Theorizing Modernities article

Scientific Literacy for Madrasa Graduates: A Project for Religious Renewal at the University of Notre Dame

[Re-posted from The Maydan]


The ink of scholars is holier than the blood of martyrs.

–Attributed to the Prophet Muhammad

Beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.

–Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.

–Albert Einstein


Bright boxes with eager faces lit up the computer screen, revealing a new batch of madrasa graduates from India and Pakistan. A handful of boxes were blank, cameras off to maintain the privacy of veiled female participants. One video feed was pitch dark, not for privacy, but because the power was out in the remote village outside of Delhi; it is a good thing that the laptop was charged and connected through the cell tower. Each of the twenty-six students in class that day logged in from a remote location. The camera of one of the participants, also from India, could be seen bouncing around, as if from the set of a reality show. He had logged in using his mobile device while on a train that had been delayed. One participant from Pakistan joined us from Saudi Arabia. He had not yet returned from the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Half way through the customary first-day introductions, a box appeared with what seemed like the inside of Hesburgh library in the background. A Notre Dame student, helping with the project through the peace research lab, had just logged in to take attendance. Thus began the second year of an ambitious effort to advance theological and scientific literacy in Madrasa Discourses (MD).[1]

Professor Ebrahim Moosa, himself a madrasa graduate, initiated MD within the Contending Modernities (CM) research initiative in the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies within the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Perception matters: Why is a Catholic institution interested in reforming Madrasa education? Within Notre Dame, MD aligns with the goals of the school and institutes within which it resides. The Keough School of Global Affairs advances “integral human development” through “transformative educational programs”; MD generates “greater understanding of the ways in which religious and secular forces interact in the modern world,” which is the purpose of the CM research initiative; and the activities of MD contribute towards “strengthening the capacity of all for peacebuilding,” which is the mandate of the Kroc Institute. The project is supported with external funding through the John Templeton Foundation, which encourages “civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians, as well as between such experts and the public at large.” The project’s image benefits from the reputation of Notre Dame as a ranked research university in the US that is committed to global engagement for furthering the common good.

 Authentic “Insiders” at the Helm

Mahan Mirza (l) and Ebrahim Moosa (r) in the Madrasa Discourses trailer video.

The project also has the advantage of having a strong team of authentic “insiders” at the helm.[2] As the Principal Investigator, Ebrahim Moosa is a world-renowned scholar and himself a madrasa graduate. As the lead faculty responsible for implementing the project, I have a background in the sciences, Islamic studies, and experience working with credible Islamic institutions with global recognition. Like-minded and authoritative partners in India and Pakistan serve as lead faculty to guide and mentor the madrasa participants. MD has no formal institutional partnerships overseas. Instead, MD has contractual agreements with individuals who, in turn, have strong ties to important institutions in their respective local contexts. The lead faculty in India, Waris Mazhari, is a graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband, one of the most prestigious madrasas in India. He serves on the faculty of the Jamia Hamdard, is the founding director of the Institute for Religious and Social Thought, and he has been editing the journal of the Deoband “Old Boys Club” for almost two decades. Dr. Mazhari holds a Ph.D. from Jamia Millia Islamia, a century-old institution of higher learning founded by prominent Indian Muslim leaders.

In Pakistan, our lead faculty Mawlana Ammar Khan Nasir is the associate director of the Al-Sharia Academy where he edits an influential online monthly journal addressing topics at the intersection of Islam and modernity. Mawlana Nasir, also a graduate of the traditional madrasa system, has an MA in English literature, is completing his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Punjab University. He served for several years on the faculty of GIFT University in his hometown of Gujranwala, just outside Lahore. The Sharia Academy is founded and directed by Mawlana Ammar’s father, Mawlana Zahid ur Rashid, who also the head of a traditional Sunni Madrasa, Nusratul Uloom. Our colleagues have provided invaluable support in the recruitment of students, supported curriculum development, taught regularly in the program, established an Urdu public website, and translated curricular and supplementary texts from English into Urdu for the journal. Our partnership helps to allay any concerns that our project has colonial or surreptitious designs through an intimate intellectual kinship forged on trust and mutual respect.

Goals and Methodological Principles of Madrasa Discourses

Credit: Qatar Foundation. Madrasa Discourses 2017 Winter Intensive tour of the Qatar National Library.

The goal of MD is to transform the intellectual culture within madrasa scholarship by bringing it into conversation with contemporary intellectual currents. A fundamental premise of the project is that madrasa education, by and large, is falling short of preparing graduates to meet the intellectual challenges of the day.[3] This failure has resulted in a marginalization of religious scholars (‘ulama’) in society coupled with a collapse of their moral authority. Whereas the ulama were once the intellectual and spiritual guides in Muslim societies, they are now relegated to relics who are largely irrelevant if not ridiculed as being out of step with the times. In order to achieve the goal of raising the level of the intellectual discourse in madrasa circles, MD has recruited a handful of madrasa graduates to participate in a three-year curriculum designed to provide conceptual tools as well as language proficiency to help them better navigate contemporary academic literature in English. Although the instruction takes place in an intimate environment out of the reach of the public largely sequestered from social media, we have launched a public website Tajdīd to allow the conversation that is taking place in the classroom to spill over into the public sphere.

The goal of MD is to transform the intellectual culture within madrasa scholarship by bringing it into conversation with contemporary intellectual currents. A fundamental premise of the project is that madrasa education, by and large, is falling short of preparing graduates to meet the intellectual challenges of the day.”

Guiding MD are two vital methodological principles. The first is that we derive our inspiration to engage critically with new knowledge by appealing to terms or frames of inquiry that are native to the Islamic scholarly tradition. MD draws on the rich textual heritage of Islam to make the case for critical inquiry, dynamism, and creativity as aspects that are native to Islamic religious thought. Although MD is primarily an educational program, it is nonetheless framed within a broader agenda of peacebuilding, affirmation of human dignity, and furthering the common good. Conflict manifests in conceptual categories as well as lived social realities; it can be viewed through the imperfect temporal concepts of “tradition” and “modernity” or perhaps even less perfect cultural/geographic designators of “Islam” and “West.”


The Elicitive Approach

Drawing on theories in conflict resolution, then, and wedding these theories to the educational aspect of MD, our approach is an “elicitive” one. Contrasting with a “prescriptive” approach that “understands the training event as built around the specialized knowledge of the trainer, which is taken to be both transferable and universal”, the elicitive approach “understands training as a process that emerges from already-existing, local knowledge.”[4] The adoption of an elicitive model, which builds on frames of inquiry that are embedded within the vast storehouses of the Islamic scholarly tradition, enables MD to extend the conversations from the past to the present, leading us out from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This not only avoids the shock value of some of our provocations, it also allows us to proceed systematically, taking the familiar ground of the Islamic tradition as the intellectual journey’s point of departure. The elicitive approach allows participants to build on their existing knowledge base and encourages them to make organic connections instead of struggling to assimilate what is foreign in a manner that would be both disorienting and unsettling.

A second methodological imperative of MD is to emphasize from the outset that participants should get used to an intellectual environment characterized by indeterminism and complexity.”

A second methodological imperative of MD is to emphasize from the outset that participants should get used to an intellectual environment characterized by indeterminism and complexity. We do not tell anyone what the answers are, nor do we expect right or wrong answers. Our project is about questions. But we do expect participants to reason well. MD challenges anti-intellectual modes of religious thought that prevail in contemporary madrasa discourses. We do our best to highlight complexity wherever possible so that participants are not able to hide behind formulaic responses transmitted from generation to generation. By working through the rich history of the Islamic scholarly tradition, we emphasize that intelligent people can disagree. In fact, the Islamic scholarly tradition is built on creative tensions. If history is our guide, intelligent students should expect to arrive at different answers to the theological conundrums of our time. When grounded in sound arguments that are accessible to all in a transparent and shared public space, difference is not something to decry. Difference can be something to celebrate.

The Curriculum: History, Science, Theology

The curriculum – designed together by the core faculty – is conceptualized in three parts, one corresponding to each year of study. The first part deals with history. The second with science. And the third with theology. Themes of each of the three parts are interwoven; the core theme of any of the years cannot be treated in isolation from the rest. History provides context for both theology and science; science is informed by history and influences theology; and theology is reconstructed in light of both history and science. Nonetheless, it has been helpful for us to isolate a dominant disciplinary lens through which to enter the conversation in any given year. Poetically, the three years mirror chronology: 1) history (past), 2) science (present), and 3) theology (future). The locus of theology in the future reflects the project’s ambition of “reconstruction” or “renewal” of theology in light of a more expansive view of the past and a receptive attitude toward new knowledge in the present: a kindling of the moral imagination.

The curriculum – designed together by the core faculty – is conceptualized in three parts, one corresponding to each year of study. The first part deals with history. The second with science. And the third with theology. Themes of each of the three parts are interwoven; the core theme of any of the years cannot be treated in isolation from the rest.”

The program begins with confronting the pluralism of beliefs in human cultures. Human beings have always held different views about their origins and destinies. These differences manifest themselves in varieties of myths and religions. The very first class of the program invites students to confront pluralism through creation stories. We have used short and accessible articles published online by National Geographic series on “The Story of God” hosted by Morgan Freeman.[5] The website offers articles on “Creation Myths from around the World,” “Australian Aboriginal Stories,” and “What We Know about Where We Come from.” Unlike the other myths, new knowledge today helps us construct a fresh creation story by integrating the findings of multiple disciplines in the natural sciences. Beginning with pluralism enables us to get to the core scientific and theological questions that undergird our entire program: How do we privilege our beliefs over the beliefs of others? How did the Islamic scholarly tradition address the question of pluralism? What was the role of reason, independent of revelation, in classical Islamic thought, in answering these questions? Is science today adding anything new to the conversation that could be a game-changer for theology?

When the Abrahamic creation story that the Quranic account participates in is juxtaposed to other creation myths, it becomes evident to students almost instantly that our story seems just as “mythical” as the rest: God talks to the first man and woman in a garden with temptations by Satan or a serpent. The humans are deceived and banished to life on earth. On what basis can Muslims claim that their version is truer than the others? It so happens that the founders of one of the major theological schools in Sunni Islam, Abu Mansur Maturidi (d. 944), addresses this very question in his theological Treatise on Divine Unicity or Kitāb al-Tawḥīd.[6] According to Maturidi, if every group were to rely simply on its own traditions as authorities for the truthfulness of their creeds, there would be no way to mediate between them. For that, one must appeal to reason that is universally and independently accessible to all parties. This is why treatises in classical Islamic theology begin with a position statement on theories of knowledge. The fourteenth century theologian Saʿd al-Din Taftazani (d. 1390) informs us that by his time – almost five hundred years after Maturidi –theology (kalām) had become virtually indistinguishable from philosophy (falsafa).[7] Several centuries earlier, the formidable Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) had already declared theology as “the universal science among the Islamic sciences.”[8] This is because “the theologian (mutakallim) is the one who looks into the most basic of all things (aʿamm al-ashyāʾ), which is Being (al-mawjūd).”[9] Seeing that the study of nature was a theological imperative for Muslim scholars of the past, how could it possibly be that insights into nature gained through the various scientific disciplines today are no longer relevant to the foundation of Islamic theology? Should not theologians today engage new knowledge in science and philosophy just as the theological masters of the past had done in their own time?

Our instinct to begin with pluralism is well founded. The sociologist, Peter Berger, affirms: “It is my position that modernity has plunged religion into a very specific crisis, characterized by secularity, to be sure, but characterized more importantly by pluralism.”[10] More recently, a pioneering work in the budding field of Big History entitled Maps of Time offers: “Maps of Time attempts to assemble a coherent and accessible account of origins, a modern creation myth.”[11] Ian Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, begins his reflections on A Theology of Engagement with the same question.[12] Markham argues that pluralism is a historical fact, that our traditions are heterogeneous, and that the Church might consider reorienting itself to derive lessons from this reality instead of posturing to change the world in her image.

Screenshot from the Madrasa Discourses trailer video.

The connections that the theme of pluralism allows us to make with history, theology, and science are developed in the first semester of the first year through the relationship between epistemology and history. We draw on competing ideas of “reason” used by scholars from across the intellectual spectrum from the likes of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209) to Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). We spend time with Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) to witness beginnings of theoretical approaches to history, but also ponder why such critical approaches were never truly absorbed into the mainstream theological tradition. We switch gears by turning to recent historians like R. G. Collingwood and philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer, which stretches the discussion from the medieval to the modern period. Collingwood defines philosophy as second order reasoning, or “thought about thought.”[13] Collingwood connects history with philosophy by identifying both as concerned with “the science of absolute presuppositions.” History enables us to illuminate the dark corners of our own minds by empathizing with others as we strive to know the causes of events and motivations of actors on the historical stage. Given that historical reports emanate from the subjective vantage of observers, that observations are selective, and that interpretations of observations are theory-laden, it may never be possible for us to fully recover the past, even when we have copious reports about a particular event. This is why, argues Gadamer, every generation must re-interpret the past for itself. Successive communities of interpreters must constantly renegotiate meaning in light of fresh experiences that generate fresh questions.[14] Such notions of historical criticism are entirely new to MD participants, and they are indispensable for text interpretation and retrieval of “tradition” in contemporary academic discourses.   The second semester invites students to reflect more deeply on Islamic intellectual history and the meaning of “tradition.” Through writings by historians like Marshal Hodgson and Dimitri Gutas, we attempt to place Islam within the broader spectrum of human history, working with concepts such as Karl Jasper’s “Axial Age,” as well as the Greco-Arabic Translation movement from the ninth to eleventh centuries.[15] Foreign influences on Islamic thought in this formative period do not permit us to speak of the intellectual tradition as being “purely Islamic.” To further the historical sensibilities of students, we trace the divergent reception of Aristotelian cosmology in the works of great scholars like Biruni (d. 1048) and Ibn Sina (d. 1037). Ghazali and Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) demonstrate contrasting positions on the relationship between philosophy and theology. Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn ʿArabi (d. 1240) exemplify alternative modes of reasoning from their predecessors. Ibn Taymiyya levels a devastating critique on logic, while the latter decries system of thought altogether, setting sail to the winds of allegory. By the end of the first year, students come to view the Islamic tradition as one that is deeply contested.

Students engage with all this material online in an interactive classroom. In addition to the four core faculty members, we also have the privilege of involving guest instructors from various departments at ND. We have had guest appearances by Gabriel Reynolds in theology, Deborah Tor in history, Rashied Omar in peace studies, Thomas Burman in medieval studies, Hussein Abdulsater in classics, and Adnan Aslan in philosophy. The presence of guest instructors in the online classroom has been tremendously enriching for the participants.

The Second Year: Science

The second year focuses on the history and philosophy of science, contemporary theories in the philosophy of religion, “big history,” and the deep history of humanity as it unfolds through “thresholds of increasing complexity” from the earliest stages of the cognitive revolution to a globally networked technological society. Among the questions that we ask are: Does modern science liberate us from God? Is contemporary science independent of metaphysics? Does science prove things with certainty? Is the method of science universal? Is there such a thing as progress in science? How do we distinguish between science and pseudoscience? What are the laws that govern scientific change? If scientific theories and worldviews change, how can we trust the scientific theories of our time? In order to engage these questions meaningfully, the course introduces students to competing theories of truth, thinking philosophically about “facts,” concepts like realism vs. instrumentalism, the underdetermination of theories, and “worldviews” as an interlocking web of theories comprising of empirical facts, philosophic ideas, and methodological approaches. We then apply these concepts to the history of science by studying the transitions from the Aristotelian-Medieval worldview to the contemporary worldview. Names like Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Darwin come to life in our survey.

Contemporary texts from the Islamic tradition accompany us on the journey. In fall 2017, for example, we dissected an essay published in Urdu that attempts to interpret issues in Islamic scriptural sources that are in apparent conflict with science.”

Contemporary texts from the Islamic tradition accompany us on the journey. In fall 2017, for example, we dissected an essay published in Urdu that attempts to interpret issues in Islamic scriptural sources that are in apparent conflict with science. This article draws our attention to prophetic sayings such as Adam was sixty feet tall, a baby’s gender is selected by whichever partner’s fluid dominates, one wing of a fly has a disease while the other has a cure, and the sun will one day rise from the west. The exercise of close reading and careful analysis helps students identify strategies for interpretation that are useful as well as others that are weak if not downright fallacious.[16]

Another text authored by Anwar Shah Kashmiri (d. 1933), a renowned scholar in madrasa circles from the early twentieth century, argues that Quranic statements about nature and the heavens are not intended to be “realist,” but rather “perspectival,” describing things as experienced by humans rather than “as they truly are” according to the latest theories of science.[17] These arguments echo Galileo’s position in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, which was rebutted by Cardinal Bellarmine.[18] In a fascinating twist, Cardinal Bellarmine’s response mirrors a position by another prominent Madrasa scholar of the twentieth century, Ashraf Ali Thanvi (d. 1943).[19] In this way, students are able to witness great debates on science and the interpretation of scripture in their own tradition today that replicate debates that transpired four centuries ago in Europe.

