Theorizing Modernities article

Eternal Enmities: A Jewish Decolonial Re-Evaluation of Western Altruism

Photo courtesy of Kenneth Lu, “SFO #noban Protest–Jan 29, 2017”

“The political and intellectual history of modernity,” writes historian Robert Orsi, “is also always a religious history.” However, as significant and diverse recent scholarship is now bringing to light, narratives around the political, intellectual, and religious history of modernity often serve not only to illuminate the past, but also to obscure it through the authorization of specific forms of experience and knowledge. 

This symposium, entitled “Decolonizing Narratives, Denaturalizing Modernity,” aims to highlight recent scholarship that complicates received notions around the history of modernity. While focusing on distinct temporal, geographical, and religious contexts, in their shared attempts to uncover histories hidden by the dominant discourses of modernity, the authors featured in this symposium uniformly challenge the naturalization of modernity’s emergence and indicate that that the history of modernity has always been (and remains) fundamentally contested. 

The photo of two children of different religious backgrounds protesting side by side inside the Chicago O’Hare airport on a cold January 2017 morning was enthusiastically ‘liked,’ ‘posted,’ and ‘re-tweeted’ thousands of times on social media. The context of this intercultural encounter was not random. The new political juncture had created networks of racialized populations facing immense pressure. The travel ban against Muslims, the ICE raids targeting Latinxs, and the attacks against Asians in public spaces had become normalized as part of a new tragic reality. Even the Jewish Community Centers, institutions largely incorporated into liberal white society, suffered a string of bomb threats. A number of these communities launched struggles that paralleled those of pre-election movements against anti-Black racism (Black Lives Matter) and Native invisibilization (Standing Rock).

In this volatile context, two parents, one Jewish and one Muslim, joined the protest against the travel ban on January 30th at Chicago’s largest airport with their kids, Maryam and Adin. During this protest, the kids, who were riding on their parents’ shoulders, encountered one another and exchanged gazes full of deep solidarity. The picture of two “immemorial enemies,” one wearing a hijab and the other a yarmulke, engaging in a true act of comradeship quickly captivated the imagination of the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram market. A young man from California wrote “Only in America,” while a middle-aged woman from New York pleaded “we should learn from these innocent children.” The picture represented what a large part of the Western liberal population needed to see: that even in the most challenging moments, the U.S. was still symbolized by pure and innocent individuals able to start a life beyond ancestral enmity.

It is not surprising that those practicing a liberal reading rejoiced at the image. They saw in it the true spirit of the American system: the altruistic and progressive incorporation of difference into a national community able to self-correct its past injustices. Furthermore, the “land of the free,” the ultimate consummation of Western ideals, is the ideal space to leave behind ancient hatreds. There may be no better example of this than a re-encounter between Muslim-Arab and Jewish populations that have been (allegedly) murdering each other since Biblical times. This hatred, however, is far from eternal. It is, on the contrary, a very recent fabrication of the same altruistic West that now intends to mediate among the parties, portraying itself as the only neutral ground for reconciliation. The question is, then, whether the perpetrator and beneficiary is the best candidate to solve the problem it created.

Photo Credit: Christopher Rose. The Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca in Toledo, Spain, was forcibly converted to a church decades before the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in the late 1400s.

This is where a Jewish decolonial critique of Western modernity, in conversation with other voices, can offer its two cents. A new world came into existence in 1492 with a process that led to European accumulation of capital and a self-appointed epistemological privilege following the conquest, forced conversion, genocides, and/or enslavement of Jews, Muslims, native peoples, and Africans. Veiling the newly acquired resources that enabled the nascent West to launch industrial and political revolutions, this system started dividing into two groups the populations whose resources were being stolen. On the one hand “people with no religion,” largely representing “Native” and “Black” populations, and on the other, “people with the wrong religion,” generally characterizing Jews and Muslims. This division became a core component of coloniality, or the patterns of domination developed during colonial times that transcend time and space and continue until the present day.

From the fifteenth to the nineteenth century both groups suffered increasing racialization. The “people with no religion” were categorized as people with no history, civilization, or development. The system, then, altruistically offered them the evasive possibility of saving themselves by erasing their past and accepting their alleged cultural or biological inferiority. Even in current political discourses, the intention of helping “inner-cities” escape their underdevelopment attests to how coloniality is very much alive. The “people with the wrong religion” were described as “being stuck” or “having a regressive” history, civilization, or development. Since theirs was an alternative, erroneous system, they were portrayed as threats to civilization. The longevity of this narrative in the U.S. was evident in the Communist Jew represented by the Rosenbergs yesterday and in the banned Muslim today.  

In the nineteenth century, imperialism elevated some minorities above the general Muslim population to dismember one of the last non-Western powers, the Ottoman Empire. In the Jewish case European powers were aided by Jewish continental communities who were eager to prove they could erase their uncivilized past and earn citizenship in their own European context. Importing the history of Western anti-Semitism to narrate the history of Arab Jews, colonial powers justified their conquest, altruistically pretending to “save” not only Christian but also Jewish populations from the “regressive” forces of Islam (and Jewish Arabs from their own “underdevelopment”). While this strategy was premodern, coloniality added a fundamental twist. If before modernity genocides were perpetrated to “altruistically” save Christians (the Crusades), in modernity this narrative was mobilized to rescue others from alleged barbarism: Natives from human sacrifices, Africans from cannibalism, and now Jews. Western altruism seems to have recurring ends.   

Photo Credit: Roy Cheung. “Blue on Blue.” Many Muslims and Jews found refuge in the city of Chefchaouene, Morocco, after fleeing Spain in the late 1400’s.

What this narrative obscured is that Jewish history in Muslim-ruled lands was far from identical to the Jewish experience in Christian Europe. This does not mean there were no problems, but Jews were an integral part of the social fabric of Muslim-Arab/Berber societies and this conviviality was present well beyond the sometimes over-romanticized experience of el-Andalus. For over a millennium Jews lived among Muslim populations within a clear protected legal structure (dhimmi and then zimmet). Several Jewish communities have had a continuous presence in the region, refuting the Christian myth of the “wandering” Jewish existence as a punishment for the rejection of Christianity. Under the auspices of the Ottoman rulers, Jews who escaped Christian persecution (starting but not limited to the fall of Granada in 1492) commonly found refuge among Muslims. By the seventeenth century major cities in the Ottoman Empire had Jewish majorities or a distinctive presence.

It is not a coincidence that even with the gradual erasure of Arab Jewish history, Jews at large were still being accused by Western luminaries of having an “Oriental Spirit,” portrayed as a “Palestinian Race” or looking like “Asiatic Refugees.” Edward Said points out the connection between anti-Semitism and Orientalism, and Ella Shohat explains how the same logic was applied to Arab Jews. Despite the efforts to split Jewish and Arab populations, the connection between them endured. In the late nineteenth century it was a Jew (Yaqub Sanua) who coined the slogan “Egypt for Egyptians;” during the Holocaust, Albanian Muslims quintupled their Jewish populations hiding refugees; and on the eve of the postcolonial struggle in Morocco, Sultan Mohammed V called for an anti-colonial “Jewish-Muslim-Berber” alliance. This bond came to be broken only in 1948 (or during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis) with the ultimate naturalization of Jews as Westerners in Israel, the US, and eventually the rest of the world. The “eternal” enmity, then, was a colonial fabrication built on altruistic discourses that are less than 180 years-old (more realistically, 70 years-old).

A Decolonial Jewish re-evaluation of narratives of eternal enmity can shed light upon the perverse altruism of the Western project. While witnessing Neo-Nazis shouting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, some may feel nostalgic for liberalism. However, we need to evaluate whether the roots of this discourse are not already contained in the colonial manipulation of racialized populations. Liberal altruism may well be the problem and not the solution. The Jewish-Muslim case is one of many that invite us to unveil what has been hidden, contest what has been naturalized, and move beyond modern/colonial liberal narratives.  


Further Reading

Ammiel Alcalay, After Jews and Arabs (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

Gil Anidjar, The Jew, The Arab: A History of the Enemy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).  

Gil Z. Hochberg, “‘Remembering Semitism’ or ‘On The Prospects of Re-Membering the Semites’” Re-Orient: The Journal of Critical Muslim Studies 1.2 (Spring 2016): 192-223.

Ramon Grosfoguel, “The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism in the Four Genodies/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century” Human Architecture 11.1 (2013).

Walter Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).

Salman Sayyid, Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonisation and the World Order (London: Jurts, 2015).

Ella Shohat, On the Arab-Jew, Palestine and Other Displacements (London: Pluto Press, 2017).

Santiago Slabodsky, Decolonial Judaism: Triumphal Failures of Barbaric Thinking (New York: Palgrave, 2015).

Santiago Slabodsky
Santiago Slabodsky is a sociologist who holds the Florence and Robert Kaufman Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies and directs the JWST program in the Department of Religion at Hofstra University. In addition, he is Associate Director of the Center for Race, Culture and Social Justice and serves in the faculty of three area studies programs: Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies, and European Studies. Prior to his appointment at Hofstra he directed the graduate program of Religion, Ethics and Society and was an assistant professor of Global Ethics at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University in Southern California.  
Dr. Slabodsky writes about intercultural encounters between Jewish and Global South social theories and political movements. His book Decolonial Judaism: Triumphal Failures of Barbaric Thinking received the 2017 Frantz Fanon Outstanding Book Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association. His research interests include Jewish thought and culture, colonialism and decoloniality, sociology of knowledge, Latin American, North African, and Middle Eastern histories, religion and politics, inter-religious conversations, Jewish-Muslim dialogue, critical theories of religion and society, and race and globalization. 
Theorizing Modernities article

Dignity is Not Power Blind

How can a society that values human dignity simultaneously perpetuate cultural and structural violence? In practice, the dignity and personhood of some are valued over others. The question may be, then, how to apply dignity in a normatively inclusive and egalitarian way.

Panelists Atalia Omer, Professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Notre Dame Law School Professor Doug Cassel, Georgetown University Professor Charles Villa-Vicencio, and Kroc Institute Professor Ebrahim Moosa all considered “whose dignity matters” at the “Politics of Dignity” panel on October 9th, 2017. Held at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, the event was co-sponsored by Contending Modernities and the Center for Civil and Human Rights. We invite you to watch the recording below.


“Each human being has intrinsic worth and we all have value, we all have the right to be treated with respect” began Doug Cassel, drawing on the work of Gerald Neuman and Christopher McCrudden. Charles Villa-Vicencio went further: “human dignity means the fundamental transformation of human structures…. A radical commitment to all people across the planet.”

This dignity takes many forms, beyond the “western Christian” sanctification of individual dignity, which has made its way into secular conversations as autonomy, as Ebrahim Moosa noted. Dignity may take communal forms, and it may be rooted in the religious, ideological, and cultural. “What are the uses and abuses of this concept?” Moosa asked. “What are the ideological, political, and practical implications of dignity?”

“Dignity” entered into international human rights diction with the UN Charter, as a response to the horrors of WWII, and later with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity.” Cassel detailed “three circles of [legal] meaning” for the concept: firstly, that all human beings have this value; secondly, dignity as a moral justification for universal bans on outrageous practices such as genocide; and third, dignity in relation to questions of identity and the pursuit of life. When it comes to the final category, courts will often recognize there is dignity on both sides of the courtroom and dignity may operate as a limit on rights—the free speech of a speaker versus the security and social integrity of the recipient of hate speech or slander. Societies weight such rights and (in)dignities differently, as do they their recipients.

“Dignity was a moral currency prevalent in many cultures” throughout history, Moosa told the audience. Yet these same societies practiced slavery and sexual and racial discrimination. “These days,” he continued, “it is the dignity of the new tribe, the nation state. In other places, male dignity eclipses female dignity, industrial dignity eclipses communal agrarian dignity.” How can we understand these contradictions?

Photo Credit: Nicholas Roberts. Atalia Omer presents at The Politics of Dignity.

Power, suggested Moosa and Atalia Omer. It is the “dignity of the home team,” the dominant power group, as Moosa put it, amidst that of those with less (or no) dignity: the “ungrievable.” Cultural and moral practices, political and economic structures, offer only some people dignity and full personhood. Villa-Vicencio expanded: “if our God is an austere and indomitable God with biases towards one group against another, then sooner or later we will behave exactly as that God behaves. If we perceive the other as ‘less’ than they should be, we [will] have every right to go out and correct the situation.”

Indeed, as Omer noted, the panel was held on “Columbus Day,” alternately known as “Indigenous People’s Day.” The celebration of the Spanish “discovery” of the “new” world and simultaneous papering over of centuries of genocide of native peoples and slavery by Europeans starkly illumine the “dynamics of de-humanization that have rendered some humans ‘ungrievable.’” Drawing from Judith Butler’s Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, and W.E.B. Dubois’ travel to a Nazi-razed Warsaw ghetto, Omer considered what dignity meant for lives that “cannot be lost or destroyed because they are already lost and destroyed…they can be forfeit because they are framed as already forfeit, as threats to human lives, rather than lives in need.” These “ungrievable” lives are interconnected through modes of oppression and mechanisms of resistance. If we are to apply dignity as a “natural” right, rather than a political right for select few, we must “examine the power dynamics of dignity through an epistemology from the margins.”

In closing, Villa-Vicencio warned that we may all be more on the margins that we presently imagine. We face the threat of total extinction as a species from nuclear war, or mass starvation due to dramatic global warming. Those now most on the margins will feel this—and in the case of climate change, already do—first. It is a test of our integrity and ultimately, our ability to survive, whether we recognize their equal “grievability” and step forward with the kind of cultural transformation necessary to not only recognize them, but act on the structures that hold them “forfeit” in the first place. For this, Villa Vicencio urged us to dig through the “rubble” of discarded traditions of our faiths down to the “liberatory” core: the radical commitment to justice, and goodness, and one another.

