The Love and Tyranny of 'community'
Slightly more than a year ago, I was in a taxi on the way home when my fellow traveller out of the blue told me she hated the keyword of my doctoral research - the word 'community'.
I was returning from spending time with a Christian refugee group in Kuala Lumpur. I was not researching this group, but something about them intrigued me. So, I eventually accepted their repeated invitations to join their prayer meetings. I made it clear that I would not be researching them and I was not even a Christian. I was merely curious about their life. Specifically, I was curious as to why they had chosen to come to Malaysia, after giving up Islam to become Christian.
Gender, Religious and Missionary Tropes
Many in the group were divorced women and I could see that they felt that Christianity was empowering their sense of independence as women. The cynical feeling that others I had spoken to - including researchers and UNHCR workers - about this group was that many had become Christian in order to gain asylum from the UNHCR. Their Christianity, I was assured by the local experts, was driven by their hope of resettlement. And, certainly, I could see this may have been the case for some or at least in the initial stages.
But, this did not fully explain why this small group continued to meet in secret together to discuss their faith. Nor, why for the core members of the group why their faith appeared to get stronger, almost ecstatic in their accounts of their religious devotions. In one of the initial meetings, the group each told me their 'witness' moment. The moment where Jesus had saved them. Each told a story of crisis, hopelessness and despair that they were saved from by an apparent moment of divine intervention - whether in a vividly violent dream or in the nightmares of their daily lives. There was a performative element to their accounts. It was also curious how concepts particular to their home country - the djinn for example - were woven into stories that also contained a very Western vision of Christ. Jesus was a fair-haired white man in each of their stories.
They romanticised Western tropes of Christianity and wove these into stories of being rescued from aspects of their home lives. Along with their newly professed faith, the other thing these women shared was years of suffering and heartache from their life circumstances as asylum seekers and refugees. The subtle forms of gender violence they had all experienced was hard to ignore. Was this simply a group of women who needed to connect with other women from their country who shared the same sense of loss and desire for free expression? A need for companionship, love and support? Perhaps.
Clearly, regardless of their needs to seek asylum, the group functioned as a tight-knit community and their weekly prayer meetings seemed to provide a shared sense of comfort. And maybe a sense of meaning. Another group activity the women engaged in was to volunteer at the local Afghan Community Centre to organise a playschool for the children and to go to the traditional villages for the indigenous Malaysian community. I went with them on one of the visits to the indigenous village where they organised a short English language class and playtime for the children. Missionaries teaching English to indigenous communities go back to more uncomfortable time periods of the 19th Century. However, there was a curious inversion in this case. The missionaries were not relatively rich, Western, white; they were moderately educated refugees from the Middle East. Arguably some of them faced the same issues of trauma, poverty and lack of access to services in Malaysia. Their advantage came from having been educated in their home country before being forced to flee. Their sense of Christianity framed their drive towards 'charity'. However, it was also clear that for the group of refugee women the ability to be able to use their previous education for the benefit of another vulnerable group was empowering.
Community and Oppression
Let's go back to the most curious moment which happened in the taxi on the way home from one such prayer meeting. One of the refugee women asked to join me on my taxi ride back towards the city centre. As we waited for the taxi she seemed nervous; like she wanted to tell me something but didn't want to do it in front of the others. I politely engaged her in conversation and she even smiled as we waited for the car to arrive. She was the most outwardly flamboyant of the group. She was willing to swear, wear shorter skirts and tops which highlighted her figure. It was a deliberate cultivation of an image, which marked herself as slightly outside the group dynamics. She seemed to dare people to criticise her choices. She was the one person in the group who commented joyfully when, at the moment I could no longer bear the heat in the apartment (as the air-conditioning had broken), I had taken off my long sleeve top to reveal a string vest top which showed my tattoo on my back. Her ability to dress as she pleased and for me as a stranger to casually show a part of my body normally covered seemed to mean something significant for her. A tiny act of rebellion perhaps.
Once we were in the car, she turned to me and said quite seriously, 'community, take that word out of your research'. It wasn't what I expected her to say. She then spoke passionately at what she called the tyranny of community. That community for her had always meant oppression, control and judgement. Many people in her community she insisted were hypocritical. They lied when they said they were Christian or LGBT. They only did it to get asylum. They couldn't be trusted. Then there was the 'problem' of the Umma - Islamic notion of community. She felt it was a means of setting the rules that always seemed to exclude her. Community meant exclusion, regulation and control. There was a silent social contract between individual and community rather than state - where each member has a duty to be, act and be seen in a certain way to be rewarded with respect, status and acceptance.
When I suggested that she had taken control of her life and had made a new community with the women of the prayer group, she paused. She said yes, she loved them but 'you can't trust them as a whole, sometimes as individuals, but not as a group'.
She was silent on the way home, and I reflected on how she and others like her had lived through so many repeated inclusions and exclusions. Living in a loop of having hope, finding connections and heartbreakingly having it taken away. I understood she was speaking about moments where those who were meant to support her quietly judged her and simply turned away, ignored her or pretended she wasn't there. The community which was meant to make her feel whole left her feeling alone in a group of strangers. It was an invisible form of violence and subtle daily exclusions faced by all living in a community made only more complex by wistful and hopeful feelings of love and solidarity.
As a researcher looking at how forced migrants were creating their own pathways for community development, I was reminded I have to accept the 'community' itself as a complex site. A site that was a source of authenticity, disingenuity, hope, distrust, social change, rigid structures and oppression. Community was both tyranny and love. #community #communitydevelopment #christianity #fieldwork #gender #religion #empiricalresearch