Our treatment of the contemporary worldview includes Einstein’s theory of relativity, Quantum mechanics, and the theory of evolution. According to Richard DeWitt’s Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science, “all of these theories require substantial changes in our worldview.”[20]  The changes required by these new perspectives to our intuitions about the nature of reality boggle the mind. According to them, space and time are no longer absolute, actions appear to have influences across distances at speeds faster than light, and we are what the universe becomes when it has a chance to evolve over billions of years.

Credit: Mahan Mirza. Indian Madrasa Discourses students grappled with the relationship between religion and science in April of 2017. Here they meet with Hakim Syed Zillur Rahman at the Ibn Sina Academy of Medieval Medicine and Sciences.

In the spring semester of the second year, we read a coherent account of human history and imaginative account of human future as portrayed in Yuval Noah Harari’s bestsellers, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.[21] Sapiens takes us through a journey that begins with the earliest humans, tracing different theories of their origins and evolution. Drawing on a vast array of sources in innumerable disciplines in the natural and social sciences, Harari expertly weaves religion, psychology, politics, ethics, economics, and empire, even including reflections on the meaning of life and human happiness, into his historical narrative. This narrative is not contested by experts; but it is one of the most coherent ones available that serves our purpose of theological provocation very well. Harari helps us start a conversation, not end it. These first two years of the program thus prepare the foundation for the work of theological reconstruction in the third year.

The Third Year: Constructive Theology

Out of the thirty-four students who began the first year with us, ten to twelve of the most promising students will continue to the final year of the program beginning fall 2018. These students will draw on the concepts and theoretical tools from the first two years to ask research questions and engage in a program of constructive theology. The research cohort of the third year may be clustered thematically into three groups. Let us take a look at the issues that each of these three research groups might deal with, bearing in mind that what is said here is provisional.

“The best of generations is my generation, then those that follow them, then those that follow them.”[22] This saying of the Prophet Muhammad has animated Muslim sensibilities through the centuries. It evokes a sense of loss with every passing generation as our temporal gulf from the lifespan of the beloved Prophet continuously expands with the flow of historical time. In that sense, decline is in-built in the very fabric of Prophetic religion. Devotees fulfill their longing to be near the Prophet – the best of creation –through obedience, emulation, and love.  It is natural for the breathtaking changes we witness today in our knowledge of the cosmos, nature, and history, accompanied by new patterns of life dictated by mechanical clocks instead of the rhythms of nature, not to mention our new conceptions on the origin of man and his possible future as an interstellar transhuman species, to be unsettling to adherents of revealed religion. The disorientation, loss, and confusion, is unimaginable yet understandable. The nostalgic tug from a past as we hurl inexorably towards an uncertain future poses a dilemma, if not crisis. Can believers remain faithful to their tradition while at the same time engaged and optimistic in what the future holds, or are they forever condemned to view paradigm-changing shifts in human understanding, technical progress, and social development with suspicion?

According to Islamic teachings, the prophet Muhammad is God’s final messenger to humanity (Q. 33:40). He comes at the end of a succession of prophets – reportedly up to 124,000 –to all peoples in every age for their guidance.  One of the reasons that God sent messengers was so that people would have no argument against Him on the Day of Judgment (Q. 4:165). The doctrine of the finality of prophethood is so central that it led the government of Pakistan to declare anyone who does not believe in it a non-Muslim.[23]

The finality of prophethood naturally implies that the Prophet Muhammad’s message is universal; it no longer applies merely to a particular group of people at a given moment in history. Instead, it applies normatively to all people until the end of time. This doctrine fits neatly within a linear framework of history that is common to the Abrahamic traditions. As the narrative goes, God sent messengers aforetime in succession because human society and civilization was in a process of growth and development, much like an individual slowly advancing through various stages from childhood to maturity. The message needed to be renewed or updated with changing times with successive prophets. After the prophet Muhammad, there would be no need for messengers because the guidance and teachings of the final messenger would suffice for future cultural and intellectual contexts – forever. That is why God has taken it upon Himself to safeguard the final scripture (Q. 15:9), and that is why traditionalists have paid scrupulous attention to the transmission of tradition from generation to generation.

The doctrine of the finality of prophethood has made it difficult for Muslims to disentangle Islamic norms from the cultural practices of the Prophet and his Companions in seventh century Arabia. Arabness was subsumed within Islam.[24]  Because of the fusion of Arab cultural practices with transcendent divine teachings, Muslim scholars have always been well aware of the need to separate contingent social culture from universal religious norms in the teachings of the prophet Muhammad.[25]  This tension, however, has never been fully resolved, with the result that the most venerated of scholars even today gravitate towards seventh century Arab culture, at times erroneously and anachronistically identifying later practices with prophetic norms.

Sherman Jackson offers a riveting critique against this tendency in the American context. Immigrant Muslims, he argues, falsely “universalize the particular” by elevating their particular cultural practices to universal religious norms, a move that effectively extends a system of cultural domination over Blackamerican Muslims who are still feeling the effects of another legacy of oppression in the West.”

Sherman Jackson offers a riveting critique against this tendency in the American context. Immigrant Muslims, he argues, falsely “universalize the particular” by elevating their particular cultural practices to universal religious norms, a move that effectively extends a system of cultural domination over Blackamerican Muslims who are still feeling the effects of another legacy of oppression in the West. Consequently, in adopting Islam and accepting the authority of scholarship whose provenance is in Muslim lands and whose content fuses divine doctrine with foreign culture, Blackamericans become compelled to disregard their own legitimate cultural experiences.  But how does one begin to identify the line between cultural experiences and transcendent doctrines?

What happens when Professor Jackson’s critique is extended to more stable doctrinal issues that ostensibly lie beyond culture, “intra-Muslim pluralism” notwithstanding?[26]  For example, are issues like slavery, marriage, and war under the purview of “culture” or “doctrine?” Our sensibilities in these areas are very different today than they were at the time of the prophet Muhammad. If the Prophet is the best example for all time, could his personal conduct in these areas be considered universal norms of exemplary conduct today? Even sympathetic observers of the Prophet Muhammad’s life will have a very difficult time considering his behavior as universally normative in these areas. The world has changed. But prophecy has ended. How does one square today’s moral norms with virtues that are anchored in the life of a seventh century Arabian prophet? Participants in the third research year may choose to develop research questions in this area, revisiting this doctrine in light of pressing new questions raised in an age of accelerating change.

The movement of history testifies that history did not end in the seventh century. In fact, with rapid Muslim conquests across much of the inhabited world in the first few centuries of Islam, Arabs encountered vastly diverse ethnic, linguistic, and intellectual worlds that they assimilated into their conceptual universe, interpreting scripture in light of ancient philosophy – the “new knowledge” of the time. Just like Islamic thought interacted with Greek philosophy in the past to forge a scholastic intellectual tradition that has been taught in traditional madrasas for centuries, how must the academic formation of Muslims today change in light of new knowledge about the nature of human beings, their place in the cosmos, and the miracles of techno-science?

Acceleration and Islamic Theology

A contemporary historical concept that helps us convey the urgency of the need to rethink long held assumptions about human nature and the human condition is “acceleration.” The German historian Reinhart Koselleck, speaking about the changing nature of human perception of historical time, writes: “there occurs a temporalization [Verzeitlichung] of history, at the end of which there is the peculiar form of acceleration which characterizes modernity.”[27] The columnist Thomas Friedman, in his recent bestseller Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in an Age of Accelerations, speaks of accelerations in three areas, which he identifies as technology, the market, and mother nature.[28]

Cynthia Stokes Brown, scholar in the budding field of “Big History,” places acceleration in the context of cosmic history: “Acceleration, an increase in the rate of change, is occurring both in the universe and in human culture on planet Earth… On the cosmological or geological scale, change is measured in millions or billions of years. On the biological scale, with natural selection setting the pace, change occurs in thousands to millions of years. On the scale of human culture, large-scale change used to occur over millennia or centuries, but now it is taking place in decades or even years.”[29] Friedman observes that acceleration itself is accelerating, noting with sympathy that: “This is dizzying for many people.”[30]

In Homo Deus, the sequel to Sapiens, Harari argues that things are moving so quickly, we are seeing developments today that make it not too farfetched to suggest that human beings are at the threshold of making a bid for divinity:

Homo sapiens is likely to upgrade itself step by step, merging with robots and computers in the process, until our descendants will look back and realize they are no longer the kind of animal that wrote the Bible…This will not happen in a day, or a year. Indeed, it is already happening right now, through innumerable mundane actions…humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human…Calm explanations aside, many people panic when they hear of such possibilities.”[31]

Among the people who panic are theologians who see demonic elements behind all these developments. Acceleration is also part of the end-of-time narrative in Islam. If one believes that one lives – after successive periods of decline – in the end times, one’s attitude to things that are new is grave, optimism in the future of this world is dull, and resolve to participate in science is stunted. What you end up passing down to the next generation is cynicism and closed minded conservatism. What can the outcome of an education that embodies an “end time” mentality be other than graduates who are sideshows on the stage of history—if future history remains to be made? Islamic culture needs to contend with the real possibility that there may be centuries if not millennia ahead of us that will witness the most rapid and sweeping changes to human experiences ever known to human history.

Islamic ideas of human nature are closely associated with terms such as nafs (soul), fitra (nature), ruh (immaterial spirit or divine breath). How are we to understand these terms today in light of modern science? Should science influence and reshape traditional doctrines and views, and to what extent? How much of a role does ancient philosophy play in the interpretation of these terms in the premodern scholarly tradition? Should traditional views guide scientific inquiry, and if so, how? Can religious voices lead in the path to scientific progress, or will they always follow, respond, and restrain? Phrased differently, can there be a scientist, working on the forefront of research and innovation, who is not at the same time a heretic? The cosmic decentering of humanity that began with Copernicus has not yet reached its culmination. Scientists are today contemplating the elimination of the distinction between human life and other kinds of life, whether biological or artificial. Can a religious scientist working in these areas be invested in the preservation of traditional theologies based in premodern interpretations of scripture, or must her lived theologies be as dynamic and fresh as her lived experiences?

The challenge for our research group will be to grapple deeply with new knowledge in science: Should there be limits to human enhancements and genetic engineering? What is the definition of human life, and when does it begin and end? As our knowledge of ourselves changes, along with our ability to manipulate who we are and what we can be, what social and political arrangements will be best suited to maximize human flourishing? When does manipulation of nature become unacceptable tampering with God’s creation, and when does is remain within acceptable boundaries?

Tradition, Traditionalism and the Heretical Imperative?

Questions of science and human nature intersect with ethics, governance, and public policy. This challenges students to think carefully about conflicts between classical Islamic thought and contemporary international norms in the areas of gender relations and human rights.[32] Prominent Muslim scholars from around the world recently came together through the convening power of Morocco’s monarch in a summit to address the issue of the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim lands. Called the Marrakesh Declaration, an executive summary of the resolution that has been published online declares that the provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are in harmony with the principles of Islamic teachings, particularly as they appear in the Charter of Medina.[33] The Charter of Medina was a contract in early Islam in which the prophet Muhammad entered into a constitutional alliance with members of other faith communities. Although noble in its intent, the Marrakesh declaration stops short of offering any explicit legal opinion, instead sticking to principles and objectives of the law to make pronouncements that are aspirational. The declaration leaves the grunt work to others, for it calls “upon Muslim scholars and intellectuals around the world to develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’ which is inclusive of diverse groups. Such jurisprudence shall be rooted in Islamic tradition and principles and mindful of global changes.”[34] In the terms of Rumee Ahmed, it is a summons to a wholesale “hack” of the legal tradition in the area of minority citizenship in Muslim majority societies.[35] Notably, the Marrakesh declaration does not mention women and gender. It only addresses the rights of religious minorities. Nonetheless, once conversation on equality of citizenship begins in light of emerging international consensus and norms, it will be impossible to exclude the issue of gender in Islamic law from re-examination. This is all the more so because the Marrakesh declaration affirms the values embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in turn affirms the equal rights of both men and women.

As Islamic law attempts to align itself with international norms, triumphalist readings of Islamic history will need to be revised, especially as the question of equality before the law within increasingly plural societies comes center stage. All of the tools and concepts that students will have acquired over the course of Madrasa Discourses will need to be harnessed to think critically and constructively about the present and future of human beings on this planet.”

It has become increasingly difficult to gaze at history as the triumph of orthodoxy over heresy. Rather, the champions of orthodoxy as well as heresy seem to participate equally in a kind of “Great Conversation,” to borrow a term from Robert Maynard Hutchins.[36] Debates between scholars of the past are to be visited in ways that show all sides as not only intelligible but also reasonable, allowing students to faithfully choose between them, without polemics or predetermining the winners and losers in these debates. In allowing students to see the construction of knowledge through the experiences of past scholars, we empower them to take their own experiences seriously in order to add to the conversation, thereby becoming not just consumers but also producers of tradition. This is precisely what the eminent sociologist Peter Berger proposes as being the only viable path for religious traditions today: to “try to uncover and retrieve the experiences embodied in tradition,”[37] which he calls the inductive method in religion.

The shift to history will give students theological choices; having choices, in turn, will strengthen both individualism and pluralism; and including former heresies within the spectrum of acceptable religious possibilities will encourage scholars to develop new intellectual skills and adopt new professional roles that require the power of persuasion in settings that are more in harmony with liberal rather than hierarchical or authoritarian societies. Berger reminds us that “The English word ‘heresy’ comes from the Greek verb hairein, which means ‘to choose.’”[38]For premodern man,” he continues, “heresy is a possibility, usually a rather remote one; for modern man, heresy typically becomes a necessity…modernity creates a new situation in which picking and choosing becomes an imperative.[39]

Can Islamic education embrace “the heretical imperative?” Our educational institutions have become overcome with fear, fortresses for what Ebrahim Moosa calls “Republics of Piety.”[40] Madrasas are in the business of the preservation and guardianship of orthodoxy, afraid that future generations will lose their faith in an ever-changing world. But this is not tradition, it is traditionalism, which historian of religion Jaroslav Pelikan put so eloquently as being “the dead faith of the living,” in contrast to tradition, which is the “living faith of the dead.”[41] Muslim culture and institutions of learning today have lost the dynamic spark that once animated their intellectual culture.

Dynamism in Muslim educational culture will be driven in no small part by developments in techno-science that are accompanied by seismic shifts in conceptual worldviews and social norms. Friedman offers the analogy of riding a bicycle to help us understand how we might adapt to the dizzying changes that are soon to come due to the exponential changes taking place all around us.[42] He says that on a bicycle, although one is in a state of motion, one achieves a balance akin to what may be called a kind of “dynamic stillness.” Another metaphor that I prefer, perhaps because it is closer to home is of the whirling dervish. His center is still while the rest of him twirls endlessly away. I am arguing here that our intellectual culture needs to learn how to ride a bicycle or whirl like the dervish.

The ulama today no longer minister to masses whose faith can be taken for granted. Our educational institutions need to help the ulama adapt to their new roles as research scholars in an age of acceleration, teachers in public and private schools, counselors in times of crisis, pastors and community leaders, politicians shaping public policy, and, perhaps most importantly, public intellectuals interacting with leaders across the spectrum of human activity in civil society. Madrasas must be cognizant of the changing roles of ulama in a brave new world, where believers no longer flock to the faith in conformity to old patterns, but trickle in (or trickle out) by free choice.

If the world does not end soon, it is going to be a very different place for our children and grandchildren. Whether or not we are at the end of time, our engagement with new knowledge must be thorough, and it must allow us to be open to new theological possibilities. We have to be guided by tradition, but we also have to let new knowledge take us where it takes us. Can “innovation” and “choice,” even in matters of religion, become good words in the moral vocabulary of the madrasa?

Conclusions: What Lies Ahead for Madrasa Discourses?

I hope that this survey has provided a good sense of the rich and complex intellectual project of Madrasa Discourses. Our ambition is for the intellectual conversations we generate to have transformative ripple effects across madrasa circles. Before concluding this paper with some final thoughts about the future of MD, I would like to highlight some of our activities, challenges and unexpected developments we have encountered, and future prospects beyond the initial three-year term of the present grant. One of the major challenges we have encountered is the widely differing levels of preparation of students who are participating in the program. Some know English fluently, while others are just starting to learn the language. Some have read widely online, others only narrowly within their own area of study. Some are tech-savvy, others not so much. Some have completed their madrasa education with honors, while others have had a less rigorous formation. Students are only able to commit themselves to the program part-time, while the demands of the program to read and prepare for classes, learn English, and write, can be onerous. Providing individualized support and feedback to students has also been challenging for our mentors and partners in India and Pakistan, who are, like the students, engaged in the program on a part-time basis. That being said, the overall level of engagement has met or exceeded expectations in the first eighteen months of the program. Evidence from exams and essays, classroom interactions, as well as interactions in the onsite intensives, indicates that provocations are leading to a higher level of complexity in the thought process.

