The Jew, the Arab: An Interview with Gil Anidjar
In his most recent book, The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (Stanford UP, 2003), Gil Anidjar examines the absence of the enemy together with the absence of a history of Europe's relation to both Jew and Arab in the Western philosophical, political and religious canon. The book is an attempt to analyze, in historical and theoretical terms, why these two absences are not reflected upon, what prevents such reflection.
Anidjar asks the question, "What is Europe such that it has managed to distinguish itself from both Jew and Arab and to render its role in the distinction, the separation, and the enmity of Jew and Arab invisible - invisible, perhaps, most of all to itself?" He suggests that the concept of the enemy, in its absence from the canon, is structured by the relation of Europe to both Jew and Arab. In this, Anidjar's book represents the first attempt at thinking together the "Jewish Problem" and the "Muslim Problem" in the history and present of Western civilization. He further argues that the distinction between the theological and the political - corresponding to the crucial modern opposition between the religious and the secular - only emerges with the characterization of the Jew as a theological enemy and the Arab as a political enemy.
In this interview, Professor Anidjar engages the most urgent political questions of our times in suggestive and compelling ways. The issues he addresses - secularism, its limits and possibilities; the conflation of religious, ethnic and racial categories; the place of Europe in locating the enmity between Jew and Arab; the figure of the Muslim in Auschwitz; the problem of universalism - force us to question the most basic categories that shape our understanding of the world, thereby opening the space for a more illuminating and critical evaluation of our present historical moment.
Gil Anidjar is Assistant Professor in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. He is the author of "Our Place in al-Andalus": Kabbalah, Philosophy, Literature in Arab Jewish Letters (Stanford UP, 2002) and the editor of Jacques Derrida: Acts of Religion (Routledge, 2001).
Seculatism and the Theologico-Political
The term "theologico-political" features prominently in The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy, indeed, is central to the arguments you make. What does "theologico-political" mean and what is its relation to secularism? How might it help us understand the question of the Jew, the Arab?
The phrase is meant to signal a singular, if complex and varied, Western configuration regarding the way divisions are massively made that separate the human from the divine, the sacred from the profane, the holy and the eschatological from the secular, and so forth, all terms that are produced at the same time that they are distinguished. At the most basic level, the phrase is also a lever, a way of interrogating, at least, the claim that secularization has occurred (or even that it should occur), to question the possibility of separating anything, and most urgently, religion from politics.
This goes beyond the current obsessions as to whether George Bush or Ariel Sharon are governed or oriented by "religious" group interests (of course, they are). It is rather about the dominant, Western understanding of the world as "disenchanted" or simply as "secular." Look at France and the embarrassing ways in which it clings to its "secularism," or look at the all-too visible and invisible investments in "the Holy Land" on the part of the Western media (and populations). My own interest in writing the book was precisely to come to some understanding regarding the relation of religion to politics, on the actual possibility or impossibility of distinguishing between them. I am informed in this matter by what I am afraid is a very pedestrian understanding of Derrida's work, namely that, at some level, there is only difference. Otherwise put, Leibniz's principle - if two things are absolutely identical, they are not two things, they are one - works in such a way that, because there is more than one thing, sign, object, and so forth, there are only differences between them. Not identity, which is itself differential.
And yet, the question is: how do you define this or that difference? Where do you say that a difference occurs or cuts? Clearly, there are differences between religion and politics, as there are, perhaps, between men and women. Who will argue with that? Yet does that mean that there should be? Or that one could claim to know, in any exhaustive and fully determined way, what the difference is? The problem occurs at the moment one tries to identify where the difference, or even differences, lie and what their significance is. We know, in biology as in cultural studies and history, that when there is a claim made identifying where the difference between men and women, male and female, is, something is at stake that has little to do with that difference as such (as if there could be difference as such). Of course, and forgive the banality of what I am saying, much of this has to do with power, but it is not exhausted by the question of power. Even "before" political issues, if you will, the question is: what is at stake? What kind of investment is there in saying here is the difference, because there is difference, but who is to say that there is more difference between this man and this woman, than there is between this man and that man? On what basis will one claim that the differences between men are more significant - or less significant - than the differences between men and women? The same is true of religion and politics; there is difference between and within them, so who is to say that the difference between them is more significant than the difference within them? And who is to say, finally, that what occurs in insisting on this or that difference is not sheer obfuscation?
Again, what I am saying is perfectly banal. But the question of the theologico-political may reside in this banality: Why is there a difference precisely here? Why is this difference deemed determining, or simply, relevant? How did its terms acquire such weight, and increasingly so today? And to such an extent that some people can assert, "I am on the side of politics" and someone else can respond by saying, "I am on the side of religion." How did that difference even establish itself? How did people come to identify with it in the peculiar way they do today? And why do we believe in this difference? I have been trying to understand why the theologico-political is the site of difference. Everything can be a site of difference; why is this particular site currently invested?
"In light of current events," as they say, this may be a most urgent question, that is, the question of the distinction between religion and politics may urgently need to be resolved (and perhaps even put aside, as the least relevant regarding "current events"). Forgive me for repeating myself, but this all truly goes beyond the fact that George Bush is as much a fundamentalist as Osama bin Laden; the urgency, indeed, the emergency (if such is its location) extends beyond, and is far graver than, the immediate context we find ourselves in knowingly. What is at stake is the claim to secularism in the West (which goes hand in hand, by the way, with an extraordinary obsession with religion and religiosity - of others); even, I would say, the claim that secularization has occurred in the West. How do we determine such a thing, that there was religion once and then there was something else? It is clear that there are continuities. That there has been a change is not in question (though perhaps it should be), but the terms in which we consider that change is what makes all the difference. Things are intertwined in such a way that in order to understand historical change one actually needs to assert that there is a radical beginning, that the cards are so entirely reshuffled that they no longer resemble at all what they appeared like before. This is a possibility, but then one cannot say that religion has changed or that it has been secularized. Either one makes an argument and explains the continuity and where religion has all gone, or one makes an argument in terms of rupture. This is probably too simplistic on my part, but I will say this nonetheless. It is possible that everything is so different that whatever we call religion today has nothing to do with what "religion" used to be (which, incidentally, was not even called "religion," as Talal Asad has taught us). None of this has anything to do with the past, this goes without saying.
I am not certain then, but I think that right now we are in a place where we might be able to begin asking the question: What is the theologico-political? And what is theologico-political difference? How did it, how does it come to be and persist? And how does it come to be so determining? Is it truly so? And although I am referring to difference in the singular, it is obviously much larger.
The next question, then, is how and why is this difference between religion and politics still determining us? We have not thought enough about this, I think. At least, not if one judges from the perspective of the enemy. For the question of the enemy is a critical moment here. Whatever history of theology, religion, and politics we would want to write, as long as we have not confronted the enemy, which remains as unconceptualized before as after "secularization," from the beginning until today, to the extent that the enemy is thoroughly theologico-political (and such is my argument), and we have not thought about it, then we are still with the enemy. And to that extent, nothing has happened to distance us from the theologico-political in its most structural dimensions. If history - allow me to be ludicrously grandiose - if history is also the history of the enemy, then nothing has happened.
Could you explain how this conception of the enemy, and its relation to the theologico-political, is connected to the Jew, the Arab?
