in the places where the texts dwell” (Peaceful Families, 10).
“I had approached…” Hammer’s use of the personal pronoun in Peaceful Families should be seen as a rhetorical modality of situatedness, a key feminist concept that is most helpfully elaborated in Simone de Beauvoir’s fiction and writings on ethics. The French feminist brought together existentialism and phenomenology to rethink the ways in which our bodies—this flesh, these senses—are the most immediate frameworks for apprehending good and evil, right and wrong, and all those additional in-between shades of ethical life. Yet, we are always bodies situated amidst other bodies, thrown into genealogies of kinship, circuits of affective transmission, and structures of common sense. Other bodies—their gaze of recognition or disavowal or indifference but also their touch that bears either pain or pleasure—transform our assumptions and practices. One of Hammer’s key contributions in this book is to re-situate text-based visions of religious change by turning to witnessing bodies. Bodies witness situations of violence and feel the necessity to respond with corrective action, which includes re-interpreting scriptural passages that condone domestic violence. Hammer thus shows the significance of situated experience and affective responsiveness for understanding incremental changes in scriptural meaning-making within religious traditions. Her contribution poses a broader question for the textual study of scripture and social justice projects: what discursive changes in interpretation emerge from which affective motivations?
Hammer’s intervention is instructive for scholars and activists (and those who identify as both) insofar as it decenters the grounding of social change in epistemic sources and encourages a rethinking of the relationship between textual and social realities. This is related to her brilliant insight into the “ethic of non-abuse.” Hammer demonstrates that while theological texts are important for social and domestic reform, what often motivates activists’ efforts are their affective encounters with domestic violence. The act of abuse leaves its ugly mark on the victim’s flesh and psyche but also on the witness’s conscience. Hammer’s attention to the psychic grounding of activism resonates with how feminist theorist Robyn Wiegman historicizes the affective turn within feminism. For a long time, feminist activism sought the most compelling theory of women’s oppression with the attendant belief (and hope) that the most rigorous theory would lead to social change. To put together this transformative theory, feminist theorists turned to history and phenomenology (Simeon de Beauvoir et al), psychoanalysis (Julia Kristeva et al), Marxism (Angela Davis et al), post-structuralist philosophy (Judith Butler et al), and a range of additional canons of knowledge. Behind this search for theory was a conviction in the power of knowledge to engender social change. More recently, however, the very grounding of change in epistemic sources has come under scrutiny within feminist theory and activism. Wiegman taught me that while knowledge is important, it alone does not lead to change; affective formations often precede social change.
Hammer connects her insight into the primacy of affect to her theorization of the “ethic of non-abuse.” As mentioned above, she saw something other than scriptural texts and traditional jurisprudential doctrines undergirding activists’ efforts against domestic violence. Let us listen to how Hammer describes the formation of this ethic with reference to her interlocutors: “they spoke of witnessing and/or experiencing abuse and instinctually recoiling from it as something deeply unethical and morally wrong. In other words, their own experiences and their affective responses to them lead to their activism. I eventually concluded that the activists possessed what I have come to call an ethic of non-abuse, which preceded their search for scriptural and thus divine support for their cause” (10-11). Note Hammer’s usage of the following expressions and words that guide us to consider the psyche as the immediate context for the formation of this ethic: instinctually recoiling…deeply…affective responses. To encounter an instance of domestic abuse leaves a mark on the psyche. If this mark torments one, transforming one from a mere observer to a conscientious witness, then it can also inspire one to take preventative action. The ethic of non-abuse, put simply, is the transformation of the perception of abuse into an ethical orientation that inspires concrete action aimed at ending extant violence and preventing further abuse. It is important to note that this inner opposition to domestic violence is not an abstract notion of right and wrong, but rather emerges as an ethical-affective orientation in response to concrete eruptions of intimate violence.
The Muslim activists who struggle to eradicate and prevent forms of domestic violence in their communities do so based on an inner moral conviction traceable to their personal histories. This experience then informs their search for scriptural arguments against domestic violence. I might also add that the Qur’an acknowledges human experience as a source of knowledge and moral values. Thus, scripture and tradition are not the exclusive sources of norms. The Islamic scripture itself validates non-textual sources of moral values, such as the lessons we might learn from historical observations and the insights we might derive from our personal experience. There are thus Islamic justifications of the feminist principle, “the personal is political,” since the personal is a source of moral knowledge and has deep political implications. Furthermore, Hammer’s affective grounding of activism avoids “the creation of a dichotomy between ideas of a ‘classical Islamic tradition’ and its contemporary iterations” (11). Thus, a Muslim activist’s community organization efforts cannot be judged against an idealized “classical Islamic tradition,” one that is enshrined in canonical texts whose meaning is regulated by male scholarly authorities. Rather, many scriptural and mystical resources internal to this tradition encourage believers to listen to the multiple media through which God speaks to them, including the psyche as a surface of inscription that translates violence into trauma.
