Jonah Blank
Professional Staff, Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Muslim "fundamentalism" seems to have replaced communism in our national nightmares, writes Jonah Blank, author of Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras (University of Chicago Press, 2001). Whereas once we worried about Soviet expansionism, we now worry about Iranian ayatollahs, Taliban fanatics, and Hezbollah terrorists. For many Americans, the core values of traditionalist Islam are assumed to be inherently hostile to those of a modern, pluralistic society.

Nothing could be farther from the truth insofar as the Daudi Bohras are concerned, anthropologist and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer Blank contended at an April workshop and book launch jointly co-sponsored by the Asia Program and the Middle East Project. The Daudi Bohras are an Islamic community that confounds nearly every Western stereotype of what "fundamentalist" Islam means, a community that uses modernity as a tool to reinvigorate and sustain its core traditions.

The Daudi Bohras are a one million strong denomination of Ismaili Shi'a of Gujarati descent, with 470 major communities scattered in 40 countries around the world. The group has enthusiastically embraced modern communications technology, including the Internet. It practices equality between the sexes. It sends its young people, girls as well as boys, to Western schools. Yet, it follows the mandated codes of personal dress, language, and behavior that one customarily associates with Muslim practice. In short, it has sought to foster a group identity that is simultaneously thoroughly "traditional" and thoroughly "modern."

Blank, the author of two previous anthropological studies, is the first outsider to study this group. Blank's study was conducted primarily in Mumbai (Bombay), although he visited Bohra communities in Pakistan and elsewhere.

The West tends to focus on the threats from Islamic fundamentalism. Blank sought to present a different picture by exploring a "fundamentalist" Muslim community in which traditional Islamic values and modern Western practices coexist harmoniously. His examination of how a highly traditional Muslim group has succeeded in solidifying an Islamic ethos amidst a secularized Indian society should caution us against making casual assumptions regarding Islamic "fundamentalism." The Daudi Bohras are not representative of all the world's Muslims, Blank asserted -- but neither is the Taliban. Only by understanding and acting upon an appreciation of this diversity within the Islamic world can American policymakers fashion appropriate U.S. policies.