Yes, this is what I was just beginning to say. The Jew, the Arab, that is to say, the enemy, constitutes the theologico-political. It is through "them" that it becomes what it is. As a philosophical problem, the massive absence of the metaphysical question par excellence regarding the enemy is, I think, absolutely fascinating. What is a friend? What is a true friend? These are the questions that philosophy (and political thinking) asks, as Derrida has demonstrated. These are the questions that philosophy begins with: philosophia thinks of itself as love and friendship. It does not concern itself with what the enemy is. So it is a philosophical problem, to the extent as well that what has occurred in the vicinity of this absence, in the unreflected spheres of enmity, has in fact involved theologico-political difference. If I have ventured an answer, then, it will have been to say (without reducing the whole concept) that the enemy is the theologico-political, meaning that it constitutes the theologico-political. Therefore, I am suggesting that we will not be able to address the question of what the theologico-political is without asking the question of the enemy. This is where one needs to look, it seems to me. The enemy is constituted by religion and politics, and the historical weight of the question is entirely burdened with and constituted by the Jew and the Arab in Europe. Therefore, to the extent that an absence can be shown to be operative, it is a structuring absence. The absence of that question of the enemy can, in fact, be shown to structure the rapport to the enemy in the West, the rapport of the West to itself, as well, finally, as the relation between religion and politics.
I will try to explain this by way of contemporary politics. I hope this is not too much of a digression. Political Zionism has been described as the re-entry of the Jews into history, understood in this case as a certain (and quite narrow, in fact) political history; another way to put this is that with political Zionism, the Jews have entered secularized, Christian history (my friend and mentor, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, a historian, has written compelling analyses of this, and I am learning from him on these and numerous matters). On what is apparently another front, Islam, which for centuries was denied its theological dimension, has now become the epitome of "religion" and religious fanaticism. And from these two factors, there is much that follows. One consequence, for example, is that the Palestinians are still considered to have no legitimate, political claims. They would be Muslim fanatics, so we are told, bent on the pursuit of war and conflict. Another is that Islam is synonymous with intolerance, which is typical, of course, of how "religion" has been described since the Enlightenment. This, by the way, is another curious fact about the secularization thesis: that the West claimed to have lost religion, that secularization became triumphant, at the very same moment that religion was "discovered" in the East. There is a profound link between Orientalism and the "fact" of religion. Islam is not the only example, of course (Richard King has written eloquently on the "Mystic East" focusing on "Hinduism;" think also of the relation between contemporary Jewish studies and the development of "Semitics" in the nineteenth century), but I would argue that it is a crucial one. With "secularization," more or less, Islam became a "world-religion."
Clearly, the role of Europe is crucial in this respect. Europe is after all the very site of the theologico-political. In other words, Europe itself has not, has absolutely not worked out or worked through the difference it has inherited from its past, the difference, assuming that there should be one, between theology and politics, because secularized Christianity is still Christianity, however translated (Schmitt), metaphorized (Blumenberg) or perverted (Löwith). The only tradition that has found itself secularized, that has reinvented or simply transformed itself as secular, is Western Christianity, so whatever changes Christianity has undergone in the last 300 years, are still changes that Christianity has undergone as a cultural unit (however porous and problematic and invested in claiming its own "purity" that unit might be).
I will say this quickly and probably all too schematically because it is something I have recently been trying to learn about, and which has become increasingly astonishing to me. When people talk about the Inquisition and about the emergence of the antecedents of modern, biological racism, they often refer to the "limpieza de sangre" (the Purity of Blood statutes), those statutes and regulations identifying conversos or "New Christians" (converts or descendants of converts) as having Jewish blood and barring them from certain official positions and functions. Such statutes were first written in Spain in the 15th century and became increasingly widespread about a century later throughout Spain and Portugal. Implicit to these statutes is the claim (well recognized by those who opposed them, and they were many) that the holy sacraments do not work, that baptism is no longer sufficient or even efficient to make one a Christian. The implication of these statutes for the "New Christians" was, of course, enormous. More important, it seems to me, is the question of what it means for the Church ultimately to uphold a distinction between old and new Christians. This is a huge problem for Jewish historians, as it is for historians of Spain. As for me, I cannot think of any more anti-theological, secular a statement on the part of Christianity than this. The "limpieza de sangre" is, as it were, the beginning of secularization: the de facto abolition of the Sacraments in their efficacy. This is where one truly finds the "New Christians," then. Not or not only among the conversos, but among those - the Church - who reinvent themselves as "Old Christians." All of this is still very Christian, of course, very Catholic, done in the name of the Church even as it goes against the most basic principles of Christian theology. What remains, at any rate, is that Catholicism, Christianity in fact, has changed radically at that moment, yet it is Christianity that has changed, and afterwards it is still going to call itself or function as Christianity. So one could say that everything is exactly the same, and yet just a little different, to quote Walter Benjamin. Something radical has happened to Christianity, quite apart from what has happened to the Jews and to the Moors. Of course, it is a catastrophe, and Europe has changed at that moment. Western Christendom has totally reinvented itself by claiming to be conservative (and what could be more conservative than the Inquisition?) and that is the beginning of secularization. Secularization is just Christianity by another name. But a different Christianity, of course.
Religion, Race and Ethnicity
In the title of your book, The Jew, the Arab, the former, "Jew", denotes a religious category, whereas the latter, "Arab", an ethnic one. Throughout the book, you refer primarily to the Jew, the Arab (rather than, for instance, and more intuitively perhaps, the Jew, the Muslim). Does it make a difference that one is ethnic and the other religious, and what is the significance of this collapse of ethnic and/or political markers with religious ones?
This is a very important issue, as you know. There is a level at which I wanted to submit to the force of the names I was invoking, and perhaps more truthfully, interpellated and even seized by. In the media, in Israeli political discourse, in discussions about institutions, on Israeli ID cards, everywhere practically, "Jew" and "Arab" are the terms that persist. When people theorize that the "conflict" is theological - it is a clash of religions - they will still use the terms "Jew" and "Arab" (rather than Jew and Muslim).
If they see it is a political problem - as a matter of competing nationalisms - they will still employ the same terminology (even if some try to be more "accurate" and speak then of Israelis and Palestinians). Some people then are trying to be rigorous. But the issue exceeds rigor, of course, as well as the speaker's intentions, and for the most part, the terms that persist are "Jew" and "Arab."
Now, it might all be the effect of a certain confusion. There has been a lot of slippage between the different terms used in Western languages to refer to Muslims (Saracens, Agarenes, Turks, Mohammedans, Arabs). There is thus a broad range of terms that appear in the discourse of Europe, which does not necessarily have a changing referent, or referential range. At some level, though, I would want to say that the terms really do not have a referent; they are first of all, self-referential. These are ways for Europe to speak to itself, trying to think itself and to think itself without that which it names as the Arabs, the Turks, the Saracens, and so forth.
