In this episode of Maydan Podcast, our guest host Wikke Jansen speaks with Ken Chitwood about his latest book, The Muslims of Latin America and the Caribbean (Lynne Rienner, 2021). They discuss the role of Muslims in the history and present of the Americas and tracing their various legacies back to sixteenth-century Andalusian Spain, the coming of the colonizers and conquistadores to Americas. Reflecting on the book, the conversation shines a light on how Muslims have shaped not only Latin America and the Caribbean, but the story of “global Islam” in general – from enslaved Muslims and indentured servants from India and Indonesia, and migrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa, to contemporary convert communities and the halal economy.
Ken Chitwood is a religion scholar whose academic work focuses on Islam in the Americas, Puerto Rican Muslims, Latinx Muslims in the U.S., translocal religion, Christian-Muslim relations, global Christianity, Muslim minorities, & ethnographic methods and manifestations of religion-beyond-religion in a global and digital age. He is the author of The Muslims of Latin America and the Caribbean (2021) and the founding editor of The Latin America and Caribbean Islamic Studies Newsletter. Ken is also an award-winning religion, travel, and culture newswriter. He is the Editor of ReligionLink, a nonpartisan, monthly newsletter with source guides and story ideas for journalists reporting on religion and his personal bylines include work with Newsweek, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Religion News Service, The Guardian, Christianity Today & other publications.
Wikke Jansen is a visiting fellow at the Berlin University Alliance Project “Global Repertoires of Living Together (RePLITO). She received her Ph.D. in Global Studies from the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Humboldt University Berlin. Her research focuses on the interactions between religion, activism, and everyday life among queer Indonesians. Her wider academic interests include gender and sexuality, Islam, media studies, Southeast Asia, (social) media, mobility, collaborative anthropology, and research ethics. She is also a committee member at the activist and academic platform queer/disrupt.
This podcast is part of the Islam on the Edges research portfolio hosted on the Maydan as a collaboration of the Center for Islam in the Contemporary World at Shenandoah University (CICW) and the Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University (CGIS). Learn more at themaydan.com/2022/01/edges/ and submit pitches to email@example.com.
[TRANSCRIPT] Wikke Jansen & Ken Chitwood on The Muslims of Latin America & the Caribbean – Special Guest Episode
Wikke Jansen 00:16
Hello everyone and welcome to this episode of the Islam On The Edges channel of the Maydan podcast. My name is Wikke Jansen and I’m a doctoral fellow at the Berlin Graduate School, MuslimCultures and Societies, and a visiting fellow at the Berlin University Alliance Project titled “Global Repertoires of Living Together.” I’m delighted to have with me today Dr. Ken Chitwood religion scholar, newswriter, and theologian. His academic work focuses on the ethnographic study of religion in a global and digital age with a specific focus on Islam and Muslim communities in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Latinx US. Dr. Chitwood recently completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Berlin Graduate School, Muslim Cultures and Societies, and is currently doing research on the intersections of ethnography and journalism with the University of Southern California Center for Religion and Civic Cultures Spiritual Examplers project. Today, Dr. Chitwood and I will speak about his latest book, the Muslims of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Thank you so much for letting me read the book and ask you some questions about it. I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s such an accessible and enjoyable text, even for someone who doesn’t have much knowledge at all about the geographical region of Latin America. It gives so much insight into the historical and contemporary context of Muslims living in that area, but apparently also what has essentially been a minority since their first arrival has done so much to shape the histories and cultures of the Americas. I think this is where your book and the emerging field it contributes to is so important and also, on the other hand, how these Muslims are very much a part of, and in constant interaction with, other Muslim communities across the globe. Before I start throwing my real questions at you, could you perhaps describe briefly for those who haven’t had a chance to read your book yet some of the most important points or takeaways.
Ken Chitwood 02:10
Thank you and let me just say thanks again for having this conversation with me and interacting with the book. One of the exciting things is to not only have people who are more familiar with the subject or the subject area read the book and respond to it, but also those who have done research in other places, in other contexts, in your case, Indonesia, et cetera, to be able to interact because I think that’s where the conversation gets very exciting is when we’re able to compare and contrast and, and have these conversations across disciplines or across geographical specialties. With that in mind, knowing that people who are gonna read this may not know too much about Muslim communities in Latin America and the Caribbean, maybe they’ve come across one in their research or they heard about something or they read a popular article or saw a video and thought, “Oh gosh, I didn’t even know there were Muslims in Latin American and the Caribbean.” I thought those might be the people who stumble across this book and could particularly benefit from it. The most important aspect of the book I think is to make three related arguments that Islam and Muslims are not foreign to this region, but are an integral part of it and have contributed to its history and its narrative and its contemporary scene over 500 years. Then number two, that Latin America and the Caribbean can and should be considered part of a broader global Islamic landscape or Islamic world or an Islamosphere. I mean, there’s lots of different terminology that has been used to describe a global understanding of Islam that that goes beyond the “Muslim world.” We can get into that more later, but I think that Latin America and the Caribbean should be considered part of that landscape and try to convince people of that through the book. Therefore, the third argument is that once we see global Islam as part of the Americas and American history and we see the Americas and Latin American Caribbean in particular as part of global Islam, then we see the Americas and global Islam in different ways. We can ask different questions, we can make different arguments about identifications and what socialities look like and what those histories are about and then also, potentially, contribute to contemporary political conversations about belonging as well. In order to make that case, I broke it down into two parts, one focusing on history and then the other focusing on contemporary cases. We cover a lot of ground in between in terms of the history starting all the way back in the 16th century, connections to Andalusian Spain and Iberian influences that came with the colonizers and conquistadors to the Americas. Then we talk about slave Muslims and their legacies, indentured servants from India and Indonesia, we talk about migrations and asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa, and then also some contemporary conversions in the history part. In the second part, I look at some contemporary cases ranging from Cuba to Brazil, from the Latinx US to Trinidad, from Argentina to Mexico. It gives us this very broad, but also I hope synthetic account that makes those three points very clear.