Dania Straughan
Dania is a graduate of the Kroc Institute’s Masters in Peace Studies, with a focus on public policy, monitoring and evaluation, and organizational management. As part of her program she conducted an ethnographic evaluation of a local South Bend organization applying dialogue to intergroup conflict, and benchmarked the use of restorative justice on North American college campuses for Notre Dame. She previously served as outreach coordinator at the Millennium Nucleus for the Study of Stateness and Democracy in Latin America, at the Catholic University of Chile.
Global Currents article

The Social Fabric of Jerusalem: Memories in the Wake of Christian Exodus

Photo Credit: Stephanie Saldaña. A Palestinian Muslim woman lights candles in front of the icon of St. George at the feast of St. George/al-Khidr in Lod. During the festival, Muslims revere Khidr, who is mentioned in the Quran as a wise guide of Moses, while Christians honor St. George, the patron saint of Palestinians, bringing olive oil down to his tomb beneath the church. The festival is one of the last shared Muslim-Christian festivals in the region, and marks the end of the olive harvest.

Last Easter I set out to explore some of the holiday traditions that are in danger of disappearing in the Old City of Jerusalem, where the local Christian population has been declining so rapidly that it is now estimated to be only around two percent of the city’s total population. Not knowing where to start, I approached someone whom I knew from experience would able to enlighten me: my neighbor of seven years, Mazen Ahram, a Muslim Sheikh and Islamic scholar.

While to someone unfamiliar with Jerusalem it might seem counter-intuitive to ask a Muslim leader for information about Easter, this would not be surprising at all for many old Jerusalemites. Sheikh Mazen’s family traces its lineage to the Prophet Mohammed, and arrived in Jerusalem along with Omar ibn Khattab in the 7th century when Muslims first took control of the city from the Byzantine Empire. As a result, his family had been in contact with the Christians of Jerusalem for more than 13 centuries, passing the stories of those encounters down from generation to generation.

I found Sheikh Mazen Ahram sitting behind the counter of his small shop in East Jerusalem, where he works when he is not at the al-Aqsa Mosque. My question sent him into a long, nostalgic trip to his childhood living outside of the walls of the Old City in the early 1950s. Every year, he and his Christian neighbors dyed Easter eggs together using the peelings of red onions, which naturally colored the eggs. His grandmother was well known for her skill in painting eggs, and she had a collection of painted, blown out eggs on her shelf.

Even I was surprised at how central the Christian Easter holiday was to his childhood as a devout Muslim. The local tradition states that after Muslim armies conquered Jerusalem, Omar ibn Khattab refused to pray inside the city’s main church, insisting that his followers would want to turn it into a mosque if they saw him pray there. He prayed just across from it instead, and today the Mosque of Omar stands across from the Holy Sepulcher commemorating the gesture. Local Palestinians know that two Muslim families keep the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where tradition holds that Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead—those families are still entrusted with opening and closing the church daily.

Sheikh Mazen told me that when he was a boy, every Holy Saturday he went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to wait for the Holy Fire to appear. The tradition among Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem says that a holy fire was lit at the moment of Jesus’ resurrection inside of the tomb each year, and thousands would wait with candles for the flame to emerge from the tomb and to be passed around. As a boy, Mazen couldn’t afford a fancy lantern, and so he would carve out the peeling of a thick Jericho orange, place a candle inside, and wait for the flame. He then carried the fire from the holy tomb back home.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Saldaña. A lantern made with a hollowed out orange and Easter eggs colored with red onion peels.

I took notes. That Holy Saturday, I waited for the Holy Fire like thousands of other Christians, and when it arrived I placed it in a candle inside of the rind of an orange. Sheikh Mazen was right; it worked like a charm. Our eggs that year were painted with onion peels.

I tell these stories because the disappearance of Christian communities in the Middle East, long warned of by local Christians, has become a startling reality. Iraq has lost two thirds of its Christian population since 2003. An estimated one third of Syrian Christians have fled during the country’s civil war, though possibly more. Those outside of the region may view the discussion as alarmist; those in the region, who saw ancient communities of Jews almost entirely vanish from the fabric of life in countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in the last decades, know that it is entirely possible for a community to be there and then to be gone.

Yet most discussions of this crisis focus on what this means for Christians. This is understandable; as the community that is leaving, they are obviously the most heavily impacted. Nonetheless, over more than a decade of living in the Middle East, I have noticed how much the disappearance of Christians also impacts many Muslims I know in the region. During Christmas, a Muslim friend commented on Facebook about how much he missed seeing Christmas decorations in Jerusalem in the way he had when he was a child. I recently interviewed a Syrian refugee named Mouiad from the city of Daraa, who spoke of the relationship with Christians that he had before the war, when they would often fast for one another’s holidays. He often visited Christian shrines to Mary with his friends, a practice that was not uncommon. Though he had brought very little with him when he fled to Jordan, he wanted to show me one thing he had: a copy of the Bible in Arabic, kept on his shelf alongside the Quran.

Still, rarely have I come upon a public discussion of what the migration of Christians from the Middle East will mean for the Muslim communities who have lived with them for centuries. Many of these communities have based their identities on what it means to be people of faith living within pluralistic societies, and how they live with Christians has become an integral part of who they are as Muslims. Perhaps we need to talk about the Middle East in the same ways in which we talk about fragile ecosystems. When a plant or an animal disappears, we take it for granted that the entire ecosystem around it will be impacted. Living species come to depend upon one another over time; the disappearance of one can devastate another.

We often forget that human communities form the same deep relationships over centuries, and that what impacts one community cannot be discussed in isolation. This seems to me to be particularly true of Palestinian Muslims and Christians. This summer, two Israeli policemen were shot and killed by two Palestinian citizens of Israel at the entrance to the al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount. Israel installed metal detectors as a response, setting off large scale demonstrations by Palestinians who argued that Israel was disrupting the status quo over who has authority over religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. Palestinians prayed in the streets, refusing to enter the mosque compound as long as metal detectors were in place.

While thousands prayed in the streets that week, it was one photo that was shared repeatedly by Palestinians on Facebook. It was a photo of a Nidal Aboud, a Palestinian Christian who joined the line of prayer, a cross visibly around his neck, and read from his bible as those Muslims around him prayed.

For Palestinian Muslims, sharing that photo was a way for them to express their belief that Palestinians were protesting not due to religious but political objections, and that the issue of status quo was one that concerned all Palestinians, not only Muslims. Though the Palestinian Christian was only one among thousands, he became an essential part of how Muslims told the story of that historical moment.

In the past, there have been many examples of Palestinian Christians serving as an integral part of the telling of Palestinian history, be it literary critic Edward Said, or the prominent politician Hanan Ashrawi. Even today, at a moment in which Christians are fleeing from the Middle East in historic numbers, a Palestinian named Yacoub Shaheen, the son of a Syrian Orthodox Christian carpenter from Bethlehem, won the hugely popular singing competition Arab Idol in 2017, by a landslide. He celebrated by singing a Palestinian nationalistic song; it was not long before he began advocating for Palestinian hunger strikers in prison. He makes a point of sending holiday greetings to Muslims on his social media.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Saldaña. A Muslim woman celebrates the feast of al-Khidr/St. George, while in the background a young boy plays in a costume of St. George. Traditionally, Christian mothers who cannot become pregnant pray to St. George, promising to name their children after him and to bring them to his tomb dressed in costume every year on the feast day.

On a more personal level, Sheikh Mazen told me how much the disappearance of Christians in Jerusalem has pained him, taking the time to mention every former neighbor by name. He has never forgotten the 1967 war, when his father’s tailor shop was located on the front line of the fighting between Israel and Jordan. Fearing he would lose everything, his father stored all of his sewing machines and inventory in the nearby Franciscan convent of the White Sisters for the duration of the fighting. Everything survived: he credits the nuns with saving his family’s livelihood.

What do these small holiday greetings mean, or these stories of candles lit and feast days shared, of holy books carried out of war and a single man who prays among thousands, in the larger scheme of things? As not only Christians, but other minorities disappear from the Middle East, how will it affect the world left behind, which will increasingly lose its diversity? How will the loss of these deep, if sometimes fraught relationships between faiths also affect those who leave?

That remains to be seen. But perhaps it is time to widen the conversation.

Stephanie Saldana
Stephanie Saldaña received a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College and a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. Now a resident of Jerusalem, Saldaña teaches at the Honors College for Liberal Arts and Sciences, a partnership of Bard College and Al-Quds University. She has written two books, The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith and A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide, and is the founder of Mosaic Stories, a project to preserve the threatened cultural heritage of the Middle East through research and storytelling. 
Field Notes article

The Tragedy of Otherness

Photo Credit: Alice Treuth. Kathmandu Skyline, July 2017.

A little more than a week into the Madrasa Discourses summer intensive in Kathmandu, I sat on the balcony of our hotel overlooking the Kathmandu Valley while catching up on the readings for the day’s lecture. After eight days of intense material and discussion, I was both mentally and physically exhausted. The students from India and Pakistan, graduates of Islamic instructional schools called madrasas, asked what seemed to be nonstop questions. About the West, about Christianity and Catholicism, about living in such a secular state, about the average American’s opinion of Muslims, about the American political system and our new president, and how I felt about the conflicts in the Middle East. I felt tested in my knowledge of the things I suspected I should know most intuitively: my country, my daily life, and the faith I was raised in for 20 years. As one of the first Americans these madrasa students had ever encountered and conversed with, I felt an enormous pressure to be a positive but accurate representative for the impossible-to-represent demographic of “American.”

I was particularly excited for that morning’s lecture and discussion. Dr. Leela Prasad, a professor of religious studies at Duke University, would be talking about “religion” and the “everyday” in a world of plural cosmologies. I did not yet know exactly what she meant, but I knew I was intrigued. The first reading was a section of a book by Ramchandra Gandhi titled “Advaita: Meditations on the Truth of India,” and as I read through these profound and thoughtful words about the ancient Hindu philosophy, I stopped on one sentence that dwelled in my mind for the remainder of the intensive, and ever since. “Tragedy”, Ramchandra Gandhi writes, “lies in our regarding anything or anyone as ‘other’ than ourselves” (70).

ND students Jebraune Chambers, Maggie Feighery, Nabila Mourad, and Kirsten Hanlon on a field trip to cultural sites in the Kathmandu Valley.

This statement called for immediate reflection. It had been easy, before this point, to see only the things that made the Americans, the Indians, and the Pakistanis different. We preferred to eat at different times; we had different conceptions of punctuality; we had so many questions for each other about the differences in our cultures, our daily lives, our states, and our faiths. But remove this idea of “otherness” and how are we the same? One similarity was readily apparent: we are all students. We all want to learn. As many questions as the Madrasa graduates asked me, I asked them. I learned, in two short weeks, more about India, Pakistan, eastern education, and Islam than I could have hoped or imagined. I thought about how easy it was to talk to them. Despite some difficulty understanding each other’s accents, every single graduate’s English skills impressed me, and they were not in the least bit intimidating. They responded to what seemed like the most basic and naïve questions I asked with patience, genuine warmth, and kindness. We had immense respect for each other, and this was vital for the more difficult or tense conversations we had.

A majority of the time, however, our conversations were lighthearted and humorous. We shared classic jokes from one another’s childhoods with each other, and it was rather refreshing to tell “why did the chicken cross the road” to someone who had never heard it before. We talked about each other’s families and how much we all missed them. We bonded over how new and different Nepali culture was to all of us, and we all took selfies as we toured incredible sites of the beautiful and culturally rich country.

I thought about the first evening, when I met the only non-American female in the program, sporting a face- and form-covering niqab and abaya. She referred to me as her “new sister.” This was the attitude she, and every Madrasa graduate, carried with them throughout the program. So as I sat on that porch, reflecting on how this ancient Hindu concept of Advaita had relevance in the experiences of Americans, Indians, Pakistanis, Christians, Muslims and students in Kathmandu, Nepal, I felt immense gratitude. It became increasingly clear to me that we really were much more similar than different. We are all trying to find our place, and our guiding principles and purpose, in a world that seems plagued with political unrest and senseless violence. In an increasingly secular and pluralistic world, coexistence is the goal for many peace builders. This experience made clear that not only is tolerance possible, so is harmony.

None of this can be achieved, however, if we hold to this idea of “otherness.” The simplest and most effective way to challenge it is to have personal interactions with people from different countries, cultures, and faiths. In these interactions, our similarities seem much stronger than our differences, and as a result it is easier to talk honestly and constructively about the barriers we face on our way to living in a peaceful world. Every person is unique, but we have a shared humanity stronger than our individual identities which makes communication possible. Two short weeks was nowhere near enough time to address any of the problems we faced in a complete manner. But we began conversations about secularism, modernity, “truth,” pluralism, authority, and gender equality that will continue throughout the year. I have already experienced a change in my own thinking and approach to peace building. When we see one another as human, our differences no longer seem insurmountable. I arrived in Kathmandu nervous, unsure of what to expect from 25 strangers of India and Pakistan who lived very different lives and studied and practiced a faith I knew little about. I left two weeks later after saying goodbye to my 25 new brothers and sisters and headed back to Notre Dame with renewed hope in intercultural and interfaith dialogue as a means for peace.

