Dr. Katrina Daly Thompson is Professor and Chair of African Cultural Studies and Director of the African Languages Program. She is also a core faculty member in the doctoral program in Second Language Acquisition and affiliated faculty in Anthropology, Gender & Women’s Studies, Religious Studies, African Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and Folklore. She is the author of Popobawa: Tanzanian Talk, Global Misreadings (2017) and Zimbabwe’s Cinematic Arts: Language, Power, Identity (2012), both published by Indiana University Press. Her recent work has also appeared in American Anthropologist, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, and Language & Communication. She is currently Editor-in Chief (with Neni Panourgia) of Anthropology & Humanism.
In April 2021, IRIS interviewed Dr. Daly Thompson about recent research on progressive Muslim communities.
Tell us about your recent research on progressive Muslim communities.
Muslims in North America and beyond began to come together under the label “progressive” in the late 1990s, first through listserves and discussion boards and eventually through in-person activism, such as the highly publicized mixed-gender woman-led prayer by amina wadud in New York in 2005, and scholarship, such as the book Progressive Muslims by Omid Safi in 2003. While many scholars believe that the “progressive Muslim movement” has petered out, my research examines groups that emerged from it, sometimes with different labels. While some involved in these groups still call themselves “progressive” many participants avoid this term, either because they believe that Islam is already a progressive religion and thus does not need a modifier or because they worry the label will create a dichotomy between them and other Muslims, potentially feeding into Islamophobia.
For this reason, I now use the term “nonconformist Muslims” to refer to the groups and individuals that took part in my research, Muslims on the margins of mainstream Islam who were trying to create an inclusive community through mosques and other face-to-face groups in North America as well as through global online groups. I use the label nonconformist to refer to Muslims who have two things in common. First, they share identities, interpretations, or practices of Islam that are different from those of mainstream Muslim communities in various ways. Second, they share a social justice orientation focused on valuing and incorporating others who exhibit such differences, including queers.
My research examines how nonconformist Muslims used language and other practices to create communities that value difference—both from other Muslims and from one another. By examining the ways that individual nonconformists talked about their lives and beliefs, and how they used language in conversation and religious ritual, my research offers insight into their lived experienced as Muslims on the margins, what role religious and other texts played in their lives, and the future forms of Muslim collectivity they imagined.
I’ve published three academic articles about this research so far. With support of a National Endowment for the Humanities stipend, I’ve begun working on a book manuscript, tentatively titled Misfits, Rebels, and Queers: An Ethnography of Muslims on the Margins. You can read more about the project on the Maydan’s Islamic Studies blog.
How have you conducted this research?
My research is a multi-sited discourse-centered ethnography that has included three online groups as well as face-to-face groups in six US cities and in Toronto over a five-year period. Some of my participant observation involved one-time visits, while I returned to other groups several times, including those in LA, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Toronto. Focusing on particular groups allows me to offer a detailed ethnographic analysis of individual and community micropractices, including embodied and conversational interaction. Simultaneously, the extent to which members of these groups overlapped with and interacted with members of the other groups meant that, at a macro-level, the nonconformist community was more than just a sum of its parts.
What do you want the general public to understand about these groups?
My research demonstrates that Muslims are far more diverse than most people—including most Muslims—realize. Many people assume that Islam is a patriarchal and homophobic religion, while nonconformist Muslim groups demonstrate that feminist and queer-inclusive interpretations of Islam are not only possible, but actively realized. My focus on nonconformists’ micropractices of inclusion—such as how they use and teach one another to use language in gender-expansive ways during Friday prayers—also offers models for anyone interested in everyday forms of social justice.
How do you infuse your research in the courses you teach at UW Madison?
Most of my teaching focuses on Africa, but I have not yet had the opportunity to research the nonconformist Muslim groups that exist there (mainly in South Africa). That said, I bring my interests in social justice, queer-inclusivity, Islam, and ethnography into many of my courses. This semester I am teaching a course on Islam in Africa and the Diaspora, where we have explored the representations and diverse experiences of Muslim communities in various parts of Africa, Europe, and the US through films, ethnographies, poetry, and fiction.