Wikke Jansen 05:19
I think the book does very well to show these transnational, trans-local, connections and how they’ve been relevant from way before. Also what I really like is this combination of this huge diverse historical research combined with live ethnography, which is a combination you don’t see very often. Can you tell me a little bit more about how this idea and, and also the format for this book came about?
Ken Chitwood 05:43
As I described in the book, it was a fairly straightforward and somewhat surprising process that led me to write this book. I was working as a PhD candidate at the University of Florida in the Department of Religion at the Center for Global Islamic Studies there and partnered with our Center for Latin American Studies to teach a course on Islam in the Americas. When I did so, and I elected to choose a couple of textbooks, I chose a couple of really valuable textbooks that were edited collections, Crescent Over Another Horizon and Islam in the Americas edited by Aisha Khan. These were the books that we used, but what they are as edited collections, they have an introduction that gives a brief overview of the subject and then they have historical and contemporary cases that they looked at, so very similar in structure to my book in the end, but as is the case with most edited collections, they were highly specialized. I think of chapters that are very valuable about context in Puerto Rico or in Cuba or in The Bahamas and there’s a little bit of preparatory material in the beginning of these chapters, but they have to dive right to the people they were talking to or the histories they were exploring. The students responded. They said, these are great books. We really love the discussions, but they always needed a little bit of background. They said, “what’s the big picture?” How do we contextualize what they’re talking about here? What else was going on? What I found myself doing in the lectures was trying to provide that synthetic overview, that background context, some of the history and the broader developments that came to shape, and then also were shaped by the cases that were being looked at in these specialized chapters, in the edited volumes. At the end of the course, the students who were a part of it had given me a lot of feedback because this is the first time I taught the course and one of the things they said was it would be great to have some book that gave a general overview and then the lectures and the conversations could be focused on these more specialized cases. I said, well, okay, there needs to be a book. I talked to a couple of people who were working in the area and they said they weren’t working on anything. There were a couple of works that had been done in Spanish, but didn’t do exactly what I thought maybe the book should do or were split into multiple volumes, so I said I should tackle it. Why not try it on for size? I went about writing the book and I actually was able to write the book in the course of about three and a half or four months, just get it out there in first draft form because I had come very quickly off of the class and we had all of that material that we’d used, but then I started to do more research and to strengthen the argument, add in more of that ethnographic texture and make the book what it is now. That process took about three years once you throw in reviews and some revisions and editing and the publishing process. It started off as a very quick process and then it became a very long and drawn out process and I hope it’s better as a result.
Wikke Jansen 08:53
I think that’s such a cool origin story. It really answers this demand that you had from your students, which is interesting because I’m also a former student of yours because I did the course Global Islam with you at the graduate school and we talked a lot about this term, “Global Islam,” and it’s various definitions and it’s problems, for example, the way in which it has been implicated in center periphery models or clash of civilization narratives. In general, it posits Islam as like this monolithic whole, and you discussed the term Global Islam at length in this book as well, which I found interesting to see because we had so many discussions about it. Finally, you connected with the study of Islam through the world as methods and you define it on page 14 as the complex and dynamic nexus of people, material, institutions, ideas, texts, and contexts encountered at, across, and between landscapes, socialities, and traditions variously identified as Islamic. Would you mind perhaps expanding a bit on this idea of the world as methods and also how you eventually came to this definition of Global Islam and how it has been useful to you in your work? Do you still think this is a useful term or are there any alternatives?
Ken Chitwood 10:05
I appreciate that and there’s a lot behind that, right? I think a lot of us still in Islamic Studies are raised, if you would allow the analogy, in this center periphery understanding of the Muslim world and the rest of the world. That’s a product of many things, it’s a product of the history of our disciplines, that’s the product of our institutions, that’s a product of the books that are out there, and one of the things that I try to say is that we need new maps of Global Islam, because one of the things that I noticed as I was teaching introduction to Islam, multiple times, I had textbooks that I really appreciated and would continue to use and I tried different ones on for size each semester and as I was teaching these courses, I would notice that they had maps in them, most of them, and the maps would show usually the same geographic area and underneath, it would be a very simple caption the Muslim world. They would show primarily the Middle East, North Africa, that’s where the globe was centered and its size and its scope would change between the different books. Maybe it would include everything up to the Iberian Peninsula and Spain, maybe as far east as Indonesia, but it generally stayed the same. I lived in New Zealand for a time and I came to appreciate what happens when places are left off maps. There’s a couple jokes about globes and maps in New Zealand, but one of them is that there’s lots of globes out there in the world that actually don’t include New Zealand. They just assume it’s part of Australia, and, sure enough, once I lived there, then I started noticing globes in places that I went, big statues and zoos or at historical centers or on the campus of my undergraduate university, and New Zealand’s not there, it’s just kinda left off. I was like, “Wow, you just erased an entire geography of whole people, whole histories, whole narratives, and subsumed it.” So they have a map in New Zealand that actually puts New Zealand right in the center of the map and then you see the whole world differently. I started to think as I was teaching those courses, what if we did that with Islamic studies? What if we centered other stories? And, in this case, centered the stories of Islam and Muslims in and of Latin American and the Caribbean. What if we did that? Could we see our study of Islam differently because of it and I’m convinced that we will, and I think that’s an ongoing project. That’s not something that’s accomplished by one book, but this is perhaps one of the contributions to kick off that conversation is what if we not only talked about Latin America and the Carribean as part of global Islam, but we centered it, but then I also appreciate the fact that we need to use the world as a method, as I say. This is to no longer treat particular places as central to Islam, but instead to see multiple representative sites or multiple nodes or multiple, as Argen Panerai calls them, process geographies, places where Islam as we know it is undergoing a constant process of change and developmen rather than seeing that as only happening in one place, looking at that diffuse process across the world. That’s hard work because this vision of the Muslim world is so deeply entrenched in our politics and in our academic studies and in popular parlance as well. We refer to, at least in the English language, quite often, if a place is the center of a community, we were trying to say, it’s the center of a community, it’s Mecca. I’ve heard that said before and so we say that that’s where it really happens. That’s where the essence of this thing we’re talking about is, and so deeply entrenched that Mecca is the center and the only center of is Islam and there’s an argument to be made for that, that we have to really push hard against this idea that there’s not only one center to Islam, but a diffuse process happening in multiple geographies and I think this book attempts that and is inspired by work done in other areas, for example, in Indonesia and in the Indian subcontinent. I was trained under multiple scholars who had done work in Sub-Saharan Africa and who had fought for a long time to not have Sub-Saharan Africa or West Africa treated as peripheral to the Middle East and North Africa. I thought, well, why don’t we push that process that’s been going on and others have been talking about even farther and put Latin America and the Caribbean into the conversation. I said too, to even center it in that conversation, not to say, this is the center, but to say, what do we see that’s different if we did so.