Let me venture to propose that the ethic of non-abuse is only possible through the power of identification; that is, it requires one of these two psychic formations: imagining oneself as victim or aligning oneself with the victim (auto-identification and allo-identification, respectively). Without identification, the positive psychic formation that expresses itself in the form of an ethical orientation does not come about. The one who develops an inner opposition to an empirical act of domestic violence identifies as or with the victim, and in so doing senses that his, her, or their body is not impervious to the perpetrator’s violent touch. Thus, it is one’s situated position that modulates the type of inner response one develops to acts of violence. The inability to empathize with the victim forecloses the possibility to become a witness to the violence (mere observation of the violent act does not amount to witnessing). Anti-DV activism is an embrace of vulnerability because the activist acts out of a shared sense of responsibility toward caring for a part of the self that resides in the other. The capacity to be transformed by witnessing domestic violence, or even a narrativized account of it, is a gift of grace, for not all those who encounter this violence find themselves touched and provoked. In this regard, Hammer reports: “In many of my interviews…Muslim advocates complained that the greatest challenge to ending domestic violence in Muslim communities was the continued and deeply frustrating refusal by [some] Muslim individuals and communities to acknowledge that DV even exists” (64).
The Ethics and Politics of Critique
“Where I engage in analysis as critique in this book, I do so with the deepest respect for the advocates, leaders, and community members who carry out this work” (Peaceful Families, 23).
Hammer encourages both scholars and activists to join her in rethinking the politics and ethics of critique, especially when the subjects and objects of this critique are marginalized along multiple vectors of exclusion, such as race, gender, and national belonging. She embraces the idea of double critique and refuses to further ghettoize American Muslim communities by not engaging in internal criticism (which is really vital for a community’s thriving). Hammer sees critique as an essential part of analysis; in fact, “analysis as critique” contains compassion for and empathy with the object of critique, even when it calls into question certain problematic characteristics of that object. Let me cite Hammer’s own words here: “The analysis as critique embedded in the dilemma of institutional power dynamics becomes perhaps most complicated in instances where I did indeed offer assessments that were also critical of the efforts I have studied. A powerful example is my continued concern about Muslim-only shelters, which I see as inherently problematic in their exclusionary policies and practices, in their discouragement of mainstream shelters, and, importantly as well, in their financial burden on Muslim communities that, I believe, should invest in other services and transitioning housing models instead” (234). This citation makes explicit that a key function of “analysis as critique” is to problematize “exclusionary policies and practices.” Yet, the relationship between critique and affect remains understudied in this book. The task of exposing exclusions, sometimes even in discourses, practices, and institutions animated by the desire for inclusion, is also at the heart of deconstruction. Yet, Hammer distances herself from “deconstruction,” as if the latter names a critical posture that leads the critic to a dead-end, a place of inaction (see Hammer’s dismissal of “deconstruction” on pages 12, 22, 51, and especially 216).
The notion of deconstruction that Hammer critiques, and quite rightly so, is the popularized idea of critique qua critique, a form of discourse analysis that is often devoid of attention to lived realities. This popular sense of deconstruction, however, is not to be confused with Jacques Derrida’s ethical and political philosophy, which posits deconstruction as the endless pursuit of justice and as a compelling way to engage in “responsible critique.” The possibility of deconstruction, Derrida writes, “must remain structurally present to the exercise of all responsibility if such responsibility is never to abandon itself to dogmatic slumber, and therefore to deny itself” (“Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundations of Authority’,” in Acts of Religion, 248-249). Here, we can think of the compelling ways in which Ranjana Khanna engages in “responsible” and “multiple” critique. She analyzes how both French colonialists and Algerian Islamists carried out horrendous acts of physical and symbolic violence targeting women. Khanna’s Algeria Cuts: Women and Representation, 1830 to the Present demonstrates the incredible possibilities of deconstruction for articulating an internationalist feminist critique that aspires to justice. Khanna’s monograph, however, was not the first translation of deconstruction as justice; already in the mid-1980s Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak had indicated the incredible work Derrida’s ideas can do for feminism in her now classic essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” I would like to conclude by suggesting that Hammer’s book enacts its own deconstruction by re-centering the productive role affect plays in social transformation. The justice-work she calls on us to undertake involves “hearing the screams of victims, recognizing that the police might not interfere, especially in marginalized communities, and fearing the worst outcome, death, in a domestic violence situation” (225).