Obviously when I indicate that one term is a religious marker ("Jew"), while the other an ethnic marker ("Arab"), I do not wish to endorse this usage, or even this understanding, which is, after all, narrow. Yet, there is a way in which the historical connotations I spoke of have weighed on the terms of the discourse. One example that comes to mind, from among the many things I have learned from my dear friend and colleague, Joseph Massad, is that American Jews are, on the one hand, embracing the discourse of ethnicity (which, in its complicated relation to race, has become more and more popular in the last 30-40 years in this country). On the other hand, they have really, at the organizational level, entirely resisted the discourse of ethnicity, which is why they are called American Jews, and not Jewish-Americans. In other words, they would just be a religious minority. Jews in America are riding the wave of ethnicity and yet they are not hyphenated. So at that level, certainly within American discourse, "Jew" is primarily, even if not exclusively, a religious term. It is referring to a religious community, a community that may be ethnic, but that fundamentally has a religious commitment. By becoming white, Jews can be said to have sought and gained a status that is more social than anything else. Yet, they have done so as part of a historical attempt to distance themselves from the racialization of Jews such as has occurred throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the consequences we know (in this context, let me recommend the work of Mitchell Hart on the crucial role played in this matter by Jewish social scientists in Europe and the US).
Of course this suggestion is shot through with contradictions, and with contaminations from other realms. It would be silly to say that Jews in America do not think of themselves as an ethnic group. And yet something inscribes itself in the language that I think demands attention. At the same level, Israel claims to be a secular state and yet in the way in which it inscribes "nationality" - distinguishing it from "citizenship" - Israel both ethnicizes - indeed, racializes - the Jew, and erases the religious difference that is nonetheless critical to its myths and policies. It is, after all, the Rabbinate that is in charge of deciding who is a Jew, which creates all kinds of political problems. For the most part it is the Rabbinate that has authority over family law, which is where important political decisions are made.
So religious authorities actually decide (which is to say that they are granted the authority of the State) who is a Jew, which means that "Jew" is still a religious term, but when it comes to nationality - meaning ethnicity - religious difference is actually not marked (as with "Arab"). There are many categories on Israeli identity cards, and one of them is Jew, for example, and others include Circassian and Druze. So some of the categories are ethnic, while some are religious. It gets really complicated. There are Arabs who are not Muslim, and there are Muslims who are not Arab, so the terms are not symmetric. So the fact that "Arab" would claim itself in such a dominant non-religious way makes me consider it mostly, dominantly, at this point, as an ethnic marker, whereas "Jew" remains determined by a certain theology.
What is important is that even if Israel would admit that "Jew" is a racial marker - which it would not, of course - such acknowledgment would perhaps put an end to its persistent denegations of its racism but it would maintain those denegations pertaining to the theological dimensions, the messianic, eschatological, apocalyptic dimensions of Zionism. And not just of the settlers, but of Zionism itself, at its core. Again my friend Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin has demonstrated well the denegation that is at work in Zionism's claims that it is a political and not a religious movement (whence the vilification of so-called "religious" extremists, as if one settlement could be built and maintained without the "secular" support of the Israeli government or the approval of the American one).
This is how it seems to me the issue of the theologico-political illuminates the current problems of "Jews and Arabs." I should say that the issue of race and ethnicity has become somehow clearer to me since I completed the book. There was one chapter I was considering writing for the book, but did not include in the end and am finishing now. As a way of marking my debt to Mahmood Mamdani (following his discussion of the 'Hamitic Hypothesis'), I called my paper 'The Semitic Hypothesis.' The paper examines the invention of the Semites and more importantly, their disappearance. There are no more Semites in the sense that Semites is a term which, when it was invented, functioned so as to indicate an almost absolute identity between Jew and Arab, so that whatever is said about one could equally be said about the other.
This, again, has everything to do with Europe. The 19th century is the only period where Europe thinks of itself as secular, really secular, as having won over religion (of course not in all quarters of Europe, but certainly in intellectual, political, and cultural discourse). It is also the only moment where the theologico-political appears no longer to constitute a problem. And it is the only moment where whatever one says about the Jew, can be said about the Arab, and vice-versa. There was apparently nothing at stake in abolishing the difference between them. It is an absolutely fabulous (if also horrendous) and, I think, essential moment to understand. But interestingly enough, it is less about religion and politics - although that is also very much there - than about religion and race. What I was saying before about the Inquisition is really the beginning of that process. One could, I believe, tell the history of the relation between race and religion from that very moment. I think the 19th century and the invention of the Semites is particularly important, however, because what happens with the Semites is the strange invention of the race said to have invented religion.
At that moment, then, race and religion become two distinct categories that are at the same time collapsed in the figure of the Semites. What is absolutely fascinating, and Edward Said describes this quite evocatively, is the way in which the Jew "bifurcated," the way in which the animus was transferred from the Jew and the Arab to the Arab alone. Thus the Jews stopped being Semites. After World War II, all kinds of complicated things happened between race and religion around the Jews. Most of all, race becomes a word that cannot speak its name when one speaks about the Jews (and some account has to be given of that), whereas the last Semites and the only Semites become the Arabs. So they are a race, and the Jews are a religion. Or if you want, even vice versa. Better yet, the Arabs have become the race that is still attached to its religion, whereas the Jews have in fact become Western Christians, and therefore are no longer marked, neither by race nor by religion.
In the academic realm, at any rate, the distinction between race and religion is complete. Religion has a completely marginal place in race studies. You have race, class, gender, but it still very rarely happens that people will say: race, class, gender, religion. Religious studies is a disciplinary field, which, like many other fields, has explored questions of race, but it seems to me that there has yet to be a critique of the distinction between religion and race comparable to the distinction between, say, literature and philosophy, that is to say as disciplinary mechanisms in the management of knowledge.
The interesting question is not what religion precisely is, then, whether it is right or wrong, but rather how it functions (in the same way that "Arab" as an ethnic marker functions), how it is located and contained. There are people who claim to be religious, others who explain things by way of religion, and entire cultures that now assert how fundamental religion is to their self-understanding. The term clearly has wide currency and so it needs to be looked at in more complex ways. When religion is affirmed as a category, it is reinscribed as distinct. But distinct from what? Maybe there is a difference, and maybe there is not, or maybe the difference is not where we think it is, and that is the argument I make in this article I just mentioned ('The Semitic Hypothesis'). There are disciplinary mechanisms (in the Foucauldian sense) whereby something is marked as race, and something is marked as religion. The difference is really not where we might think it is. And it continues to serve purposes we ignore.
One of my favorite examples, by the way, comes from a book called Exhibiting Religion by John Burris, which documents the way the World Parliament of Religion was created and looks at the huge exhibits in Chicago and London at the turn of the 19th century. Anthropologists had already claimed Native Americans as "cultural" objects, so when religious studies people came along, they expressed no interest in studying Native Americans (already marked as a "culture") and focused instead on those groups said to have a "religion". At some point, then, an entire discourse of resistance is elaborated whereby some communities wished to be recognized as religious communities as well, that is taking the term, appropriating it and at the same time changing it. But it is a magnificent claim that emerges as a result of new disciplinary encounters: Please recognize us as a religion.
So this is what interests me, at least, the way in which the difference between race and religion is articulated, the way it is deployed. And the way in which the history of its becoming has become invisible, actually is the history of the Semites. It is probably not its only history, but it is one that is crucial in terms of the West. Why did this notion of "Semites" all but disappear? Why is it that what one can say about the Jew can no longer be said about the Arab? What is the dissymmetry, when there used to be so much symmetry, if only for a short century? There are lingering effects of course: the fact that Jews and Arabs are seen as brothers or cousins, as equally fanatic or bent on destruction. But dissymmetry is now the governing rule of understanding Jews and Arabs. And I want to underscore, once again, the place of Europe in these shifts.