Wikke Jansen 14:54
I think that’s really an important project and this was also gonna be my next question. To what extent is so called other peripheral Muslim communities have inspired your work. Maybe another question I can ask is, does it even make sense to have a map of the Muslim world anymore since I guess Islam is everywhere nowadays? You could center Russia as well, or China or Thailand or the US, or New Zealand I’m sure. Does it even make sense to have some map?
Ken Chitwood 15:24
To your first question, yes, I was very clearly inspired by scholars who had done work in other places before me and before others and not only inspired by saying, “Oh, we should do something like that,” but I guess learning from what they saw as, not the mistakes, but the learning curve of thinking about those places and spaces like in Africa in particular, very broad geography, just like the Americas. There were two things that I learned from those I studied under. They said there was a long debate in that field about Islam in Africa versus Islam of Africa, African Islam, and the center peripheral binary way of viewing this was that Islam in Africa was a more pure Orthodox version and then African Islam was this more hybrid, mixed version. That debate was long and still ongoing in some works. I was just sitting with a scholar, also based here in Berlin, who does work in West Africa and they were reviewing a book that replayed this dichotomy, kind of says that dichotomy is no good, but then replays it in the text. For example, from them, I’ve learned to say, even though it’s sometimes awkward, Islam and Muslims in and of the Caribbean or in and of Latin America and the Caribbean, and I’m trying to think of better ways to talk about this, but it shows the impact of that conversation to say that, yeah, I think there is a sense in which we can talk about people who are in and not of the space, that they haven’t adapted to the local environment as of yet because there are people who are new arrivals or things that are just happening, but we also need to think about the ways in which that space has shaped the practice of a Islam. We need to not only think about it in terms of its hybrid forms or its messy forms or its unorthodox forms. Throughout the book, I try not to play that game as I say in the introduction. I don’t label things as more Orthodox or less Orthodox or pure and impure or Islamic or not Islamic or in or of. I talk about in or of a little bit at the beginning, but then I never say, well, this is an example of Caribbean Islam. I don’t think such a thing exists. I don’t think we should talk about things existing in that format, but again, think of all of these things as processes, as things that are happening and we can perhaps observe or we can participate in as interlopers or we can mark and pay attention to and perhaps subject to some critical reflection, but I never try to say, this is an example of this or an example of that, that this is summed or this is a Caribbean Islam or Latin American Islam. I don’t try to play that. I just try to describe the processes that are at work and make these bigger arguments that Islam and Muslims are part of the story of the Americas. Americas are part of the story of global Islam, and that helps us think of these categories differently. I raised the example of West Africa, Subsaharan Africa, but this also happened as I saw studies in Indonesia and studies in the Indians subcontinent and in the Indian ocean as well. I think that area is very comparable to the work we’re trying to do in our field now, in our region now, because people started to see this Indian ocean exchange happening between like Eastern Africa and the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia and other places in that Indian ocean world and some of the geographies that are connected to that through trade and politics. I think you’re starting to see that now with studies of Islam and Muslim communities in Latin American and the Carribean over time and in the contemporary scene where we’re starting to think of this Atlantic world. I talk about that a little bit in the book, but people starting to see how the Atlantic world and the various polities and peoples that populated it and connected with each other across this Atlantic world between Europe and Africa and the Americas over 500 years, as that being very central to what we understand as Islam and Muslims in and of Latin American and the Caribbean as well.
To your second question, whether we should even be producing maps. I say, we need new maps. I don’t think we should have the maps that I referred to earlier, but one of the new projects that I’m working on is creating some of the new maps. Those maps should be showing us these connections. They should be showing us these contingent lineages. They should be showing the movements of people and ideas and technologies. They should be showing the interconnectedness of the multiple process geographies of global Islam. They should not be static, but they should be dynamic. I also think they should be largely digital because we will need to continue to update them and we can do more with digital maps than one printed on a page. I think we need to not only create new maps conceptually, but also physically as we go forward in our study of global Islam to make our knowledge of those various nodes and connections between them much more in motion because I think is Islam is always in motion. Muslims are always in motion and so our ways of understanding them should also be. In some sense, that’s a weakness of this book in that it is static. It’s printed, it’s done, it’s out there, but I want to help create new ways of dealing with these topics and dealing with some of the chapters in the book. I’m trying to create these maps online using GIS software in order to do so.