Dr. Ali Altaf Mian is Assistant Professor of Religion and Izzat Hasan Sheikh Fellow in Islamic Studies at the University of Florida. His research has been published in Islamic Law and Society, History of Religions, Der Islam, Qui Parle, and ReOrient. He is currently working on two book projects: Muslims in South Asia (for Edinburgh University Press) and Surviving Modernity: Ashraf ‘Ali Thanvi (1863-1943) and Genres of World-Making in Modern South Asian Islam. Dr. Mian is also the editor of The Bruce B. Lawrence Reader: Islam beyond Borders, which will be published in early January 2021 by Duke University Press.
Intimidation, assault, power, control, and so many other forms of domination are part of daily terror in millions of lives across the U.S. Domestic violence is under-reported as well as present across racial and class lines. While disguised as forms of connection that seem benevolent, this domination is most often capricious control of power to terrorize those with less power. Domestic violence on various registers, including emotional, psychological, physical and economic, is specifically violence and aggression located amid those who live in shared domicile and involves partner, spouse, and usually minors. What follows here are my reflections on Juliane Hammer’s Peaceful Families.
One of the salient points to come across in this text is that advocates of anti-domestic violence work rarely refer to the discursive rationale as compelling them to engage in this advocacy work. Instead, they point to their affective responses to domestic violence that lead them to their anti-domestic violence activism. Hammer’s study allowed me to rethink issues around domestic violence within racialized communities beset by white supremacy in the U.S as she notes, “There are both individual perpetrators as in cases of domestic violence but also broader structures such as in human trafficking. Gender-based violence based on patriarchal power structures overlaps and runs parallel to racist violence and discrimination, with both implicating the state as an important perpetrator. The picture gets further complicated when domestic violence occurs, is studied, and is addressed in marginalized communities.”
Hammer’s focus on Muslim communities shows that understanding domestic violence at the intersection of race and religion are not separable from analysis of how poverty, state surveillance, infiltration, exclusion, discrimination, and violence impact Muslim communities. Peaceful Families is powerful due to Hammer’s refusal to flatten the personhood of those entangled in domestic violence as perpetrators, victims, and advocates of anti-domestic violence. The U.S. context with its history of race and racial formations include the idea of perpetual foreigners, the question of who belongs and the precarious challenges of when an immigrant or American born ‘other’ is deemed good enough to be its citizen frame all within its context. Hammer’s anti-domestic baseline criteria of ‘ethics of non-abuse’ is evident in her mindful ethnographic work with community members. This refusal to further harm those involved by thoughtlessly reducing them to easily recognizable monolithic figures/tropes alone is a worthy accomplishment for a scholarly text within a movement predominantly hinged on American liberal ideals of rights, justice, and even violence. Hammer maintained a commitment to her interlocutors and did not concede to prevalent oversimplified liberal ideas of victimhood, intervention, and perpetrator. Her deft and critical engagement with anti-domestic violence does not compromise all the attending complexities of various analytics in her methodology at the intersection of gender/s, race, heteropatriarchy, class, racial formations, and religion/s.
I start with the cover of the book as a cue signaling the ongoing ends of her project. The cover illustration is a beautifully designed and vibrantly colored dish. The pieces of the shattered plate are put back together like a puzzle. Same, but not the same. Broken, but not thrown out. Someone who cherished the beautiful dish took care to search and place each shattered piece. Though destroyed, it was still worthy of salvage. This cover photo is arresting when juxtaposed with the title, Peaceful Families. It points to the possibility of multiply layered understanding, analysis, and intervention to domestic violence, unlike many mainstream movements relying on a singular and often binary narrative. This kind of singular narrative anchored on an oversimplified relational binary of victim and perpetrator flattens all involved. It also oversimplifies domestic violence analysis stripped of further investigation of race or sedimented histories of racial formations that haunt even our intimate relations.
Peaceful Families offers three significant methodological engagements, all of which deliver nuanced intersectional analytics noted by Hammer in her opening remarks. I provide brief thoughts on each.