The Jew, the Arab in Europe
How is it that the Arab came to be constructed as an external (and political) enemy of Europe and the Jew, an internal (and theological) enemy? What is the import of this construction, and why, as you suggest, following Schmitt, was it necessary for the being-political, as opposed to, or together with, the being-Christian of Europe, to have an enemy?
I want to reiterate that I am not, by any means, writing the history of the enemy. I know I subtitled the book A History of the Enemy but this was precisely to underscore that there is no such. So I really do not have all the historical answers (or any answer, for that matter); rather I am looking at the ways of deploying history to begin to account for its non-existence, its absence.
One of the things that particularly struck me was the early reaction to Islam on the part of Christian theologians, who saw its new adherents as the "new Jews." Some of these theologians simply said, in amazement: "The Jews are back". Theologically, this was a stunning, almost unbearable recognition. To this day, there is no Christian discourse that makes sense of the theological existence of both Jew and Muslim. In other words - to just isolate the theological however provisionally and however artificially - I would still say that Christianity does not know how to think both Judaism and Islam in its conception of world history. Is there anything more evident today?
I am not aware of the existence in current Christian theological discourse of any communication between those who advocate a Christian dialogue with Islam and those who speak about Jewish-Christian dialogue. I do not think there is any institutional connection between those two groups within the Christian church. There are Christians - Catholics and Protestants - who advocate a Judeo-Christian dialogue; there are many more Christians who say there should be a Muslim-Christian dialogue. The important thing for now is that those dialogues would need to be conducted at the religious and theological level.
There are those, of course, who argue for the three monotheistic faiths to come together. The possibility of speaking of the three monotheistic religions is first of all a Muslim gesture. "Monotheistic religions" is a Muslim construct that has been adopted - not very successfully - by some Christians and some Jews. That is fine, I am all for dialogue (whatever that means). But such reflections imply a kind of equality or symmetry that seems to me untenable. Moreover, they do not acknowledge the singular anxiety which Christianity bears. As historical revelations, the order of appearance is, I think, particularly unsettling for Christians. Hence, it would be very different to elaborate a Christian position that would make theological sense of both Jews and Muslims (and again suspending the problem of how Muslims are conceived of, racially versus theologically and/or religiously; in other words, it is overdetermined), rather than seek some peaceful, three-way dialogue that does not acknowledge internal tensions and resistances. I wish there were a Christian theologian - and maybe there is one whom I am not aware of - who would attempt to ascertain the responsibility which Christianity bears, or simply the impact (upon "itself") of its relations to the other monotheistic religions (not to speak of the other religions!). Again the absence of a history of Christian Europe in its relation to both Jew and Arab, Jew and Muslim, certainly does not lead me to think that there is some kind of major theological presence that I missed.
Now, to return to the topological aspect of your question. Let me say that I am utterly unconvinced by empirical arguments regarding the "presence" of minorities in the midst of the dominant Christian population. Would anyone want to suggest that the concern about demons, as opposed to the concern about witches, has anything to do with the empirical presence of either? Clearly, there are overdetermined factors that need to be studied before relying on alleged facts of whatever kind. For my part, aside from asserting that the division between theological enemy (the Jew) and political enemy (the Arab) also happens to replicate the exhausted, misleading and mistaken commonplace that locates Islam outside of Europe and the Jews within it (while recounting a history that often sought to exteriorize, or simply expel, Jews out of Europe, while trying - still trying, as if it meant anything, aside from replicating old patterns of violence - to prevent Islam's "entry" into it), I would only venture to suggest that we look at it as a matter of intimacy. It took some time, there were ups and down, but Christian Europe appeared to have made sense of the Jews (for the better and for the worse), enabling a certain phantasmatic intimacy. Such is much harder to assert regarding Islam, let alone the Arabs (recall that these names are themselves shifty signifiers, only links in a longer chain of names, multiple and changing sites of anxiety). It was thus easier, it remains easier, to see Islam as distant, as if engaging it, acknowledging it, were a matter of contingency (whereas some would still argue that the relation to the Jews and to Judaism was a necessity, a theological one). But this is just a suggestion. Obviously, historical studies would have to attend to different periods, different contexts in order to account for such strange continuities and ruptures. As I said, the history of Europe's relation to both Jew and Arab, attending to the inter-connectedness of both, remains to be written. But I repeat myself. Forgive me.
You say in your book as well that whereas there has been lots of material published on Jews and Muslims in Christian lands (although significantly less so on the latter), we still await "a study that would engage together, and in a comparative perspective, the image of Jews and Muslims in Europe, as the history, therefore, of Europe." What might such a study illuminate?
At the very least that Christian Europe is not Christian. That it wants very much to be Christian, that it has even managed to convince a whole lot of people that it is (for example, it has convinced Zionists that Jews have no place in Europe, or in the world for that matter - a position that continues to be maintained by some who do live in Europe and elsewhere, anywhere almost except in Israel). But political Zionism emerges precisely at the moment where Theodor Herzl becomes convinced that Jews should not be in Europe. That is what anti-Semites have been saying all along, and Herzl simply affirms their position. But that is not to say that it succeeds, only that it is rhetorically effective, and has far reaching consequences.
Even taking into consideration the persecution of Jews in Europe and the Holocaust, I still think it is good - because it is difficult, and politically enriching - that there are Jews, and numerous other minorities, in Europe. Why should there not be? There is absolutely no reason to agree with the claim that Europe makes for itself, more or less vocally, that it should purify itself of any so-called "foreign" element.
I should also make this clear: right now, it seems to me ludicrous and irresponsible to suggest that Jews are the endangered minority of Europe. If anything, Muslims are, and - why privilege ethnicity and religion? - so are the poor and the unemployed (who may no longer be a minority very soon, at the rate things are going). Staying with our issue, it is truly frightening to consider the number of Muslims there are in Europe and the kind of discourse that passes as permissible in the public sphere against them. I should also point out that there is a dreadful similarity between the way in which Israel and Europe speak publicly about their Muslim populations as a "demographic threat". It is incredible, although it remains an absolutely legitimate discourse to maintain. To invoke an illustration I am loath to invoke, think of when Jews were declared a demographic threat, and think of what happens when a state and public personalities (rather than oppressed minorities living in poverty and without prospects for a future) deploy such rhetoric as if this were no problem at all. Or for a major politician, who is not Le Pen, supposedly not a fascist, to say that the inclusion of Turkey into Europe would threaten the integrity of Europe, a statement that was promptly endorsed by the Pope, who of course agrees with it! It boggles my naïve mind. Imagine if a major French politician were to say today that the Jews were a demographic threat to Europe. No one says that. Until then, I will not believe in the so-called "new anti-Semitism". Such an irresponsible concept!
The Muselmann in Auschwitz
Primo Levi, among other survivors of the death camps, has talked about the figure of the Muselmann, the Muslim, in Nazi concentration camps. In Levi's words, "This word, Muselmann, I do not know why, was used by the old ones of the camp to describe the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection." The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has commented that, "With a kind of ferocious irony, the Jews knew that they would not die at Auschwitz as Jews." How does your reading of the understanding of Islam in certain canonical/philosophical texts of the Western tradition [Kant, Montesquieu, and Hegel], help us to understand the use of this appellation in the context of the concentration camp?
