Europe's Untouchables? Contemporary Caste and Purity in Mosques

Thursday, July 13, 2017
Melville Room (University of Glasgow)
Elisabeth Jane Becker , Sociology, Yale
This paper argues that a Muslim caste has been created in Europe through decades of concurrent social and cultural stratification. It draws from the continental conception of caste during the Reconquista, showing its reinvigoration in contemporary forms. Recruited as guestworkers into undesirable occupations in the post-WWII period, or “permitted” to migrate from colonial states as second-class citizens, this contemporary European caste has come incrementally—and yet forcefully—into place. Based on twenty six months of ethnographic research in two European mosques (the Sehitlik Mosque in Berlin and the East London Mosque) and sixty semi-structured interviews with mosque leadership, attendants and other local stakeholders (police, neighborhood organizers) this paper centers on purity achieived in and through Islam as a response to status degredation. 

Muslim practice, whether insular (as at the East London Mosque) or cosmopolitan (as at Sehitlik), has come to focus on a single task: achieving and maintaining purity. This is on the one hand a religious response, with deep theological sources in Islam demanding purification. But it is, importantly, also a social response. It is a way for European Muslims to counter their socially polluted status, making cleanliness paramount in what many see as their dirty, hostile lifeworlds. By shifting discussions from danger to purity, celebrating, rather than shirking a dominant Muslim identity, mosque communities in Europe resist blanket relegation to this caste. Such contestation illuminates purity as a powerful paradigm employed by the disempowered to demonstrate self-worth and dignity in their ongoing struggles over citizenship and belonging.

  • Caste_CES.docx (60.9 kB)