Activism and Scholarship
Hammer accompanies multiple journeys with various advocate activists of anti-domestic violence in her persistent auto-critique. She continually wrestles with a potential bias on her part as a feminist scholar. For many women and particularly marginalized women scholars, the demands of the past’s scientific objectivity still haunt us. We know that there is no epistemological frame free of any particular perspective. We see all starting reference points as subjective, positional, and contextual. Even though decolonial discourses have offered trenchant critiques of such claims to scientific objectivity, the anxiety of subjectivity and over-reach/spillover, in our research continues to undermine our work. We need not worry about this but, again, understandably it is a substantial force that we face again and again, even as we take part in demands for a de-colonial, de-imperial, de-patriarchal, de-capital and de-oriental epistemological paradigm shift. Scholars are activists, and activists are scholars. The persistent binary of activism and scholarship is a colonial ruse that relies on community divisions for ongoing colonial dividends, even activism and scholarship. De-colonizing accompanies the commitment that all our scholarship is activism and our activism is scholarship. Both are part of a relational matrix that inform and shape one another.
As embodied scholar/activist practitioners, we are always political, and politics is part of our ordinary lives. However, structuring our sociality through disciplinary boundaries includes scholars and activists. Hammer negotiates and navigates through various limits – what I will later discuss as double-binds – through her radical attunement and openness to learning from the other. One of the most salient points of Hammer’s engagement with Muslim advocates seemed, to me, in encountering her own particular feminist bias with those advocates in religious communities who believed ‘protective patriarchy’ as an interventional resource still had validity. “Protective patriarchy” is not unusual and is also present in many Christian as “love patriarchy.” This notion still holds onto a patriarchal hierarchy with a posture of benevolence toward a less powered female. The patriarchal order and women are at the mercy of patriarchal ‘goodwill’ for their protection. There’s not much structure to ensure women’s security, but merely the capricious whims of patriarchal ‘goodwill.’ A feminist perspective would argue that because there is no structural measure in place for protection, women are always already a susceptible target of male violence. Because there is nothing guaranteed in this notion of ‘protective patriarchy,’ it seems to go against Hammer’s feminist commitments. Still, she learns that perhaps in the anti-domestic violence movement, particularly within Muslim communities, that multi-pronged approach serves well. There is no room for theoretical or activist claims to purity in this movement to end domestic violence. Hammer concedes her hold on feminist theoretical claims while on the ground in this case.
Religion, Culture and Anti-Domestic Violence
While not going into arguments on the understanding of culture or religion, I appreciate Hammer’s nuanced analysis of the conflation of how religion and culture in colonial projects and the problem of the racialization of both culture and religion in a society structured on white supremacy.
Burdening the Muslim anti-domestic violence movement within the U.S. state then is the anti-domestic task of dismantling the state’s forces perpetuating racist violence against Muslims and Islam. The imperialist racism of the U.S. state and the mainstream DV movement has shared values with the racist logic against its racialized others, especially against Muslims and Islam. First, Muslim families already under siege by Islamophobia and orientalism are often discouraged from ‘airing the dirty laundry’ within the broader white culture and may be motivated to protect their community. Muslim anti-domestic violence work within the white racist context is fraught with the potential for the religious category ‘Muslim’ to intersect and even get conflated with the particularly problematic idea of culture and even ‘race.’ (CF., J. Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages) Given this context with mainstream funders with limited and even racist orientalist normative assumptions, the work of Muslim activists doing advocacy work have to juggle the pull/push/force/demands of making known, explaining, and doing multiple jobs, e.g., anti-racist work along with the outcome of anti-domestic violence.
As Hammer notes, “the erasure of racial dynamics in DV work that focuses on gender delinks patriarchy from racism, and it often forces us to choose between them: a deliberate political strategy to divide where united analysis and activism would help recognize parallel and interesting systems of hierarchy and oppression….There is a link between the imagined mainstream and the Islamic tradition on the one hand and the political search for an insistence on anti-Muslim hostility.” (19) For example, what cultural and or religious core beliefs might the anti-DV work consider rather than demanding a kind of demonization only of the perpetrator? Is there a way to do DV work in the context of white supremacy that does not collude and confirm white racial fear and hatred of racialized and gendered communities and their religion? To what extent does anti-DV work rely on the tropes of still western notions of agency, freedom, redemption, and victim?
