Islam in Melanesia: New (religious) wine in old (typically exoticised) bottles

A little over a year ago the subject of the spread of Islam in Melanesia made its way to into mainstream media. A cursory review of the manner in which the story first broke and began to spread, rapidly crystallising around a number of predictable issues – regional (Australian) security, Islam as an inherently radical or extreme religion -, and which include a repetition of prejudices by which Melanesians are perceived as peculiarly “tribal” societies, (and which in this case appears to be a condition that makes them strangely suited to receiving the message of Islam) is the subject of this post.

I will avoid rehearsing the basic facts and figures regarding the growth of Islam in the South West Pacific, first, because they can be quickly cobbled together from the above, and other easily accessible, scholarly and online sources, and, second, because from the outset I am of the opinion that the spread of Islam does not appear to be following radically different paths of adoption, adaptation and religiously inspired indigenous innovation when compared with the first (19th cent.) and second (recent 20th cent.) “waves” of evangelisation in the Pacific. Naturally, because Islam is not Christianity there are and will be various elements within these forms of adoption and innovation that are bound to produce novel phenomena, but on the whole this is about the introduction into Oceania of yet another major world religion that is based on dictates of salvation and condemnation, which draws its authority from a specific written corpus and offers a coherent infrastructure for worship and the gathering of the faithful; so, nothing tremendously new.

Instead, I want to focus on the manner in which the above mentioned media representations reproduce some of the tired tropes by which Melanesian societies continue to be framed as peculiarly “clannish” worlds whose dynamics are largely determined by timeless forms of subordination to “customary” values and practices. The fact that these representations are further belaboured by various forms of Islampohobia in this particular instance is actually more like icing on the cake rather than a particularly novel phenomenon in the continuing exoticisation of Pacific islanders.

Tracing these tropes in the net-related content that I’ve come across is actually rather straightforward, because it appears that most authors, bloggers, scholars and journalists alike, settled for reproducing a set of stereotypes which Ben Bohane first laid out in the Pacific Magazine article cited above.

According to Bohane, the spread of Islam in Melanesia has been aided by the inherent cultural and spritiual-religious coincidences between Melanesian “culture” and the Islamic faith; in his words, these include:

1.- A tendency to “tribal” social organization:

There are indeed cultural parallels. First among these may be the fact that Islam developed from a tribal Arabic culture also and maintains decision-making bodies (shurias) that are similar, in their social organization and un-hierarchical nature, to Melanesian chiefly councils.

2.- A deeply rooted (timeless, really) penchant for engaging in (presumably “tribal”) feuding and associated forms of “payback” 

The notion of “payback” is one that resonates strongly in both Melanesian and Islamic tradition, ie the notion of “eye for an eye.” Although Christian influence is strong, Jesus’ example of “turning the other cheek” has not, it must be said, been largely adopted by Melanesians. 

3.- Polygamy (naturally)

Polygamy and gender separation (such as Men’s Houses and Women’s Houses in Melanesia) are part of both Pacific and Islamic culture. Seddiq in Vanuatu even suggests that since his people traditionally sat on mats on the floor, mosques feel more natural to them than sitting in Church pews. 

4.- The stubborn refusal to accept fully modern secular values (id est, the separation of Church and State). The manner in which Bohane goes about validating this last claim is all the more troubling insofar as it is grounded as follows in the words of a bona fide Melanesia/Pacific scholar (who should know better)

Scott Flower, a PhD student at the Crawford School of Pacific Policy at the Australian National University in Canberra, is one of the few to take the growth of Islam in Melanesia seriously, with a regional view.

“Melanesian people generally do not comprehend or desire the separation of religion and the State. The centrality of religion in their daily life is very important,” he says, suggesting an inherent feeling towards living in a theocratic State; whether it is in kastom, Christianity or Islam.

Flower argues that Muslim communities in each country will continue to grow in size and number because, like Christianity, Islam and its associated organizations provide islanders with public goods (such as health and education), a moral and spiritual system, and access to other global networks and opportunities, prestige and alternative paths to social and political power.

To be fair to Flower, he provides slightly more nuanced opinion in some of the further quotes that Bohane reproduced. Nevertheless, if accurate, the above citation is quite telling of the manner in which Melanesia continues to be represented in the most important Australian centres of regeional analysis (I’m sorry to sound pedantic, but that stuff about a theocratic state is just bollocks).

In the final part of both his Pacific Magazine and Sydney Morning Herald articles, Bohane pursues – rather unsuccessfully – a connection between the growth of Islam in Melanesia and the threat of radical Islam and terrorism. To the extent that his representation is mostly informed by an interested party (OPM leader and spokesperson), it seems to me that this connection remains extremely feeble, and does not warrant much comment in respect of the exoticisation of Pacific islanders – although it speaks to the perceived need to consistently conjoin the subject of Islam with radicalism and (in  this case mostly Australian) security concerns.

However, the real clincher in these representations lies with that pervasive feature of Melanesian life, the pig.

Bohane then diligently  reminds us that, [p]igs are going to be an issue when it comes to spreading Islam in the Pacific. For most islanders, pigs are more than just domestic animals that clean up the scraps. They are revered as symbols of wealth and as important commodities for gift exchange, marriage, reconciliation ceremonies and compensation. Some communities even have mystical pig cults [sic and double sic!!].

Hence, the presence of poor old Sus scrofa parodically contradicts the “inherently natural” coincidences that Bohane previously drew between Islam and “customary” Melanesia while at the same time providing a nearly perfect (because politically correct, or presumably indicative of Bohane’s cultural savvy, or both) closing argument with which to declare the possibility that Islam may yet be “indigenised” and integrated in peculiarly Pacific ways by local communities – a truism which, to most scholars of religious history and contemporary religious processes in Oceania, holds no surprises and points not to possibilities but to age-old processes in respect of the local adoption of non-local religious teachings, be they Islamic, Christian or other.