On the positive side, the new generation of madrasa graduates is already predisposed to receive and experience the world in way that we did not expect. The presence of technology has preceded the arrival of MD at the doorstep. Technology has penetrated beyond the walls of the madrasa to touch the private lives of individuals. This has been a game-changer. Students have smartphones, Facebook accounts, and they seamlessly navigate the World Wide Web. We have found students to be intellectually open to the world and even curious in ways that the previous generation of Madrasa scholars could not have been, simply due to the wonders of technology. Given that online communities are typically insular, tending to operate within self-affirming bubbles, our task is nonetheless daunting. However, we have both the resources at our disposal and a receptive audience.

Credit: Shrestha Digital Photo Service. Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive discussion group 2018, Dhulikhel

A second unexpected development has been the involvement of ND undergraduate students in the project, first through a generous grant from Notre Dame International and then through a one-credit Peace Research Lab offered through the Kroc Institute. The lab provides undergraduate students in Peace Studies the opportunity to participate in small group dialogue sessions with the madrasa participants on a weekly basis. Students take the opportunity to discuss contents of the course, talk about cutting-edge ethical issues at the intersection of science and religion, and learn about each other’s worlds. Notre Dame’s Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values hosts a website that students draw from to engage topics like genetic engineering, artificial wombs, and drone warfare.[43] We also stay on the lookout for relevant topics in the headlines. In one case, for example, students opted to discuss the implications of Saudi Arabia’s granting of citizenship to a female robot named Sophia. To set-up the small group discussions, students typically read a short and accessible article prior to meeting, such as Smithsonian Magazine’s “Why Saudi Arabia Giving a Robot Citizenship is Firing People Up”.[44] What is going on in Saudi Arabia? How is it related to Islam? What are the implications for having a robotic female citizen in an Islamic country? Is the robot citizen free or owned? If owned, will the relationship be governed by Islamic laws of slavery? Would that include the rights and privileges that male owners have over their female concubines? If the relationship is on the basis of free association of citizens, does the robot have autonomy? Does the robot have any duties towards society? Will the robot have religion and be subject to Islamic law (as a Muslim or non-Muslim)?

Small group interactions of this kind have the added benefit of advancing the English learning objectives of MD. To that end, ND students also rotate in the reading of two chapters of Sophie’s World to all of the madrasa participants once a week. Not only does this further help students in English comprehension, the fictional novel surveys the history of western philosophy, which is valuable, relevant, and interesting for all who partake in the reading. ND students are also invited to help with other aspects of the project based on their availability on an individual basis. For example, a team of three students is working with the CM program manager to make the MD curriculum accessible to the wider public on the Internet.

In addition to the online classes, there are three major activities the program undertakes: production of instructional videos, convening of summer and winter onsite intensives, and publication of a website in Urdu, Tajdīd.[45] The motto of the journal is “where religion meets new knowledge.” The site presents articles and blog posts from students, guest writers invited to address topics of relevance, translations of English language material into Urdu, updates from events and activities related to Madrasa Discourses, and a discussion forum where readers can comment on the website content. The journal was launched in October, 2017 and is managed jointly by the faculty team in India and Pakistan, with Dr. Waris Mazhari, the lead faculty from India, as the editor. The content of the journal is designed to align closely with the material being covered in the curriculum, allowing conversations from our controlled classroom environment to spill over into the wider community of madrasa scholars.


The video modules produced by MD are designed as instructional aids for the online classroom. In the first year, MD produced eight videos. The first is a project trailer that has been published on the CM website.[46] Three videos accompany the first semester on “Conceptualizing the Past,” while four videos help us to “Contextualize the Islamic Theological Tradition.” Modules three and four are each introduced by a preview trailer, and the research year is introduced by a video featuring graduate students and young scholars sharing their insights into how to form research questions from different fields of inquiry: history, political science, sociology, theology, and peace studies. These videos involve interviews, animations, conversations, and commentary from experts at Notre Dame, including Ebrahim Moosa and Mahan Mirza from the MD project, Hussein Abdulsater from the department of classics, Celia Deane-Drummond from theology, and Scott Trigg from the history and philosophy of science.

Turning to the onsite intensives, MD brings all participants together twice a year for face-to-face interaction, dialogue, and intensive engagement with a variety of intellectual topics to broaden their intellectual horizons. We have met twice in Nepal for two-week intensives in the summer, and once in Qatar in the winter at the College of Islamic Studies in the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha’s Education City. A second meeting is planned for this winter at the same location in Doha. Topics have included religion, modernity, secularism, and fundamentalism (Scott Appleby), gender equity and social inclusion (Shubham Amatya and Prakash Bhattarai), anthropology, ethics, and plural cosmologies (Leela Prasad), liberal citizenship and the challenge of human rights (Mohammad Fadel), science education and the theory of evolution (Rana Dajani), contested political theologies (Ebrahim Moosa), language, scripture, and interpretation (Ammar Khan Nasir and Waris Mazhari), theology in an age of acceleration (Mahan Mirza), Islamic law and gender (Saadia Yacoob), new horizons of moral imagination (Gerald McKenny), Mulla Sadra’s alternative cosmology (Mahmoud Youness), narrative theology and scriptural reasoning (Jason Springs), and intersectionality and faith-based action for peacebuilding (Atalia Omer). These intense sessions are accompanied by dialogue sessions between the madrasa participants and Notre Dame students where individuals from diverse backgrounds find ways to work through their differences while forging at the same time deep human connections. True to the theory of strategic peacebuilding, the deeper human bond that develops through friendly interaction in a safe space enables participants on both sides to appropriate their differences within a deeper framework of trust that is the bedrock of sustainable peace.

After the first two years of the Madrasa Discourses program, we see sufficient evidence to think the program will continue in some form into the future. The most tangible outcome of the project will be the curriculum of the first two years, the written reports of the research projects in the third year, and a vibrant online journal and discussion forum. If the research activities are even modestly successful, they will be formidable pieces of scholarship that will create a buzz in the madrasa scholarly circles within South Asia and perhaps beyond. Given the global reach of the South Asian madrasa community with Darul Ulooms (another word for Madrasas) present all over the world, including in the West, we hope to thereby initiate a long overdue conversation amongst the ulama on the vital issues of theological change, science, law, and society. Translations of the research papers from Urdu into Arabic and English would extend the conversations to the madrasa scholarly community beyond South Asia.

Credit: Mahan Mirza. Madrasa Discourses students and a Notre Dame peer discuss the day’s lecture below. Conversations on religious identity, politics, secularism, science, and gender spilled over into all activities, as students eagerly engaged in what for many was a unique experience of open exchange with new philosophies, traditions, and people.

The curriculum that we are developing is designed to transform the intellectual culture of traditional Islamic thought. The curriculum can be used by individuals, groups, and institutions, and adapted to local needs and contexts. In time, the curriculum may be translated into different Islamicate languages such as Urdu, Persian, Turkish, or Malay. Faculty from Notre Dame may support the program through instructor training (“teaching the teachers”), leading workshops or intensives of the program in different parts of the world, and convening participants periodically in conferences and symposia to develop research agendas and further the production of new theological knowledge in light of new scientific knowledge. If funding is available, a small cohort of instructors from around the world could participate in a year-long residential program at Notre Dame where they are exposed to research methods in different disciplines, participate in residential life in a leading American university, and engage in Madrasa Discourses seminars on campus. As a capstone project, Residential Madrasa Fellows could design programs with texts and methods to suit their respective local contexts. What better place to house such a transformative educational program than at the Keough School at Notre Dame?

While our future plans remain aspirational, and while the madrasa participants work on their own research projects, the core faculty of MD are also working on research papers that they hope to compile into a research volume. A symposium anticipated for spring/summer2019 will invite scholars to respond to drafts of these papers. A select array of responses will also be incorporated into the final volume, which can model the kind of conversation we hope that MD will generate into the future. Instead of merely provoking and challenging, as the curriculum does, this book will also offer some answers, with the following caveat: renewal of religious thought may not result in a single answer at all. Renewal may provide a set of contending responses in creative tension with each other. MD, then, provides a forum not for us to come to agreement, but to elevate the level of our disagreements. That is how living traditions always are: rich, diverse, and in internal dialogue around the great questions of their time.

*Re-posted from The Maydan. This paper was originally written as an internal report to update colleagues at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute about the project (Jan, 2018). Parts of the paper appeared previously in a presentation at the Notre Dame Islamic Studies Colloquium on “Religious Renewal in an Age of Quantum Weirdness” (April, 2017) and at a conference on “Islamic Education in Europe” hosted by the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo (Sep, 2017).


[1] A “madrasa” literally means “place of study.” In the South Asian context, it refers to institutions of religious education and formation.

[2] Elaborate bios of the core faculty are available online here.

[3] This thesis is spelled out clearly in Ebrahim Moosa’s What is a Madrasa? (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).



[6] Abu Mansur Maturidi, Kitāb al-Tawḥīd, Eds. Bekir Topaloglu and M. Aruci, (Beirut: Dar Sader; Istanbul, Maktabat al-Irshad, 2010), 65-66.

[7] Saʿd al-Din Taftazani, Sharḥ al-ʿAqāʾid al-Nasafiyya, Ed. Ahmad Hijazi al-Saqqa, (Cairo: Maktabat al-Kulliyyat al-Azhariyya, 1987), 12.

[8] Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Kitab al-Musṭaṣfā, Ed. M. Sulayman al-Ashqar, Vol. 1, 1st Edition (Mu’assasat al-Risala, 2010), 36.

[9] Ibid., 37.

[10] Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation, (NY: Anchor Books, 1979), xi.

[11] David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 2.

[12] Cf. Ian Markham, A Theology of Engagement, (NY: John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

[13] Although students receive a copy of Collingwood’s Idea of History as supplementary reading, we discuss the philosophy of history through the introductory chapter of Robert M. Burns and Hugh Rayment-Pickard’s (Eds.) Philosophies of History: From Enlightenment to Post-Modernity, (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2007), 1-31.

[14] Ibid., 15.

[15] Marshal Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol. 1, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 103-128; Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbāsid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th centuries), (NY: Routledge, 1998), 1-27.

[16] M. Akram Wirk, Mutūn-i Ḥadīth par Jadīd Dhihn kay Ishkālāt, (Gujranwala, Pakistan: Al-Sharia Academy, 2012).

[17] Anwar Shah Kashmiri, Fayḍ al-Bārī ʿalā Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, Vol. 2, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2005), 511.

[18] Cf. Richard DeWitt, Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science, 2nd Ed., (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 160-161.

[19] Ashraf Ali Thanvi, Al-Intibāhāt al-Mufīda fi Ḥall al-Ishtibāhāt al-Jadīda, Ed. Nur al-Bashar M. Nur al-Haqq

[20] DeWitt, Worldviews, 206.

[21] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (HarperCollins Publishers, 2015); and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, (HarperCollins, 2017).

[22] This is a well-known and well-authenticated prophetic report.

[23] See the wording in the second amendment to the Pakistani constitution: “A person who does not believe in the absolute and unqualified finality of The Prophethood of MUHAMMAD (Peace be upon him), the last of the Prophets or claims to be a Prophet, in any sense of the word or of any description whatsoever, after MUHAMMAD (Peace be upon him), or recognizes such a claimant as a Prophet or religious reformer, is not a Muslim for the purposes of the Constitution or law.” One should note that this amendment also carries implications for the ‘unorthodox’ minorities such as the Ahmedis in Pakistan.

[24] Paraphrasing Nasser Rabat’s sentence: “Arabness was thus presumably subsumed within Islam.” On Arabs and Arabness.

[24] See Ibn Ashur’s Treatise on Maqāṣid al-Sharīʿah (IIIT, 2013) where he distinguishes between the prophet’s different identities as prophet and lawgiver: “The Companions clearly distinguished between the commands of God’s Messenger that ensued from his position as legislator and those that did not. Statements or actions ensued from God’s Messenger in the following capacities: legislation, issuing edicts (fatwa), adjudication, political leadership of the state, guidance, conciliation, advice to those seeking his opinion, counseling, spiritual inspiration, teaching high and lofty truths, disciplining, and non-instructive ordinary statements,” 4.

[25] Sherman Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection (Oxford University Press, 2005).

[26] Ibid., 8.

[27] Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical time, Reprint Ed., (MIT Press, 1990), 11.

[28] Thomas Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, (NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016).

[29] Cynthia Stokes Brown, “A Historian’s Reflection on a Lifetime of Change.”

[30] Friedman, Accelerations, 32.

[31] Harari, Homo Deus, 49.

[32] Mohammad Fadel, a renowned scholar of Islamic law who led sessions at our summer intensive in Nepal (July, 2017), has published widely in this area. See: “Is Historicism a Viable Strategy for Islamic Law Reform? The Case of ‘Never Shall a Folk Prosper Who Have Appointed a Woman to Rule Them,’” in Islamic Law and Society, No, 18 (2011), 131-176; “The Challenge of Human Rights,” in Seasons, Spring (2008), 59-80; “Back to the Future: The Paradoxical Revival of Aspirations for an Islamic State: Review of The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State by Noah Feldman,” in Review of Constitutional Studies, Vol. 14, Issue 1 (2009), 105-123; and “Muslim Reformists, Female Citizenship, and the Public Accommodation of Islam in Liberal Democracy,” in Politics and Religion, No. 5 (2012), 2-35.


[34] Ibid.

[35] See his Shariah Compliant: A User’s Guide to Hacking Islamic Law, (Stanford University Press, 2018).

[36] Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Great Conversation, 5th Edition, (University of Chicago Press, 1991); this is the first volume of the originally fifty-four volume set of the Great Books of the Western World published by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952.

[37] Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation, (NY: Anchor Books, 1979), xi.

[38] Ibid., 24.

[39] Ibid., 25. Italics in original.

[40] Moosa, Madrasa, 122.

[41] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

[42] Friedman, Accelerations, 35.



[45] ]

[46]; scroll down to see the video trailer embedded in the website.

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

The Evolution of Eyes

Roommates out for a hike together. Photo Credit: Mohammad Sadiq.

Unlike the six other undergraduate students attending the Madrasa Discourses program from the University of Notre Dame, I did not have to suffer a long flight to get to Nepal, or struggle with jet lag upon arrival. I spent the month before the program just next door in India conducting research at the Indian Institute of Science. Even though the United States prides itself on its diversity, India has a depth of religious diversity that I have never experienced before. Every time I left campus in Bangalore, I passed at least three temples; each day in the lab I heard the mosque’s regular call for prayer, and from my window I could see the light of a cross at the top of a nearby church. Not to mention the Jain menus and the Buddhist monks I also encountered. My curiosity was piqued by the many new traditions. However, before leaving for Nepal, I expressed a concern to one of my closest friends. Despite the religious diversity I was experiencing, there was one thing that still caught me off guard every time: seeing a woman in a burka.

I knew my discomfort was a product of years of exposure to both explicit and subtle Islamophobic sentiment, but even though my mind knew this, my subconscious couldn’t shake its fear of the unknown. As the great granddaughter of a Syrian refugee, who fled from Damascus because his Christian faith was not tolerated by his Muslim community, I have always had doubts about my ability to be accepted by devout followers of Islam. Growing up in a post 9/11 era, the association of Islam to terrorism in the media, along with the offhand comments of adults at the grocery store or dinner table, only cemented my doubts and fears. While I later learned about Islam as a peaceful religion, it was hard to erase these early impressions from my subconscious mind.

Hospital in Dhulikhel. Photo Credit: Elsa Barron.

The first time I met my roommate from Pakistan, Haya, was at one o’clock in the morning on the day of our arrival in Nepal, five minutes before I threw up. Having gotten sick during a brief trip to Mumbai, I was certainly not the cheery face one might hope to see on their roommate of the next two weeks. In my miserable and nauseous state, even my subconscious didn’t have the ability to question or fear the veiled woman who was asking me if I was okay and if there was anything I needed. After falling asleep, still feeling as sick as ever, I had a terrible nightmare. Apparently, under the stress of illness and a new location, I sleep talked in my dream, yelling “Who’s there? Who’s coming?” in the middle of the night. While I have no recollection of this, Haya informed me in the morning of the terror I had caused her. This series of events was probably one of the worst first impressions I have ever offered. In spite of all this, I began to form a strong bond with my roommates, Haya and Meilin (another Notre Dame student).

At first it was difficult for me to tell the women in burkas apart when we sat in large group sessions, not being used to such intricate facial recognition. After a couple of days and a some experiences apart from the men, where the women uncovered their faces and I saw their full smiles, I was able to recognize those same smiles reflected in their eyes. I began to recognize the beauty, honor, and dignity of these women, and to understand their individual personalities.

Haya’s henna art. Photo Credit: Mahan Mirza.