I started working on the Muselmann (a term I translate as 'Muslim' since that is what the German was taken to mean, according to countless testimonies) when I wrote the introduction to Derrida's Acts of Religion although at the time I was not quite sure where it was taking me. By the time I read Agamben's Remnants of Auschwitz, which had just come out in French (the English translation had not yet appeared), I was really taken with the book, and thought that I would have nothing to add. Agamben is after all the first to take Levi seriously on the crucial importance of the Muslim, and to dedicate an entire book to a figure that, though well known in circles familiar with Holocaust literature, has hardly attracted attention, or indeed, any serious reflection.
I subsequently came to suspect that there might be something to add after all, and this for two reasons. The first is that Agamben reinscribes the historical obscurity of the term, 'Muslim', its opacity and its strangeness. I do not by any means wish to diminish the strangeness, quite the contrary. I just want to say that this strangeness is even more extensive because of a combination of visibility and invisibility. What I am arguing is that the use of the term in the context of the camp, has a history that can be read on the very surface of major philosophical texts. This all-too visible history is however also marked by its invisibility.
The second reason I thought I may have something to add by way of a footnote, really, to Agamben, is that as complex as Agamben's argument is - touching as it does on numerous issues and dimensions of language, of ethics, of politics, and of law - it has in this particular context very little to say about religion or about theology. This is particularly surprising to me since it is Agamben, who, after Derrida, alerted me to the importance of the theologico-political (think only of Homo Sacer, of his analyses of Schmitt and Benjamin, and so forth).
So there were these two factors: the invisible visibility of the term, 'Muslim', and of its history, the alleged obscurity of its origins, and the absence of religion and theology in the discussion of the term and the phenomenon in Agamben. Agamben suggests, quite tentatively, that maybe the use of 'Muslim' relied on a medieval stereotype. Primo Levi, on the other hand, said the term might have come into common usage because of the way in which people imagined Muslims praying, or because of bandages around the head. Like Levi, I have found none of the explanations I encountered convincing.
So I wanted to explore this double-absence, and from then on, it seemed as though I only encountered symptoms as well as potential, if partial, explanations for this absence everywhere. The first was Kant, who says in his most famous statement on the sublime, in the Critique of Judgment:
"Perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law is the commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth, etc. This commandment alone can explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people in its civilized era felt for its religion when it compared itself with other peoples, or can explain the pride that Mohammedanism inspires."
Some commentators do quote this passage in its entirety going all the way to the comment about Islam ("Mohammedanism"), but most of them actually interrupt the quote before Islam appears. They just stop, so that the whole passage becomes exclusively about Jewish law and about how Kant paradigmatically implicated the Jews in the sublime, which is one of the reasons why Kant can become 'Kant the Jew'. Peter Gordon pointed out to me that what I am showing is not that there is just 'Kant the Jew', but also 'Kant the Muslim', which I thought was a lovely remark. When you actually look at the context of the Critique of Judgment, you realize that Kant is deploying the language that will later enable Hegel, with the help of Montesquieu, to describe the "religions of the sublime," religions which, according to an overwhelming experience (if one can use the term at all), enslave their constituencies and subject individuals to their power.
In this early example of absolute subjection (as theologico-political!), such as Kant articulates it, it is impossible to ignore that Kant offers two moments, two paradigms, that are at once distinct and indissociable. The basic terms, which will then coagulate with Montesquieu - and his elaborations of the Muslim as the ultimate example of the despotic subject - and finally with Hegel, are formulated in Kant. In the book I hope I have succeeded to show this genealogy of sorts, but what I would want to do were I to write it now would be to claim that Hegel (by which I mean Hegel's time, of course) invented the Semites. He invented the Muslim, no doubt, as he provides the clearest and most thorough formulation of what will then be repeated almost verbatim in Auschwitz and in Holocaust literature. But he also invents the Semites. He is the one who basically begins the tradition whereby whatever you say about the Jews you can say about the Muslims (note that Kant does not collapse the two into a barely differentiated unity), and Hegel does this long before Ernest Renan. He also does it before the category of the Semites really gets disseminated. He is writing at the beginning of the 19th century, which is just a few decades after the very notion of a distinction between Aryans and Semites is formulated by Herder and by very few others. Hegel has perhaps not been given enough credit (or blame) for this but to my mind it is really an extraordinary moment in the history of Western thought. And again it is no accident that it is found in Hegel. You could attribute a whole lot of things to Hegel and of course he is not alone, but I think the formulations are truly momentous and revealing.
The argument then is that the "religions of the sublime" are a direct consequence of Hegel's learning from Kant, since we know that Kant and Montesquieu were the two intellectual heroes of Hegel. It is on the basis of their work that he wrote much of what he did. The moment in the Critique of Judgment quoted above complemented by the new articulation of despotism in Montesquieu and more importantly of the despotic subject - meaning the one who is subjected to the despot - and of Islam being the example, or the Muslim being the example par excellence of subjugation, all come together in Hegel. He points out that both Jews and Muslims are thoroughly submitted, they are slaves. They are slaves to their god. Aside from that, there are differences, yes. One can compare Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and there are slight differences, political here, more or less political there. But for the most part, this is what it is, and there is much more similarity between Judaism and Islam than between either and Christianity (this is something that the German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig understood well and opposed explicitly). It is critical that the terms of that submission are precisely those that describe the Muslim in Auschwitz.
I presented this material at a conference in France after which a kind woman, whose name I unfortunately forget, approached me. She told me that she was French but her mother was German and had grown up and gone to school in Germany in the 1930s. This woman had called her mother after having heard my talk and, in response, her mother had read out to her the words of a song that reads roughly as follows:
trink nicht so viel kaffee!
Nicht für Kinder ist der türkentrank
schwächt die Nerven, macht dich blaß lassen und krank.
Sei doch kein Muselmann,
der ihn nicht lassen kann!
Don't drink so much coffee!
The Turk's drink is not for children,
It weakens the nerves and makes you pale and sick.
Don't be a Muslim
Who can't help it!
This is like a contines pour enfants; a children's song that people still learn, as it turns out. I have since met young German people who know that song and I am told it also appears in an opera.
The figure of the powerless, of extreme weakness and subjection, is not shrouded in mystery: coffee will make you weak, it will make you into a Muslim, a Muselmann. Here the image of Islam in the West is both that it is a political threat and a feminizing threat, a weakness. They are weak, and they make us weak. Coffee was one of the sites of that Christian anxiety, dating at least from the attempts by the Ottoman Empire ("the Turk") to invade Venice, Vienna, Europe, in short. At some point, though, Christian Europe realizes that the threat may not be as large as initially anticipated. Historians will know this better than I, but if I recall, the battle of Lepanto, and the failure of the Ottoman fleet to invade Venice signals this turn downward in the fear of "the Turk." Here, by the way, is another instance of a strange phrase concerning which I looked but could not find a history. The Ottoman Empire will, in the nineteenth century, be referred to as "the sick man of Europe." This profoundly disturbing and evocative figure, said to emerge after the War of Crimea, seems to me to resonate profoundly with the Muslim, for what is he if not the sick man of Europe? You can do a Google search on the sick man of Europe and find enormous amounts of material. It is simply everywhere. Every Ottoman specialist knows it.
There are thus numerous traces, all of which can be found and followed, read and interpreted, that suggest possible venues for a genealogy of the Muslims of Auschwitz. These traces are both visible and invisible on the surface of the modern philosophical tradition, in children's song, and in nineteenth and twentieth century popular culture. Nothing here diminishes the mystery which the Muslim is, its dreadful paradigmatic dimension. Yet, its genealogy, essentially related to Jews and Arabs as they appear at crucial moments of its articulation in and by Europe, is, it seems to me, less obscure.