Margaret Feighery
A South Bend native, Maggie is pursuing her studies in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She joined the Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive in Kathmandu in July 2017.
Field Notes article

Sharing Madrasa Discourses at the United Nations

Aadil Affan presents on education in Bihar, India, at the well of the UN General Assembly.

Before joining Notre Dame’s Madrasa Discourses project, Indian madrasa graduate Aadil Affan would have told you that accommodating or accepting other cultures was a heresy (bid’ah) unacceptable to his version of Islam.

Educated in a madrasa, an Islamic religious school, for most of his formative years, Affan is a young religious scholar, a member of the ulama, and his word carries weight in his community. His perspective on Islam’s approach towards different religio-ethnic groups, on scientific innovations, and many other things, may one day guide the position of the co-religionists around him.

Yet after six months in the Madrasa Discourses project, this recent MA graduate in Arabic from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India, shared a remarkable about face, in no less an esteemed location than the United Nations (UN). Affan’s essay on global citizenship, language, and cultural understanding was selected among 2,000 submissions to the UN’s “Many Languages, One World” youth competition. He writes in his essay:

There are some religious values and cultural norms that we all share, which are acceptable to all. The contemporary world in its present situation needs dialogue among diverse peoples and communities. Such inter-religious dialogue can help to eradicate hatred between people of different faiths which is spread by evil elements. When people start connecting over common human values it leads to mutual cooperation and understanding.

UN headquarters, New York City.

On July 21st, 2017, he presented at the well of the United Nations General Assembly, proposing a solution to the grave paucity of education in his home state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest and most underdeveloped regions. No less remarkable was the fact that his essay, attached below, is written in Arabic, a second language for the young Indian. After visiting the UN, Affan joined his classmates at the Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive in Kathmandu, Nepal, where his colleagues had been involved in a rigorous exploration of how concepts such as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism intersect with Islamic thought today.

When asked about how the project has influenced him, Affan points to an essay he read in the course by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah on Islam in the United States called, “Islam and the Cultural Imperative”. “Islam is like a “crystal clear river… Its waters [] are pure, sweet, and life-giving but—having no color of their own—reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow” writes Abd-Allah (1). Assigned in a Madrasa Discourses module that shed light on the encounter and exchange between Muslims and other societies, such as Greek philosophy and Persian courtly culture, students explored the flexibility of Islam in welcoming new practices and modes of behavior. The openness that Muslim societies showed to the variety of human experience enabled them to organically plant roots in new places, and humankind has benefitted as a result, not least through the “epoch-making” translation of millions of important Greek texts to Arabic that preserved Aristotelian and other works for posterity (Gutas, 8).

In their second semester of Madrasa Discourses, students read about Islam’s rich intellectual history and its relation to local and international cultures in Dimitri Gutas’s Greek Thought, Arabic Culture; Deborah Tor’s “Islamisation of Iranian Kingly Ideals in the Persianate Fürstenspiegel”; Marshall Hodgson’s Venture of Islam; Michael Cooperson’s essay on “Culture” in Key Themes for the Study of Islam; and Abou El Fadl’s Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam. Experts, including Rashied Omar, as well as others like Gabriel Reynolds, Deborah Tor, and Thomas Burman from Notre Dame visited the online classroom to interact with students and share their knowledge about the material.

Madrasa Discourses course in Kathmandu, July 2017. Here Pakistani student Waqas Khan poses a question to the lecturer.

Channeling what he learned in an online session from Notre Dame’s Professor Rashied Omar, Affan noted that Islam is a “culture friendly” religion, and that many other religions today appreciate diverse forms of good conduct and behavior. This does not mean “blind acceptance,” Dr. Omar notes in a 2015 sermon students also read: “The process of adopting sound customary practices from local cultures was facilitated by Islamic jurisprudence through the technical process known as al-‘urf or al-‘adah” (7).[1] Yet this friendliness and openness is important because “culture governs everything about us, molding our instinctive actions and natural inclinations,” Affan went on. “It’s human nature to love peace and hate disorder.”

Originally taught a strict interpretation of Islamic tradition, which left little if any room to question the authenticity of material, or to consider the possibility of different and equally legitimate perspectives, Affan tells us the Madrasa Discourses program “has changed my way of thinking…. I am now enjoying navigating uncovered areas of Islam that were previously hidden from me.”

In his sermon, Dr. Omar enjoins: “This new reality requires a shift in mindset from an inward-looking disposition that seeks to preserve culture such that it becomes fossilized, to a disposition that is embracing of cultural transformation and growth” (10). Affan took that message to heart and applied it to his role and place in India. Through teaching and service in their respective homelands, many other Madrasa Discourses students are also actively involved in creating and strengthening Muslim identities which are deeply rooted in the Islamic intellectual tradition and influential in shaping positive and relevant Muslim discourses in the modern world. Aadil Affan’s successful essay is but one prominent example.

Congratulations, Aadil!


Biography: Aadil Affan is a graduate of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where he recently completed a Master’s in Arabic Language and Literature. Originally from Katihar Bihar India, Affan learned the value of education early and received his primary and secondary education at Nadwatul Ulama Lucknow. He plans to continue his higher education in the hopes of one day becoming a professor. He is also an avid cricket player and enjoys reading.

[1] Omar, R. (2015). Fostering Inclusive Muslim Cultural Traditions and Practices. ‘Id al-Adha Khutbah’ on 24th September 2015/10th Dhu al-Hijja 1436. Claremont Main Road Masjid, South Africa.


Dania Straughan
Dania is a graduate of the Kroc Institute’s Masters in Peace Studies, with a focus on public policy, monitoring and evaluation, and organizational management. As part of her program she conducted an ethnographic evaluation of a local South Bend organization applying dialogue to intergroup conflict, and benchmarked the use of restorative justice on North American college campuses for Notre Dame. She previously served as outreach coordinator at the Millennium Nucleus for the Study of Stateness and Democracy in Latin America, at the Catholic University of Chile.
Authority, Community & Identity article

The Visceral Politics of Lament: A CM Symposium on “Born from Lament”

A girl stands on the edge of a cemetery for children at a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Photo: Andy Hall/Oxfam.

One of political theorist William Connolly’s challenges to the regulation of public speech by supporters of liberal secularism has been to expose the “visceral register” of political engagement. Rejecting the sequester of the emotional and embodied in the “private sphere,” he investigates how metaphysical commitments appear in our public life often through micro-politics of self-artistry. In other words, though some regulators of our public life seek to limit the conversation, metaphysical commitments often emerge anyway. Furthermore, these commitments often appear in the visceral register, through emotion, ritual, and art.

In his new book Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa, Emmanuel Katongole explores a constellation of manifestations of politics in a visceral register by analyzing the theology and politics of lament in East Africa. Tacking between theological and empirical analysis, Katongole gives an account of the hope that is within him, a hope that is rooted in the embodied and emotionally laden practices of lamentation.

Katongole’s book begins with the contradictions presented by the African encounter with modernity. The originary violence of colonialism produces a pendulum swing between pessimism and optimism. Katongole’s argument is, in part, that a theological account of the relationship between hope and lament can allow the transcendence of this contradictory dialectic. “In the midst of suffering,” Katongole argues, “hope takes the form of arguing and wrestling with God” (xvi). Lament as wrestling with God is not a private, or merely spiritual, matter. Rather, echoing here Connolly’s insight, Katongole argues that the visceral practices of lament are inescapably political.

Katongole’s book proceeds through a method of portraiture, juxtaposing biblical narratives with representations of concrete embodiments of lament in East Africa. This method produces a many sided prism, through which the central argument that lament and hope are irreducibly connected shines through. Katongole takes us episodically through multiple dimensions of lament—cultural, theological, political and more—and with each new episode we learn more about the texture of lamentation and why it is such a necessary practice.

In the following symposium, four commentators offer an insightful collection of observations, affirmations and critiques of Katongole’s work. Contending Modernities collaborator and Professor of Political Science at University of California Irvine Cecelia Lynch writes in her essay appreciatively regarding Katongole’s thick theological exposition. For her, this inescapably metaphysically laden account of politics is what the discourse of political science needs to make sense of the complex dynamics of political and social change in East Africa. She questions, however, whether Katongole has given adequate attention to the complex mix of religious dynamics present in the contexts out of which he writes. While she does not call him to cast off his unapologetic Christian theology, she asks Katongole to consider how Christians as Christians might make sense of the lament of those who don’t share their Christian faith. Whereas Lynch invites Katongole to consider the religious (and nonreligious) diversity of his context, Tinyiko Maluleke, Professor of Theology at the University of Pretoria, critiques Katongole for his lack of engagement with the rich, internally plural theological discourse occurring across Africa. Though Maluleke appreciates Katongole’s scriptural and empirical engagements, he worries that his claims about Africa writ large are too grandiose and in their “descriptive haste” miss important developments that may, ultimately, strengthen Katongole’s argument. Also in the vein of history, Paul Ocobock, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, wonders how the laments featured in Katongole’s work draw upon historical precedents. Ocobock celebrates Katongole’s departure from history, however, insofar as he disrupts the long and lachrymose characterization by the west of Africa as the “Dark Continent.” Finally, Professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University William Cavanaugh pushes an affirmation made by both Ocobock and Lynch further to ask what the West stands to learn from Africa. Cavanaugh turns the gaze back on Western modernity and invites Katongole to critique the shallow optimism that animates late modern politics.

Each of these commentators raise significant questions for Katongole, questions which indicate, ultimately, the strength of his work for shifting the paradigm of our understanding the complex, context-specific ways in which modernity has collided with East Africa.

Kyle Lambelet
Kyle Lambelet, PhD is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Emory University's Candler School of Theology and a Research Associate with Contending Modernities. His research focuses on the intersections of religion, ethics, conflict, and peace with particular attention to the ethics of nonviolence.
Field Notes article

Intersectionality of Religion and Social Identity: The Chinese of Banda Aceh

Photo Credit: Adnan Ali. “Into the Lights.”


Aceh, with its special autonomy and self government model, has a special right to apply shari’a law. The region has attracted frequent media coverage for various reasons: the armed political conflict, the 2004 earthquake and tsunami disaster, and shari’a law cases, among others. While it is known as the stronghold Muslim community in Indonesia, Aceh as a provincial territory is also home to religious and cultural minorities, such as the Chinese, locally known as “Tionghoa” or “orang Cina.” Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, is an interesting area to observe or learn about the Aceh Chinese community’s cultural and religious dynamics. This short article will discuss the case of the Chinese in Banda Aceh area, with some comparison to another Chinese community in Tamiang, a district located in the provincial border between Aceh and North Sumatra (a province that statistically has quite a significant number of non-Muslims). Through this narrative, the essay will address how political, religious, and economic sources of authority affect the social acceptance and rejection of the Chinese community.


Chinese Community in Banda Aceh.

Photo Credit: Adnan Ali. “Red Lanterns.”

Chinese migrants have a long history in several regions in Sumatra, including Aceh. They settled in several areas of Aceh, not only in the big city of Banda Aceh, but also in several sub-districts across Aceh. In terms of religion, most of those Chinese are either Buddhist or Christians. In Banda Aceh, they live predominantly around the area called Peunayong, now referred to as the city’s “Chinatown.” Most of them work as traders or business men/women selling groceries, food, and clothing. There are two notable Chinese temples along Peunayong’s main road. Apart from the Peunayong area and its surroundings, some Chinese in Banda Aceh also live in the Goheng area, across a small river near the Teuku Umar main road, and in the Setui business area nearby. One of the Chinese community leaders in Banda Aceh mentioned that historically the Goheng area was a community of Hokkian Chinese migrants. After the tsunami disaster, some of the Chinese community also moved to the Pantee Riek and Neuheun villages into new homes in the “perumahan Budha Tzu Chi” complexes funded by a “Tionghoa” organization for the people affected by the 2004 tsunami.


Authority and Community: Social Acceptance and Resistance

It has been years since shari’a law was formally instated in Aceh in 2002 and since the conflict between the Indonesian government and Aceh independent movement ended with the Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding in 2005. Over the years of armed conflict and its aftermath, the construction of local identity as “Acehnese” (orang Aceh) and Muslim became more dominant. While the Chinese (Buddhist and Christians) and the local people (mostly Muslim) have coexisted relatively peacefully in Banda Aceh since Chinese settlers arrived in the nineteenth century, or even before, in the last 50 years politics and armed conflict have caused many to feel unsafe or flee.

When the armed conflict in Aceh escalated in the late 1970’s, boosted by the establishment in 1976 of the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Aceh Independent Movement), some acts of terror caused members of non-local ethnicities like the Chinese and Javanese (though majority Muslim) to leave Aceh. However, many Chinese returned, especially after the signing of the 2005 peace agreement. Earlier in 1965, the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) resurgence had much the same effect, and many Chinese fled Aceh for security reasons.

Both religious and community leaders as well as state authorities have particular impact on the social acceptance or rejection of, as well as policies that affect, the ‘other’. For example, Chinese Buddhists and Christians practice their cultural and religious observance as minorities. Some of their cultural and religious events, like Chinese New Year (Imlek), are quite well known locally as “uroe raya Cina” (Chinese holiday). When the late Mawardi Nurdin was mayor of Banda Aceh, there was a big public Chinese festival held in the city in 2011. However, this event was discontinued after his death. The acceptance or rejection of a public recognition of this Chinese holiday, in this case, was dependent on the will of state authorities and political leaders. The impact of these leaders is also felt in other ambits, such as with names. The Chinese in Aceh, like other Chinese elsewhere in Indonesia, adopted an Indonesian name apart from their Chinese given and family name. These local names are mostly utilized for special and official purposes. Having an Indonesian name has not always been optional, however; the New Order government of Suharto enforced the taking of local names. The fourth Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid, rescinded this order and additionally allowed the Chinese religion of Confucianism to be officially recognized by the government.