One day I noticed a pin on Haya’s purse that said, “I don’t care” with a winking girl dressed in a burka. I laughed out loud because the pin represented so well the sassy and spirited personality of my new friend. The three of us giggled together telling stories, went on hikes together, went shopping together, ate meals together, sat on the bus together, and did all other manner of friendly things together. We shared snacks, rosewater, and stories. On one of the last nights, we took a walk to the store to get snacks and Haya picked up some henna to do for Meilin and me. Not only was this woman an incredible participant in Madrasa Discourses and a Quranic instructor to hundreds of people (for which she received an award from the President of Pakistan); she was also an amazing henna artist.

On the last day of the program, Haya convinced Meilin to try on one of her outfits and then wear it to the session. Sharing clothes like this was a beautiful moment of friendship and solidarity. Instead of focusing on the division of our different styles, we were unified as women who are not defined by what we might wear. It was also a fun way to trick Professor Moosa into momentarily believing there was a new student in the program.

Meilin showcases a new outfit, with Dr. Mahan Mirza. Photo Credit: Meilin Scanish.

As I was boarding the plane back to India, I noticed a woman wearing a burka sitting in row 17. I quickly checked my boarding pass with the hope that I was sitting next to her (sadly, I was not). This was the moment when I realized that my subconscious feeling of fear had been replaced with subconscious feelings of friendship and understanding.

The theological questions addressed by Madrasa discourses changed the way that I consciously think about Islam. They deepened my understanding of Islamic law, history, and teaching. They even changed the way I think about Christianity and its relation to the modern world. The discussions made me think about the Bible in the context of the time it was written, rather than as a universal text to be applied literally over all time. It was refreshing to know that religion does not have to remain stagnant, it can grow alongside our developing world. For me, these thoughts were revolutionary for my worldview. However, the friendships I built at Madrasa Discourses did something even more revolutionary. They changed the much more deeply rooted subconscious thoughts and attitudes I had towards Muslims, particularly Muslim women. This is something that no class, no book, and no effort of my own could have done. I left Nepal with the incredible gift of friendship with those I used to fear I might never understand.

The views from the plane of the Himalayas. Photo Credit: Elsa Barron.
Elsa Barron
A biology and peace studies major at the University of Notre Dame, Elsa spent the summer at the Indian Institute of Science before joining the 2018 Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive in Nepal.
Field Notes article

In Pursuit of Our Aesthetic Past

Photo Credit: Qatar Foundation. Madrasa Discourses students at the Doha Museum of Islamic Art in December 2017.

Having grown up in a society that fails to appreciate beauty and often condemns its expressions as an act of evil, I am amazed by the dazzling history of Muslim civilization. I always wonder how Muslims, such as the scholars I have encountered in New Delhi and many other parts of northern India, can claim today to be the heirs of their predecessors if they do not value beauty as transcendent and divine with the same vigor and enthusiasm.

Appreciation of beauty stimulates imagination and innovation, and historically Muslims excelled at its expressions. They produced the finest architecture, music, calligraphy, and other crafts. It all began with Muslims setting their feet on the fertile soil of the cradles of ancient civilizations: Egypt, Persia, the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates, etc. They mingled old traditions with the new spirit of iḥsān, a comprehensive concept, writes Oludamini Ogunnaike, denoting the “sense of beauty and excellence—at once aesthetical, ethical, intellectual, and spiritual.” Their understanding of iḥsān drew from the verses of the Quran that give a big picture of the metaphysical beauty of God, and a scenic view of Jannah (Paradise) with its palaces sculptured from gems, surrounded by gardens, where streams of milk and honey flow. As many traditions including Islam assert, ‘God is beautiful and loves beauty.’ Religious inspiration is evident in the designs of the elegant monuments and mosques from Spain to Indonesia. The profound beauty of these structures and decorative art still evokes ecstasy in their beholders.

Ogunnaike defines Islamic art as ‘silent theology’ that successfully holds the picture of Islam intact against contemporary virulent propagandas. He further says, “To many, the silent theology of Islamic art can speak more profoundly and clearly than the most dazzling treatise, and its beauty can be more evident and persuasive than the strongest argument.” I would add to Ogunnaike’s point that past Muslim innovations in beauty serve as a source of inspiration and pride for Muslims even today.

However, some modern Muslim puritanical movements have challenged the role of beauty in Islam. The ideologues of these movements have fomented disregard of Islamic art among the ʿulamā and hence the masses. During my days of madrasa schooling, I heard some of my teachers and peers argue that art is not worth pursuing. It distances man from the remembrance of God and requires an excessive amount of money and resources, it is said. It is no surprise that Aurangzeb, a Mughal Emperor who did not appreciate art very much, is dearer to the ʿulamā than Shāh Jahān, the Emperor who built the Taj Mahal. Sufis are also discredited by these ʿulamā members for their practice of arranging musical gatherings for seeking aesthetic experiences in the presence of the Divine. These reductionist Muslims often view Islam as a sort of strictly ritualistic system and deprive it of its aesthetic heritage.

Photo Credit: Mohammad Rasheed. Pillars at the HBKU College of Islamic Studies.

My experience of Islam has been very diverse between the madrasa and the university. Practicing conventional or ritualized Islam in my days of madrasa schooling seemed very simple. After coming to the university, however, my awareness of Islam grew in complexity with my increasing familiarity with its history and the civilization it produced. My readings about historical and religious understandings of Islam suggested that there is a gap between the way Islamic civilization thrived in the past and how Islam is practiced today. I admire the Muslim genius and fellow citizens of other faiths who contributed to this civilization. But I am also disturbed when I read about the paintings depicting humans on the walls of Qusayr in Jordan built by Walid I, the Umayyad Caliph in the first century of Islam, contrary to the centuries-old fatwa condemning representational art and prohibiting images of living beings (p. 271). This fatwa drew its validity from the hadiths (prophetic traditions) that forbade representational art, considering it a grave sin.[1] The question was whether the Umayyads disregarded the prophetic traditions altogether or if they had a different understanding of them. Debates on representational art developed a new dimension after the invention of the camera. In the Indian subcontinent, the permissibility and impermissibility of photography is still among the most debated religious issues. I faced such contradictions throughout my study of Muslim history. The question was, who should I consider wrong? The conventional view maintained by the orthodox ʿulamā is to perceive the religiosity of the rulers who encouraged and patronized arts with suspicion.

My amazement with Islam deepened as I delved more seriously into the intellectual history of Islam. I found an opportunity to do this in the Madrasa Discourses program, directed by Ebrahim Moosa and Mahan Mirza, Professors of Islamic Studies both based at the University of Notre Dame. This program teaches madrasa graduates modern science and Western philosophy in such a way that the students may develop skills to answer the modern challenges posed to Islam. This past semester we had a long discussion on ‘tradition,’ imagining it as a long rope that connects the past to the present. To keep it going, the people of the tradition have to add new threads to this rope in their respective times. If the people treat tradition otherwise, it will lose its viability. Similarly, Islamic art is one among several threads of Muslim tradition. There is a sense of continuity and progress in it from the very onset up to the modern times. Many of the expressions of this art have been lost, but many are still extant and make us recall the ingenuity and sacredness of the tradition of Islamic art. The best way to perceive it is to experience it personally in art museums, musical concerts, and by visiting renowned sites and monuments.

As a part of the program, select madrasa-educated students from India and Pakistan had a chance to visit the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar during the winter intensive in the last week of December 2017. The museum is located on an artificial island flanked by two huge lawns with a bridge in the middle that connects the old city to the museum. We were told that the architectural design of this museum was inspired by the famous 9th century Ibn Tūlūn Mosque of Cairo. An exquisite edifice, this museum is often portrayed as an example of generating new threads into the old rope of tradition. Inside the museum, it was as if we were visiting our past. A collection of metalwork, glasswork, textiles, manuscripts, and ceramics are housed there representing Islamic arts throughout the centuries. Examining them closely, I admired the inspiration they drew from the world that they lived in and from the tradition with which they were entrusted. Artifacts in the museum such as colorful rugs and silks with figurative designs, griffins crafted on tiles or a sphinx-faced lusterware ewer were evidently the mixture of creative Muslim imagination with the local cultures and civilizations of the lands Muslims came to inhabit.

Photo Credit: Qatar Foundation. Madrasa Discourses at Doha Museum of Islamic Art.

I was surprised again, imagining the past to be so beautiful and so appreciative of arts in comparison to my present society. Questions troubled me: what was it that disconnected the vast majority of South Asian Muslims from this vibrant tradition? Why do we no longer show the same enthusiasm toward the spirit of creativity? Why do we fail to discuss and give due appreciation to aesthetics? There could be many reasons. I had a chance to discuss my concerns with Professor Ebrahim Moosa, who was with us at the time. I had already thought of an explanation for the dissonance I was experiencing: the recent dominance of a ritualistic and ahistorical understanding of Islam that was confined, in great part, to prayers only. I am not sure whether Prof Moosa agreed with my argument, as he added that Muslims no longer feel confident in performing creativity or talking about aesthetics as they did before. This may be one of the factors that killed Islam’s thriving artistic and aesthetic tradition.

Apart from the museum, we also witnessed an extensive display of magnificent architectural designs in the Education City in Doha. I think that Qatar has devoted much of its resources in reviving the aesthetic tradition of Islam and can serve as an example to Muslims of other nations. Muslims have historically seen beauty as sacred and tried to seek perfection in its expressions. Debates about aesthetics, arts, and erstwhile Muslim experiences should be introduced into madrasa education and students should be exposed to the historical meanings of their tradition. We should engage with the questions: What motivated many rulers and elites of Muslim society to patronize such arts, especially the representation of figures that were considered prohibited by orthodox scholars? Was it an act of indifference towards Islamic law or were there some historical and cultural impulses that led the practitioners and patrons of the arts to define the laws differently? There is a need to analyze the seemingly contradictory practices of past Muslims with the dominant contemporary orthodox Islamic tradition. This can help us understand the significance of art in the robust and cosmopolitan nature of Islamic civilizational tradition.

[1] Bukhārī mʿ Fathul Bārī, Vol 10, pp 314, 316, 323. The Hadiths are cited in Tasvīr ke Sharaʿī Aḥkām (The Rulings of Sharia about Making Images and Photography) by Muftī Muhammad Shafīʿ, published by Idāratul Mʿārif, Karachi, Pakistan

Mohammad Ali
Mohammad Ali is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Islamic Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, India. He is also a student in the Madrasa Discourses program.
Field Notes article

Translating Islam Across Cosmologies in Qatar

Pakistani and Indian Sisters with CM Program Manager at 2017 Doha Winter Intensive.

As we came out of the Hamad International Airport on the evening of December 24th, 2017, Doha seemed like a city under construction. Huge concrete structures and machinery rose up across the landscape along our way from the airport to our hotel near Education City. Coming from India, I wasn’t sure what to expect from an Islamic country. However, as the billboards around the construction sites invited onlookers to “think,” “discover,” and “innovate,” my fellow students and I knew that we were in for some pleasant surprises.

I was in Qatar to attend the week-long Madrasa Discourses Winter Intensive class. The Contending Modernities-housed project, which aims to develop scientific and theological literacy in madrasa graduates, selects students from India and Pakistan for rigorous semesters of in-depth coursework, discussions, and dialogue with each other and with undergraduate students from the University of Notre Dame. When I first came to know about Madrasa Discourses during the third year of my PhD in Islamic Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, I did not hesitate to join the program because it offered a platform for serious engagement with Islamic religious tradition and provided an opportunity for Madrasa graduates to collectively rethink some of its aspects in a rapidly changing world.

In the course of this one week, we unlearned some of our long-held notions while building new experiences and gaining new insights into the relationship between religion and science, religion and language, as well as a deeper understanding of Islamic religious tradition. The lessons, including among others “Islam, Sustainability and the Environment” by Dr. Mohamed Khalifah; “Teaching Evolution in the Muslim World” by Jordanian Microbiologist Dr. Rana Dajani; “Homo-Deus and the Future of Humanity” with Professor Mahan Mirza; and “Hermeneutics, History, and Islamic Tradition” with Professor Ebrahim Moosa were extremely unsettling, but also simultaneously liberating.

The Urgency of Translation

A Madrasa Discourses student views a 17th century map of the Tigris and Euphrates Valley at the Qatar National Library, December 2017.

Modern scientific theories of the Big Bang, evolution, genetic engineering, and other innovations pose challenges to a theology based on a geo-centric model of the universe which presupposes a fixed human nature. Islamic theology, which was developed in the classical period within the framework of Aristotelian logic, had a very different cosmology than the one constructed by modern scientific disciplines. Because this theology has not yet been translated across cosmologies, a deadlock has emerged between the proponents of modern human knowledge and Islamic theology, with the people on both sides rejecting the claims of those on the other side of the divide. Professor Mahan Mirza presented material emphasizing both the urgency and the inevitability of translating the tradition across cosmologies. As stated by Harari, “The single constant of history is that everything changes” (2017). History teaches us that alternate modes of thought and life have existed in the past and therefore current understandings and frameworks are not inevitable.

Harari gives the example of lawns, a European status symbol that has become widespread across the globe. Lawns have been imported to predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern countries as well, most of which happen to be arid. While there’s a hue and cry over importing supposedly “Western concepts,” such as democracy and secularism, we see almost no scholars raising an objection to maintaining lawns in the middle of a desert. For a just society, the aesthetic must go hand in hand with the ethical.

Theories of language by Izutsu, Ricour, Wittgenstein, Gadamer and Gardner introduced to us by Professor Moosa problematized our presumed notion of exact correspondence between human language and the natural world. The problems under discussion included:

  1. What are the origins of language?
  2. Does the language we use correspond to reality?
  3. What is the role of culture in language production?
  4. Why is it so difficult to translate concepts from one language to another?

According to Izutsu, during the time in history when humans had no language, they would experience all nature, everything around them, as one (2002). Izutsu calls it an undifferentiated whole. He adds that language begins to take shape when people start to categorize and divide things. People can divide reality in whatever way they like, giving rise to the vocabulary. As different cultures may categorize reality differently, the process of language production, through naming and categorization changes from one culture to another. People belonging to different cultures may look at the world differently and therefore form different categories. The language of a people therefore represents the world not as it is, but as they interpret it. Moral concepts, as a category of language, are similarly embedded in the worldview of the speakers of that language. As a result, it is difficult to translate a moral concept precisely from one language to another. This idea of human language created culturally runs counter to the dominant view in Muslim societies where language is thought of as created by God and having one to one correspondence with reality. This view gained currency due to the politics of the classical period of Islam, which were deeply linked with theological debates around the un-createdness of the Quran (which later became a bedrock of the orthodox Asha’rite theological position against the rational Mutazili).

A historical reading of Islamic tradition, however, reveals a more contested view of the nature of language and its relation to revelation, as shown by Moosa (2006, pp. 300-326). This observation may liberate Muslims to collectively re-think the nature of language and engage with their tradition more creatively to come up with the answers for some of the most pressing questions for Muslim communities across the globe today.

The centrality of the text of the Quran in Islamic religious tradition makes the assumptions about language theologically and politically charged. Naturally, “debates over language are prominent very early in the history of Islam” (Moosa 2006). During the session, Prof Moosa, speaking on hermeneutics and history, warned against two tendencies in particular:

  1. Negating the experiences of the people of the past
  2. Allowing the people from the past to negate our experiences

This will require us to step outside of our historical context to appreciate more fully the perspectives that held sway in the formative period of Islamic tradition, to distinguish the particulars from the universal values that were being implemented through those particulars and then to apply those values in our own time. Shifting one’s perspective, however, can be a tricky task.

Clay and Evolution

Dr. Rana Dajani presents on Islam and evolution at the 2017 Doha Winter Intensive.

In just one minute, Dr. Rana Dajani showed us that we can be conditioned to look at a thing from a particular perspective, to the point we are unable to easily see other perspectives. How difficult would it be for someone conditioned to look at things in a certain way all their life to look at it through another lens? As the discussion on evolution ensued, we considered: How is it that Muslims are able to reconcile the idea that each human being is created by Allah and that everyone is born of a mother’s womb? Why is it that this reasoning cannot be extended to evolution? It can be unsettling for Muslims, including me, who have grown up reading the Quranic account of human creation in a particular way, to consider evolution as a valid explanation for creation of life. Yet a shift in perspective can reconcile the two seemingly opposing views of creation by an all-powerful God and biological evolution.

The image of creation of Adam in the Muslim psyche is that Allah made a human figure from clay and breathed His breath in the figure, bringing it to life. The everyday experience of believers will, however, show them that humans are born in a biological process quite different from the way they believe Adam was created. Yet the relationship between God and human remains the same as it was between Allah and Adam. The fact of a biological birth, from a single cell, that originated in unanimated matter, does not imply for Muslim theologians that the intervention of Allah in the creation of humans after Adam is any lesser. As Adam was fully created by Allah, so is every other human being, irrespective of their biological birth. Moreover, the creation of a figure from clay, its perfection and the breathing of life into it is all visualised as taking place in one definite moment in time. In ordinary human life, however, it is impossible to identify any one moment as the moment of creation, as a human being is constantly growing, developing, ageing, decaying with a million biological processes going on within its body at once in every moment. One must add to that the cognitive development of the individual. The picture which emerges is far more complex.