Wikke Jansen 20:56
That’s really cool and I think it makes a lot of sense to think of global Islam in terms of connections and networks rather than things that are already in place. You actually answered another question that I didn’t write down, but that I had in mind when I saw your title. I can’t remember which color it was that you did an interview with yourself that we watched during your course and it was also something about this question of of and in of Islam. I was really wondering how you came to the title that you have in chapter two, you discussed the claims that have been made by Muslims of a pre-Colombian context. You examined the evidence for them and ultimately you connect these claims to the right to belong on the part of Muslims through establishing this historical precedence rather than confirming their historical accuracy. From there you go into the actual historical legacies of Muslims in the Americas through the stories of Muslim slaves and indentured servants who were brought to the continent as well as voluntary immigrants and now all of these people have made their mark on the region. What I was wondering as I was reading these histories is about your interlocutors responses to the way you write their history or the history of their Muslim predecessors. For example, was it tricky to deal with this quite explicit rejection of these claims of pre-Colombian context and in general, what did they make of the diverse historical trajectories that you present in the book?
Ken Chitwood 22:24
That is an excellent question because I think it’s really important that scholarly works are constantly in conversation with the people we’re writing about. We can probably discuss that a little bit more later as well in terms of the decolonial aspects of that as well, but in part, some of this work has been shared beforehand with people who are Muslims in the region or are part of particular communities that I’ve worked with there in the community as well or in Cuba and Puerto Rico and Brazil. I got feedback from them and it’s really interesting to put that on the side of scholarly reviews that I received in the process of writing this book as well because, early on in the process, I got very critical feedback about that chapter on pre-Columbian contact and someone even called me a pseudoscientist, which is not a fun thing to get by email, to be called a pseudoscientist is never fun, but it’s especially not fun to get it when you’re in the early stages of working on a book and you just get it as a cold email from someone. I appreciated that feedback because it showed the weaknesses of my argument and it showed me that what I was trying to do with this, as you said, not trying to verify or discount the historical argument that people are making, that Muslims came to the Americas before Europeans did, before Christopher Columbus did, because he’s the big name in the room when it comes to this “discovery” of the New World by Europeans. It’s a very strong narrative given to us through our education, our cultural knowledge, et cetera. I was trying to say, I’m not trying to deal with the history, what I wanna do is talk about the claims and look at how the claims are powerful and look at how the claims are fairly pervasive throughout Muslim communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. There’s plenty of Muslims that don’t believe this who either don’t know about it or never really cared about it. There are Muslims who have looked at the evidence and are not convinced by it, and I’m not convinced by it either. I never was. I don’t think the evidence is reliable and I try to make that a little clearer in the book because that early review said, you seem to be supporting this argument for pre-Columbian Muslim contact and so I wanna make it very clear, I’m not convinced by the evidence, but I am very convinced of the fact that the claims are very potent among Muslims in the Americas. Why do I care about that? Well, because the Americas have long been a claim space, a place where people make certain claims about land, about peoples, about identity, about belonging to the place, and that has been a very bloody and a very violent history at times. It’s also been a very celebrated and exciting part of that history at times, depending upon which perspective you come from and the Americas and belonging to the Americas is a very powerful, is the word I like to use most, driver of identification in not only the American hemisphere, but also for Europeans and also for Africans and also for people in Asia. Suddenly, the whole world cares about the Americas because it takes on this sense of frontier, it takes on this sense of new identity, it takes on this sense of adventure and rightly or wrongly erasing other histories, indigenous histories, that have existed for many centuries before any of these other peoples arrived. I think, in making those claims, Muslims are trying to say, we belong here, we’re of this place. They’re also trying to make claims about their historical pride and legacy against European technology, European knowledge, European history, and so these claims are much more than about fact, they’re about who we are, how we relate to other people, and where is our place in the world. As an ethnographer, those are really important questions for you. Those are very important questions. The most important questions for me are these ideas of belonging and these ideas of who we are and how we relate to others. I wanted to address them. Now, I’d be really interested to hear how someone like Abdullah Hakeem Quick, who wrote the book Deeper Roots, which tries to accomplish some of the work that I did in this book and is valuable in many senses, but he has this whole chapter about these evidences for pre-Columbian contact and, like I said, I’m not convinced by it. I look forward to hearing from him perhaps if he is inclined to read my book, but he has not responded yet to it and no one’s responded specifically to that chapter yet, other people have responded to other chapters saying, oh, this speaks to my history, or this speaks to who I am, or this speaks to what I’ve encountered, or a lot of people saying, this is why I converted because I’ve found out about these legacies. I felt like there was a whole history. I’d never been told about my people in Puerto Rico or my people in Cuba or my people in Brazil and knowing these histories led me to Islam and I’ve heard a lot of that feedback as well. It’d be interesting to get some of the perhaps more negative feedback that I’m sure people will share with me at some point in time as well and I hope to be able to get some of that feedback in the years to come. This is still a very young book. It’s only a few months old and so it needs more time to percolate out there. I had planned to do more events at local mosques in various places and to have some immediate contact and feedback with members of various communities that I know or who are in the book, but that has not been able to happen because of the pandemic, but I look forward to perhaps having some digital events here in the spring. There’s a couple that are in the early planning stages and I hope to have some of that feedback soon, to be able to have more of that conversation because I think what’s gonna be most important again are those questions of identification, those questions of belonging. I think both the positive and negative feedback I might receive from members of the community is gonna be about those questions and whether they think, oh yeah, this has done a service to us, or no, this is a disservice to us, but, again, for me, that’s where the conversation begins and even gets more interesting than it already is.
Wikke Jansen 28:44
I would also be very curious to hear how people respond particularly to that chapter and could, of course, also be that there haven’t been that many negative responses to it because it is quite clear that you don’t reject the importance of this idea, even though you don’t necessarily agree with the accuracy of it. You already touched a little bit upon this decolonial, postcolonial angle to your work and I feel like this is kind of a red thread that weaves through the book with your analysis of the processes of colonization and the ways in which they still play out in the exclusion and discrimination of Muslims across the Americas and the imagination of them as others. Do you wanna expand a little bit more on this? Whether you see your work as decolonial or how you relate to that field?