The sick man of Europe is like the Muslim: there is no one who knows anything about Holocaust literature or about Holocaust history who does not know about the Muslim. That is the horrifying beauty of it all. It is the most manifest, and yet also the most invisible. Almost everybody I talked to tells me, "I have always wondered why the term Muselmann was used….". It is just everywhere, and yet there has been no explanation for it. It is, as I said, quite horrifying.
In the book I also write about how in Hebrew the term 'Muslim' is not translated but rather transliterated (something which could be rendered as muzelmann, quite distinct therefore from muslemi, i.e. 'Muslim', in modern Hebrew). I do not mention the following anecdote in the book but I had an Israeli student with whom I went over this material in a class on Holocaust literature. After I spoke to her about the Muslims of Auschwitz, she recognized the term and said to her grandfather, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, "Grandfather, you have always spoken with me about the Muselmann, but you never told me that the word Muselmann means Muslim." She later told me that her grandfather flew into a rage such that she had never seen him in before. He adamantly insisted that this was not the case, that it is not what the word meant, that it never meant that. It is both tragic and even comic, that one could claim that a word is not a word, not that word. Even in English one finds antiquated spellings of 'Mussulman' or 'Musselman' for the word 'Muslim'. But I am not making an etymological argument. I am merely saying that the way the term functioned followed from previous usage, in very different yet related contexts. In Auschwitz, it functioned repeatedly by way of pointing to a similarity between certain peoples in the camp and Arabs praying. But how was this "recognition" possible? And why the popularity, the massive dissemination of the term after the end of the war? When Primo Levi says that 'Muslim' is another term like 'Canada' or 'Mexico' (names given to certain buildings in the camp) which has absolutely no recognizable referential value, or that its connotations have nothing to do with its usage in other contexts, it is simply striking, and to my mind, mistaken.
Of course words function outside of their context but the fact is that something of the common usage remains or is reinscribed. So that when people say 'Canada,' it may be a singular name but it is also overdetermined, culturally and discursively, if you will. The building where all the belongings of the dead were gathered and where it was actually (if only relatively) better to work has nothing to do with Canada, per se, and yet it was Canada that was thereby imagined as a place of plenty, toward which one could dream and, if one survived, escape after the war. And people did. And comparable things can be said of 'Mexico', which is where they stored blankets that had stripes such that reminded people of the traditional cloth of Mexico.
This is the culture of stereotypes. If one says to a little boy, "You throw like a girl", the question is: what enables the "recognition" of a "girl" in this boy? What are the conditions that make possible such a slur? It is not because a girl "really" throws like a girl; it is because people think that they can recognize in a bad throw a girlish throw. This is all I am asking: How did that term - even if that is not what it meant to people - come to function? How did that recognition become possible? How could people say, "This looks to me like a Muslim." When you have a song that says that a Muslim is weak and pale and submissive and can't help it, and this understanding is ubiquitous in the whole discourse of modern Western philosophy, it becomes no less surprising, but perhaps less opaque.
It is not important that individual people know or endorse what its origins might be (think of the verb "to Jew" in English - would anyone claim that it is not a racial slur if used in a context where Jews are not present, not intended, not known? Or if people do not know, not consciously, that it has anything to do with Jews?). It may well be the case that my student's grandfather did not know, and still does not know, but then why fly into a rage? It is not simply because of a mistake; it is far more loaded than that. So the stakes are enormous, absolutely enormous, in denying that there could be any parallel, that the Muslim is alive, against all odds, and still dying, in Israel and Palestine. That thought, I would argue, is simply unthinkable, and more: unbearable.
The Project of Zionism
What seems to be interesting to you about Franz Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption is the way in which he articulates a conception of the enemy through his discussion of war. How does this relate to the way he understands the place of holy war (as opposed to, and together with, political war) in the Abrahamic religions?
I have to make one point about Rosenzweig before I say anything further. In an oral presentation of the material I have on him, I argued that his relation to Islam must be treated in the same way, and as exclusively, as Heidegger's relation to the Jews (in other words, Heidegger's relation to Nazism). Someone asked how I could draw such an analogy since Rosenzweig never said that Islam should be eradicated, or that Muslims should be exterminated. I reminded them that Heidegger had also never said that Judaism should disappear from the face of the Earth or that Jews should face extermination. I do believe that the philosophical problem, the problem of reading, the hermeneutical and rhetorical problems of Rosenzweig and Heidegger are absolutely comparable. In a more informed discussion, Peter Gordon has shown the convergence between the two thinkers. I merely propose a parallel, if marginal, venue on the matter.
I should say that, aside from one and a half articles, almost nothing has been said about Rosenzweig and Islam, which is quite extraordinary (this will change, I hope, thanks to the work of Gesine Palmer and Yossef Schwartz). He is probably one of the most difficult philosophers but he is certainly not the least written on. A whole lot of people have written about him even though he is very difficult, and yet virtually no one has commented, in a serious or extended way, on his relation to Islam.
The Star, as Rosenzweig articulates the figure, provides a great image and summary of what is a very architectural argument. To put it simply, he proposes three kinds of subjects: the theological subject or the theological community, that is, Judaism; the theological-political community, that is, Christianity; and the political community, that is, Islam. Each one of these subjects has a particular relationship to war. So the theological subject, Judaism, he says, knows only political war. In other words, when Judaism looks at any war it only sees a political war. One reason for this is that, for Rosenzweig, Judaism is outside of history so when it looks at anything that is happening in history, it can only see history, which is irrelevant to it. So the theological subject looks at war as political. The theological-political subject, Christianity, does not know the difference between political and holy war, so it actually does not know how to differentiate between the two. Finally, the political subject, the one that Rosenzweig denies religiosity to, is Islam, and it knows only holy war. The figure of the Star, as he articulates it, is magnificent in the mechanistic way in which it all works.
Rosenzweig is interested in the becoming-theological of the political community, or more accurately, the becoming fully theological of the theological-political community. But he ends up having no interest in what happens to the political community, which is why Islam does not appear in the last book of The Star. Rosenzweig was also very Hegelian in a sense, if also anti-Hegelian, and the figures which he deploys from the beginning of the book get aufgehoben, sublated, in one way or another in the continuation of the book. But like Antigone in Hegel, which undergoes no Aufhebung, no sublation, and who just disappears, Islam also simply disappears from Rosenzweig's argument, and that is what I take to be a philosophical problem. At this level, as my revered teacher Amos Funkenstein has shown, Rosenzweig brilliantly embodies a certain culmination of Christian theology.
What is fascinating in all of this is that Rosenzweig was known to be anti-Zionist. One could say that unfortunately there came a point where no Jewish position - even anti-Zionist - could actually be anything if not determined by Zionism. That is a very long statement to unpack (not to mention, a somehow depressing one), but I will just leave it at that for now. I think it is crucial that even though he was known as an anti-Zionist, there is still a fundamental congruence between what Rosenzweig said and what ends up happening in Israel and Palestine. Again, I am merely arguing that lines of continuity (and rupture) need to be explored, in terms that have yet to sufficiently coagulate.