In my opinion the problem here is that humans have visualised the Quranic account of Adam’s creation as they themselves create objects, which do not grow or develop rational faculties, have emotions and experiences or reproduce. In order to reconcile evolution and Islam, we need to rethink our idea of God’s intervention. Rather than perceiving God’s intervention as the impact of a hammer, dramatic and contained in a moment, it has to be visualised like an intervention that flows through everything.

The sessions with Professors Waris Mazhari and Ammar Khan Nasir, lead faculty from India and Pakistan, respectively, engaged us with the readings on al Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyyah, Shahrastani, and other classical scholars of Islamic tradition, and revealed that we are not alone in trying to reconcile our experiences, our understanding of the natural world, as well as our social realities with our interpretations of revelation. Historical Muslim scholars too have made efforts to reconcile reason and revelation. They faced similar dilemmas and made their own moral choices. An engagement with historical Islamic tradition helps demystify the ways to make it forward looking and robust enough to provide a coherent theology and ethics to Muslims living in a rapidly changing and multicultural world.


Talha Rehman
Talha Rehman is a PhD candidate at the Department of Islamic Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, India. She holds a Masters Degree in Islamic Studies and is currently pursuing her research on Contemporary Feminist Discourse in Islam. She is also a participant in the 2017-2018 Madrasa Discourses class.
Global Currents article

Our Jerusalem of Unspoken Stories

Photo Credit: upyernoz. Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, which some Christians believe to be the site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus, as opposed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Christmas has passed in Jerusalem, or at least two Christmases have. The 25th of December saw Catholic and Protestant Christmas, and the first week of January brought Christmas again—this time Orthodox Christmas. Armenian Christmas will arrive later in the month still. When I first moved to Jerusalem over a decade ago, it took me time to become accustomed to the celebration of Christmas day three times in a single year—remembering to wish Merry Christmas to our friends from respective communities on each different day—but for my children, who have lived their entire lives in the city, there is nothing unusual about it. Three Christmases fall in the season when they wait for sufganiyot, the jelly donuts served in Jewish cafes during Hannukah. This year it fell a few weeks after the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. This lived diversity—as much if not more than the city’s shrines—is what makes Jerusalem holy.

Photo Credit: DYKT Mohigan. Sufganiyah doughnuts in Jerusalem, served during Hannukah.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Jerusalem’s diversity ever since President Donald Trump announced that the United States now recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While the international media has focused in large part on what the decision will mean for the viability of a negotiated peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and whether a two-state solution will still be possible, Palestinians inside of the city have been concerned about something that is far more difficult to talk about: whether the city as they have known it for generations will be wiped away as a result. Public discussions might focus on preserving the status quo over the city’s major holy sites, but private conversations are often about what will happen to the people of East Jerusalem themselves, to their street names and their cafes, their traditions and their holidays, their trees, their memories. As someone who has lived among Palestinians for years, I have had to wrestle with how much of the Palestinian landscape I have watched disappear: even more, I have had to come to terms with all that I have been silent about.


Loss and Memory

It is easy to say that the Palestinians I know are experiencing a trauma now over the potential loss of Jerusalem as their capital city. What is more difficult to acknowledge is that they have been losing Jerusalem for decades, and that this latest blow has left them not only despairing, but exhausted. In 1948, thousands of Palestinians were displaced from their homes in neighborhoods such as Baq’a and Talbiya, Katamon and Musrara—neighborhoods that are now in Israeli, West Jerusalem. Palestinians lost what we still call “Jerusalem villages”, those villages  such as Lifta and Deir Yassin on the outskirts of Jerusalem whose economies, traditions and identities were intimately tied to the city. They lost ‘Ayn Kerim, a village that Israelis and tourists now experience effortlessly as a charming artistic village of historic old houses on the outskirts of Jerusalem—with little thought of who once lived in those houses. For Palestinians, these losses are still real and sustained, mostly spoken of privately, like a wound you would not like to expose openly. But every now and then they emerge unexpectedly. Last month, I found myself speaking Arabic with an elderly taxi driver, who ferried me across the city on Hebron Road and pointed to houses along the way, telling me the Palestinian families who once lived in each one.

Photo Credit: frauscharff. The new highway and separation wall through Beit Jala. Old olives trees grow beneath the noise and vibrations.

The building of settlements such as Gilo and Har Homa added more displacement, fragmenting the Beit Jala area known for having the finest Palestinian olive oil.  The construction of the Separation Barrier, which cut East Jerusalem off from those outlying villages whose identity has always been inextricably tied up with the city, was yet another loss. Suddenly Al-Quds University—“Jerusalem University” in English—located in the neighboring village of Abu Dis, was severed from the city after which it was named. The faculty who lived in Ras al-Amoud at the bottom of the Mount of Olives, accustomed to driving up the hill and arriving at the campus in ten minutes, now had to drive around the wall for three quarters of an hour in order to teach their classes. Residents of the villages of Beit Jala and al-Azzariya found themselves cut off by the wall from their fields, their friends, their places of worship. Christian pilgrims accustomed to following the footsteps of Jesus on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem found themselves at the separation wall after Bethany, cut off from where Jesus entered the city on his donkey in Bethphage.

To pretend that today’s borders of Jerusalem correspond to the porous and complex ways in which lives are lived is to misunderstand the ways in which Jerusalem has been experienced by Palestinians, or in fact the way in which any city—particularly one with such religious significance—is experienced by those who inhabit it and its environs. The most recent loss for my neighbors in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa came not in the changing of borders but in the building of the Begin Expressway, a process which saw many of them lose land, ancestral olive and hawthorne trees.  More importantly and even more intangibly, the roaring of cars made them lose silence—the most profound reminder of their past as a village.

The population itself was transformed by these changes. The Christian population declined dramatically after 1948, and now stands at around 2% of the city’s population. The issuing of permits means that thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank can no longer enter Jerusalem, except by official permission. Arabs from surrounding countries can rarely get visas, which changes the shape of the holidays: almost no Syrian and Lebanese Christian pilgrims on Easter, Muslims forgetting the ancient tradition of visiting Jerusalem after Mecca to bless the Hajj. These are also losses, for how much of a city’s identity is not only its streets, but in those who pass through them and greet one another?


The End of Nablus Road

Despite this, East Jerusalem today remains astoundingly diverse. On Nablus Road, where I lived with my family for seven years, we had neighbors who traced their arrival in the city to the Arab conquest. A few shops down the Abu Khalaf family, who were Kurdish in origin and traced their history to the armies who came with Salahadin, sold dry goods. The Freij grocery store was owned by an old Greek Orthodox family, and the street vendors were from Hebron and spoke with a different dialect. The White Sisters were Franciscan nuns who spoke French and Arabic; the Schmidt’s Girls College across the street taught their Palestinian students German; the nuns beneath us spoke Spanish; the Garden Tomb, where some Protestants believe Jesus had been raised from the dead, was staffed mostly by British volunteers; and the Ecole Biblique housed the French Dominicans. The Syriac Catholic Church’s community on the same street had its origins in thousands who had escaped the Seyfo massacres against Syriacs in Southeastern Turkey in 1915. Further down the road were the Balians, some of the most famous Armenian ceramicists in the city, the American Colony, and the Nusseibeh house—one of the Muslim families who held the keys to the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in Christendom. Thousands of Muslims passed down the street on the way to Friday prayers.

Photo Credit: Miriam Mezzera. Kebab and salad vendor in Musrara, East Jerusalem.

Ours was a single street in Musrara, one of the first neighborhoods that had been built outside of the Old City walls in the late 19th century. During the fighting of 1948 the neighborhood had been split in half, with the other half of Musrara—the larger half—eventually ending up in Israel after its mostly Christian Palestinian residents were displaced. Though that half is only a few blocks away from its Palestinian counterpart, nearly all of the Palestinian history has been wiped from its landscape. Today it is inhabited by Jews largely from North Africa and Iraq, a steadily increasing population of ultra-Orthodox Jews, and NGO workers. This population has its own diversity—but there is little room in it for the memory of who was once there. None of the decades-old stories that are part of daily life on Nablus Road are part of their Musrara. The municipality has even gone so far as to change the street names for the neighborhood to Morasha, to create the impression that it has always been Israeli.

Are Palestinians naïve to fear that the same might happen to the rest of the city, or is that fear rooted in lived experience? Nablus Road is a single street, but in the Palestinian Quarters of the Old City there is a similar complexity—churches ancient and new, mosques and Sufi shrines, gypsy communities and African communities that speak Arabic, Greek and Armenian and Syriac speakers. The Holy Sepulchre and al-Aqsa mosque are entered often and freely by locals, organically part of the lived environment. I used to slip into the Holy Sepulchre on the way to buy vegetables. What will happen if those textures, those stories, those people become part of an Israeli, Jewish capital? Will they be allowed to remain in all of their diversity?

One thinks of this excerpt from Mourid Barghouti’s memoir I Saw Ramallah, which began circulating on social media immediately after Trump’s declaration:

Photo Credit: Flavio. Ancient olive tree in Beit Jamal.

All that the world knows of Jerusalem is the power of the symbol. The Dome of the Rock is what the eye sees, and so it sees Jerusalem and is satisfied. The Jerusalem of religions, the Jerusalem of politics, the Jerusalem of conflict is the Jerusalem of the world. But the world does not care for our Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the people. The Jerusalem of houses and cobbled streets and spice markets, the Jerusalem of the Arab College, the Rashidiya School, and the ‘Omariya School. The Jerusalem of the porters and the tourist guides who know just enough of every language to guarantee them three reasonable meals a day. The oil market and the sellers of antiques and mother-of-pearl and sesame cakes. The library, the doctor, the lawyer, the engineer, and the dressers of brides with high dowries. The terminals of the buses that trundle in every morning from all the villages with peasants come to buy and to sell. The Jerusalem of the white cheese, of oil and olives and thyme, of baskets of figs and necklaces and leather and Salah al-Din Street. Our neighbor the nun, and her neighbor, the muezzin who was always in a hurry…The Jerusalem that we walk in without much noticing its “sacredness”, because we are in it, because it is us (142-3).


Silence and Imperfect Language

As the crisis of Jerusalem has come to a head, I have had to confront the fact that I have been watching the slow erasure of much in the city for over a decade and have said relatively little about it until now. In part it is because the term most often used to describe the process—Judaization, seems unhelpful and even problematic to me—for it is not the imposition of a specifically Jewish identity onto the city that is the issue, but the imposition of any dominant identity onto a city with such multiplicities. If I do not suggest other terms here, it is because they, too are imperfect—and I have learned that to speak of this conflict with imperfect language is to have everything else that we argue dismissed in the process because of these imperfections.  Because I have never found the language to discuss what is happening, I have largely refused to speak or write about it, for fear of offending, of misspeaking. As writers, we are called to invent new language if we must: I have not.

Photo Credit: Dvorit Ben Shaul (c) 2017. Ein Karem home with Islamic-style Seal of Solomon pattern, perhaps built during the pre-1948 Palestinian days in ‘Ayn Kerim, before it was depopulated and absorbed into Israel under a new name.

But even if I were to invent new language, my suspicion is that this language, too, would only briefly suffice. This is a conflict in which we have who have witnessed Palestinian lives have lost control even of the language in which we tell our stories. I have become accustomed to well-meaning friends sitting me down and explaining that what I call a “settlement” is in fact only a “neighborhood”, that what I call “Musrara” is in fact really “Morasha.” Among the many things we do not control in Jerusalem is even the vocabulary in which we can describe what we have witnessed with our own eyes: knowing this, I have chosen to remain silent.

By my refusal, I have helped to perpetuate the fallacy of how we talk about Jerusalem. The main difference between the way people outside of Jerusalem and Palestinians within Jerusalem are engaging in the current crisis is that outsiders discuss it within the boundaries of a hypothetical future. For them, Trump’s declaration marked the end of the possibility of a two-state solution with a shared capital, something that had not yet been accomplished.

Palestinians discuss it in terms of what has already happened and what is ongoing—as a culmination of what has been lost. Refusing to give space to this discourse is to deny the depth, history, and complexity of their attachment to the city, to erase from the conversation the texture of human relationships, of trees and flowers, of houses in neighborhoods, of feast day pilgrimages—it is to deny the legitimacy of the pain they have already felt and the loss they have already endured. It is also to deny the complexity of what is at stake in the present.

And what is at stake? The diversity of Jerusalem’s population tells the story of its history and its universality—it makes the city’s holiness about its people, not just its stones, and is a reflection that the city belongs to the entire world. It assures that Armenian pilgrims will find a piece of themselves in its people, that Greek pilgrims will stumble upon an old community of Greek speakers across from the Patriarchate, that Muslim visitors who shop at the Abu Khalaf shop will unknowingly continue a relationship with the family who once organized the Hajj to Mecca, that when they speak to a Dajani in the street they will be chatting with the old guardians of David’s Tomb. It assures that the city remembers the love of Jerusalem in the Jews of Kurdistan, who brought their delicious soup to the Mahane Yehuda Market; devotion to the city among Aleppo’s Jews, who brought their distinctive liturgy to their synagogue in Nachlaot; and of the Jews of Eastern Europe, who still speak Yiddish in the streets. It assures that liturgy will still be practiced in the language that Jesus spoke, in the city in which he died. It assures that Jerusalem will not lose its Friday prayer, its Saturday Shabbat, its Sunday church bells, its languages, its silences.

Stephanie Saldaña
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

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.
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.
Field Notes article

“Faith-by-Birth”? Community and Religious Identity

Confirmation at St. John the Evangelist Church in Goshen, IN. Photo Credit: St. John Evangelist-CC.

I am Catholic because my mother lost her driver’s license when I was seventeen.

That is not the entire truth. I am Catholic because my parents are Catholic because their parents are Catholic. I was baptized before I could crawl, a three-month-old baby who slept through Easter Mass and the sacrament that followed. I was sent to Catholic grade school because my parents had attended Catholic grade schools. I chose a Catholic high school because I liked its performing arts program. I applied to Notre Dame on a whim.

For much of my life, my relationship with my faith was lukewarm. I studied for theology tests and attended the occasional Mass. I prayed when I needed something. I didn’t question my beliefs because I didn’t spend much time dwelling on them. This changed during my junior year of high school, when I began preparing for confirmation. I attended biweekly classes in the church basement to discuss topics that I had been exposed to all my life. Yet the tone of the conversation had changed for me. I knew that after participating in this sacrament, I would be recognized as an adult by the Church. I would no longer be able to claim that I was Catholic through my parents’ choice alone.

I didn’t know if I wanted to continue in this faith. I disagreed with several of the Church’s teachings and practices, and I questioned my role as a participant in an institution whose complicated legacy carried persistent negative effects. At the heart of my indecision lay doubt. I didn’t know if I believed in God. I thought that the Gospels were great stories, but I wasn’t sure if they were anything more. My conflicted journey toward confirmation reached its climax while I was on a weekend retreat, a requirement for the sacrament. The retreat leaders were unwavering in their faith and unwilling to discuss reform within the Church. I decided that confirmation was not the right choice for me. I planned to tell this to my mom when she picked me up the next day.

However, my mother had misplaced her driver’s license over the weekend, which meant that my dad was the one to pick me up. My family decided that they would all go with him, and we would get lunch afterward. When I walked out of the retreat building and saw both my parents and my brother in the car, I hesitated. On the journey home, I thought about all the time that had been spent on the confirmation process by myself, my parents, and my sponsor. I didn’t voice my doubts. One month later, I was confirmed.

Nearly three years after that car ride, I sit with my computer and notebook in a quiet area of my dorm. I am talking with madrasa students about the subject of religious conversion and desertion, a continuation of the previous week’s discussion. In some respects, the madrasa students’ religious histories reflect my own. They were all born into Muslim families. They have all pursued religious education, though their study of theology has been much more rigorous than my own. They quote the Quran and cite the Hadith in constant support of their arguments.

Dhulikhel Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive 2018. Photo Credit: Shrestha Digital Photo Service.

“In the Quran, it is said that we should not disdain others just because they do not follow our path,” Manzar Imam, a student from India says. Our conversation on apostasy has broadened to become a reflection on interreligious relations. Manzar continues, “In Islam there is no basis for discriminating against other religions.”

Waqas Khan, a Pakistani student, pushes back against this claim. “Islam does not allow for conversion,” he says. “Islamic law places restrictions on non-Muslims.” He does not believe that Islam alone is vulnerable to these biases. “Every religion considers itself superior to all others,” he says.

