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Return to Mecca: Balik-Islam among Filipino migrants in Singapore

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The narrative of the globalization of labour and the demands of the labour market dominates most of the scholarship on Filipino migration, emphasizing their contribution to the Philippine economy via remittances even while these migrants endure difficulties working in forbidding terrain – a companion narrative of sacrifice and endurance. What remains below the surface, however, is the enchantment with the discovery of a new world-view among them. Balik-Islam, the ‘return’ to Islam, is part of the imaginary among Filipinos who have travelled, lived and worked across territories, connecting them to Mecca, both physically and spiritually. While their labour skills brought them to the Middle East and other Muslim-majority countries, their journey expanded into the discovery of meanings beyond their labour value. In this article, I regard Mecca as an imaginary among Filipino travellers who have somehow bridged the connection between their lost Islamic heritage and their labour, the latter allowing them to reclaim this heritage as authentic to their identity. In this article, I discuss the reconfiguration of Mecca as ‘home’, ‘redemption’ and ‘resurrection’ among itinerant Filipinos: first, as a salve to constant dislocations in an impersonal and aggressive global economy, second, as a source of salvation from indulgence in otherwise forbidden behaviour in foreign territories where the codes of behaviour back home have been transgressed (e.g., adultery) and third, as a spiritual resurrection in which a return to Mecca erases the past and provides a new path, a new identity and a rebirth. However, a more instrumentalist view of conversion, one that depicts conversion as part of a rational strategy to ease the tensions in intimate relations between Catholics and Muslims, also forms part of this article. In this latter dimension, Mecca is an ‘absent’ place bereft of spiritual meaning and serves to reinforce the homelessness of the migration experience.
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Keywords: Filipino domestic worker; Mecca; Singapore; conversion; globalization; migration

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: National University of Singapore

Publication date: October 1, 2018

More about this publication?
  • Transient migration due to the global movements of people for work, study and lifestyle is part of everyday life. This journal thus aims to provide a platform that explores and investigates the complexities of transient migration and to map the experiences of the growing number of transient migrants as they engage and interact with communities that are linked both to their home and host nations. This journal seeks to look at the ways in which transient migrants cope with transience and how transient migration affects individuals and communities in this transitional yet significant period. The scope of the journal will include but not be limited to themes of belonging, identity, networks, nation, culture, religion, race and ethnicity, gender and memory while incorporating the roles played by various platforms to facilitate these themes such as media, politics, policy, economy and the creative industries.
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