8 Responses to “Islam in Melanesia: New (religious) wine in old (typically exoticised) bottles”

  1. Papuan till I die. Says:

    Why will Islam not thrive in Melanesia?

    Pork !

    We melanesians love our pork.

    That is the big sticking point.

    • Dear Changol,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m afraid I have to disagree with you here. Although there is some truth to it, remember that there are all sorts of cases in Melanesia where so-called traditional diets have been displace by other religious movements (e.g. the SDA), or simply by the world economy. Remember, the real staple food for most Pacific Islanders these days is not pork, but imported and subsidised rice!

    • No doubt you can, and you are most welcome, my friend.

      It is worth remembering, however, that one’s nationality, or genes, or skin colour, have no bearing on one’s capacity to understand a different people and ways of thinking.

      I see no specific anti-Islamism in Melanesia, just as I see no anti-Christianism, even though there are congregations, such as the SDA, who are directly in contradiction with certain core practices and values that one could define as customary. If Islam will not thrive in Melanesia it will be because of a host of influences and perceptions that have as much to do with the outside world as they do because some Melanesians eat pork during specific ritual events. Whatever we may think, rice and other imported goods are as much or more on the menu, and this has nothing to do with religious affiliation or rejection.

  2. Papuan till I die Says:

    In your dreams, Salul.

    Good research, but not great research. I am melanesian, not you. I know my people well.

    has too much of a stronghold among my people. The majority of them are anti Islam to the core.

    I can give you a host of other reasons why Islam will not thrive.

  3. Papuan till I die Says:

    Rice versus pork in my country; they do not compete as equals. Nor do any other imported food or local food outstrip the importance of Pork.

    Telling my people not to eat pork is a very difficult thing to do. It is like telling China not to eat rice – it can be done but there will be widespread chaos in society.

    SDA friends of mine eat pork and crab behind their pastors back. The SDA church has not expanded as it should becuase it has difficulty taking ground in the villages. It is a town religion.

    Come to Papua new Guinea. Live in in a village there for 5 to 10 years.
    Live among the people, not behind books in an office.

    Attend the ceremonies, the bride price, the pig killing ceremonies. Chew betel nut with the man in the street and learn to speak speak the languages (Tok Pisin, Motu, plus one other tribal language). Become mulit-lingual and converse with the people and get to know how they speak and their true thought processes. Papua New Guinean culture is far more complex than what is portrayed above in order to make it seem that Islam can easily be superimposed on it because of a few “apparent” similarities.

    Share a 24 pack SP with some of the youths and men.

    Get to know how real Papua New Guineans do things in our lives. Do not take reference from some dissconnected foreigners research.

    Just go and live with the people.

    Then come back and read the above article and see if it really makes sense.

    We Papua New Guineans do not care what foreigners say about us. It is just for them to discuss among themselves. It does not hold in reallity.

    It is a bit like when you see a white lion expert talking about lions in Africa on discovery channel. You hardly see a black kenyan lion expert on TV, only a foreigner from europe who thinks he knows about lions more than the african natives.

  4. Natasha Says:

    In an article called Islam and the cultural imperative Umar Faruq Abd-Allah explains how Islam i supposed to nurture indigenous cultures where ever it goes. New Muslims are not expected to take on the cultural practices of the Arabs, but they must keep their original cultural identity leaving only what is clearly unlawfull in Islamic law, for example eating pork or drinking alcohol or worshiping multiple idols. For this reason I think that Islam in Melanesia is exciting. However, who is spreading the message of Islam in Melanesia? Bohane, in his ‘heeding the call to prayer in a region that reveres the pig’, said that a Wahhabi preacher was resident at a PNG mosque and in her recent article McDougall says when she went to a ‘sunni’ mosque on Guadalcanal the visiting Muslim from Melbourne refused to look at or speak to her. It sounds to me from this anecdotal evidence that the positive message of Abd-Allah is being replaced by some kind of radical interpretation by what i would call ‘loony’ self styled imams. Salul.. what do you think ?

    • Hi Natasha. Sorry for the long delayed reply. I am grateful for your input regarding this topic, especially because you raise a key issue: who, then, is spreading the message, i.e. generating the dominant discourses, regarding Islam in Melanesia? I think it is important to underline that I am not a specialist on this issue, and in this sense my opinion is mostly just that. However, I found your comment regarding McDougall pretty interesting. The greatest amount of information that I have had access to is do to with Islam in the Solomons. As far as I can gather – including a couple of interviews that Aussie Muslims in the Sols have given – it appears that these non-Melanesians are fond of presenting themselves to the Western media as being particularly orthodox. Whether this reflects the manner in which Solomon Islanders may be receiving and internalising Islam is another matter of which I am mostly ignorant. But I suspect that there are various layers of complication here that are intertwined with Australian preachers, and I would even venture to say perhaps opportunistic Aussie-based Muslims who find it easy to go to place like Melanesia and preach a more openly confrontative version of Islam than they would be able to do (at least without serious responses from more mainstream believers) back home. Again, this does not necessarily shed much light on the way in which Solomon Islanders have interpreted Islam. In Vanuatu, I know, the small Muslim community in Vila appears to have been inspired by the inflow of Fijians of South Indian Muslim descent, rather than from Oz or further afield in Asia.

  5. Thanks Salul, definitely various layers of complication.

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