This point speaks to some of my own uncertainties regarding my faith. I have often felt like a passive Catholic, someone who was born into my religion and has done little to explore other faiths. I ask the madrasa students in my dialogue group, all of whom are Islamic Studies scholars, whether they have studied other religions with any intensity. They have not. I think that my doubts regarding my beliefs stem in part from the randomness of faith-by-birth. How easily might I have been born a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Buddhist? I struggle to comprehend the historical atrocities that have been carried out in the name of religion when the grounds for belief always appear so tenuous.

Of course, it is overly simplistic to view religion only in this negative light. The benefits of belonging to a faith are considerable, and the existence of religious groups does not in itself create conflict. Without groups, most individuals would be isolated, unloved, disoriented, [and] relatively unproductive” because within those groups we find the interpersonal bonds that we seek to create (Meyers 1999, p.324).

This sentiment is expressed in our discussion on apostasy. Usman Ramazan argues that the creation of categories is not problematic. “The problem is how we act toward other categories of people,” he says. As Rasheed Naseer points out, “Religion is not the only means of discrimination among peoples.”

I have acquired a more nuanced view of the benefits and dangers of religious practice over the past two years at Notre Dame. When I decided to participate in the Madrasa Discourses, I was most interested in the program’s focus on intercultural discussions of science and philosophy. After a year of leading these dialogues, I have come to understand that our religious backgrounds have shaped our perspectives and informed our opinions in every conversation. We found connections to religion in every topic we discussed, from amortality to social media. In some cases, these connections arose from explicit questions that addressed morality and compatibility with one’s faith. However, we often found ourselves discussing religion even when it had not been overtly introduced in the conversation.

From these discussions, I attained an understanding of Islam that I could not have acquired in a textbook. We did not have the advanced theological debates of which these madrasa students are capable, but nevertheless I find that my perspective has grown. My understanding of how these students viewed robot priests and anti-aging technology greatly informed my perception of Islam. I witnessed how they structured their arguments, and how they challenged me to defend my own beliefs. I found myself providing a “Catholic perspective,” even as I explained my tenuous connection to my faith.

Dhulikhel Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive 2018. Photo Credit: Shrestha Digital Photo Service.

I made this connection clear in our discussion on religious conversion. After I shared the story of my confirmation, as well as the current doubts and uncertainties that linger in my beliefs, Faiza Hussain discussed her own exposure to faiths outside of Islam. She compared her current life in Germany to her upbringing in Pakistan and explained that she had no contact with other faiths while she was growing up. In Germany she met many individuals who followed different faiths with varying degrees of devotion, along with those who had converted to their current faith, and those who had left religion altogether. Speaking of Pakistan, Waqas Khan concluded, “When living in a country that is 98% Muslim, it’s really complicated to consider changing religions. We belong to our community.”

The Madrasa Discourses project has brought me into contact with intelligent, passionate students who are motivated to critically engage with new ideas. My discussions with these students have greatly contributed to my personal understanding of faith and my own relationship with Catholicism. I used to consider myself a passive Catholic because I did not fully understand the role that religion has had in shaping my most fundamental beliefs. I too have always belonged to a religious community, and my Catholic education has greatly influenced how I view myself and my place in the world. I have come to understand that my moral perspective has been shaped in large part by my faith. This newfound understanding has not entirely changed my relationship with religion. I am still often frustrated with and critical of the Church. I still have moments of doubt. Before participating in these conversations, I thought that these moments defined me. After having the opportunity to think deeply and critically with these students, I have been able to more thoughtfully consider the root of my beliefs, the choices I have made regarding my faith, and what it means to be Catholic in the world today.


Sydney Schlager
Sydney Schlager is an International Economics and Peace Studies student at the University of Notre Dame. She participated in the one-credit Madrasa Discourses Peace Research Lab course through the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the fall of 2017.
Theorizing Modernities article

Islamophobia Is Not Racism

Families displaced by Boko Haram living near Yola, Nigeria. Photo credit: Conflict and Development at Texas A&M, 2015.

This statement seems to me to be both obviously right and obviously wrong, and I am interested in this fact. I would like to think through the intersections of race, civilization, and religion, looking specifically at one case of Christian-Muslim encounter and conflict in Africa.

The idea that anti-Muslim sentiment is a kind of racism has been an important intervention in the discourse about Islamophobia. The most obvious example is the Islamophobia is racism syllabus (to which I contributed), which seeks to expose “the intersection of race and religion as a reality of structural inequality and violence rooted in the longer history of US (and European) empire building.” Syllabus contributors and other scholars aim to show that anti-Muslim-ism is a project, one rooted in structures of power, developed in the context of colonialism, and organized around a logic that is both geographical and racialized. Racial discourse in the United States has in effect constructed a “Middle Eastern” racial category that is deeply linked to a vision, however inaccurate, of where Muslims are from: Muslims from the Middle East are included, as are non-Muslims from the Middle East, and non-Middle Eastern people from Pakistan or Afghanistan, along with a number of others, in the making of a form of racialized identity that draws on the history of Orientalism as well as anti-Arab racism and the intensification of anti-Muslim sentiment after September 11, 2001.1

President Barack Obama greets members of the audience at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque and Al-Rahmah School in Baltimore, Maryland, Feb. 3, 2016. Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Thanks in part to the work of people involved in the Contending Modernities Reexamining Religion and Modernities working group, we also have a great deal of excellent scholarship that shows how deeply US and European anti-Muslim sentiment is tied to the history of colonialism. This scholarship, along with the highly racialized speech of many anti-Muslim crusaders in recent years, makes the links clear. As Santiago Slabodsky shows us in Decolonial Judaismthe categories of religion and race have often intersected and informed each other, from the earliest structures of Orientalism to the most vicious logics of anti-Jewish racism. The history of the civilization/barbarism divide shows exactly how religion and race can be coproduced through the category of civilization and its others. I agree. I argue in Epic Encounters that anti-Muslim sentiment in the US is deeply linked to the history of US empire. And President Trump seems intent on further racializing Islam with the various versions of the Muslim ban, the most recent of which was upheld by the Supreme Court in June. Indeed, the very existence and widespread circulation of the argument that claimed President Obama was a Muslim was an extraordinary example of how racialization in in the form of anti-blackness could combine with Orientalist and post-9/11 forms of anti-Muslim sentiment.

So, why then make the contrary argument that anti-Muslim sentiment in the early 21st century does not work as a form of racism, at least not inevitably or consistently? What’s at stake and why insist on such parsing of forms of hostility? In making this argument I will draw on my own research on US and European evangelicals in their global encounters. I want to focus particularly on Islam in Africa, because in that context we can see how American and European evangelicals see people who they racialize as black to be differentiated by religion. Although African Muslims are represented by Christians in terms that are quite resonant with the terms of the civilization/barbarism divide, the discourse does a different, although not unrelated, kind of political mapping than that done by European or even US empire. Let me be clear about my intent: I do not want to suggest that racism is not central to the US discourse about Islam as it plays out in a domestic context or as it shapes foreign policy. There is clearly a racialized hostility toward people who are presumed to be “visibly Muslim and/or Arab and/or South Asian.” The incoherence of such a racial category matters not a bit to its real social force, and I am absolutely convinced that racial logic is almost always at work in the US context, even if I also believe there is a specific set of hostilities that is based on a notion that people who are Muslim are dangerous, no matter what their race. So I also want to argue that religious hostility is at work—that a primarily Christian (or Christian-derived) discourse about Islam has force in situations where the Muslims are not so easily distinguished from Christians by racialized language or assumptions.

Christian Evangelicals and Global Religious Competition

In my recently published book, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders, and in several articles over the last decade, I discuss in detail how demographic realities are shaping global Christianity. I term one response by US evangelicals “victim identification,” which calls for evangelicals to name and support those who are victimized. That victimization might be from poverty or political oppression, but it is frequently named as religious oppression. In particular, evangelicals are called to support “persecuted Christians” around the globe—particularly those who are said to be persecuted by Muslims.2

10/40 Window. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The discourse of Christians persecuted by Muslims has a long history, of course, and even among modern US evangelicals it can be traced back to at least the attack on Armenians in the Ottoman empire.3 But since the end of the Cold War, this logic has a new intensity in global evangelical life. It was in 1989 that evangelist Luis Bush declared at the second Lausanne Congress that it was time for evangelicals to “redeploy our missionaries” to concentrate on the vast area of “The 10/40 Window”—a region of the world that stretched from Africa to Asia, and from 10 degrees to 40 degrees north of the equator—a belt that included Northern and Central Africa, India, Pakistan, China, and all of the Middle East. Bush explained that the task of evangelizing the 10/40 Window was critical because it in these areas that Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism “enslaved” the majority of their inhabitants and destroyed the lives of “billions of spiritually impoverished souls.” Islam in particular posed a challenge. From its center in the 10/40 Window, Islam was “reaching out energetically to all parts of the globe.”4

The 10/40 Window was embraced by evangelicals globally. And it shaped an incipient discourse in which the Cold War map of communism would be replaced with a global map that pitted Islam against Christianity. It might seem, in fact, that the idea of the 10/40 Window is a perfectly calibrated reworking of the great Orientalist binary, of a Christian West versus a Muslim East. And that was indeed a large part of its appeal. Yet, at the same time, while there were indeed regions mapped as “enslaved” by Islam (or Hinduism or Buddhism), the evangelical mapping of Africa in particular was far more nuanced. With African evangelicals taking a major role in the global evangelical community, and with African Christians so widely embraced and admired by at least some sections of the evangelical community in the US and Europe, countries where Muslims and Christians were in a complex contest for converts–places like Nigeria, Sudan, or Ethiopia—were not mapped as “enslaved.” Instead, US evangelical cultural producers perceived those regions as being both “us” and “not us”—simultaneously enchanting and threatening, occupied by (at least) two very different kinds of people, (black) Christians and (black) Muslims. (I will set aside the ways that evangelicals describe the dwindling population of followers of African Traditional Religions.)

“This car is protected by the blood of JESUS” bumper sticker in Lusaka, Zambia. Photo Credit: Babak Fakhamzadeh, 2006.

As the twentieth century waned, the 10/40 Window and global Christian evangelism met newly missionary-minded forms of Islam in Africa. The da’wa movements of the late 20th century supported not only the propagation of the faith through teaching or publishing, but also hospitals and clinics, basic poverty relief, schools, and mosque building, with programs in all over the world, but particularly in Africa and parts of Asia. The practices of Christian missions clearly had an impact, as Muslims in places such as Tanzania and South Africa too began to hand out tracts, put stickers on cars, distribute cassettes, and invite foreign “revivalists” to preach.5

Christian Muslim Conflict and Global Discourse

American and European evangelicals played an undeniable role in shaping the struggle for believers in Africa. In 1991, for example, the faith-healing German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke traveled to preach in the Muslim-majority northern Nigerian state of Kano.In Nigeria, Bonnke was a familiar figure. A Pentecostal whose services often featured miraculous healings, denunciations of witchcraft, and the exorcism of demons, Bonnke had a strong following among a broad swath of Christians in Nigeria, including some Catholics and mainline Protestants who were searching for specific forms of “spiritual warfare” to fight disease or other dangers.7 Bonnke had visited Kano previously, in 1990, when he had preached to crowds that were, he claimed, one million people strong—each night. Bonnke was invited back a year later by the Kano state branch of the Christian Association of Nigeria. But Bonnke’s arrival in 1991 set off a riot. As many as 8,000 young Muslims gathered to meet his plane, their anger sparked by rumors of a negative comment that Bonnke was said to have made about Islam. (The government had also denied earlier requests for Kano to host a popular South African imam, Ahmed Deedat, and Louis Farrakan of the Nation of Islam.) Muslims marched into Christian Igbo neighborhoods and attacked residents; in response, Igbo youths marched with sticks, attacking Muslim shops and mosques. A number of people died in the riots; accounts vary from “several” to “hundreds.”8

National Mosque in Abuja, Nigeria. Photo Credit: Mark Fisher, 2014.

Bonnke’s visit occurred during an already tense context: between the 1980s and early 2000s, there were at lease 48 religious riots in Nigeria.9 However, as scholars of Nigeria point out, defining the nature of the conflict is not always straightforward: in Nigeria as elsewhere, conflict that reads as religious is often fueled by other factors: neoliberal economic crises, ethnic tensions, anger at the corruption and inefficiency of the Nigerian government, etc.10 Certainly the fact that Kano is in the Muslim-identified North mattered, although there are Christians there as well. And so did the fact that most of the Christians who were attacked were Igbo, given that the Igbo were the group most identified with the break-away province of Biafra in the Nigeria-Biafra war of the late 1960s. Indeed, whether we see religious identification in Nigeria as primarily a result of colonial divide-and-rule strategies, or whether we follow Olufemi Vaughan in arguing that Muslim and Christian structures in Nigeria, forged by the two great globalizing religious movements of the nineteenth century, “made up the foundation on which the Nigerian colonial state was grafted,” there is no question that religious, ethnic, and regional identities are profoundly interconnected in Nigeria. There is no such thing as a “pure” religious identity—anywhere.

Still, it remains the case that, in Nigeria as in many other countries, religious identity is often a resource that ties (some parts of) diverse communities together, provides social solidarities and healing narratives, and offers alternatives to the despair that many feel in situations of profound economic injustice and inequality. Muslims and Christians both can draw on transnational ties to support projects and help construct identities that go beyond the local or national, and in those contexts, religious identities are meaningful beyond and in addition to ethnic or communal loyalties.11 Religious hostility is never purely about theology nor easily separable from other forms of social identity, but in such complex contexts, it is not just another form of ethnic politics either. The question of race is even more complicated, since racial formations in Nigeria are shaped by colonialism but reshaped by local contexts of nation, ethnicity, region, religion, and class. It just doesn’t make sense to say in Nigeria what Erik Love can credibly assert in the US context, that, “there are a set of physical traits and characteristics that can mark someone as ‘Muslim,’ regardless of their actual religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Race is the only way to explain how this is so.”12

Bonnke was banned from Nigeria after the riots. In the US, evangelical news outlets such as Christianity Today described the ban as the result of “anti-Christian government leaders” in Nigeria, rather than admitting the role Bonnke played in instigating violence. Indeed, heightened competition across Africa has led to a certain amount of hyperbole among evangelical commentators on Islam. For example, one 2004 document from the Lausanne Committee, a global evangelical organization, anxiously reported that “the movement of Christians into Islam, long familiar to churches living under Shariah conditions, is becoming a significant challenge for the whole church.”13 In reality, there was relatively little conversion from one faith to another at the time.14

The ongoing competition between Muslims and Christians, and the larger political environment, led Christians in particular to feel threatened. A 2010 poll found that, while most people in sub-Saharan Africa found religious tension to be a less pressing concern than unemployment, corruption, or crime, they nonetheless saw religious conflict as a “very big problem.” And Christians and Muslims often had negative views of each other. Although both sides had some positive images—seeing each other as devout, honest, and respectful of women—Christians in particular thought of Muslims as violent. And in some countries, a third or more of Christians reported that they believed that many or most Muslims were hostile toward Christians. Muslims felt the reverse in only a few places.15 Islam was viewed as a local threat in other parts of the world as well, but Africa was a key site of conflict, where local realities were shaped by a larger discourse—prevalent both in and beyond evangelical communities—that presented Islam as a global danger.

A Bible study in Tessa, Niger. Photo Credit: International Mission Board.

I have argued here that, in order to understand Christian-Muslim relations in Africa, we need to employ at least three lenses: a global racial/colonial perspective, an awareness of ethnic conflict, and a view of religious context that is at once local and global. (Other factors such as gender, class, or nationalism, or foreign policy are often also relevant.) The same is true if we want to appreciate the complex ways that race and religion intersect in US evangelical discourse about Africa. Many Americans are invested in a view of global Christianity as multiracial, transnational, liberalizing for women, and tolerant of others—in opposition to a vision of Muslims as multiracial, transnational, conservative on gender, and violently intolerant of others. Old models of binary racializing and imperialist discourse are present here, clearly, and yet the representation of Islam by American Christians is intertwined with, yet separate from, racial and regional mapping. The construction of a globalized Christian identity incorporates African Christians as “us” and African Muslims as dangerous; for Americans, the discourse of victim identification pits black Christian allies against Muslim others.

It is not the case, however, that Christians in Africa are presented by US evangelical discourse as being honorary whites. Certainly African Christians see themselves and are seen by Americans as “like us” in terms of religion, but American believers also construct Africans through the logic of enchanted internationalism—exotic, authentic, spirit-filled, and often idealized, if also implicitly coded as non-modern.

In this global context, to describe anti-Muslim discourse as (primarily) racism seems to me to flatten more than it explains. Imperialism and structural inequalities are highly relevant to the post-Cold War framing of Islam on a global scale and in Africa particularly, but neither race or “phobia” captures the full complexity of the power dynamics at play. In our transnational moment, we cannot simply export descriptions of how anti-Muslim sentiment works in the United States, even as we must continue to actively and insistently oppose the multiple forms of hostility and aggression faced by Muslims or those presumed to be Muslims in the US and beyond.