Religious and Social Identity

Most Chinese settlers were Buddhist upon arriving to Aceh. Quite a number of them converted to Christianity around the 1970s. The Chinese now make up a significant portion of the Christian population in Banda Aceh. Some of them are affiliated with the Methodist Church in Kampung Mulia. There are also two Chinese Buddhist temples nearby. The Methodist Church offers primary and secondary education, and most students are Chinese. Meanwhile, there is a Catholic Church near Peunayong, and Catholic Chinese are also part of its congregation.

Photo Credit: Nugraha Kusuma. “Chinese New Year.”

During Abdurrahman Wahid’s presidency, the Chinese cultural performance of Barongsai (a dragon dance dating from fourth century China) was recognized officially by the government, together with other aspects of Chinese culture, after having been banned for years, especially during the New Order regime. In 2011, the Barongsai was performed at a Peunayong festival and attracted the attention of many Acehnese people and visitors. This Barongsai was at once contested and later prohibited, especially through municipal government policy. More recently, from 2014 until the present, the Barongsai has been performed again. Recognizing the potential for polemic and resistance, the Chinese have tried to avoid further rejection by combining the Barongsai performance with the seudati, a local Acehnese dance. Now when the Barongsai is held, seudati dancers perform around the Barongsai dragon dancer.


Conversion to Islam: Muallaf and Muallaf Organizations

In addition to those who converted to Christianity, a few Chinese also converted to Islam. A village leader (keuchik) from the area near Peunayong noted that three Chinese people from his village had converted to Islam within the last decade. They converted for a number of reasons, include marriage. Mixed marriages between Chinese and locals occur mostly in the second or the third generation, with almost none in the first generation.  There is no clear statistical data from formal sources about the number of Chinese who have converted to Islam. One Chinese leader interviewed estimates that around 200 Chinese have converted to Islam in Aceh. Newly converted Chinese are referred as “muallaf,” or more specifically “Cina muallaf.” On the Aceh border with North Sumatra, in areas like Tamiang, there are said to be many more converts to Islam, not only from Chinese community, but also from other ethnicities, such as the Batak (some of whom migrated from across the provincial border to Tamiang). Converts to another religion are often expelled from their extended family. This exclusion normally persists for years, sometimes for two generations. This research has recorded several personal stories of struggle from converts to Islam, and their situation can be quite difficult, socially. On the one hand, these converts were expelled from their family and ethnic groups, but on the other hand, they are not yet fully accepted by their converted religious community.

This situation has led to initiatives by Chinese converts in Banda Aceh like Mr. R, a business man affiliated with the Aceh Independent Movement. He helped found Formula (Forum Muallaf Aceh, or Forum for Aceh Converts) in 2010 and received support from the provincial government. However, the organization split due to internal conflict, and PMAS (Persatuan Muallaf Aceh Sejahtera, or Unity of Converts for a Prosperous Aceh) was founded, led by Ms. F. The branch of PMAS in Tamiang actively advocates for the betterment of muallaf, economically and socially. One of the interesting phenomena observed during interviews with [muallaf] Chinese was the way they affiliated themselves to local identity. For instance, a Chinese [muallaf] leader claimed that she is more native than another Chinese Indonesian: “I am more native than him, he is from Medan, and I am locally from Goheng Banda Aceh” (“…Saya ini lebih asoe lhok (penduduk asli) dari pada…, dia itu Cina Medan, saya keturunan Go Heng. Asli Banda Aceh, saya…”). She was, in essence, arguing that being more ‘local’ as someone who was born in Aceh supported and provided her with particular privilege and status. That is, the status of being closer to “native,” and as such less rejected because of commonalities with the Muslim Acehnese majority.

The process of social co-existence between majority and minority occurs is dynamic, not stable. Several other factors apart from religion or ethnicity also play a part in the process, such as politics, power and economics. Nevertheless, in the overall public space in Aceh with its special case of shari’a law, violent conflict has not re-emerged, nor have there been public conflicts or contestations. This is in line with the findings from the research and development unit of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in which Aceh is categorized as a “passively tolerant and low violence” community with regards to interreligious relations in Indonesia. In the case of Aceh, [contemporary] narratives fed the formation of “local” identity, when the notion of who is/was “local” (which is apparently based on racial/ethnic identity), and who is/was “other” became stronger, especially during and after the Aceh armed conflict (1976-2005). These insider/outsider contestations as usual influence the notion of whose culture is dominant and whose is lesser.


Some references:

Suryadinata, Leo, Ethnic Chinese in Contemporary Indonesia, Singapore: ISEAS, 2008

Syafi’eh, “Terang Lampion di Serambi Mekkah: Relasi-Muslim Tionghoa di Aceh Timur in Noviandi dan Muhammad Alkaf”, Pembentukan Kesalehan dan Artikulasi Islam di Aceh, Langsa: Zawiyah Serambi Ilmu Pengetahuan, 2015.

Usman, Rani, Etnis Cina Perantauan di Aceh, Jakarta: Yayasan Obor, 2009.

“Cerita warga etnis Tionghoa tinggal di negeri Syariah”, Harian Merdeka online (, retrieved on 14 March, 2016.

Eka Srimulyani
Professor of Sociology at the Department of Social and Political Science, State Islamic University of Ar-Raniry, Banda Aceh. Among her latest publications is “Teungku Inong Dayah: Female Religious Leaders’ Authority and Agency in Contemporary Aceh”, in Feener, Michael R. et al., Islam and the Limits of the State: Reconfigurations of Ritual, Doctrine, Community and Authority in Contemporary Aceh, Leiden: Brill, 2016.
Global Currents article

The Portland Samaritans and Politics Moving Forward

Photo Credit: Joe A. Kunzler Photo, AvgeekJoe Productions, growlernoise-AT-gmail-DOT-com. “#Trimet MAX Blue Line at Beaverton TC”

A man is spewing racist and anti-Muslim invective against two young women, one of whom is wearing a hijab. It’s Friday afternoon—rush-hour in Portland, OR—and the train is crowded. Three men move to quiet him. They are pleading with him to settle down, to get off the train. One is making concessions, saying that yes, the man is a taxpayer, but he’s scaring people and he needs to get off. As the train glides towards the next stop, the man pulls a knife. In a flash, he cuts the throats of the three men. Two of them die. The third is still recovering.

It is unimaginable. I’ve ridden that train countless times, jostling with others, happy to be part of the city’s life and, at the same time, looking forward to getting back to my leafy backyard. The reality of it presses into me. The story runs off the page, escaping the banality that envelopes the news. I feel it, the horror of it and the astounding, shining bravery of those who rose to shield the young women.

The suffering of those close to the event is the part that is truly impossible to grasp: the parents and friends of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a recent Reed College graduate; those surrounding Rick Best, a veteran and father of four; the long recovery of Micah Fletcher and his people; the pain endured by the women who were harassed and the fear felt by their families; and the trauma experienced by others on the train. Their story is theirs to tell. Namkai-Meche’s mother, Asha Deliverance, is telling hers with astounding eloquence and humanity. She is imploring us to reflect and to work for change. We must heed her call to think about the future we want. It’s a political question, but only because politics refers to our communal life, to the life of a group of people, moving together through the world, hoping to make it home safe.

Photo Credit: Tony. “Empty Car”

It hardly bears mentioning that these deaths were part of a pattern of rising white nationalist, anti-Muslim fervor connected to the candidacy and election of Donald Trump to the presidency. The killer’s track record of hate speech makes that much clear. His actions on the train were part of a chain of death threats, mosque burnings, and murders that has snaked across the country since Trump first got on the campaign trail. These events have led some to ask if liberalism—defined roughly as a concern with individual freedom and tolerance—is in its death throes or if it was always unable to live up to the promise of incorporating real difference, cultural, ethnic, or religious.

Somehow, Islam has been tied up in this question for a long time, at least as a theoretical matter. In her masterful book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, the scholar of Islam, Denise A. Spellberg, unwinds the story of how the founders of the United States understood Islam. For Jefferson, Islam was a litmus test of values. More than a reality, it was an ideal through which one could test the boundaries of toleration. Jefferson supported the tolerance of Islam as proof of his own. Sadly, he does not appear to have imagined that the existence of Muslims in the republic was not just a theoretical future. He likely lived amongst Muslims, or their decedents, who were enslaved on his plantation. Spellberg also writes of a curious figure, John Leland. A friend of Jefferson and a Baptist minister, Leland squinted at tolerance as an inadequate sentiment and argued for fuller bodied embrace of Islam and other religions.

Leland’s is a sentiment I hear with some frequency these days. In my own field of Islamic studies, some scholars hold up Islam as a retort to liberal tolerance and secularism. Often drawing on the work of the Catholic philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, these Islamicists point to the Muslim tradition as an alternative to shallow and callow liberalism. For them, a tradition, such as Islam or Catholicism, animates people at the core of their being. They argue that liberals dilute themselves and deceive others when they claim that our deeper needs and identities can be bracketed, allowing us to enter into the public sphere as equal, rational agents, tolerant of difference but only inasmuch as it doesn’t encumber public life. Really, these scholars argue, this “go along to get along” philosophy is always a cypher for the cruel imposition of European and American values on others. The historian and literary critic, Joseph Massad, goes so far as to claim that liberalism must castigate Islam, which it paints in its funhouse mirror image, to constitute itself. Islam, in Massad’s telling, will always be excluded from liberalism.

The reality is that Muslims have participated in liberal societies, including the United States, for a very long time. Anglo-American philosophers may have used tolerance as a hypothetical test to see who could live within the polity. But tolerance also has historicity outside of these theories: it was shaped by the encounters of people over the centuries. In this sense, tolerance isn’t the purview of John Locke and other dead white philosophers. It is one of the evolving ways that people have worked out, amongst themselves, to live and travel side-by-side.

Neither can Islam made into a simple retort to liberalism. Namkai-Meche took the same Introduction to Islam course that I did more than a decade later. The course was taught by Kambiz GhaneaBassiri at Reed College. As GhaneaBassiri said in a recent radio interview, those of us, like Namkai-Meche and myself, who came to the class looking for easy rejoinders to anti-Muslim hate were bound to be frustrated. The course delved deeper than that. By illuminating the nuances of the dizzyingly diverse array of people, ideas, and practices that associate with Islam, the course showed us, implicitly, how small modern American Islamophobia is. We began to understand that Islam is infinitely more complex and the world infinitely bigger than any stereotype would allow.

Today, with tolerance threatening to slip from view, we may wonder if liberalism wasn’t so bad after all. Liberal tolerance certainly has been used as a cover for some of the world’s greatest brutalities, as its critics claim. And, they are right to remind liberals of this. But this doesn’t mean liberalism can’t be separated from fascist and colonial violence. Even in liberal philosophy, to tolerate may not be only to ignore. Tolerance might also be an active coming together of three men of different backgrounds to uphold the common good. It is tempting, anyway, to tell that story when thinking of Namkai-Meche, Best, and Fletcher on the train. Of course, that event was more than the unfolding of a pre-determined political philosophy.

Like the spontaneous protests at airports after the Trump administration released its executive order on immigration, the acts of these courageous men were a demonstration that the political exists not in the halls of Congress, the White House, or the writings of theorists. Politics unfold in spaces of transfer and traffic, where people come together for discrete moments. In such transits, new and shared understandings emerge, sustained by the collective desire to continue moving together.

Namkai-Meche’s last words—reported by a woman who pulled off her shirt to tourniquet his wound—were, “Tell everyone on this train that I love them.” We love you, too.

Sam Kigar
Samuel Kigar is a Ph.D. candidate in the Islamic studies track of Duke University's Graduate Program in Religion. His research areas include Islam in the Maghreb, modern Muslim thought, pre-modern Muslim political philosophy, and religion and law. He is currently writing a dissertation entitled, "Islamic Land: Muslim Genealogies of Territorial Sovereignty in Modern Morocco, 1930-1990.” He tweets at @sam_kigar
Theorizing Modernities article

Hospitality and Empire

Photo Credit: European Commission DG Echo. “Kawergosk 1” Refugee Camp, with Syrian Refugees. 2014.

By publishing Hospitality and Islam: Welcoming in God’s Name, the University of Edinburgh theologian Mona Siddiqui has made available a rich resource for thinking about hospitality from within the Islamic tradition. Moreover, using a comparative framework, the book connects her skillful readings of Islamic texts to the Jewish and Christian traditions, underlining important congruencies and contentions. In many ways, the book itself is premised on a rhetoric of hospitality. As she puts it in the interview, “It’s not really a social-political comment; it’s more an invitation to think about the various concepts around hospitality.” In the concluding paragraph of the book, Siddiqui writes, “The stranger and the traveller [sic] are still there in the form of refugees and migrants, except now they are identified through the political language of our age” (242-3). Hospitality and Islam aims to offer a new theological resource to these debates without claiming an explicitly political position.

The interview has mitigated some of that bet-hedging, clarifying at least two arguments that promise to bridge theology and policy, without demonstrating how exactly to build that bridge or proving its necessity. The first argument is that hospitality is not meant to be easy and immediately beneficial to the host, but it is “a sacred duty.” As Siddiqui notes in the introduction to her book, this is neither an entirely new assertion nor one that is immediately practically applicable (7). Second is that the guest must “behave” in a manner becoming of the guest/host relationship. This is where Siddiqui pivots outward from Al Ghazali’s prescriptions about the guest/host relationship, gesturing from the micro-level towards the macro, from adab literature on “manners and virtuous behavior” (34) to issues of “integration” within so-called host societies. This is also where the how and why questions become inescapable, at the risk of making us pesky guests of her generous scholarship.