An example is that of the “agency” of women and children in domestic violence. Neither women nor children are merely and solely a victim. To construct them in this way is a failure of imagination in believing that they have power and agency, even if limited. Choices made and choices not made are both practices of agency. Many in the mainline (white) anti-domestic movement cannot see or admit to this complexity. It is often more comfortable for the interventionist/rescuer to construct the rescued as powerless. Might Hammer’s notion of empathy in the complex constellation at the scene of domestic violence also extend to women and children and their practice of living, negotiating, and navigating both the assault of gendered violence but also racialized criminalization? What does the agency of those under gendered violence while within Muslim Americans’ particular racial formation look? How do these people, in their way, practice power and agency? Such practices may not look like what we want it to look like, whether due to liberal ideas of freedom and agency or even the anti-DV movement still so profoundly shaped by the values of liberal freedom. What does it mean for those who have relational attachments to those living within domestic violence in racialized communities when a part of their resistance is knowing not to throw anyone into the judgment of western, white normativity? A recent example of this in the movement against anti-Black racism is “don’t call the police.” I wonder if we bring this into conversation with racialized and gendered communities of color in the U.S., how our responses and interventions may transform anti-DV work.
Second, within the context of white supremacy in the U.S. and the history of white racism aimed at ‘other-ed’ communities is the often unattended complexity of doing anti-domestic violence work in light of the above. Central to the discussion of Muslims and domestic violence similar to many other racialized communities within the imagined white racial and religious frame, anti-DV work engages the difficult task of dismantling gendered white racism. Gender is racialized and race is gendered. Muslim anti-DV movement must find their unique embodied language to challenge normative logic on gendered violence while also not dismissing or leaving unattended the broader community’s suffering as they face forces of white racism that grind away their dignity as individuals. The starting bare minimum is to resist the problematic move of ‘white feminists saving brown women from pathological brown men and their archaic religion.’ What anti-DV movement within racialized communities needs to do more is place the starting reference point within its own particular context/world. By this, I mean that we must de-colonize our starting point in interpreting, understanding, intervening, and preventing domestic violence.
There is a critical problem in using the white patriarchal or even feminist lens for advocacy work with and on behalf of communities and peoples who are structural targets of white colonial violence. This helps to accomplish a turn away from imperial worldviews and instead serves to de-center the uninterrogated epistemological privileges of its particular religion (Christianity) and culture (whiteness) filtering the rest of the world.
Living with double and triple consciousness, many caught in domestic violence from racialized communities often ask whether one should expose domestic violence when doing so may confirm the dominant culture in their Orientalist and racist views? Within Muslim communities, nativist protection is not excused, but it should not be assessed and judged through a colonial, white racist lens. To be sure, making claims on Islam does not entail a presumed unchanging nature to Islam as ahistorical. As Hammer notes, “the claims to ‘according to Islam’ signals the ongoing struggle for political representation and religious authority and the complicated possibilities of multivalent Muslim voices, perspectives, and interpretations” (105). This resonates similarly for Asian American Buddhists who do anti-DV work within the U.S. There are, as in all religious traditions, the possibility that patriarchal interpretations of text may condone domestic violence outright. What we must recognize is that Islam is not a singularly, unique religion in that regard. Nor are their religious authorities the only religious authorities to do so. Muslim feminist interpretations become critical since it methodologically commits against religious essentialism and violence against women by acknowledging and analyzing the various ways that the economy of death and violence are not mirrored differently in colonial spaces. Muslim feminist interpretations will critique white feminists’ take on gender norms and limited universalization of gender equality that presume false equivalences.
De-colonizing the invisible omnipresence of Christian supremacy used to measure other religions and their traditions, beliefs, and practices is also necessary. The intimate relation between Christian hegemony, colonizing logic of violence, and white supremacy is at the heart of the U.S. state’s founding structure. The braided co-constitutive logic of the colonizing mission was also a Christianizing projects. The conceit of Christian supremacy understands itself as the fullness of “truth” and religious expression. At worst, some interpretations of Christianity understand and believe other religions to be antagonistic to their own core beliefs. It is evident in interfaith anti-DV work that there remains more de-colonization work to be done, not just in Christianity or in de-Christianizing work. For example, Hammer recalls one encounter with a rabbi. This Jewish rabbi remarked on his uneasiness with even saying the word ‘jihad.’ His expressed anxiety over this notion/word without unpacking its use and misuse exceptionalizes Muslims and leaves intact the racialized construct of ‘jihad.’ Interfaith work and work against domestic violence need continued efforts to de-colonize our minds from filtering other religions and practitioners through our own bias. Here, religion, too, like gender and race, also seems gendered and racialized through the colonial lens. Christianity and its beliefs are most often unnamed as an interpretive lens in the anti-domestic violence movement. The default normative religion is Christianity, while other religions and its practices are under surveillance for usability against anti-domestic work. We may need to struggle with questions like ‘what are core religious beliefs central to racialized and ‘othered’ communities and their faith tradition for those who intimately know the daily threat of domestic violence?