Featured Image: Sending Celebration at Grove Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. Photo Credit: International Mission Board, 2018.

[1] Erik Love, Islamophobia and Racism in America (New York: NYU Press, 2017); Khaled A. Beydoun, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear, First edition (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2018); Deepa Kumar, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire(Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012); Nadia Marzouki, Islam: An American Religion, trans. C. Jon Delogu (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017); Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, “Islamophobia and American History: Religion, Stereotyping, and Out-Grouping of Muslims in the United States,” in Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance, 2013 edition (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 53–74.

[2] Melani McAlister, “What Is Your Heart For? Affect and Internationalism in the Evangelical Public Sphere,” American Literary History20, no. 4 (Winter 2008): 870–95; Melani McAlister, “US Evangelicals and the Politics of Slave Redemption as Religious Freedom in Sudan,” South Atlantic Quarterly113, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 87–108.

[3] Heather D. Curtis, Holy Humanitarians: American Evangelicals and Global Aid(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018); Ian Tyrrell, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Timothy Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[4] The first elaboration of the concept is a 1990 paper that was published on the AD 2000 and Beyond website. This same essay is published in 1996: “Reaching the Core of the Core” Renewal Journal#10 (1997), In subsequent years, the essay is reproduced on scores of web sites.

[5] David Westerlund and Ingvar Svanberg, Islam Outside the Arab World (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), 97–125.

[6] Paul Gifford, “‘Africa Shall Be Saved’ : An Appraisal of Reinhard Bonnke’s Pan-African Crusade,” Journal of Religion in Africa 17, no. 1 (F 1987): 63–92.Westerlund and Svanberg, Islam Outside the Arab World, 97–125.On Islamic charity in the context of neoliberalism and changing roles of the state, see Mona Atia, Building a House in Heaven: Pious Neoliberalism and Islamic Charity in Egypt (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[7] Gifford, “Africa Shall Be Saved”; E E. Anugwom, “The Bonnke Effect: Encounters with Transnational Evangelism in Southeastern Nigeria,” in Religion Crossing Boundaries (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 211–17.

[8] Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction(Oxford University Press, USA, 2008), 240; Muhib O. Opeloye, “The Socio-Political Factor in the Christian-Muslim Conflict in Nigeria,” Islam & Christian Muslim Relations 9, no. 2 (July 1998): 231.News accounts: “At Least 8 Dead in Nigerian City As Muslim-Christian Riots Go On,” NYT, October 17, 1991; Karl Maier, “Planned Christian Revival Sparks Riots in Nigeria,” Washington Post, October 20, 1991; “At Least 8 Dead in Nigerian City As Muslim-Christian Riots Go On,” New York Times, October 17, 1991.

[9] Matthews A. Ojo and Folaranmi T. Lateju, “Christian–Muslim Conflicts and Interfaith Bridge‐Building Efforts in Nigeria,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs8, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 31–38.

[10] Ebenezer Obadare, Religion and Politics in Nigeria(S.l.: Zed Books Ltd, 2018); Ruth Marshall, Political Spiritualities: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria(Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2009). See also Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[11] Sharon E. Hutchinson, Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War, and the State(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996); Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, Volume 1: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa, 1st ed., vol. 1, 2 vols. (University Of Chicago Press, 1991); James Howard Smith and Rosalind I. J. Hackett, eds., Displacing the State: Religion and Conflict in Neoliberal Africa (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011).

[12] Love, Islamophobia and Racism in America, 2.

[13] Lausanne Committee, “LOP 49: Understanding Muslims” (Pattaya, Thailand: Lausanne Movement, 2004), 9, report is utterly vague about specifics, so it is impossible to tell which areas or regions it is talking about specifically. But given that there are few Christians in the Middle East, the most likely reference is sub-Saharan Africa.

[14] Pew Research Center, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050” (Washington, DC: Religion and Public Life, April 2, 2015), 11, Most of the projected increase in the Muslim population in sub-Saharan Africa is due to higher fertility rates among Muslims than Christians. This is true globally, where Muslims are expected to grow twice as fast as the overall population (p 70), and also in Africa, where the Muslim population was expected to increase from 30 percent to 35 percent by 2050.

[15] Luis Lugo and Alan Copperman, “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa” (Washington, DC: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, April 2010), 7–8, was not included in the survey. On how US policymakers perceived US policies as “secular” even as they were increasingly anti-Muslim, see Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

Melani McAlister
Melani McAlister is an associate professor of American studies and international affairs at George Washington University. Her books include Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and US Interests in the Middle East (2005, o. 2001) and The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals (forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2018), a study of evangelical internationalism since 1960.
Theorizing Modernities article

Particular and Capacious? A Reflection on Identity and Solidarity

Pro-Refugee Rally in Sydney, Australia, 2013. Photo Credit: Newtown grafitti.

Even if the current ascent of populist parties turns out to be a transient development in the history of modern democracies, the centrality of national and religious identities for the success of populists’ “redemptive” politics (to use Margaret Canovan’s renowned notion) should be taken less as a sign of pathology of democracy and more as an indication of neglect of a vital social question—that of democratic formation of particular group attachments in complex, pluralistic societies.

The achievements of both progressive and right populist parties have greatly depended on the powerful unitary notion of the ‘we’ to which individual supporters attach their passions and commitment. While the latter, as Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau have arguedrevitalizes democratic life by increasing agonistic engagements, it also affirms collective belonging in ways that ultimately constrict both democratic contestation and deliberation. Populisms thus raise the stakes in any attempt to reconcile several important democratic concerns: with that which binds individual citizens into one national community; with the responsibility citizens might have toward those outside their national group; and, with pluralism as a platform for citizens’ deliberation and disagreement about the ideals of national identity and common good.

Put differently, populisms compel us to probe contemporary languages and practices that would allow for individuals to bind themselves to national collectivities in ways that are particular while also being capacious. One way to do this is to explore the links between identity and solidarity, with the former referring to particular forms of group attachments and the latter denoting the imperatives of responsibility to those outside such allegiances. Many thinkers have reflected on these two notions—from Hannah Arendt and Pope John Paul II, to philosophers Anthony Appiah, Charles Taylor, and political theorist Amy Gutmann. For our present discussion, the work of American historian David Hollinger is especially instructive because he not only directly relates the two notions, he also asserts a divide between the ethics of identity and the ethics of solidarity. For Hollinger, the concept of identity is quasi-mystical, shaped by what we share with others, and can promote violence. Solidarity, on the other hand, is an “experience of willed affiliation” and entails “conscious commitment” and a level of deliberation and moral choice. Viewed this way, identity and community express a fated sense of belonging, while solidarity represents agency, that is, one’s choice of commitment to others and to a more expansive constitution of the ‘we.’

Hollinger’s arguments have ethical and political import: he suggests that solidarity is most needed when we have a choice whether to be bound to those with whom we do not share history or culture. This is a type of imperative that posits itself in situations such as the European “refugee crisis,” in which the EU and its member countries have to establish not only concrete policies but also reimagine the sources of solidarity with those outside the EU borders. If one is to follow Hollinger’s propositions, the ascribed forms of attachments—religious, national, cultural, civilizational—cannot but hinder the Europeans’ obligation to alleviate the conditions of suffering of others, and most concretely, of Muslim refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Hollinger considers identity and solidarity in a manner that states explicitly that which is often implicitly and unreflexively assumed in thinking about these two notions—the idea that particular attachments are irredeemable in relation to more universal ethical commitments. This way of thinking permeates, among others, the recent works on European Christianities, populisms, and Islamophobia—for example, the manner in which social scientists Olivier Roy and Rogers Brubaker write about the connections between contemporary European populisms and identitarian Christianity. They posit the latter as culturally particular, devoid of substantive (Brubaker) and positive, universal elements of Christian faith (Roy), thus as intolerant, and ultimately complicit in authorizing the contemporary European Islamophobia (both Roy and Brubaker). Here, Christianity as a particularized form of religious identity is straightforwardly attached to intolerance and rejection of different others.

Participant in Pro-Refugee Rally in Sydney, Australia, in 2013. Photo Credit: Newtown grafitti.

The relationship between particular attachments and ethical commitments beyond one’s own group, however, is a bit more complex. Take these two snapshots from the Polish and German debates about refugee crisis: For Archbishop Henryk Muszynski of Gniezno, one of the Catholic Church’s very few critics of the Polish government’s policy toward refugees, Poland has a “full right” to express its “religious, national, and historic identity.” But, in not accepting the refugees, Poland is “condemning itself, by its own choice, to total isolation” and is undermining “the foundation of social and international solidarity.” For Silke Radosh-Hinder, pastor of the Evangelical Church in Germany, German Christians have a moral as well as historical responsibility to fight far-right politics and to accept refugees. In these two instances, do particular national experiences and historical locations constrain or broaden one’s ethical commitments? Do particular attachments serve as a platform to reject or, rather, to embed a sense of solidarity of European Christians with non-Christian, non-European others?

The scholars of “multiple,” “vernacular,” and “contending” modernities—from Shmuel N. Eisenstadt to Nilüfer Göle—have long proposed that the encounters between traditional and the more universal forms of affiliation happen in a dialectic manner. The success of the populists’ redemptive politics also alerts us to the fact that, in a global capitalist world shaped by transnational ideals, interests, and institutions, matters of particular group identity remain as relevant as ever. One of the challenges of our times lies in identifying and affirming the democratic responses to narrow, anti-pluralist populist conceptions of the links between national, cultural, and religious identities. In my view, a forceful response to such conceptions can emerge if we attend to the convergences between identity and solidarity. Moving beyond the notion of their disconnect or inevitable conflict would highlight the productive relationship between narratives of particular identities (as these continue to provide the frameworks of social cohesion and give concreteness to various forms of moral commitment) and the more universally framed ethics of responsibility and solidarity (as it challenges the exclusionary nationalist and nativist narratives shaping so much of our contemporary moment).

Slavica Jakelić
Slavica Jakelić is Associate Professor of Humanities and Social Thought at Christ College at Valparaiso University. Her scholarly interests and publications center on religion and identity, the relationship of religious and secular humanisms, Christianity in global perspective, interreligious dialogue, and conflict resolution. Before joining Christ College, Jakelić has worked at or been a fellow of a number of interdisciplinary institutes in Europe and the U.S.—the Erasmus Institute for the Culture of Democracy in Croatia, the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University, the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, Austria, the Erasmus Institute at the University of Notre Dame, the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago, the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, and the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame's Keough School. She is a Senior Fellow of the national project "Religion & Its Publics," placed at the University of Virginia, where she was a faculty member and co-director at the UVA's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture for several years. 
Jakelić is a co-editor of two volumes, The Future of the Study of Religion and Crossing Boundaries: From Syria to Slovakia, a co-editor of The Hedgehog Review’s issue “After Secularization,” and, most recently, the author of Collectivistic Religions: Religion, Choice, and Identity in Late Modernity (2010). She is currently working on a book entitled Chastening Religious and Secular Humanisms: Identity, Solidarity, and the Practice of Pluralism.
Theorizing Modernities article

Pluralism, Secularism, and Anti/Philo-Semitism

Poster for a Jewish cultural festival in Krakow, Poland. Photo credit: Geneviève Zubrzycki, March 2011.

We know from a vast and rich literature that “secularization” is a much more complex phenomenon than the usual one-size-fits-all “decline of religion” proposition.1 But we still need to account for the persistence of religion and the diverse forms it takes, as well as analyze the specific ways in which religion infiltrates the making of secular national identities. What explains different configurations of religious-secular national identities?

My recent book Beheading the Saint: Nationalism, Religion, and Secularism in Quebec (2016) as well as my on-going research on Polish philosemitism focus on different configurations of religious-secular national identities. More specifically, I study the process of becoming secular—the aesthetic, bodily, social, and political practices of enacting secular identities. Becoming secular does not imply the total disappearance of religion in secular national societies; rather, it involves religious and secular configurations that are articulated and contested. This approach has the methodological advantage of investigating secularity as a dynamic process rather than a static state or more or less a fait accompli. I attend to the fissures and frictions entailed in becoming secular, the debates and contestation between social and political actors as they seek to socially, aesthetically, and legally institute secularism.

The Different Faces of Pluralism and Secularism

Perhaps the most politically salient way in which the religious and the secular have been interpellated in recent years is in relation to pluralism. In North America and Western Europe the “crisis of pluralism” refers to the challenges self-avowed secular societies face with the immigration of populations who are not only denominationally “Other,” but who also are markedly more religious in their world outlook and in the exercise of their daily activities than members of the host society. That is certainly the case in Quebec, as I show in my recent book.

Tablecloths are hung on clotheslines to recreate the look of a prewar courtyard during the May 2017 Day of Jewish culture, Chmielnik. Photo credit: Geneviève Zubrzycki.

In Poland, however, the crisis of pluralism is one of absence: how can Poland, one of the most ethnically, denominationally, and religiously homogenous nation-states in the world, counter the empirical absence of a plurality of ethnic, racial, and religious groups to meet the normative goals of pluralism and multi-culturalism, now enshrined as core values of modern polities? And how can liberal secular elites articulate and project an image of the nation other than that of Polonia semper fidelis, both at home and abroad? My newest work shows that non-Jewish Poles’ fascination for all things Jewish (“philosemitism”2) is part of a strategy from the center and the left to de-naturalize the dominant ethno-Catholic version of Polishness. It is also part of a broader effort to build a neutral space where Catholicism is only one among many other value systems (religious and non-religious) and where none is hegemonic. Philosemitism in the Polish context, then, is not simply anti-antisemitism. It is imbricated in a complex national project to build pluralism and secularity.

Why is that, and how does that work?

Two men eating at a “Jewish” restaurant, Lublin. Photo credit: Geneviève Zubrzycki, October, 2014.

In Poland, ideological deviance from the ethno-Catholic definition of Polishness is ethnicized such that individuals and groups who are not defending the prominent place of Catholicism and its symbols in the public sphere and are advocating a civic-secular Poland instead are turned into “Jews.” This logic and the multiple examples of its application in the public sphere—in both verbal and non-verbal discourse—provide rich exemplars of a phenomenon analyzed long ago by Jean-Paul Sartre (1986 [1946]), who famously claimed that “If the Jew did not exist, the anti- Semite would invent him.” Polish public intellectual Adam Michnik (1999:73) refers to this specific form of antisemitism as “magical antisemitism”: “The logic of normal […] antisemitism is the following: ‘Adam Michnik is a Jew, therefore he is a hooligan, a thief, a traitor, a bandit etc.’ Magical antisemitism however works this way: ‘Adam Michnik is a thief, therefore he is most probably a Jew.’” As Jewishness stands, for those on the populist Right, for a liberal, plural, civic, and secular project, Poland is claimed to be ruled by “Jews”—by symbolic Jews—who must be neutralized. Hence the antisemitism in a country with very few Jews.

The very process of ethnicization of deviation from the ethno-Catholic model of Polishness is also at the source of philosemitism. For if ethno-religious nationalists contend that “Jews” are contaminating the nation with their civic ideals, building a pernicious post-national, cosmopolitan world and must therefore be politically marginalized, “Jews” must for the same reason be resurrected and Jewishness promoted according to proponents of a civic and secular vision of the polity. Precisely because Jewishness carries specific significations and symbolic capital that other minorities in Poland (such as Ukrainians, Silesians, or the Vietnamese) do not possess, it is primarily through Jews and Jewishness that a modern, secular, and multicultural Poland is articulated. Hence liberal, leftist youth wear t-shirts and brandish posters in protests against clerical nationalists, subversively claiming that they are “Jews.”

Performance, Objectification, and Cultural Appropriation

Jewish dancing troupe, Krakow. Photo credit: Geneviève Zubrzycki, March 2012.

Wearing a “Jewish” sweatshirt; dancing to Jewish music, eating Jewish foods and drinking kosher vodka become embodied practices meant to challenge a restrictive definition of Polishness. These practices serve to de– and re-construct identity along new lines. Polishness is being challenged and redefined by activists and artists as well as by ordinary people in their mundane activities. Multiple forms of memory work, such as graffiti art, walking tours of formerly Jewish spaces, commemorative marches, or the cleaning and restoration of cemeteries, all serve to undermine the political claim and the dominant view that Poland is essentially, primordially ethno-Catholic. Ordinary Poles become involved in the revival and assimilate Jewishness, to the extent that it becomes “Polish,” through embodied and repeated actions. They remake Polishness by learning how to “cook Jewish” or how to serve and consume Jewish foods during a festival, at a café all year round, or at a Sabbath dinner at the Jewish Community Center; by singing and dancing; by learning Jewish paper cutting techniques; or by donating their time and energy to Jewish individuals and organizations. This implies a certain objectification of Jewishness and “Jewish culture” and its appropriation by non-Jews. But that “cultural appropriation” is motivated by a political project; a national vision defined by openness.