Ken Chitwood 29:28
Yeah, I appreciate that question and this is something that has come up. It came up in the book launch conversation, and this is something that other people have talked to me about, other scholars have talked to me about. I think it’s an important conversation to have and, even in the chapter we were just discussing, I raised up the fact that a lot of the claims that are made about pre-Colombian Muslim contact with the Americas do very similar things to the indigenous peoples of the Americas in terms of erasing their history, erasing their accomplishments and civilization or architecture or language saying, well, the indigenous peoples that the Europeans encountered, they had this technology or they spoke these words or they had this community formation and saying that all came from Muslims from elsewhere. Even as I was addressing those claims and those claims of Muslims saying we were here first are, in themselves, anti-colonial claims they are then reinscribing a different kind of colonialism and reinscribing a different kind of power, maybe more accurately, rather than colonialism, a different power in that space and in erasing indigenous lives and backgrounds. That is something important to point out in this conversation for me as a scholar trained in both global Islamic studies and American religion in a hemispheric sense because a lot of my training in the American religion side of things was looking at the indigenous peoples of the Americas, trained by an anthropologist who lived for 30 years in the Amazon doing what we call “old school” anthropological work, learning how flutes were used in an indigenous community, not in learning about the flutes, but like learning how to make the flutes and play the flutes and be part of the ceremonies. Scholars, like Robin Wright, I should probably say his name, Robin Wright, shaped my understanding of the world and of religion in the Americas, that it was a lot of this postcolonial decolonial thought and wanting to make sure that work impacted what I said and how we view this topic, this field, but as I get into that a little more in depth, a caveat or a caution on this whole postcolonial decolonial discussion is that I still inhabit and embody and benefit from colonial privilege. I’m a white Christian US scholar at a European university. I’s just like, ding, ding, ding, ding, I mean, colonizer, colonizer, colonizer, colonizer and, yes, I’m impacted by this, I hope this work does some decolonial work, but I’m limited in the amount I can do because even as this is, I hope, a decolonial work, it is still also a colonizing work and that’s problematic. That’s messy. Dr. Nora Lafi in Berlin pointed out in the book launch as well. She said something along the lines of you’ve done some decolonial work. She was very proud of that. She was very excited about that, but then also saying that I’m still trapped in Western ways of knowing and Western interests and Western classifications and systems of representation, models of comparison. What am I looking at and how am I putting them in a conversation? What are the criteria I’m using for my evaluation? This is what Linda Smith in her book, Decolonizing Methodologies, calls the cultural archives of colonization, and I’m still operating within those very much so. I throw in that caution and caveat to say, yes, I attempt to do decolonial work. I think I have succeeded in some regards in that, but what’s needed from here are more critical reflexive projects or research being done on this subject. That is by people who are from within the community who are doing critical scholarship, but also are doing this decolonizing work and challenging some of my framings and some of my comparisons, some of my evaluations, et cetera. Some people are already doing this. I’m in conversation with a scholar, Cynthia Gonzales, in Mexico. She is doing some really challenging work around gender and sexuality and Sufi communities in Mexico and also in California among Muslims in the Los Angeles area. We’ve been in dialogue. We exchange emails quite regularly actually and I ask her a lot of these questions because she keeps me very humble in this regard and opens my eyes to things in this regard and helps push me further in decolonizing the work that we’re doing. In fact, with the Latin American Caribbean Islamic Studies Association that I work with in our newsletter, we have our next edition coming out in January of 2022, this month, when we’re recording this interview. She’s got a piece in there about what we imagine or what we think about when we think about Muslim women from the perspective of Latin American, the Caribbean, and her research in Los Angeles. I think that’s excellent work and we need more of that work, but I was inspired by people like Spevock and her critique of postcolonial reason, which is quite old work now. I mean, it’s almost 25 years old. She makes this argument about how European works not only tend to exclude the subaltern from their discussions, but even actively prevent non-Europeans from occupying those conversations or occupying those institutions. She talks about this sanctioned ignorance that we have for reproducing and foreclosing colonialist structures. This idea really plays a strong role in how I tried to do this work in trying to push back against the sanctioned ignorance that we had about Muslims in the area and how they shaped the Americas and how the Americas also shaped what we call global Islam. She also critiques center periphery models. I drew on her from that and so I do try to do that work, but I think I just wanna add in a lot of those cautions to say, yeah, this work went some way in achieving that, but there’s a lot more work to be done and I’m not gonna be the person to do it.
Wikke Jansen 35:16
I think that really throws up a lot of interesting questions and issues for everyone who is doing research as an outsider. Basically, I find it very interesting what you said that you can tick all the boxes of the colonization model or whatever in your research and I was wondering how that is. You really touched on it a little bit, but how is the practical field work itself? How did this work out? Is it something you had to really struggle with in your interactions with interlocutors or was it not so much of an issue? How did that play out?