Consider her use of the language of reciprocity, matching rights with responsibilities: “Well, if you go to visit a country, or if you become accepted by a country as a refugee or through asylum, there are obligations as well as to how you integrate into that society, because the host has done their bit in welcoming you.” It is troubling to think of tethering universal human rights to civic responsibilities to specific nation-states or, worse yet, to assimilation to imagined communities through such moralizing rhetoric. Of course, the international system of asylum applications, the criminal justice system, and whatever remains of the beleaguered welfare state all already operate in a similar logic, demanding that the needy demonstrate that they are “deserving.” The compensatory benefits of adding a further religious dimension to moral narratives of benevolent “hosts” under the threat of unscrupulous “guests” are not clear. Will calling hospitality a “sacred duty” and urging societies to shoulder its burdens “in the name of God” make up for the dangers of delineating duties for those brutalized by the same systems that have made the “hosts” at home in capitalist modernity? Or does it merely replicate and update Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”: “No tawdry rule of kings, But toil of serf and sweeper, The tale of common things.” Except this time, within this new muscular, postcolonial hospitality, the erstwhile settler gets to play gracious host.

Photo Credit: Jonathan McIntosh. “Caution Economic Migrants”. At the US-Mexican border near Tijuana.

All this brings two further questions. First, and perhaps the most obvious: how useful can “hospitality” be as a concept with which to think through contemporary crises of immigration and statelessness? Here the answer is complicated not just by the gap between the logic of “the moral person” and the logic of “the legal person” as Siddiqui underlines in the book (7), but also by the historical purchases of “home-making,” the right of return, and what Anzaldúa has called the “fear of going home” in the postcolonial world (Anzaldúa, 42; see also Stoler; Kaplan; Le Espiritu). Given the extensive transnational feminist literature on the imbrications of the imperial with the domestic, the host/guest and host/stranger relationships and the very concept of home must be deeply historicized and problematized before they can operate as more than mere metaphors naturalizing global inequality.

The second, and perhaps more interesting, question relates to the impulse in the contemporary Western milieu that has made scholars mine the concept of hospitality in this way. Siddiqui, after all, is offering resources in part as a response to the proliferation of discourses on “hospitality” and “tolerance” in Europe during the most recent refugee crisis. Perhaps the rhetorical operations performed around such concepts with pre-modern, sacred roots and echoes tell us about Europe’s own identity crises as “the empire comes home” (Webster). At the very least, these discourses mark a panic regarding the perceived and real failures of the “secular” language of human rights, the rule of international law, and the system of nation-states—failures that are hardly news to the average denizen of the so-called “developing world.” This then is a story of contending modernities indeed: the new scholarly life of “hospitality” is a way station on the search for “pre-modern” knowledges that must be made to serve the present. Siddiqui’s offering from within the Islamic tradition is gracious indeed. What will the intellectual wayfarers do with it?

Perin Gurel
Perin Gürel is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Concurrent Assistant Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her first book, The Limits of Westernization: A Cultural History of America in Turkey (Columbia University Press, 2017), explores how gendered stock figures and tropes associated with the concept of “westernization” in Turkey have intersected with U.S.-Turkish relations in the twentieth century. Her work has also appeared in American Quarterly, the Journal of Transnational American Studies, Journal of Turkish Literature, American Literary History (forthcoming), and elsewhere. Gürel is currently working on a new manuscript that will examine humor and conspiracy theories about political Islam from a transnational perspective.
Field Notes article

Madrasa Graduates: Children of Abraham and Aristotle

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. “School of Athens” by Rafael at the Vatican. The fresco features Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, the Andalusian Muslim polymath.

Have you ever wondered how your everyday Muslim connects with the Islamic tradition today? The connection takes place as it always has: at the feet of scholars. More precisely, it happens in air-conditioned auditoriums at knowledge retreats in universities and hotels around the world. These gatherings typically consist of teachings in Islamic jurisprudence, ethics, and theology, offering theories of the soul, temperaments and humors, and virtue ethics that originate in ancient Hellenistic philosophy.

However, these teachings are credited to scholars like Raghib al-Isfahani and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali instead of Aristotle or Plato. This is because by the eleventh century of the Common Era, ancient learning had been completely assimilated into Islamic thought. So deep and thorough was the influence of Greek, Indian, and Persian communities on Islamic intellectual and political life that the different strands became virtually indistinguishable.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. “Ottoman astronomers at work around Taqī al-Dīn at the Istanbul Observatory.”

The fusion of “foreign” learning with Arabic revelation in the formation of classical Islamic thought cannot be overstated. It is vital to recognize the debt to foreign influences for two reasons: 1) it precludes naïve and even irresponsible appeals to adhere to some kind of “pure” Islam that existed in the past, and 2) it encourages openness in religious thought that is necessary for religion’s continued relevance through changing times. If the essence of “tradition” is to be found not in its content but in its dynamism, then fealty to tradition can be redefined, shifting it from an emphasis on “transmission” to an emphasis on “openness” to new ideas.

The Templeton-funded project to “advance theological and scientific literacy in madrasa discourses” is designed to bring about this very shift. Tradition, we argue, is not the mere repetition of the creativity of past scholars. Tradition is active participation in ongoing creative syntheses, keeping in mind shifts in human understanding. The project is guided by an “elicitive” pedagogical method that draws on resources that are already present in Islamic thought. The purpose of an elicitive approach is to preserve authenticity and legitimacy: the encounter with new knowledge comes as an extension of, rather than rupture with, the inherited Islamic scholarly tradition.

Throughout the course of human history, philosophers, scientists, and mystics have offered competing cosmologies to describe the universe we inhabit and experience. Before the mesmerizing advance of science and technology that we see today, competing views of the structure and composition of the universe could not only be internally coherent but also equally good at explaining things around us. Today, premodern cosmologies must contend with the reality of modern science if they are to remain relevant. This does not mean that everyone must become a materialist or succumb to scientism; however, it does mean that the knowledge systems and philsophical presuppositions that propel and sustain science must be intelligently grappled with.

Take the following as an example of unintelligent grappling. In one of my undergraduate courses, we read Rachel Carson’s argument against the use of pesticides. Reading from one of her environmental essays in Silent Spring, an eager student quickly bought her argument hook, line, and sinker. He proceeded to extend Carson’s compelling argument in our classroom discussion without realizing that it relies on the scientific theory of biological evolution. When I asked the student what he thought of that, he was taken aback because, as a traditional Muslim, he had not yet come to terms with evolution.

This kind of an incoherent intellectual framework is neither compelling nor sustainable. It will not only continue to alienate future generations of thinking Muslims from their tradition, it will also keep Muslim thought ossified and irrelevant in the modern world. One of my Quran teachers used to love to repeat this story: “Once I asked a colleague of mine—who was a medical doctor—what he thought about evolution. He replied without batting an eye: ‘Why, it’s disbelief!’ When I told him I was not seeking a fatwa but rather a scientific perspective, he changed his tune: ‘Well, the evidence is very compelling!’” (I can still hear the story in an endearing lilting South Asian English accent!)

If Islam is to thrive as a religious and intellectual tradition that cultivates healthy individuals and communities in the age of modern techno-science, it is imperative for traditional Muslim theology to come to terms with the ontological worldview, epistemological assumptions, and sociological implications of modern science. This does not mean that Muslim theology should surrender unconditionally to science’s terms. It does mean, however, that Muslim thought needs to understand and contend with these terms with integrity and sophistication, not with off-hand dismissal or asystematic appropriation. I suspect that real intellectual engagement will lead to new syntheses in a creative process of knowledge assimilation and appropriation which was a hallmark of the classical Islamic scholarly tradition.

An exemplar for the “madrasa discourses” project is none other than the celebrated Ghazali, mentioned above. In his reflections on his own intellectual journey as recorded in his autobiographical Deliverance from Error, Ghazali lambasts the religious fool who refutes his intellectual opponent with strawman arguments or with naïve understandings of his own tradition. Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Islamic Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, draws inspiration from Ghazali in his work on Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination: “Frustrated by the violation of common sense demonstrated by some implacable theologians, Ghazali reminds us of the wise dictum that ‘a rational foe is better than an ignorant friend.’ With bruising sarcasm, he said elsewhere: ‘To shun an ignoramous is to make an offering to God!’” (p. 181). An essential prerequisite to critique, says Ghazali, is to first not only understand but also to articulate the opposing point of view sympathetically. Ghazali, who has been widely recognized as an intellectual “renewer” of tradition, serves as a model for us in this respect.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. “Illustration by Al-Biruni (973-1048) of different phases of the moon, from Kitab al-Tafhim (in Persian).”

The notion that tradition needs constant updating or renewal is embedded within Islamic teachings, and it fits right in with our elicitive pedagogical approach. Renewal takes place when two sources of knowledge—of the world and of scripture—collide. There is only one requisite for the success of an endeavor that brings different intellectual systems into conversation: the use of common terms that are intelligible to both. As in the case of translation from one language to another, seamless communication is only possible when another language is mastered. In our case, the language that madrasa graduates must begin to learn is the language of modern science and contemporary academic frames for the study of nature, society, and history.

Our hope is that the intimate intellectual encounter that we facilitate will lead to greater respect, understanding, and even trust, across cultures and civilizations. Trust lays the foundation for mutual enrichment, reconciliation, and enduring peace. Given that the intellectual heritage of Catholicism shares so much in common with the Islamic past, as children of both Abraham and Aristotle, it is no coincidence that a project of this kind is located at the University of Notre Dame, one of the world’s premier Catholic institutions of higher learning.

Mahan Mirza
Dr. Mahan Mirza PhD (Yale University, 2010) is Professor of the Practice in the Contending Modernities program at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, housed in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Having spent several years working with religious groups around issues of social justice before earning an MA from Hartford Seminary in the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations and a PhD from Yale University’s program in religious studies, Dr. Mahan Mirza comes to the practice and study of Islam from a diverse set of perspectives. Prior to joining Notre Dame in fall 2016, Dr. Mirza contributed to the establishment of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college to be accredited in the United States, serving as the college’s Dean of Faculty from 2013-2016.
Field Notes article

Religious Coexistence and Conflict: Reflections on Lombok

Photo Credit: Hansel and Regrettal. Pura Lingsar is a temple in Lombok, Indonesia, where both Balinese Hindus and Wektu Telu Muslims hold religious services.

Questioning Pluralism

The current populist ferment in the United States and Europe is, in part, a reaction against religious and ethnic diversity and the cosmopolitan elites who are seen to promote and benefit from it. What about Indonesia? Can pluralism be more than an elite project? To be sure, the archipelago has a long history of religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity. Our interest in pluralism is provoked, in particular, by the threat of ethnic or religious violence. In Indonesia, peaceful coexistence and cooperation have taken many forms. They do not, however, necessarily depend on taking pluralism as such to be a positive value. Appeals to that value by elites are not likely to gain traction on the ground if they are not informed by local knowledge. That means taking seriously ordinary people’s fears, ethical values, and cosmological beliefs.


Violence and Identities

Lombok is home to a Bali-Hindu minority, a Sasak Muslim majority who see them as past oppressors, and smaller numbers of Christian newcomers. The study by Mohamad Abdun Nasir for Contending Modernities asks a crucial question: when does violence not happen? This question rests on another: what conditions lead people on the ground to expect that there will be conflict? And when is violence due to religious difference, rather than, say, economic grievances or just plain criminality? As post-Suharto collective violence was confined to a few localities. Most of the country, including some of the most heterogeneous areas, remained peaceful: it is not so-called primordial identities alone that prompt conflict. Specifying which identities are relevant is not necessarily a straightforward matter. For instance, attacks on Chinese Christians might be about ethnicity, religion, or economics. Motives can change and so will the means of preventing violence.

Webb Keane presents at the Contending Modernities 2017 Jakarta Conference.

Indonesians are involved in both an expanded global imaginary and intensified localism simultaneously. State policies and religious reform movements have led to a hardening of religious boundaries that were once more permeable. In Lombok, for instance, accusations of shirk (polytheism) lead Muslims to abandon religious sites they once shared with Hindus. With contested elections, reified identities can become a way to organize blocs of voters, at the expense of more expansive nationalist sympathies. At the same time, when identities are understood in terms of religion, they can spawn transregional identifications. In Lombok, the 2000 riots were prompted by images of violence from Maluku, and some Muslims suspect local Hindus of conspiring with supporters from India.


Local Viewpoints

Jeremy Kingsley attributes both Lombok’s 2000 riots and the lack of violence during the gubernatorial election of 2008 to elite strategies. But this tells us nothing about the ordinary people who do or do not carry out the violence. Elites do not always get what they want—their manipulations must resonate with local life if they are to be effective. For instance, in times of stress, by means of pengajian (religious discussion groups) and sermons, Tuan Gurus (local religious leaders) may emphasize silaturrahim (keeping good relations with others). But do exhortations always work? Neighborliness and hostility are both sustained through everyday interactions, on which explicit discourses may have little impact (see Keane 2016). Even the canniest elite initiatives need to speak to ordinary folk if they are to get real uptake.