We often think of double binds as untenable tensions that must be resolved/dissolved. In its engagement with anti-domestic violence within Muslim communities in the broader white Christian supremacist context, Peaceful Families does not shy away from difficult, chafing, and seemingly untenable double-binds. This unwillingness to condemn one side of the double-bind for an easy conclusion was a reminder of another reflection I admire by Gayatri Spivak, who offered practical observations on double-binds. Spivak observes how double-binds seep through much of our de-colonial efforts as scholar/activists. False dichotomies are built on the foundations of western modernity and its epistemological frame that presume some kind of inside and outside carefully monitored by different disciplines. Double-binds demand disembodied and atomized individuals severed from relations to others within our primary domicile and larger sociality. So, the mainstream anti-DV movement most often also does not understand the difficulty of why women do not leave or sever those harmful relations even when they face death.
As feminist scholars/activists and as embodied practitioners, commitment to responding with ‘ethics of non-abuse’ in anti-DV work means a willingness to grapple with the double-bind of betraying one or another side of the double-bind. Commitment to, say, feminist responsibility against gender violence may come across as a betrayal of one’s commitment to a religion or race. Yet another double-bind is the tension between coercion and consent. To what extent might we need to straddle this double-bind? We may need to end up with that ‘bad taste in our mouth’ while at other times speaking up because another double-bind of truth or rhetoric also challenges anti-DV work by reminding us that there is no room for purism, religious or cultural, theory or practice, in centering the complex heart of those entangled at the scene of domestic violence. Double-binds, untenable as they are, are none the less lubricated with the demands of Hammer’s ‘ethics of non-abuse’ for which we must have hope. This ‘ethics of non-abuse’ comes to us with an affective force as we witness the suffering that ruptures peaceful families. Peaceful Families, places us at the intersection of domestic violence, gendered violence, religion, and racialization and challenges us to listen through our hearts to both the simplicity and the complexity of the anti-DV movement at the intersection of racism, race, religion, gender, and gendered violence while still maintaining the complex yet necessary work of doing justice.
Wonhee Anne Joh is Professor of Theology and Culture at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She is the Director of Asian American Ministry Center as well as Faculty Affiliate in the Departments of Religious Studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. Her current research is at the intersection of trauma and affect studies, de/colonization, and militarism. She links her theoretical commitment to the intimacies of transpacific and internationalist feminist liberation movements. In addition to numerous articles and chapter contributions, her publications include, Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology and has coedited both Critical Theology Against US Militarism in Asia: Decolonization and Deimperialization, and Feminist Praxis Against US Militarism. Forthcoming from Fordham University Press is Trauma, Affect and Race.
Juliane Hammer’s Peaceful Families: American Muslim Efforts Against Domestic Violence (Princeton University Press, 2019) is an important and searching intervention of feminist scholarship as the thought-provoking and careful responses to the work by Ali Altaf Mian, Traci West, and Anne Joh in this roundtable make clear. First, this book is a highly original and layered analysis of a wide range of heterogeneous American Muslim networks and institutions (not uniform enough in purpose or composition to constitute a movement, which I return to below) that come together in “common cause” to end domestic/intimate violence against Muslim women (and children) under the umbrella of what Hammer calls the “ethic of non-abuse.” Peaceful Families charts a research agenda for an understudied form of American Muslim grassroots activism and service within the interdisciplinary subfield of (“lived”) Islam in the US, what is sometimes termed Critical Muslim Studies. Second, Peaceful Families is a model work of feminist Islamic Studies that extends Hammer’s long-standing research interests in the ways gender and religious authority are co-constituted and in debates about normativity and the insider/outsider problem in Islamic studies and religious studies more broadly. The book is written clearly, in a relatively jargon-free register that makes it highly accessible to non-academic audiences and stakeholders, including, of course, the activists, organizers and religious leaders who are the subjects of Peaceful Families. Third, Peaceful Families is an especially timely book in this moment of intersecting political and social crises: (1) a global pandemic, in which some of us are more vulnerable to infection, un(der)employment, and/or to abusers in our homes due to social distancing; (2) state violence against women and especially Black and indigenous women (I write these words still reeling from the crushing failure of the state to indict the officers who stormed Breonna Taylor’s apartment and brutally murdered her in her sleep and haunted by the pleas of Cathy Wallace who begged police not to shoot her son Walter right before her eyes); (3) the imminent dangers of a second and increasingly fascist Trump presidency and an emboldened, violent white supremacist populist movement that supports him and will lash out violently regardless of the outcome of the election.