Ken Chitwood 35:49
It played out differently depending upon context, which I’m not trying to dodge the question, but it just played out differently in multiple different contexts and relationships. I think there was always a good dose of healthy suspicion as there should be when someone like me comes knocking, whether that’s literally knocking on the door or digitally knocking on the door or whatever way I used to contact people. This is where I think our conversation gets more anthropological and ethnographic in the research I was doing and, in person, that which was more ethnographic, there were different dynamics that would happen, different inflections of power that shaped those relationships and those conversations and those introductions. I’ll just start with the one that’s on the top of my mind. A lot of people thought I was Muslim, so I didn’t try to actively promote that perception if asked or if I realized people thought I was Muslim, I made clear that I was not, but right now we’re doing this interview. You can see I have a mustache, that’s a questionable choice. Okay, sure, but back then I used to have this full beard because that was a cool thing to do at the time. I was trying to be one of the hip kids. I liked the beard, so when I was doing my extensive field work in Puerto Rico and in New York, I had this fairly big beard and so people saw that as a marker of being Muslim or one of my practices is when I went into a masjid or mesquita, whatever people might call it locally, I would take up a copy of the Quran and be reading it beforehand as other people would as well, but for me, it was an opportunity to continue to learn about the Quran and to read it. I wasn’t trying to give off the perception that I was Muslim, but there would always come that time when I was visiting, when people would step forward to do prayers and I would stay back. People would be like, whoa, what’s up there? That was one of the ways I made clear I’m not Muslim. You may have thought I was, but I’m not or, in conversation, if people were talking to me and they’d be calling me brother and they’d be making certain references, I would be like, just so you know, I’m not Muslim, but that perception based on certain external markers or certain practices or the fact that when I went to a mosque, I knew what kind of to do. People would not question me. That gave me access that wasn’t intentionally to get me in more so like knowing wudu and what to do at a mosque was an intentional side of respect, something that I had picked up long before I started doing research as a way to respect the space, respect the place and to mark myself as an outsider, but someone who wanted to treat that space and that place as an insider would, but it got me in a lot of times. Other times, people knew I was not Muslim because I made it explicit perhaps in my contact with them or they knew me through someone else or I’d been referred to them. A lot of times people would Google me and when you Google me, I am all over the place on the internet, not to say that I’m really popular or exciting, but I am just a typical American who is not concerned about their digital footprint and I got a lot of stuff out there including talks that I’ve given in Christian communities because I’m an ordained pastor as well, which complicates this whole thing even further. People will look at that and go, okay, who is this guy and why is he here? Is he trying to convert us and does he model himself a missionary? They’d ask those hard questions and, thankfully, my online presence speaks to who I am and what I’m trying to do and respects the encounter that I’m trying to encourage between Christians and Muslims. Part of my research is to do research from a very humble point of view of what I call a critically compassionate point of view, like Muslim communities, and I think people saw that reflected online and it never became a big problem. If people Googled me, they’d be like, this is pretty cool. I really like what you said here and it would start a conversation oftentimes. There’s even an Imam that I know among the Puerto Rican Muslim community who we would exchange notes with, like I deliver a sermon and he does the khutba and we’d talk about what the differences were , what we could learn from each other. It started some really interesting conversations as well, along the way. The third aspect of this is the colonial power dynamic between myself as an American, as a US American, and how funny that I said that I’m an American as if the rest of the people in the Americas are not American because this is a typical problem and one that I often critique and I just did it. I said it, but there it is. The US models itself as kind of the leader, not only in the free world, but definitely of the American hemisphere. Part of that emerges out of the politics of the late 19th century and the early 20th century, the outworkings of what is called the Monroe doctrine in that we were trying to keep foreign powers out of the American hemisphere in order to establish US supremacy in the region and to protect the US Homeland, the land that we took from the peoples that were already present from foreign incursions. Now, originally those were European colonial powers, Britain and France and Spain, et cetera, but then it merged into keeping Communist Russia and Communist China out of Latin America and the Caribbean and I would argue now that includes keeping is Islam and Muslims out of Latin America and the Caribbean. As a researcher, I stepped into that colonial space where the US says this area is an area that we should control, that we should have power over, that we should dictate what happens within it and who is allowed access to it in order to protect the US Homeland. When I come to Puerto Rico, Cuba, or into Brazil or into these other spaces, I’m also carrying that with me. I think that was a bigger concern for a lot of people within the communities that I interacted with, that more political colonial power dynamic that was at play. I had to answer a lot of hard questions and some people still did not trust me thinking that I was an agent of the state. What I think is really interesting about the state of the field is that a lot of the early research on Muslim communities in Latin America, the Caribbean or Islam in Latin America and the Caribbean were from military officials who were concerned about the presence of Islam and the presence of Muslims in Latin America and the Caribbean. The fact that terrorists might be emerging from cells hidden throughout the Americas and that they might come over the porous borders into the United States. I argue about this in one of the chapters of the book that that dynamic is very much at play in the region. I also had to deal with that aspect as I did my research.
Wikke Jansen 42:18
This is so interesting to listen to. As an anthropologist, I always find these dynamics and tensions in the field the most interesting and I love this aspect of interfaith exchange about how to do sermons and things like that. I think you could write a whole book about just this aspect of it. I wanted to go back a little bit to the problems of this pre-Colombian context narrative in the context of indigenous communities. I found this very interesting case study on the conversion of people in the mid-nineties in your chapter on Muslims in Mexico. You explained that the conversion to Islam of a substantial number of people from these communities in Chiapas, if I pronounce it correctly, and it has been labeled as demonstrative of the selective appropriation of Islamic doctrine and as representative of the preservation and reshaping of ethnic identities in conversation with global Muslim communities. You already touched upon it, but I thought it was really interesting, this relationship between indigenous communities and Muslim communities in the region and how both are minorities, but perhaps also competing in a sense and of course how this conversion trends, if you wanna call it that, impacts this.