The alliance between the Christian fundamentalists in the United States and Israeli Zionists would suggest a mutation in the present geo-political configuration from the discursive terrain that you explore in your book.
My comment on this issue would be the following: there has been absolutely no change on that front. I mean by this that there is nothing new at all. The simplest way, and probably the more provocative way of putting it, is that Israel, as a theologico-political project, is the clear continuation of Western Christendom's relation to Islam.
I believe I am, as one says in French, weighing my words, je pèse mes mots. The argument I want to make is that it is absolutely essential to continue to insist on the colonial dimension of Zionism, and colonial in the strict sense, absolutely. The claim that there was no colonial basis for Israel is ludicrous. People were citizens of countries and were acting on behalf of Western powers, and Western powers understood this very well. As did Herzl, of course, and others.
So Israel is absolutely a colonial enterprise, a colonial settler state, to be precise. But Israel is also something other than that. This is not to say that it is therefore better or that the state of Israel should be exonerated for what it has done and is doing more than ever to the Palestinians. Rather I wish to underscore that there are sources and reasons for the phenomenon which modern Zionism is, sources and reasons that precede colonialism and that continue to affect and possibly govern, if subterraneously, events and processes in Israel/Palestine as well as in Europe and the US. The claim that Western Christendom or that the West, Europe, even the US were solving their Jewish question by exporting it to the Middle East is, of course, quite accurate, but not to consider that they were also exporting their Arab problem is, it seems to me, misleading and quite dangerous. It is not just because a group of Jewish or Zionist organizations insisted on going to Palestine (after some struggle as to which "empty land" could be considered as well) that the state of Israel was founded. This was not a peaceful project, as we know, since some people wanted to go elsewhere, and the colonial project was such that they were, in fact, considering Uganda, or Argentina, or Palestine. So it was not just that the Zionist movement simply made the decision. It certainly did not have that kind of power at the time.
What is more or at least equally important is that Europe has also been dealing with a Muslim question (which is to say as well, an Arab question, with the slides between names, and because the slide is also between religion and ethnicity, between religion and race), and to ignore this is in fact to reinscribe the enforced vanishing of the Arab and of the Muslim in and from Europe. It is to repeat what Giscard d'Estaing [who said that Turkey's entry into the EU would be "the end of Europe"] and the Pope appear to want to do historically. It is false, and it is wrong. Forget medieval influences and the role of Arabic culture in "transmitting" Greek culture. What I am talking about is a constant, if changing, mode of presence and a lengthy series of imaginary effects, and much more than imaginary, in and on Europe, on a continuous basis, from the 7th century all the way to the 21st. There is no moment when Europe is not concerned, occupied, at war, propagandizing, writing, thinking, worrying, admiring, loving, hating the Arab, the Muslim, the Turk, the Saracen, the Agarene, the Moor. There is no single moment in history since the 7th century when someone can tell me that in Western Europe there is not a concern which is, in one way or another, determining of Western culture, music, art, politics, religion, everything. Would someone want to tell me that it is just a Jewish matter that is being exported to the Middle East? Absolutely not. Why, then, specifically, to Palestine? Why did the Western powers want and agree with the destruction of Palestine for the benefit of Israel? Why to the "Holy Land"?
The question must be asked and the answer must engage "the Muslim question." For to ignore this question is to renew and increase the invisibility of the Christian role in the pre-history and the history of colonialism and post-colonialism. The Pope, to take a random example, has not exactly been a peaceful mediator of anything here. No pope has been and no Western power has been. There is no mediation. There is rather an extreme investment in the continuation of the war of Israel against Palestine, that is to say, in maintaining the conditions that make this war possible. I say this, and I include Europe, even though Europe is to some extent more progressive in this respect, certainly more than the US (mind you, that is not hard) but I do think there is an investment, economic and psychic, in maintaining the enmity. It is after all perfect from a Christian perspective: the Jews and the Muslims are fighting each other and God knows what it is about. Who can understand these people anyway? That would be the more "tolerant" and relentlessly symmetric statement: well, they are all crazy. I am absolutely against any such symmetry, but I am also more and more against any assertion that Christian, Western powers are just like big brothers trying to manage irreconcilable enemies.
On a related matter, somewhat anecdotally, I did consider another cover for the book, which I had shown in some lectures. I was not sure I would like the cover as it now appears, but Janet Wood did a wonderful job, which I was extremely happy with. I was surprised I liked it because I did not want to provide a face, to unsettle and confirm all kinds of expectations. In the end, it is precisely the vanishing of the face and its indeterminability as it appears on the cover that appeals to me so much.
But the image that I had which would have run the risk of turning the book into some kind of comic book was a photograph of the Pope visiting the Holy Land a few years ago. It was in Time magazine (so it probably would have been too much trouble to get anyway in terms of copyright and so forth). On the photograph, the Pope appears wearing his full regalia, all white, shiny-white, and on either side, he has one of the chief rabbis and a Muslim cleric who was nominated by Arafat (the actual Mufti of Jerusalem declined attending). And the rabbi and the cleric look exactly the same: they are both wearing European dark suits, ties, white shirts, and they both have a salt-and-pepper beard. The only thing that is slightly different is the headdress; the rabbi has a more European hat, whereas the Muslim has a kind of turban, but you can scarcely see that in the picture. What is fantastic about this is that you could more or less substitute one for the other without too much trouble. I am not sure how observant, in both senses of the term, people have been of the distinction. What is particularly striking, however, is the Pope, who sits all in white in the middle, holding his head as if in great suffering (the elderly John Paul II has been quite sick for a number of years). On the photograph, at any rate, he is surrounded by the Jew and the Arab, and he simply cannot take it. And such is the theological predicament of Christianity: the Jew, and the Muslim, and what of the Christian then? A hyphen in between? How is that possible? And there are 1 billion Muslims? They succeeded the Christians? That is why Christianity had to maintain for so long that Islam was not a religion, not even a theological aberration. How could a religion come about and succeed after Jesus? That makes no sense, even if you think of a Second Coming. But another religion?
Of course the Pope is not really holding his head because of any theological predicament. The structure of the image does perfectly replicate the well-known pictures of a big, white brother in between the two dark people who cannot get along. As if the big, white brother was not also separating, and keeping apart: it is Carter between Begin and Sadat, and it is Clinton between Rabin and Arafat. I cannot endorse those moments. Nor am I saying that if you let everybody just talk everything will be all right.
So to return to the question, there is nothing new about the alliance between Zionism and Christian fundamentalism. It is somewhat new only in terms of the way in which Israel has been more blatant about it. I was reading an article recently that described the last visit of the Israeli Minister of Tourism to the US. During this visit, the Minister of Tourism - one of many outspoken fascists in the Israeli government, but one who is particularly blatant from one of the extreme right-wing parties - for the first time never even contacted any Jewish organization but went straight and only for Christian evangelists.
So in terms of policy subtleties (or lack thereof), this may be new, but at a fundamental, structural level, there is nothing new. Of course there is an alliance. And I am not just talking about eschatological issues, I am talking about a fundamental congruence of understanding concerning Islam in the world, on the need to fight it, and to establish dissymmetries, and with Jews and Jewish Israelis willingly taking up that fight. It is beautifully choreographed, though I do not think there is one choreographer, not even one team. Things are much more disseminated.
The Problem of Universalism
How is the question of the theologico-political related to the question of universalism, and all the values that it concretely names: democracy, human rights, equality, and so on?