Among other things, this means taking religion seriously, not just as a political tool. Nasir reports that some Sasak worry that the very presence of Christian churches in a neighborhood will weaken the faith of the young. Given that Sasak are 93 percent of the population, where does this kind of anxiety come from—what makes it plausible? Much violence is a response to rumors—what are those rumors telling us about people’s fears? For example, according to Kari Telle, many Sasak fear Balinese rituals precisely because they consider them to have occult power (2009, 2014, 2016). From this perspective, rituals have real effects, just as amulets and mantras may convey invulnerability to members of a militia, something elites may not take seriously or even know about.

Violence, of course, is not always political or religious in nature. In Lombok, criminality has been rampant, prompting the rise of private militias. John MacDougall reports 25% of adult men belonged to one in 1998. Soon they were being mobilized for other purposes: Kingsley reports all Lombok militias have links to Tuan Gurus, who used them both to attack Ahmadiyah and to keep peace during the 2008 gubernatorial election. Given the threat of violence posed by such groups, Nasir observes that local officials end up ignoring the legal rights of minorities in the name of “peace keeping.” Displays of force, in an atmosphere of rumor, energized by social media, produce the expectation of violence. This is when the question of why violence does not occur becomes relevant.


Terms of Coexistence

Photo Credit: Jos Dielis. Detail on the Pura Lingsar Temple in Lombok.

Where does coexistence work? Nasir points to the everyday habits of neighborliness in urban Lombok, which are, however, under pressure from growing residential segregation. He also notes Christian and Hindu participation in Islamic festivals and other public events. But ritual can have contradictory effects. As Clifford Geertz argued long ago, some rituals are ambiguous enough that people who disagree about what it all means can still participate together. At its best, the result could be coexistence—even to the point of denying difference for the sake of a community. On the other hand, he also showed that public rituals may force people to make explicit their conflicting positions that might otherwise be ignored, exacerbating polarization. Nasir explains that one source of growing conflict in Lombok is the Joint Ministerial Decree on Houses of Worship of 2006. While acknowledging the existence of multiple religions when viewed from the encompassing perspective of the nation, the decree implies something quite different at the scale of village, neighborhood, or city where people carry out their daily lives. By spatializing religion, the decree reinforces the boundaries between groups, valorizes religious purification over social intermingling, and puts at a disadvantage those, like Lombok Christians, who have no specific localities to call their own, or others, like Hindus, whose temple affiliations are not necessarily bound to residential units. Although it recognizes plurality, the decree hardly encourages active practices of coexistence.

The language of pluralism may offer little in the way either of aspirational values or concrete habits to those who must find ways to live with one another. Nor does it necessarily provide a viable counterpoint to fear and rumor. During much of the 20th century, Indonesian nationalism trumped local identities, at least as an ideal toward which people could strive. If nationalism is now weakening as a positive value, what other basis for moral community might make coexistence across religious differences possible? It will take more than exhortations to achieve this; it will take change in people’s everyday habits of living together.

Webb Keane
Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology. At the University of Michigan he is affiliated with the Social-Cultural and the Linguistic subfields in the Anthropology Department, as well as the Interdisciplinary Program in Anthropology and History and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. His writings cover a range of topics in social and cultural theory and the philosophical foundations of social thought and the human sciences, and include the recently published Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories (Princeton University Press, 2015). In particular, he is interested in semiotics and language; material culture; gift exchange, commodities, and money; religion, morality, and ethics; media and public cultures. He is currently working on a project centered on religious piety, language, and media in Indonesian Islam and Euro-American secularism, with a special interest in semiotic transgressions such as blasphemy, obscenity, and defamation.
Theorizing Modernities article

The Role of Heritage and Tradition (Turāth) in the Search for Muslim Identity

Dr. Ebrahim Moosa delivers the keynote at the 2017 “Beyond Coexistence in Plural Societies” conference in Jakarta.

What is the place and role of the Arabo-Islamic heritage, known as the turāth, in contemporary society? Arabic and Islamic thought spilt a lot of ink on this question in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Tradition, in short, was viewed as a repository of identity and morality. The challenge for Muslim thinkers and practitioners in this time period was to come to grips with new forms of identity making in which the modern nation state played a significant role. Whether they liked it or not, modernity and the modern world arrived on Muslim doorsteps as an uninvited guest under colonization or as an invited guest of declining Muslim empires, when aspects of modernity were adopted by the Ottoman, Safavid or the Mughul empires.

A French parachute division marches through a street in Algeria in 1957.

Muslim identity became entangled with the identity of insurgent cultures as well as civilizations more powerful than theirs and which eclipsed their own. In other words, the Muslim narrative of morality became more complex with more ruptures, breaks and discontinuity than previously experienced. I am fully aware that in the Islamic past the cultural mixing of styles of thought emanating out of the Arabian desert sometimes conflicted with the subjectivities of say North African, African, Persian, Turkic, Malay and a variety of Asiatic peoples over the centuries. But in the past many societies who newly adopted Islam, in one way or another, became invested as actors and players in the making of the Islamic smorgasbord or the Islamic quilt. In the modern period, many Muslims felt that foreign cultures were dictating the nature of the cultural changes and they had little agency in determining their own fate.

The question was never about Arabo-Islamic or a purely Islamic heritage in isolation from the rest of the world. The debates about heritage, turāth, tradition, and Arab identity, and varieties of hyphenated Islamic identities such as Afro-Islamic, Euro-Islamic, Malay-Islamic, Indo-Islamic, Perso-Islamic were entanglements of cultures, symbol systems, multiple forms of meaning-making and lived-practices. These debates were not only limited to the Arabic-speaking world. People as far as Indonesia, Nigeria, central and southern Africa, North America and Europe have all participated in these debates actively or passively. Why? Because they are all part of ongoing Muslim identity debates, namely what is the good life for Muslims in terms of state-formation, governance, citizenship, education, laws and ethics.

Of course, different constituencies in the Muslim world addressed these issues and challenges on their own terms and with great variance. Those who framed the question as that of heritage, turāth, were often folks who espoused modern education and a modern identity. They used modern moral and ethical languages of inquiry to find solutions. They took the entanglement of cultures and civilizations seriously and saw this as an opportunity to remake Muslim cultures and the elements that constituted Muslim or Islamic civilization. Their archive was a much more diverse account of multiple strands of Islam in the past. Yet, to their traditionalist critics among religious orthodoxies, these modern educated folks tilted too far in the direction of the modern and abandoned essential elements of the past or historical tradition. Their flaw, as the Lebanese writer Yahya Muhammad[1] pointed out, was that they viewed the authority of tradition to be suggestive and indicative (tawjīhī). In the view of the modernists, not everything in the tradition was useable. Only those parts of the tradition that enjoyed the largest consensus and agreement historically made sense in the present. One major flaw of this group of modern educated elites was that they never really paid serious attention to the improvement of the political. In other words, as much as there were debates about questions of morality, gender and law, the question of political modernity in Muslim politics was seriously neglected. Status quo practices and patriarchal politics of the all-knowing rulers, authorities and their intellectual enablers continued. With that state of affairs, political accountability became non-existent as a value.

Another significant sector of Muslim intelligentsia were the religious scholars, ‘ulama, who explored these questions of identity from a different perspective. These were the people in the traditional institutions of learning like the famous Islamic universities in the Arabic speaking world, the pesantren of the Malay world, the madrasas of South Asia, the hawzas of Iran and Iraq or the madrasas of sub-Saharan Africa and central Asia. For them the tradition was constitutive (takwīnī) of Muslim identity, and morality was indispensable to self-making. But in this view, tradition was also an exercise of moral power by the custodians of tradition. The ‘ulama viewed the moral templates of the past to be sufficient and that tradition could be deployed in the present with minor modifications.

Boundaries of the Ottoman Empire in 1801.

Both the modern intellectuals and the traditional ‘ulama did not allow for a healthy mutual exchange. In fact, dialogue between rival perspectives was often non-existent or, when it did occur, took the form of excommunication, anathematizing and deeming the other as either anachronistic peddlers of tradition or lackeys of foreign and alien cultures. Meanwhile, the modern nation-state never facilitated serious and meaningful debate about the nature of Muslim identity. Identity questions were often politicized to create the most useful and compliant citizen who could conform to the will of the state. And these days the major identity project is to create sectarian loyalties and hatreds between Sunni and Shia adherents in different parts of the globe. Without careful nurturing and dedicated attention to the past as well as the present, tradition becomes an instrument of power, and a source of learned ignorance. Unless it is used with integrity and care, tradition becomes a site for pathological manifestations.

So let’s ponder what is at stake in this debate about heritage and tradition. At its core, the debate was about the role of the Islamic past in the making of the new and the present. In short, the question was one of identity and selfhood in late modernity. The question of identity is deeply enmeshed in rubrics as varied as questions of Islamic law, ethics, theology, philosophy, debates on religion in modernity (religious studies), Islamic revival, gender debates, education, environment, bioethics and personhood. Put differently, the question centers around the moral anthropology and the moral theology of what it is to be a human person. Actors such as Muslim revivalists, activists in political Islam, Muslim modernists, traditionalists, feminists and gender activists as well as those exploring the complex debates in human sexuality have all had a say in these matters.

For tradition to play a role in Muslim majority societies that are searching for authentic commitments and strong identities, the very idea of tradition ought to be linked to lived experience. One of the major challenges to sustaining tradition in Muslim societies is to configure precisely how to cultivate intelligible literacies of tradition. Tradition cannot merely be the simple adherence to a past practice without understanding its moral relevance and its place in policymaking and politics today.


(This blog was drawn from a keynote address delivered at the Contending Modernities “Beyond Coexistence in Plural Societies” Conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, on July 10th.)

[1] Yaḥyá Muḥammad, Al-Qaṭīʿa Bayna Al-Muthaqqaf Wa Al-Faqīh: Dirāsa Maʿrifīya Tastahdifu Ibrāz Jawānib Al-Qaṭīʿa Bayna Al-Binyatyan Al-ʿaqliyatayn-Almuthaqqaf Wa Al-Faqīh (Muʾassasa al-Intishār al-ʿArabī, 2001).

Ebrahim Moosa
Ebrahim Moosa (Ph.D., University of Cape Town 1995) is Professor of Islamic Studies in Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Department of History, and Keough School of Global Affairs. Moosa’s interests span both classical and modern Islamic thought with a special focus on Islamic law, history, ethics and theology. He is the author of Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination, winner of the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book in the History of Religions (2006).
Field Notes article

Beyond Coexistence: Pluralism in Indonesia

Photo Credit: Marc-André Jung. Stupas of the Borobudur Buddhist temple in Yogyakarta at sunrise.

Where better to study radical pluralism than Indonesia? Beyond its legal frameworks, this democratic country of hundreds of sub-national ethnic groups, over 300 native languages, and six official religions and many more unofficial ones offers a rich living exercise in “engaging fellow citizens across social and ethical divides.”[1] While the ethno-regional tensions that gripped the country after the fall of Suharto have been largely quelled, two decades into democracy, the country faces new challenges to tolerance and identity. The sentencing on blasphemy charges of Ahok, Jakarta’s governor from 2014-2017, and asymmetric citizenship for non-Muslim Aceh residents since 2001 are just a few examples of the debate tearing through the Indonesian political and social fabric: What is the role of religion in public life?

The Contending Modernities Authority, Community, and Identity (ACI) in Indonesia working group gathers six research teams working on different facets of this question. On July 10th and 11th of 2017, the six teams convened at the Syarif Hidayatulla State Islamic University of Jakarta (UIN) for the conference “Beyond Coexistence in Plural Societies.” Organized by Contending Modernities (CM) and UIN’s LP2M Institute for Research and Community Service, researchers, religious scholars, and civil society partners came together to consider the lessons and questions Indonesia offers, both for its own future and for other diverse societies.

As the group develops its conference papers, CM has invited Indonesianists present at the conference to share their reflections on the conversations, particularly around the following guiding thoughts. We will be publishing their essays over the next several weeks.

Must We Value Pluralism to Coexist?

How do we approach and understand pluralism? What might be some pitfalls of using the concept of pluralism to engage questions of governance and tolerance?

By some readings, pluralism encompasses both non-violent interactions between distinct groups living in the same territory and the legal and political systems that permit autonomy to minorities. While some societies with representative political systems value the equitable protection of minority civil and political rights, all place some limitations on minorities (e.g. polygamy in the USA or same sex relationships in India). Yet what of majoritarian communities that do not value the right of minorities to exercise their identity, be it religious worship or speaking their own language? Can minority communities constrained by unequal, second-class citizenship truly be said to “coexist” with their majoritarian compatriots? Is there a difference between coexistence and a tenuous and constantly re-negotiated ability to maintain a minority identity in a territory?

It’s also possible to have enduring and plural social coalitions grounded on intolerance. Does our understanding of pluralism, and the normativities applied to the concept, blind us to some complex interactions between communities while lifting up others?

What Are the Foundations of Pluralism?

What sources of authority, such as theological and political convictions and practices, both open and close spaces for coexistence?

The ACI Indonesia working group explores the beliefs, structures, and leadership that legitimize pluralist and inclusive modes of belonging, on the one hand, and exclusivist community identities on the other. Many conference participants pointed to new divisive electoral campaign practices and the virulence of social media, above all, in driving the exclusivist politicization of religion. What sources of authority bolster pluralism, and how do they relate to those which silo communities and spur violence?

Can Inequity Be “Tolerance”?

How should we define tolerance, especially in a context of agonistic plurality? The challenges posed by majoritarian politics on modes of citizenship, including along lines of gender and sexuality, were readily apparent in the workshop presentations.