Donald Trump has already demurred on whether or not there might be a “peaceful transfer of power” in the event Joe Biden wins. In a tight election in which every vote counts, we must remember how many of the most socially and politically vulnerable populations in this country, including survivors, are structurally excluded from our electoral process. Twitter account @IndigenousAI tweeted the following reminder on September 20th: “fun fact: as a DV survivor i cannot register to vote because doing so makes my address public. anyone who is fleeing or hiding from an abuser is automatically disenfranchised from the political process and this is a feature, not a bug.” In what follows, I share my responses to the contributions of the roundtable participants and close with some personal reflections on the nature and power of Hammer’s original and particularly difficult research in Peaceful Families and the research avenues it opens up.
Ali Altaf Mian’s response focuses on Hammer’s contribution to the long-standing imperative of feminist research to recast the domestic, private sphere as political, the feminist and not-feminist hermeneutics of activists, and the centrality of affect in the analysis and feminist ethics and politics of Hammer’s intervention. For this public-facing scholarly work, Hammer chose not to do a deep dive into debates about affect theory; Mian appreciates Hammer’s lightly theoretical elucidation of the role of affect in her analysis. Yet he laments that she might have pushed these lines of inquiry even further without getting into thorny academic debates. I am inclined to agree with Mian, and I am particularly struck by his reflections on how the experience of abuse engenders particular affective and ethical responses, unmoored to an abstract conception of good and bad (or licit and illicit in an Islamic legal context i.e. halal or haram). He notes that Hammer’s work troubles the boundaries between public and private spheres and thereby opens up more possibilities of collectivist Muslim politics. I had a less triumphal reading of collectivist formations and Hammer’s text in this regard. I understood from Hammer’s ethnography that the lowest common denominator of the “ethics of non-abuse” and the valorization of “protective patriarchy” was a far cry from the more radical, anti-patriarchal, and explicitly feminist commitments and vision of some of the subjects of her research that she shares with them. Put more simply, in American political activism, coalitions often pull people rightward.
Hammer tracks ethnographically how insider-ness and outsider-ness are constantly being constructed in her field sites. She details her reluctant evasiveness whenever she’s asked by interview subjects about her previous research on the divisive issue of Amina Wadud’s “gender jihad” and prayer leadership in mixed-gender collective prayer rituals. More subtle is her description of the line-drawing of “in” and “out” that happens in the discreet way some of her interview subjects conceal the prevalence of abuse in the communities they serve or the ambivalence they harbor toward particular Quranic verses such as 4:34 which has been interpreted by many to sanction a patriarchal disciplining of transgressive wives by husbands (importantly, Hammer did not encounter any Muslims who interpreted the verse as sanctioning physical abuse, a term without a stable and universally accepted definition). What became clear to me from reading Peaceful Families is that the “common cause” had to be politically modest and not explicitly feminist in order to get the buy-in from many mosques and their leadership. This is partly related to the trap of framing culture and religion in opposition, with culture figured as a potential pollutant of religion, a feature of lay Muslim religious discourses that I and others have discussed elsewhere; in Hammer’s account, she provides a set of rich ethnographic examples of this discursive modality but does not quite suture it back to her argument about the arguably de-politicized “ethic of non-abuse.”