I will just give you a preview, if I may, of the article I have just completed and which I mentioned to you earlier entitled 'The Semitic Hypothesis'. For this article, I decided to have a summary in which one of the phrases I included, somewhat provocatively, was "Secularism is Orientalism". I know I have more work to do on this issue, to continue reading Talal Asad's wonderful Formations of the Secular, for example. I therefore do not want to reduce the secular to Orientalism but I think at this point it is extremely important to understand that the discourse on secularism is fundamentally related to anti-Islam. Nor is this, by the way, a new development. It is rather, as we saw with Hegel, constitutive of the newly found religiosity of the East that occurred at the same time as the West was "losing its religion." I have yet to hear a convincing argument, at any rate, that would enable me to think that some kind of politically forward move would not be predicated on dictating to 1 billion people (and that is a conservative estimate) that they have to let go. Which, aside from the ludicrous dimension of it all, is just truly preposterous as a judgment on . . . but on what exactly? Islam as a whole? History? The World?
This is related to what I was saying earlier about secularization being a fundamental change within Christianity and therefore, still about Christianity. It is not just that secularization is not something that simply exports itself (nor for that matter was Christianity - read Ines Zupanov on Jesuits in India) as if it were a product or a recipe (although the attempt does have extensive and often devastating consequences - I wish we could discuss the history, but also current size and impact, of the numerous Christian missionary movements when speaking of "globalization"), nor do I mean to deny that there has been a generalization of the use of religion. It would be silly not to recognize that Islamists are now (and they are very much of the now) claiming a religious perspective, and that they are calling it religion - which in itself is incredible, given the Latin (which is to say, Christian) as well as modern histories of the term that Derrida talks about in Faith and Knowledge. I simply want to underscore the cultural and political effects of a massive translation. The translation, for example, of din into "religion," comparable at least to the translation of adab into "letters," is simply momentous, and reorganizes knowledges, communities, and more. To think that what is happening (or worse that what should happen) is "secularization" is simply obfuscating. And it is much more complicated than the decision to use a certain word (there are, of course, other processes at work, the usual suspects: colonialism, capitalism, and so forth), yet I would not minimize at all the impact of linguistic changes.
We are desperately in need of another kind of political imagination if all we can come up with at the moment is that no civil society can be constituted with the presence of religion in the public sphere (keeping in mind the continuous identification of Islam as that religion). We also have to go beyond the narrative that now construes Islam (and other "religions") as a "way of life", which then became a religion. There are perhaps terms that may enable descriptions of the changes that have occurred and that occur still, but issues of translation loom large, so much so that the very possibility of speaking of change is dependent on them. The other thing to recognize is that for the most part, the discourse on secularization, the discourse on modernization and on democracy in the Middle East - itself predicated on some kind of secularization - is conducted for the most part by people who have never learnt a word of Arabic or of any language of the area. Knowledge (if we can call it that), and perhaps more precisely, "expertise," knows no bounds to its lack of humility.
I have to say that if some expert wants to tell me what exactly is wrong with the world, what needs to be changed in order to solve all or most current problems, I have no objection to the 'wrong' being identified as "religion", if that is what pleases such expert. I am, however, fascinated by this move: how anybody could claim such a thing regarding what is wrong with the world in general and where the solution lies precisely. Marx at least was modest enough, for the most part, to limit himself to Western culture. I know he made statements that could disrupt that assertion, but for the most part he was talking about the way in which Western society functioned. So was Foucault. I am sure there is much I still do not understand here, but I do see that as a sign of modesty rather than as sheer ethnocentrism. There has to be some recognition of the fact that one cannot speak about everything especially when one does not know even the rudiments of the languages of the area of which one speaks. I am thus not particularly keen on trashing anything religious or on blaming religion more than politics or human psychology or anything else in areas where I can only hope to educate myself a little.
There is, in fact, a level at which I simply lack all understanding. Can anyone seriously claim that the problem with Islamic countries is Islam? Well, maybe the problem with countries is that they are countries. Or maybe the problem is that there are people (all such suggestions have been made by respectable people). I do not know what the problem is so I am not going to advocate a solution that is so massive in its claims as to propose the wholesale transformation of entire cultures, societies and polities. Arguably, an extensive part of said transformation has already occurred, but the argument goes both ways. It is already a given that a number of women are wearing a veil in Western Europe. Let us concede that this may be described as a change. Would one then go on to claim that French culture will stand or fall on either its acceptance of or resistance to such change? The transformation of societies was not done by fiat in the West. It is not as if someone stood up at some point and simply said, "Let's have a civil society," and then it was created ex nihilo. As if it came with a recipe.
Rather than making calls for abandoning religion, or relegating it to the private sphere, or displacing it, or whatever it is that people are advocating, we might then think instead of the ways in which religion has already changed, and the ways in which it is helping people live (and, like much else, generously helping them die, although I am doubtful it is the main or only culprit on that front). I am not trying to cleanse religion from responsibility. I am just asking whether it is right to consider it as more responsible than other elements of human history. As Levinas taught us, it is a difficult thing to attribute responsibility. It is in fact, highly irresponsible, unless one utters the only responsible assertion, in the first person: I am responsible.
To advocate an abandonment of religion, at any rate, is to my naïve mind the same thing as to suggest that the aesthetic (that other modern invention) should be abandoned, that it is such a problematic thing that we should altogether drop the distinction between the ugly and the beautiful. Never go to a museum again or admire the face of a child. Like art and beauty, and probably more so, religion is still understood in highly contained ways, so construed in simple, oppositional terms such as human and divine, and so on. And perhaps we should in fact abandon that distinction, and forget these terms, human and divine. But who am I to say?
I do not mean to diminish the importance of very serious thinkers who have worked on such questions and issues. I am not arguing that what they say is irrelevant. It is just that my own general ignorance would make such a gesture preposterous, even if it were a gesture of agreement with these illustrious thinkers, all of whom I respect greatly. It just seems to involve a simplification of what religion is in every case, and, at the very least, of the history of religion and secularism.
With regard to questions about human rights and democracy, there are people who insist on the endogenous or local reasons for whatever happens in much of the Third World. But really, so many of the dictatorial regimes in the world, and by implication most of the dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, have been put in place by American policy, or are an effect of American policy. The US has an active military presence in more than a hundred countries.
I do not mean to be deterministic by suggesting that everything comes down to military and economic power. Whatever other reasons there might be for the situation, the fact is that the obstacles thus constituted to the development of indigenous causes and processes are so small that I fail to see the point in apportioning blame that way. That is why I am Eurocentric, if you will, that is why I am only talking about Europe and the West because economic and military power is so dominantly with the West, with the Christian West. That said, I do not talk about economic and military power because I do not know them, and because I have been trained to think that a lot of important things occur at a different level, mostly rhetorical, and indeed "textual." The embodiments of policies today have antecedents that are hundreds and hundreds of years old. I do not know why, but they are still working their effects, whether it is because people are still reading the Bible, because Aquinas is not dead, because Luther is not dead, because St Paul is not dead (or perhaps they are indeed, which only makes them more powerful, as Freud taught us), and because the Crusades are quite certainly not over. Has the West recovered from them? Has it really? After all, if the first Gulf war was meant to recover from the Vietnam War, who knows what will be needed for the loss of Jerusalem?
Interview with Gil Anidjar conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.
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