Much like the concept of coexistence, conditions of stark political inequality raise questions about how we employ the notion of social “tolerance.” For example, Christians and Hindus in Lombok are permitted freedom of belief, but are severely and often totally constrained in their ability to build places of worship by laws that allow the majority Muslim community to maintain control over authorizing new churches and temples, and even religious celebrations. Indonesian “tolerance” towards minorities is often mentioned, yet this degree of majoritarian control of public displays of minority identity disfigures the concept into its Orwellian mirror image. What are the limits of “tolerance,” and at what point are we really facing expressions of intolerance?


We invite you to read the upcoming essays in the series, and access the conference program for more information.


[1] Hefner, “Civic Normativities: Lessons from Indonesia on Citizenship and Deep Plurality,” presented at the “Beyond Coexistence in Plural Societies” conference on July 10th, 2017.

Dania Straughan
Dania is a graduate of the Kroc Institute’s Masters in Peace Studies, with a focus on public policy, monitoring and evaluation, and organizational management. As part of her program she conducted an ethnographic evaluation of a local South Bend organization applying dialogue to intergroup conflict, and benchmarked the use of restorative justice on North American college campuses for Notre Dame. She previously served as outreach coordinator at the Millennium Nucleus for the Study of Stateness and Democracy in Latin America, at the Catholic University of Chile.
Theorizing Modernities article

Muslims and the Making of America

Woman wears US flag as head scarf during No Muslim Ban protests.
Photo Credit: Geoff Livingston. A woman wears a US flag as a headscarf to protest the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban on January 28, 2017.

“The political and intellectual history of modernity,” writes historian Robert Orsi, “is also always a religious history.” However, as significant and diverse recent scholarship is now bringing to light, narratives around the political, intellectual, and religious history of modernity often serve not only to illuminate the past, but also to obscure it through the authorization of specific forms of experience and knowledge. 

This symposium, entitled “Decolonizing Narratives, Denaturalizing Modernity,” aims to highlight recent scholarship that complicates received notions around the history of modernity. While focusing on distinct temporal, geographical, and religious contexts, in their shared attempts to uncover histories hidden by the dominant discourses of modernity, the authors featured in this symposium uniformly challenge the naturalization of modernity’s emergence and indicate that that the history of modernity has always been (and remains) fundamentally contested. 

In the current political climate in the United States, Muslims are the most marginalized religious community. There are numerous misconceptions about American Muslims. One is that we (I self-identify as both a Muslim and a scholar of religion) are relative newcomers to the United States. Another is that we haven’t contributed anything of value to what it means to be American. A third is that at best American Muslims are un-American, and at worst they are actively seeking to overthrow the government and bring in the rule of Islamic law.

My new book, Muslims and the Making of America, begins with this deliberately provocative sentence: “There has never been an America without Muslims”. The first Muslims documented in the United States were slaves of the Spanish conquistadors. One of them died in what is now New Mexico in 1539, some 80 years before the Pilgrims arrived. Then came the transatlantic slave trade, where an estimated 10% of slaves from West Africa were Muslim. To take only one example, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon, was brought to Annapolis in 1730. His story was told in a narrative published in London in 1734 by Rev. Thomas Bluett. In 1734, George Washington, the “Father of our Country”, was a two-year old toddler, and across the Atlantic people were reading about a Muslim slave in the colonies. And like the presence of Muslims from the very beginning, the founding mythology of our country ignores the genocide of the native population, and the enslavement of Africans who literally helped to build this country.

After slaves, Muslims came as immigrants from the Ottoman Empire. The first mosque in America is probably the one in Biddeford, Maine, built in 1915 by Albanians who had come to work for a local textile mill. That’s important to remember, that Muslims were sometimes brought here to work. Not that they came looking for work, but that they were recruited and brought here, in short that they were invited.

The history of our country is a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious one. But that history is often not told. In Muslims and the Making of America, I tell some of this history, which of course is a religious history as much as it is a social history. It is also a shared history. And that for me is important. We are connected to each other, to each other’s stories. From Edward Said, I learned the line from the poet Aimé Césaire: “there is room for all at the rendezvous of victory.” I think we do this when we retell our stories as shared stories, not telling our single stories as if they were the only ones.

Shepard Fairey, “Greater Than Fear,” published with permission from

One example of this connection came on January 27, 2017, when a week after his inauguration, President Trump ordered that the United States ban travelers and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen). He did this at 4:42 p.m., almost at the end of the business week, after making comments that morning for International Holocaust Remembrance Day that made no mention either of the Jews or of anti-Semitism. Thousands of people protested the ban at airports across the country in the following days. I flew back to Los Angeles from Washington, DC, on January 29, and those protests were quite powerful to see, people standing up for Muslims not just or only as refugees or immigrants, but as Muslims. That was extraordinary. What has also been amazing to see is the response from the American Jewish community. They have been at the forefront of the protests, both because they know that the commandment that is repeated more than any other commandment in the Torah is to not oppress the stranger, and because they know with the painful history of the Holocaust of where the road of prejudice and intolerance ends. Moreover, just as hate crimes against Muslims continue to rise, so too in 2016, over half of the hate crimes committed against a religious group in America were against Jews. The actions of the Trump administration have brought together Muslims and Jews in a way that I have never seen in my twenty years of living in America.

On the academic side of things, we have the concept of intersectionality, which for me is best expressed in the words of the blessed John Berger, who in a 2002 essay wrote the following:

“Most analyses and prognoses about what is happening are understandably presented and studied within the framework of their separate disciplines: economics, politics, media studies, public health, ecology, national defence, criminology, education, etc. In reality each of these separate fields is joined to another to make up the real terrain of what is being lived. It happens that in their lives, people suffer from wrongs which are classified in separate categories, whereas they suffer them simultaneously and inseparably.” (From “Where Are We?”, in Hold Everything Dear (Pantheon Books: 2007, p. 44).

We need to better understand our connections, both between our disciplines, and among ourselves.

Amir Hussain
Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he teaches courses on Islam, American Muslims, and world religions. His most recent book, Muslims and the Making of America, was published by Baylor University Press in October 2016. From 2011 to 2015, Amir was the editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the premier scholarly journal for the study of religion.
Theorizing Modernities article

Pious Fashion: Designing Modern Muslim Citizens

Photograph by Monique Jaques, June 15, 2015

“The political and intellectual history of modernity,” writes historian Robert Orsi, “is also always a religious history.” However, as significant and diverse recent scholarship is now bringing to light, narratives around the political, intellectual, and religious history of modernity often serve not only to illuminate the past, but also to obscure it through the authorization of specific forms of experience and knowledge. 

This symposium, entitled “Decolonizing Narratives, Denaturalizing Modernity,” aims to highlight recent scholarship that complicates received notions around the history of modernity. While focusing on distinct temporal, geographical, and religious contexts, in their shared attempts to uncover histories hidden by the dominant discourses of modernity, the authors featured in this symposium uniformly challenge the naturalization of modernity’s emergence and indicate that that the history of modernity has always been (and remains) fundamentally contested. 

Robert Orsi’s assertion that the political history of modernity is also always religious history is one of the organizing ideas of this symposium. What might this idea mean for our understanding of a religious tradition as it applies to practices of piety like the use of modest clothing? Specifically, what role does the politics of modernity have in shaping the assumptions about the significance of Muslim women’s dress?

Let’s start by defining tradition. I like historian Marilyn Robinson Waldman’s argument that it is a mistake to see tradition as in opposition to modernity, as merely a depository of old ideas that impede change. She proposes instead we regard traditions as modalities of change, as a way for a society to cope with innovation by allowing it to become accepted and normalized. By this definition religions are traditions, but so too is modernity or versions of modernity. So our question becomes, how does the process of interaction of various ways of coping with change, in this case in Islamic and modern ways, affect Muslim women’s dress? How is “piety” a received notion that helps Muslims deal with a variety of pressures of modernity, including globalization, national development, consumption, and sexual politics?

In my recent book, Pious Fashion, I investigate Muslim women’s modest clothing in three locations—Iran, Indonesia, and Turkey—in order to describe the wide range of meanings conveyed by what women wear. As the comparison of three locations makes clear, when piety is deployed to assist with these processes of adjustment within various cultures, it results in a diversity of practice and belief both within and between communities. And that diversity is shaped as much by local politics as Islam. Muslims’ lives, it turns out, are not completely dictated by religious dogma or law.

This means that although some Muslim women have covered their heads since the time of the Prophet, understanding the significance of this practice today requires a look at recent political histories. Take the three countries discussed in my book: Iran, Indonesia, and Turkey. They all became nation-states in the last hundred years. As part of their respective nationalist awakenings and subsequent nation-building, the boundaries between Islam and the state were established and redrawn, often as part of negotiations between colonizer and colonized. And since Muslim women were regarded as the receptacles and conveyers of tradition, they bore the brunt of the burden of national projects aimed at reforming Islam. The headscarf, as the most visible symbol of Muslim women, became the target of political agendas that often had very little to do with Muslim women themselves. Depending on the location, pious fashion was required (Iran), regulated (Indonesia), or banned (Turkey) as the state pondered what forms of Islam and modernity it wanted to promote or suppress.

Photograph by Monique Jaques, March 13, 2013

These three locations can be understood to reflect three distinct encounters with modernity, that are today reflected in clothing trends in each location. Styles of pious fashion in Tehran show us that the modern Iranian woman might be willing to live by rules not of her own making, but that she also demands the right to interpret those rules. As a consequence, hijab turns out to be not a single form of dress: rather, it includes a range of styles from the full-body covering of traditional chador to tailored short overcoats and headscarves. In some sense, any woman wearing pious fashion participates in the physical and visual segregation of men and women in public, thus reinforcing a gender ideology that supports patriarchy. But some styles are interpreted as expressing allegiance to the current regime, whereas others are viewed as politically subversive, pushing back against state attempts to regulate public morality and presentation through a dress code. Over three decades after the Iranian revolution, hijab still needs to be enforced, evidence that attempts to refashion the female citizen from above have not been entirely successful. In fact if anything, pious fashion has served to display diversity among Iranian women—whether that diversity is based on identity, class, or political aspirations.

In Indonesia, the government’s vision of the modern woman has always involved ideas about her presentation and comportment in public. But for most of the last hundred years, sarong-style skirts and blouses were the clothes officially promoted by the government. That changed dramatically three decades ago when the popularity of jilbab–as pious fashion is locally called–skyrocketed after Suharto resigned. As young, college-educated women increasingly adopted pious fashion, it became a sign of a cosmopolitan woman. In addition, since a headscarf and modest outfit were not historically part of Islamic practice in this country, women were free to wear these items to express a thoroughly modern identity that is entirely compatible with national development and progress.

Muslim women’s clothing in Turkey has been connected with the complex conversation about national identity. The ideal modern Turkish woman does not aspire to strict secularism anymore, even if she does understand herself to be European. She can have a strong Muslim identity, reflected in a specific style of modest dress referred to as tesettür. The prominence of pious fashion in Istanbul is a sign of the waning of the European forms of secularism that dominated much of Turkish politics in the twentieth century. In many ways, wearing pious fashion is a more politically radical act here than in the other two locations, because it involves a turning away from Turkey’s Kemalist legacy.

Muslim men are also required to dress modestly: to cover their bodies at least from the navel to below the knee and to avoid other forms of exposure, like extremely tight clothing. What is most notable about Muslim men’s fashion in the three countries I discuss in Pious Fashion is the widespread adoption of Western dress norms, such as trousers, shirts, and jackets. Men in these locations are almost as covered as women, so in that way their dress is also modest. But men’s clothing does not have to be “pious” in the same way. Men’s clothing is the marker of the nation’s power and modernity; women’s clothing is the marker of its morality, honor, and ethnic identity. In fact, one reason the modern male Muslim citizen can dress in standard Western clothing is because the modern woman at his side is still dressed in local, religiously encoded, garb.


Elizabeth Bucar
Elizabeth Bucar, Associate Professor Religious Studies at Northeastern University, is a religious ethicist who studies gender, emergent technologies, and moral transformation within Islamic and Christian traditions and communities. Bucar's latest project, Pious Fashion, argues that Muslim women are leveraging the attention put on the public presentation of their bodies through specific clothing choices to become important local creators, arbiters, and critics of norms and values. Bucar's additional publications include The Islamic Veil: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld Publications, 2012) and Creative Conformity (Georgetown University Press, 2011), and co-editor of Ethics in a Time of Globalism (Palgrave, 2012) and Does Human Rights Need God? (Eerdmans, 2005). 
Field Notes article

The Sky’s Many Colors

Photo Credit: Alice Treuth. Skyline from Boudhanath stupa with prayer flags.

Americans often assume that everyone understands the world the way that we do. We believe that our thoughts, perceptions, and ideas are universal. Instead, as I learned at the Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive in Kathmandu, individuals have their own perceptions, informed by past experiences, culture, society, politics, education, gender, family, religion, and history, to name a few. Perceptions are not unvarnished reality, but rather are colored and vary as a result of these experiences.

As an American, I may think that the color of the sky is light blue and believe that everyone perceives the sky as light blue. But, on the contrary, someone else from another society may have a distinct cultural understanding of the same sky. Someone on the top of Mount Everest may perceive the sky as dark blue because of his or her position at a higher altitude (where the atmosphere thins, giving way to the darker, blacker color of space). At the same time, someone at the North Pole may perceive the sky as blue, green, and red as the Northern Lights illuminate the sky, while someone else from Zabol, Iran may perceive the sky as gray, due to the thick pollution in that city. Before going to Nepal, I thought everyone saw the sky as light blue. During the trip, where I had intense and deep conversations about religion, secularism, gender, politics, education, societal norms, and culture with students of Islam from India and Pakistan, my world radiated with unexpected color; I discovered that the sky was not only blue, but consisted of a wide spectrum. My sky was not everyone’s sky and their sky was not my sky. Many ideas and perceptions I thought to be universal were not and such ideas varied more than I had imagined.