Traci West’s contribution to the roundtable illustrates the power of Peaceful Families for those of us committed to a relational rather than strictly comparative religious studies approach. West describes how Peaceful Families allows her to reconsider her own intellectual and methodological commitments and practices in her Black feminist research on the influence of Christian heteropatriarchy and white supremacy on intimate, domestic, and sexual violence by cis-hetero Black men against women and LGBTQ+ community members. Although Hammer does not focus on the experiences and perspectives of sexual minorities in Peaceful Families and makes a distinction between sexual and domestic violence, West finds Hammer’s self-reflexive methodology inspiring and instructive in her own work. In particular, she writes about how the book forces her to reckon with the ways planes of sameness and difference undergird comparative religious studies and interfaith work. West’s own research centers race and Blackness in contrast to Hammer’s work. Hammer concedes that many of her subjects talked around race (although some of her subjects were Black, it is unclear what portion of her interviews were with Black Muslim subjects) and she adopts the language of anti-Muslim hostility (rather racism) as her primary analytical lens. This is where I wish, following West and others, Hammer would have tracked more carefully the racial elisions in the words and practices of her subjects, after all, these elisions are doing a lot of work, which I return to below. West focuses instead on the role of ritual as a coercive tool in spaces of support for survivors in Hammer’s text, drawing out the logics, discourses, and practices which can create cohesion and fractures among a group of people thrown together by ugly circumstances and forced to forge “community.”
Anne Joh provides a probing reflection on the ways Peaceful Families situates intimate violence in Muslim communities in the context of the racialization of Islam and, in this regard, Joh considers the sensitivity and nuance Hammer brings to her analysis by decentering liberal conceptions of freedom and the individual. Joh connects Hammer’s project to larger trends in the work of scholars who study race and religion generally. Joh also raises a series of open, provocative questions about how the American Muslims activist networks and movements that Hammer describes position themselves in relation to the abolitionist and anti-carceral feminist movements (including but not limited to Black Lives Matter) that call on all of us to not call the police. I share Joh’s curiosity but I also want to mark the striking absence of this line of inquiry as itself curious. The fact that such questions and themes were not part of the narrative of Peaceful Families is something I remain genuinely puzzled by and I wanted Hammer to account for it beyond passing references to INCITE’s Color of Violence anthology. Are these Muslim activists and care providers so removed from these larger political and ethical questions, debates, movements on the left? If so, how and why is that remove structured and sustained? How does a figure such as Mariame Kaba, one of the most important and influential abolitionists of our time who happens to be a Black Muslim feminist who has written extensively about violence against girls and the carceral state, get “left out” of the American Muslim debates Hammer is tracking in Peaceful Families and, therefore, out of Hammer’s own bibliography? What this reveals is when and how “Muslim” matters as a category and when it does not. Why are “progressive Muslim intellectuals and activists” as Hammer describes them largely silent (in this ethnographic account) about what I would call leftist Muslim intellectuals and activists such as Kaba? Hammer’s book reminds me that our subjects’ silences and elisions require our scholarly attention even if they are harder to write about compared to topics they are eager to talk about. I hope other ethnographers build upon Hammer’s scholarship and take up the questions Joh poses.
I would like to close by talking about the enormous difficulty of Hammer’s research. I read Peaceful Families as someone with intimate knowledge of the kinds of trauma described, as someone who has given girlfriends refuge in my home from an abusive parent or (ex)husband more times than I would like to count, but also as an anthropologist who abandoned a similar research project many years ago. In the early 2000s I was doing research for what would become Islam is a Foreign Country and this involved interviewing religious authorities. I spent a lot of time studying with Shaykh Ali Suleiman in Detroit (which I describe in my book) but what I only mention in passing is how I became an observer of his work at Muslim Family Services during this time. I began interviewing him about his work as well as the other care-givers there. My friend and colleague Carly Hutchinson was conducting a much more expansive parallel study of Muslim care-providers and survivors in New York. We were both finding that for all the talk of 4:34 and Quranic interpretation in academic feminist debates at the time, the verse had never come up in any of the Muslim cases of dozens of Muslim care-providers in Detroit and New York primarily supporting Black, Arab and South Asian Muslim women and families. The paper we began to co-author was never finished and the difficulty of the research, something Hammer describes executing in great detail, led Carly and me to abandon it altogether. The ethnographic picture that emerged to us from our research in that period is clearly markedly different from the fascinating ethnographic picture Hammer gives us, in which 4:34 figures prominently not only in academic and activist work but in lay Muslim discourses about domestic violence. When and how did this discursive shift happen? This begs a historically-minded project that considers the archives of case reports and the literatures produced by the activists and organizations that Hammer so elegantly describes and others like them. It is a testament to Hammer’s tenacity, creativity, and ethically-driven scholarship that she not only gives us a generous, probing picture of American Muslim efforts to eradicate domestic violence, her work opens up new lines of inquiry and invites new scholarship to meet the high caliber of her own.