Ken Chitwood 43:31
That’s a really rich question and I must thank the multiple, predominantly Mexican, scholars who’ve done work there in Southern Mexico, in Chiapas, in the area around wider Maya as they referred to people that have converted. That is an endlessly fascinating rich case from the first contact between Muslims and the community there, which involves this Sufi international network, the <inaudible> world movement was founded by a Scot who had converted and became a sheikh and wanted to get in touch with the Zapatistas that were there, who were this anti-globalization movement here in the region and then how this whole village basically converts, they had converted from Catholicism to evangelicalism and then from evangelicalism to Islam. Now, in the present day, you’ve got the original community, but then you’ve also got what you could call a mainstream or a broad stream Sunni Muslim, there you’ve also got an Ahmadiya community. I often use that as an example of here is the world of global Islam and multiple dynamics happening within in a single village in Southern Mexico, but as you point out, this also brings up some really rich opportunity to discuss the interaction between indigenous peoples and the Americas and global Islam and indigenous peoples being Muslim as well in the Americas. I think this is an area that deserves really robust consideration in our field because there are other communities in the Americas that have not received the same attention that these Muslims have. There’s multiple Mexican scholars who have done work in this, looking at it from the perspective of the indigenous peoples and history. Michelle <inaudible> has done some of the most significant work in that area, looking at identity and conversion to Islam, but there are other communities in other places that I think people should endeavor to do research in. I’m always cautious about that, it’s not like we should just point to indigenous peoples and say, well, they need to be researched because, again, that’s the reinscription of this colonial need to map and to study and to classify and to place into structures of Western knowledge in order to dominate. I am hesitant to say, well, we need to study, but gosh, I think there are some interesting questions that we had there. I think there are some interesting conversations that could emerge into that and there’s some good learning that could happen and even some de-colonial work that could be done there again. The right person, the right moment, the right questions need to be asked in those contexts. I don’t think I’m the person to do that, but people could be doing that work with various indigenous communities. I list a few at the end of my book that I had come across in my research, but there wasn’t data or information on them or there wasn’t sufficient information or there was nothing at all. I’m not saying I’m the first to come across this and others may have come across it, but I literally cannot find anything about them except that there was the report of a mosque in this community say, for example, in Dominica that I came across, I think there’s some really interesting things that could be done there, but we have to be careful, on the one hand, as we explore those questions because of the ways that indigenous peoples have been classified and colonized over the years and then also we need to still do this work in order to understand some of the contemporary dynamics of this Islam and see how indigenous communities, not only in the Americas, but then in comparison with other indigenous communities, what the dynamics are, there is conversion and then also the establishment of communities and identifications and belonging.
Wikke Jansen 47:25
What is so striking about your book is the sheer diversity of topics that it covers from the Reconquista to the halal economy of Brazil to Islamophobia in the US. It is really rich and wide-ranging. I want to ask you how you managed to find the time to do all the research and background work for all these diverse communities in history. You already said that a lot of it was also done in the context of this course that you were teaching and that you had the materials from there. Maybe my follow up question would be, how did you decide on which ones to include and were there important stories or regions that you decided not to include?
Ken Chitwood 48:02
The preparation for this course was really big in terms of the book. It basically follows the outline of that semester-long course: history, contemporary case studies, bing, bing, bing, bing, bing. So it was structured. The structure was already there, but the work that I’d done in collecting all the different source material that I used for this emerged out of my early graduate work, when I was just looking into the conversions of Latinx people in the United States to Islam that was my master’s work. As part of that, I started to come across these stories from Mexico and having grown up in the Los Angeles, California area and having frequently gone into Mexico and spent time in Mexico, I was drawn to some of those stories. Then when I applied for my PhD work, it was to do work south of the US Mexico border. That was the idea and I started to look at various communities and places to see what work had been done, what areas still needed to be researched, what communities had not been known or had not been part of this research so far. I saw a lot of work being done in Mexico and I thought originally that’s where I wanted to go, but then I saw there were already like four PhDs in process at the time and I said, well, they don’t need me to do this. I don’t need to step into that space and it’s fun now because some of those PhD projects are my colleagues and people who I interact with in this space. I’ve mentioned a couple of them in the interview today. A lot of that preliminary research and, you know, I have archive fever, you might say, I wanna just save that information, pretend like I know it and all that. I saved that all in different folders and as I continued to do my preliminary research as to where I would do my PhD research, my in-depth ethnography, I kept a lot of options open and did preliminary field work in a few different places as well. That all came to be a benefit in the writing of this book because I had an extensive bibliography that was already in place. I had some preliminary field work that I’d done. I had contacts that I had made and so I went into that bibliography for the course. I followed up with some of those contacts for the course as well and included them in the class as well. Some people from the community shared as part of that course. I had some of that when I went to go write the book, but then in between the course and writing the book, which is about several months, I dug even deeper into the material, made a couple of additional trips and did some additional research and more follow up. I presented at a couple of conferences, some chapters in progress, and got feedback from there as well and then was able to write it in three and a half months. After that, I continued to find more and more and more and more that I could add to this text, if there was a gap in the argument or there was evidence that I didn’t have that I needed to find. I either went and did the research if no one else had done it or I relied on others who had done it before. This book is not necessarily like all my original research as a synthetic account of this type relies on other scholars, it stands on the shoulders of those other scholars. I try to make that clear in the book that I rely on them. I trespass into their territory and hope that the way I’m trying to tie these different studies together and put these different works into conversation is my contribution to the field. Understanding that the specialized knowledge comes from the individual scholars or the members of the community that I relied upon to get it done. It’s a lot of work and it covered a lot of ground and there were plenty of things that were left off to the side. As you mentioned. I think the biggest one that I wish I could have had is a chapter on the various Sufi influences or Sufi communities or individuals, cetera, this whole story of Sufism and Latin American. We need to make distinctions between Sufism as a concept and as a phenomenon. There’s been a lot of less than stellar work on Sufi communities and what Sufism is as a concept and how it’s lived in the real world, but because of that, I think there’s a lot of rich opportunity to dive deeper into that. There’s been some who have done this work, but again, what are the dynamics across the hemisphere? I think that’s one of those things I wish I could have had a chapter on, but didn’t have the time for. I knew I needed to do actual field work and didn’t have the bandwidth or the funding to get that done, so I left it off to the side, but I think I have like two paragraphs in the concluding chapter on that, trying to just lay the groundwork for people to say, hey, here’s the work that has been done. Here are a few references I have added, go do this work. If someone else doesn’t, I’ll eventually get to it, but I think that’s another area where people can really dig deeper and really explore a lot more of the dynamics that are happening in Sufi spaces, Sufi networks, in the region. There’s lots of others too that are put in the concluding chapter. Other unpublished works as well. There are several books in progress that I was able to see copies of, or I had conversations with the authors about, and I didn’t feel comfortable writing whole chapters on unpublished works and adding them to the synthetic account, but I nod to them. I tip my hat to them in the concluding chapter saying, wait until you see these works because they’re gonna be really helpful and we’re gonna see more and we’re gonna understand more because of them. And I referenced several of those scholars at the end and I can’t wait until their books come out over the next few years.