Photo Credit: Alice Treuth. Jebraune Chambers and Treuth pose at the Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu.

While some students progressed from their community’s norm, believing that women should be given more rights in society, many of the students understood a woman’s roles as confined to the home for her protection. She should not work outside the home, which often (but not always) prevents her from acquiring the same level of education as the man due to his (and not her) role as a provider for the family. Only some of these Madrasa students encouraged their wives to pursue an education at an institution, although not all wives elected to do so. Needless to say, as a zealous lover of learning and a diligent female student at Notre Dame, these conceptions were foreign to me. There is nothing I want more than a family, but I also strive to be a learned, contributing member of society and a co-provider for my family. Moreover, the concept that women’s confinement in the home was for their protection was irreconcilable to me. Being an athlete at Notre Dame, I was taller than all of these madrasa students and probably stronger than some of them. How could they possibly protect me?

Only a few years older than I, many Madrasa students were married while I am nowhere near getting married. Many of their marriages were arranged, and only a few were joined in “love marriages,” as they termed them. Though I was aware of the concept of assigned marriages, I have only been personally exposed to “love marriages.” In fact, the term “love marriage” was new to me,  as I had previously thought all marriages functioned as “love marriages.” Nonetheless, these students fostered closer relationships with family than I have with my own.

Contrary to the foundational American value of “separation of church and state,” many madrasa students had strong perspectives on governmental requirements, believing that religion should not be separate from government. Some students believed that a secular society was dangerous and potentially immoral. A number believed that Islamic law, not the principles of other faiths, should guide government, because, they said, Islamic law alone could guide the morality of citizens and promote ethical behavior (unlike a secular government).

Photo Credit: Jebraune Chambers. Treuth and Pakistani student Hafiz Abdul Rehman during a course break.

It is crucial to understand that these differences provided learning opportunities instead of distance and division, and served as opportunities to enhance cultural awareness. With differences in opinions, ideas, and perspectives, both madrasa graduates and Notre Dame students benefitted from listening to each other’s points of view and discussing these ideas together. I believe that the madrasa students learned about involving women in education and employment from us, about religious tolerance, especially in government, as well as some cultural norms such as how to discuss and interact with U.S. or western women. Furthermore, I believe that the madrasa students could learn more about questioning from us, specifically about their religion and its interpretations. As Americans, we tend to question everything: politics, societal norms, gender norms, race relations, religion, and what our parents tell us, to name a few, and I think they would benefit from doing the same in pursuance of forming their own interpretations, opinions, and ideas. Lastly and among other things, I also encourage their learning for the sake of learning, for the joy of gaining knowledge, especially in non-religious studies.

At the same time, it is equally important, if not more important, to consider what we Americans can learn from these students. While some of the women’s roles and the prevailing marriage norms seem outdated and senseless to me, there are positive ideas about the familial structure that we could learn from them. We could learn how to cultivate stronger relationships with our parents, both as children and as adults. We could learn how to be responsible from a young age and how to take greater care of our families. Furthermore, we could learn how to be impassioned about expanding our frames of reference by asking profound questions, adding intelligent comments, and enthusiastically discussing course material outside of the classroom. We could also learn how to persevere with the educational opportunities we have been provided in America, especially in the face of adversity. We often times take for granted how easily accessible and common education, specifically secondary education, is in America, by comparison.

The opportunities for learning and teaching on the trip were endless, and I have only mentioned a few of the many lessons I learned. Exposure to opinions, cultures, and ideas very different from my own caused me to introspect: How important do I consider my family? How can I be more enthusiastic about learning? How can I question my own ingrained beliefs and values? The madrasa graduates demonstrated how to make religion a central priority in my life and how to question my own religion and its common interpretations. They taught me how to accept other people from other societies and fully recognize their ideas even when I did not personally agree with them.

Photo Credit: Alice Treuth. Stairs up to Boudhanath stupa.

Simply because cultural expectations and perspectives between groups were different did not mean that either group was right or wrong, but rather that because of our experiences, we perceived the world differently. Through my conversations with the Madrasa students, I gained insight into their culture, religion, and way of life, as well as into the shockingly numerous similarities we share. Even though we practice different religions, originate from different societies, and have different outlooks on life, the similarities we discovered encouraged honest and meaningful conversation. In the differences we found learning opportunities instead of distance. With an open mind we can all learn to understand others who may, at first glance, seem very different from ourselves, but upon a closer look (and with an open mind) are much more similar to us than we would have imagined.

The sky is universal. We all live under the same sky on the same planet in the same atmosphere and yet our understanding of the sky can be slightly different. We all perceive everything differently because of our own cultural, societal, religious, educational, familial, political and historical experiences in our own countries and in our own geographies. Our perception of the world is colored by these experiences, just as our perception of the sky is slightly transformed based on these same experiences. Some may see the sky as blue, some as green, a few as multicolored, and others as grey. These differences are not insurmountable and can act as valuable learning opportunities, leading one to learn from others and question his or her own opinions. Yet even with these varied perceptions of the sky, there is something uniting about living under the same starry roof. There is a shared humanity to be found in us all living under this sky. Our similarities are stronger than we tend to acknowledge, which has the potential to strengthen us in our shared human experience. By recognizing our similarities as being stronger than our differences, we are able to unite with the similarities in common humanity and allow the differences to become learning opportunities. Intercultural understanding can be facilitated by experiences like this one, where persons from other cultures and societies interact closely and share their opinions openly in a discussion. As the world becomes more globalized, we all need to recognize the different skies that persons around the world perceive, but also appreciate the common sky under which we all live.

Alice Treuth
Alice Treuth is majoring in Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, with a minor in Science, Technology and Values as well as Education, School and Society. She joined the Madrasa Discourses project for the July 2017 Summer Intensive in Kathmandu.
Field Notes article

Facing Down Intolerance: Sharing Madrasas in the USA

Photo Credit: Alaina Anderson. Seven Notre Dame undergraduates joined Madrasa Discourses students in Kathmandu, Nepal. Here they pose in a temple courtyard with a Pakistani madrasa graduate: (L-R) Sumera Rabia, Jebraune Chambers, Maggie Feighery, Alaina Anderson, Nabila Mourad, Kirsten Hanlon, Molly Burton, and Alice Treuth.

“How was Nepal? What exactly were you doing there?” Since I’ve been back in the United States, I’ve struggled to answer these questions. There’s no simple and cohesive answer to describe all of my experiences at the Madrasa Discourses Kathmandu Summer Intensive. What is even harder is trying to explain the context the madrasa graduates are coming from and the need for the Discourses project without reinforcing many people’s perspective that Islam lends itself to extremism and fundamentalism. As soon as I try to describe madrasas (Islamic seminaries), with their intense focus on the Qur’an and often outdated syllabi, I can see some people solidifying their ideas that madrasas create terrorists or all Muslim communities are ultra-conservative at best. I have to rush to explain the warm welcome I received as soon as I arrived, how I was immediately treated as a sister, how every one of the madrasa students wanted to hear the Notre Dame girls’ opinions in discussions, and explain that madrasas are not breeding grounds for terrorism. My incredible time at the Kathmandu Summer Intensive introduced me to many amazing, kind scholars as well as to the strengths and weaknesses of their education. I was able to understand the need to update the framework in which Islam is interpreted and studied around the world in a fuller context because of the people I met and the stories I heard. This juxtaposition of an education system in need of reform and incredibly intelligent scholars is hard to explain, especially when you mix in a currently (and unfortunately) politically charged subject like Islam.

Photo Credit: Alaina Anderson. Re-Entry to the United States, Los Angeles Airport.

I’d like to share all of my experiences, good and bad, but worry about how my stories will be interpreted hold me back at times, fearing I will inadvertently solidify simplistic, anti-Muslim views. The vast majority of my friends and family are very tolerant, open-minded people who choose to see the good in the world. It’s easy to tell them what happened in Nepal without trying to use a filter or without needing to overemphasize the good things. However, there are some people that I’m close to that are not as open. For example, I have a family member who, while she is a good person, has been previously misinformed and has unfortunately stuck to that misinformation. So, with her, it has been great sharing the many good things that happened. However, as soon as I start trying to explain the importance of the project, she cuts in and asks if madrasas create a lot of terrorists or if Muslim societies are typically fundamentalist. Even after I assure her that the answer to both of those questions is a definite no, she seems suspicious. As soon as I start talking about my frustrations with a lot of the gender discussions that took place in Kathmandu, I can practically see her more negative view of Muslim cultures hardening.

A few nights after my return, the topic of my trip to Nepal came up, and this family member mentioned that one of the participants from the Madrasa Discourses sent her a friend request on Facebook. Her first thought was, “ISIS.” When she told me that, I had to force myself not to walk away from her mid-conversation. I was shocked and repulsed that someone in my own family could say something like that. I hate that there are people out there whose minds immediately jump to terrorism when they see bearded and/or traditionally dressed Muslims, but it kills me that someone so close to me could think this, even after I had explained how wonderful all of the Madrasa Discourses participants were. It’s so hard for me to change my family member’s mindset. I try to balance out the negatives by pointing out the need for change but also trying to explain the good intentions behind them. For this, I always return to my conversations on gender with Hafiz Abdul Rehman (Hafiz), with whom I formed a strong friendship.

Hafiz is a fairly quiet Pakistani school teacher. He’s a devout Muslim who joined these Discourses to learn about different approaches to the Islamic faith. He’s one person I know will bring the things he learns through the Madrasa Discourses back with him to share with others. He is a kind person to the core, is eternally well-meaning, and has so much love to give to the world. I had some amazing conversations with Hafiz the first couple of days, and he really helped me understand the madrasa graduates’ perspectives on the day the lectures focused on gender equality and social inclusion. While I did not agree with his (and most of the other madrasa students’) stance on gender “equality” or how women and men should be seen, he never got annoyed at my many questions. He heard me out every time, and he really tried to understand what I was saying and where I was coming from. In return, he helped me to see that the gender roles in their society help to create strong family units and are upheld by many out of a sense of love and respect. He liked to tell me, “people think we don’t love women in our society. But I think it is that we love women more than men.” He would cite passages in the Qur’an where Mohammed talks about how a mother’s love is unmeasurable or how the mother is most worthy of “good companionship,” even three times over the father. He shared his belief that the separation of men and women and women’s modest dress was to protect women. He told me, and I really feel he believes, that his society values women so much that it wants to protect and provide for women. He explained that the reasons women need to stay home are to raise the children and run the household; he used to laugh at that part and tell me, “really, the women are the bosses of the men, Alaina.” He said that men had to go work in order to give money to their parents and then to their wives. Through all of my conversations with Hafiz, it was very hard for me to voice my disagreements, not because he didn’t let me (he welcomed the opportunity to hear another opinion) but because I knew that everything he did and believed came from a place of love and respect.

Photo Credit: Jebraune Chambers. Madrasa Discourses students Waqas Khan and Hafiz Muhammad Bilal photograph the Kathmandu skyline.

These are the things that I want to share with people. I want to show them that even the negative aspects of my experience (like my frustrations with many madrasa graduates’ beliefs about gender dynamics) had positive parts. Most of the time, I found that participants perpetuated these lifestyles out of a place of love. Other times, it seemed that lifestyles continued because of a lack of understanding of other viable options or because they didn’t know how to challenge the status quo. Back in the US, my struggle is that some people stop listening after they hear that traditional or gender-segregated lifestyles are being perpetuated in the madrasa graduates’ communities. (By the way, these lifestyles are culturally grounded and vary vastly among Muslim societies globally.) I can’t figure out how to reach people with an anti-Muslim bias in an effective manner. For some, I choose only to share the positive aspects of my experience. For others, I allude to some of my frustrations surrounding certain conversations in Kathmandu without going into detail. But really, I want to tell everyone the whole story. And, to me, the positives of my Nepal story vastly outweigh the negatives. Yes, there is a huge need for change and for updating, as I learned, but there is also so much good and so much love that I encountered. There is so much in my Nepal experience that gives me hope for the future and for a positive change and updating in Islamic scholarship/madrasa education, however quickly or slowly it may happen.

I loved my Nepal experience. I’m not going to say that I enjoyed the entire thing, the food was sometimes unrecognizable and I put my foot in my mouth far too many times to claim constant enjoyment, but overall, the feelings I take away from my two weeks in Nepal are love and enlightenment. I learned so much, and I met so many incredible, impressive people. I want to share this experience, this entire experience, with others. The fact that I will come across more intolerant or misinformed individuals is a given. Thus far, I have not found an easy way to break open that dialogue with those individuals, but I hope that the more I share my experience, the easier it will be for me to navigate those tricky conversations with a cool head. Sharing my experience has already helped my family member see a little better the world the madrasa graduates I met live in, and I’d like to think that little by little, my stories will help others become more understanding, too.

From left to right, Pakistani Madrasa Discourses students Muhammad Usman, Muhammad Tayyab Usmani, Zaid Hassan, Hafiz Muhammad Bilal, Lead Faculty Ammar Khan Nasir, and students Hafiz Muhammad Rasheed, Waqar Ahmed, and Hafiz Abdul Rehman on a cultural field trip in Lalitpur (Patan), outside of Kathmandu, Nepal.
Alaina Anderson
Alaina Anderson is pursuing majors in psychology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. She joined the Madrasa Discourses project for the 2017 Kathmandu Summer Intensive.