Wikke Jansen 53:34
My next question would be, can we expect a second book on Muslims in or of Latin America and the Caribbean from you? What are your future plans or what are you currently working on?
Ken Chitwood 53:47
I write in the book that I hope that this book will be irrelevant in 10 to 20 years. I think that may have gotten edited out. I think the publisher said, don’t say you hope it’s irrelevant. I think they told me that, I don’t know if I kept it in the end, but yeah, that’s how I feel. I want this book to be a place marker. I’m someone who loves spending time in the mountains or in the desert and hiking. I love place markers. Whether they’re like official government place markers, like this is how many kilometers or miles you’ve walked and this is how far you’ve got to go to the goal or they’re the impromptu, what we call Karens, like piles of rock that let you know you’re still on the right path. I hope this book is like a place marker. It says this is where the field is at right now. These are the stories that have been told in depth, that we could create a synthetic account around, that we could provide an overall narrative that this is what’s happening. This is the state of the field at this moment and it says here’s where you’re headed a little bit, these are the questions that are left over, these are the conversations that we have yet to have, these are the communities that we have yet to involve in the conversation and we can look forward to those happening. My hope is that in 10 years, 20 years people will be like Ken Chitwood, nice guy, but super irrelevant book. That’s my hope. I think the job as a scholar is to constantly be working to replace yourself, to replace your work. I mean that quite literally. We are there only in order to encourage the scholarship that will come after us and not necessarily prove us wrong, but show us what we didn’t see and only serve to advance the conversation beyond what we were capable of in this book. I don’t think there’ll be another one of them. The publisher also in the 1980s, maybe even in 1980, published a book on the Jews of Latin America and this book is not a companion volume to that, but is seen as kind of paralleling it in some ways. They’ve created additional additions of that work, but that’s only because that work was super popular and it made them money. If we do another addition of it, that depends on whether or not it resonates, whether or not it’s successful. Other projects I’m working on, earlier I said the reason we think about the Muslim world as the Muslim world and it’s bounded to the Middle East, North Africa, maybe as broad and as generous as Shahab Ahmed’s Balkans to Bengals complex. The reason we do that is because institutionally, structurally, we continue to pass on that message to future generations of scholars and of students that aren’t scholars, but who then share that opinion in other public spheres or in the popular products. What I wanted to do was create new infrastructures, create new institutions, that could help tell a different narrative and center the Americas, Latin American, the Caribbean into our conversation of global Islam and to center global Islam into our conversation about Latin American, the Caribbean. I founded this network of scholars that are working on this subject back at the end of 2020, it’s now been in operation for like a year and a couple months. We’ve got over 300 different people who are involved in this network and that’s a testament to the need for that type of infrastructure, but also to the already robust nature of the status of the scholarship and of knowledge within the community. I’ve been doing a lot of work on that. We produce a quarterly newsletter to talk about these works, to share with one another, and, as one of the scholars who is part of that shared with me, when we had our first colloquium, our first event back in autumn of 2021, she said, you’re the godfather of us. I liked that, this individual who is necessarily responsible for the birth of the field. I am not the biological father of this field, but I am a godfather that says, yeah, I’m gonna care for this community because I care a lot about it. I’m gonna try to use godfather, Christian, language, bless it. In other ways, it’s just to say, yeah, I wanna be there. I wanna help shepherd it. I want to lead. I wanna help launch other people, give a platform for emerging scholars to share their work and for those conversations to happen. My hope is that I can recede into the background as time goes on, pass that on to other people as well. A lot of my work has been focused on other things. I’ve got my PhD research that I need to publish. I’m working on my book based on my research with Puerto Rican Muslims over several years in Puerto Rico and in the United States and I published a couple of articles about that, but now I’m working on the actual book manuscript and completely overhauling the dissertation and writing something new based on that. Then I’ve been doing some research here in Berlin as well and doing some work in the field of ethnographic theology. I’ve just published two articles in the last few months about that. That’s a whole other field of research that I’ve become an interloper in. I’ve got various projects going on and some of them are directly related to the book. Others are completely different and more founded in ethnographic work. I’m staying busy. I’m staying out of trouble since the publication of the book.
Wikke Jansen 59:06
That sounds very exciting. Thank you so much for this really interesting conversation. I learned a lot.
Ken Chitwood 59:13
I’m humbled to have people read it, people that I respect and who’s work challenges me and shapes me. To have this conversation with you is really helpful. I think the only thing I hope there’s more of is putting your research contexts into conversation with my research contexts and seeing what comes out of it. That’s some of the next steps of this book as well, is to see more comparison across, in between, these various connections that I talk about when I talk about global Islam structurally, we have a book that focuses on very specific geographies, but I think that these conversations here are relevant to other conversations into the context and I hope to see more of that cross geography, cross area studies exchange to be able to do more of transnational, transregional work in the future.
Wikke Jansen 01:00:02
Definitely! Looking forward to that.