What this brief discussion highlights is that understanding anti- and philo-Semitism, or phenomena such as secularism, pluralism, and nationalism, requires that we take into account local meanings, historical narratives, and specific social and political dynamics. This means deep knowledge of empirical cases and critical examination of the assumptions contained in the very concepts we use to understand and explain the phenomena we investigate. This implies field-based research and a processual approach focusing on the multiple practices of enacting identities.



1. José Casanova, in his classic study Public Religions in the Modern World, argues that secularization is composed of “three very different, uneven and unintegrated propositions: secularization as differentiation of the secular spheres from religious institutions and norms, secularization as decline of religious beliefs and practices, and secularization as marginalization of religion to a privatized sphere” (1994, 211). Philip S. Gorski (2000; see also Gorski and Altınordu 2008) also differentiated between types of secularization theories that address empirically different processes: the disappearance and the decline of religion on the one hand, and its privatization and transformation on the other. Mark Chaves referred to “secularization” as more specifically the declining scope of religious authority, a process rooted in concrete social struggles: “Secularization occurs, or not, as the result of social and political conflicts between those social actors who would enhance or maintain religion’s social significance and those who would reduce it” (1994, 752). Bruce Lincoln (2003) called these “minimalist” versus “maximalist” articulations of religion. The tension is between privatizing and publicizing forces, between opposed views of the role of religion and of the Church in the public sphere. In my own work I adopt the distinction proposed by Martin Riesebrodt, since it best allows me to disentangle processes too often lumped together: secularization (the separation of social and religious institutions), disenchantment (rationalization of consciousness), and deinstitutionalization (transformation of religious institutions, specifically shrinking membership and declining participation in religious practice) (2010, 174–81).

2. While the term “philosemitism” was coined by self-avowed antisemites in Germany in the 1880s to denigrate their opponents (Karp and Sutcliff, 2011: 1), I adopt it to denote a wide spectrum of practices motivated by a curiosity and desire to learn about Jewishness; attempts at uncovering and preserving the remnants of Jewish life and honoring the lives of millions of Jews (Polish and non-Polish) who were murdered on Polish soil. For a discussion of the history and theoretical underpinnings of the terms antisemitism, anti-antisemitism, philosemitism, and allosemitism, see Bauman (1998), Altfelix (2000) and Judaken (2008). For empirical studies see Mushkat (1992), Karp and Sutcliff (2011). On antisemitism in Poland, see Krzemiński (1996) and Bilewicz, Winiewski and Radzik (2012); on anti- semitism and opposition to it, see Blobaum (2005). On representations of Jews in Poland, see the now- classic study of Cała (1995), and the works of Michlic (2006), Tokarska-Bakir (2012), and Lehrer (2013).



Altfelix, Thomas. 2000. “The ‘Post-Holocaust Jew’ and the Instrumentalization of Philosemitism.” Patterns of Prejudice 34 (2): 41-56.

Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 1998. “Allosemitism: premodern, modern, postmodern.” In B. Cheyette and L. Marcus, Eds. Modernity, Culture, and ‘the Jew.’ Cambridge: Polity Press. 143-156.

Bilewicz, Michał, Mikołaj Winiewski and Zuzanna Radzik. 2012. “Antisemitism in Poland: Economic, Religious, and Historical Aspects.” Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, 4: 2801-2820.

Blobaum, Robert (ed.). 2005. Antisemitism and its Opponents in Modern Poland. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Cała, Alina. 1995. The Image of the Jew in Polish Folk Culture. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press.

Casanova, José. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Chaves, Mark. 1994. “Secularization as Declining Religious Authority.” Social Forces 72: 749–74.

Gorski, Philip S. 2000. “Historicizing the Secularization Debate: Church, State, and Society in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ca. 1300 to 1700.” American Sociological Review 65: 138–67.

Gorski, Philip S., and Ateş Altınordu. 2008. “After Secularization?.” Annual Review of Sociology 34: 55–85.

Judaken, Jonathan. 2008. “Between Philosemitism and Antisemitism: The Frankfurt School’s Anti-Antisemitism” in Phillys Lassner and Lara Trubovitz (eds) Antisemitism and Philosemitism in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries: Representing Jews, Jewishness and Modern Culture, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 23-46.

Karp, Jonathan and Adam Sutcliff (eds). 2011. Philosemitism in History. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Krzemiński, Ireneusz, (ed.). 1996. Czy Polacy są antysemitami? Wyniki badania sondażowego. Warsaw: Oficyna Naukowa.

Krzemiński, Ireneusz. 2001. “Polacy i Żydzi: wizja wzajemnych stosunków, tożsamość narodowa i antysemityzm.” In Aleksandra Kania Trudne sąsiedztwa. Z socjologii konfliktów narodowościowych. Warsaw: Wydwanictwo narodowe Scholar, 171-200.

Lehrer, Erica. 2013. Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University.

Lincoln, Bruce. 2003. Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Michlic, Joanna B. 2006. Poland’s threatening other: The image of the Jew from 1880 to the present. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Mushkat, Marion. 1992. Philo-Semitic and Anti-Jewish Attitudes in Post-Holocaust Poland. Lewiston: Edwin Mellon Press.

Riesebrodt, Martin. 2010. The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Tokarska-Bakir, Joanna. 2008. Legendy o krwi. Antropologia przesądu. Warsaw: W.A.B.

Warner, Michael, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun, eds. 2010. Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zubrzycki, Geneviève. 2006. The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zubrzycki, Geneviève. 2012. “Religion, Religious Tradition and Nationalism: Jewish Revival in Poland and ‘Cultural Heritage’ in Quebec.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (3): 442–55. Zubrzycki, Geneviève. 2016a. “Nationalism, ‘Philosemitism’ and Symbolic Boundary-Making in Contemporary Poland. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 58:1, 66-98.

Zubrzycki, Geneviève. 2016. Beheading the Saint: Nationalism, Religion, and Secularism in Quebec. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Geneviève Zubrzycki
Geneviève Zubrzycki is a comparative-historical and cultural sociologist who studies national identity and religion, collective memory and national mythology, and the contested place of religious symbols in the public sphere.

Her first book, the award-winning The Crosses of Auschwitz: Nationalism and Religion in Post-Communist Poland (University of Chicago Press, 2006) analyzes the reconfiguration of the relationship between Polishness and Catholicism after the fall of communism. Her second book, Beheading the Saint: Nationalism, Religion and Secularism in Quebec (University of Chicago Press, 2016) analyzes the discursive, ritual and visual genesis of a Catholic French-Canadian ethnic identity in the 19th century, and its transformation into a secular Québécois national identity in the second half of the 20th century.
Authority, Community & Identity article

Excess of Love in the “Oasis of Peace”

Photo credit: Emmanuel Katongole. Burundian refugees graduate from vocational courses at the Oasis of Peace in Rwanda, 2018.

It was a bright and beautiful Saturday afternoon on a hilltop overlooking Kigali. There, on the site of a former hotel, Maggy Barankitse, who was forced into exile from her country of Burundi when she criticized the president for seeking to change the constitution so as to extend his stay in power, had established a community center—Oasis of Peace—to work with Burundian refugees. It was the graduation ceremony for the first class of refugees, who had been attending training in various vocational skills (culinary services, embroidery, painting, tailoring, and car mechanics). As the graduates and invited guests gathered for the procession into the hall, loud speakers hanging from the trees filled the air with the lively discotheque music of “maison shalom…nyumba ya mahoro…orakarange” (long live maison shalom, house of peace). Inside the hall, 74 young men and women graduates came up one by one to the stage as their names were called to get their diplomas. You would not have been able to tell, from the graduation gowns, the sense of dignity and confidence in their gait, and the radiance on their faces that all 74 are refugees, who, less than a year ago, were living in refugee camps, full of fear and bitterness from the painful memories of the loss of everything as they were driven from their homes. This is where Maggy, herself driven from her home in Ruyigi, found them and enrolled them in the various courses.

In her speech to the graduates Maggy spoke of her journey from the tears and darkness of exile to her determination not to allow hatred to make her “lose the tenderness,” but to live with the dignity of knowing that she is a child of God. “Love is our true identity,” she told the group. Reminding the graduates that “hatred will never have the last word” she urged them to always “work hard to change violence into peace” while inviting them to “celebrate today the victory of love over hatred.”

And a beautiful celebration it indeed was. The diploma service was followed by a sumptuous candlelight dinner in the beautiful gardens of Oasis of Peace—dinner for all the graduates and their invited guests, with plenty of good food, a live band, and at a certain point in the evening, Maggy dancing with her graduates. Throughout the evening my mind kept returning to a line of Psalm 23, “a banquet he prepares for me in the presence of my enemies” and to the image of rich food and choicest wine in the banquet God has prepared for all peoples according to Isaiah (Is 25:6). As if the image of “best of meats and finest wines” is not enough to evoke the sense of “excess” and being “out of place,” one is reminded that Isaiah is offering this prophecy to people who are facing difficult times and the threat of exile. In fact, just a few verses earlier, the prophet had predicted impending destruction in vivid images: foundations of the earth shaking (24:18); the earth mourning and fading, both heaven and the earth languishing (24:4); the inhabitants of the earth turning pale (24:6). It is in the midst of this terrible devastation where “all joy has disappeared, and all cheer has left the land” (24: 11) that the prophet now promises, “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines” (Is 25:6). Something is not right. Shouldn’t the banquet wait until after restoration, after the return from exile, after reconstruction, and after total reconciliation? But there it is. Not just a meal, but a banquet with the “best of meats and finest wines!” It is a similarly odd logic that I was witnessing on that beautiful Saturday in January. For right there in the midst of exile and displacement out of Burundi’s violence, an “oasis of peace” at a time of desolation, joy in the midst of loss and hatred, a banquet of good food, wine, music, and dance—a celebration of the victory of love over hatred.

What kind of victory is this? How does one account for its odd logic, and for individuals like Maggy who refuse to surrender to violence and hatred but are determined to not allow hatred to make them “lose the tenderness?” Maggy, who is not satisfied with giving refugees just some rationed food to keep them going and tents to sleep in within the refugee camps (that itself would be admirable), but invites them out of the refugee camps up on “this mountain” to give them diplomas, graduation gowns, rich food, music, dancing, joy, dignity, and possibilities right here in exile!

Photo Credit: Emmanuel Katongole. Katongole with Maggie Barankitse, Oasis of Peace founder, and Jonathan Zaragoza Christiani, volunteer administrator at Oasis of Peace.

I knew Maggy’s story and had visited her Maison Shalom center in Ruyigi, Burundi a number of times. She had survived genocide in 1993 and out of that terrible tragedy had discovered not only her “true identity” (as she calls it) but also a mission—to invite others into the gift of love and to live out the social, practical implications of the identity of being God’s children (see Katongole, The Sacrifice of Africa, 2001). When Nkurunziza’s government shut down Maggy’s Maison Shalom, confiscated the bank accounts, and forced Maggy into exile, Maggy responded to those who feared she had lost everything, “No, I did not lose everything, I fled with my treasure–love, and love makes us inventors.”

I had traveled to Kigali to find out if that was indeed the case and to try to understand what the ‘invention’ of love looks like in the midst of displacement and exile. In various conversations and interviews it became clear that at the heart of the logic of Maggy’s “out of place” love are two apparently contradictory notions: its “simplicity” and its “excess.” As one journalist who has followed Maggy and is working on a documentary on her explained to me: “What drives Maggy is a simple message (God’s love) that… keeps being played out in endless and rich practical manifestations of courage, beauty, compassion, and service to the least of these.”


Emmanuel Katongole
Katongole, a Catholic priest ordained by the Archdiocese of Kampala, is a core faculty member of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He has served as associate professor of theology and world Christianity at Duke University, where he was the founding co-director of the Duke Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation. He is the author of books on the Christian social imagination, the crisis of faith following the genocide in Rwanda, and Christian approaches to justice, peace, and reconciliation. His most recent books are The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa (Eerdmans, 2010) and Born from Lament: On the Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa (Eerdmans, 2016).
Theorizing Modernities article

Religious Nationalism and Right Wing Populism: Trumpism and Beyond

Photo Credit: Ted Eytan. MAGA hats sold at Trump rally in DC in 2017.

One of the great puzzles of the 2016 elections in the United States was the extraordinary support that Donald Trump received from white evangelicals. Nearly 80% ultimately voted for Trump. It is important to note that most non-white evangelicals did not vote for Trump, and that most white evangelicals voted for other candidates during the Republican primaries. And yet, Trump was still the first choice of a plurality of white evangelicals.

One of the great puzzles of the first 18 months of the Trump administration is the steady increase in Trump’s approval ratings amongst white evangelicals. Over 80% now approve of Trump. During the presidential elections, many white evangelical leaders were prepared to publicly excuse Trump’s patently un-Christian personal behavior—including his ill-concealed racism and misogyny—and many white evangelical voters were evidently willing to overlook them as well. Now, they appear ready to overlook his ongoing assault on American democracy, too—including the rule of law, the freedom of the press.

This is not a uniquely American puzzle. The affinity between religious conservativism and right-wing populism is a phenomenon that antedates Trump and extends beyond America. That affinity is perhaps less obvious and less important in Western Europe, where the ranks of Christian conservatives have been in rapid decline for some time now. But even there, neo-populists often position themselves as defenders of “Christian civilization.” Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen did not borrow this move from Trump’s playbook. On the contrary, the opposite is more likely the case.

Elsewhere in the world, the connection between religious conservativism and right-wing populism is both striking and significant. In Hungary, for instance, Viktor Orban has promised to replace “liberal democracy” with “Christian democracy,” by which he evidently means an ethno-nationalist form of one-party-rule and plebiscitary democracy. Moving eastwards, to the inner boundary of Eurasia, we arrive in Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, where the “secular democracy” of the Kemalist regime has been supplanted by an Islamic version of the Orban model.

Any suspicion that Western analysts might harbor concerning the European origins of this phenomenon are however promptly shattered when we arrive on the Indian sub-continent. There, civilizationist discourse is nearly a century old. The Hindu nationalist movement has long had both religious and secular followers, and Hindu nationalist discourse has long claimed that Hinduism is a way of life or a form of civilization to which non-Hindu Indians can and indeed must belong.

While the origins of left-wing populism are usually traced to the American populist movement of the late 19th century, the genealogy of right-wing populism begins further South, in Latin America. There, too, authoritarian populist leaders found substantial support amongst Catholic conservatives.

Of course, not all religious conservatives feel attracted to the populist message. In the US, for instance, the ranks of the #neverTrumpers include a good number of conservative Christian intellectuals, Protestants as well as Catholics. The question, then, is which religious conservatives and why? The tentative answer that I’d like to advance here is: “religious nationalists.”

Until recently, of course, most scholars of nationalism would have dismissed the very concept as an oxymoron. Nationalism was assumed to be a wholly “modern” phenomenon, a kind of ersatz religion for secular modernity. Today, many scholars understand religious nationalism as a distinctive variant of modern nationalism, one that makes religious identity the litmus test of national belonging.

While religious nationalism may well be a modern phenomenon, the connection between religion and nationalism long antedates modernity. Indeed, one could argue—and many including myself have argued—that Western nationalism has religious origins. For the definitional triptych of “people, land, and state” is already sketched out in the Hebrew Scriptures, which speak of a chosen people, a holy land, and a Jewish state.

Academic analysts have often remarked on the quasi-religious character of modern nationalism. Some have explained this in functional terms. In this account, nationalism fills the “God-shaped hole” left by secularity. Others have explained it in instrumental terms. From this perspective, nationalist politicians invoke religious language to galvanize their followers. The genealogical account suggests a different explanation: modern nationalism has a religious “unconscious” that can always be summoned back to the surface again.

In “Western” versions of religious nationalism—by which I mean versions that are historically rooted in the Jewish and Christian scriptures—this religious unconscious has at least four key elements:

  1. Blood tropes. Talk of blood is a red thread that runs through both the Jewish and Christian scriptures. There is talk of blood sacrifice, blood conquest, blood purity, and blood atonement, amongst other things.
  2. Apocalyptic narratives. The histories of Judaism and Christianity are both replete with apocalyptic discourse. For most of these histories, literalist interpretations of the apocalyptic texts (viz., Daniel, Revelation) were confined to fringe movements. Today, they are a core element of evangelical Christianity.
  3. Persecution/victimization narratives. The “pariah” status of the ancient Jews and Roman persecution of the Jesus movement left a deep imprint in the collective memories of both traditions. It is especially deep amongst present-day evangelicals, who expect to be persecuted for their faith.
  4. Messianic expectations. Full-blown messianic movements have probably been somewhat more common in modern Judaism, but modern Christianity has certainly had its share (e.g., Mormonism) and the history of modern evangelicalism is of course rife with charismatic preachers who claim quasi-messianic powers.

These four elements are not “key” in the sense of being “unique” characteristics of Judaism and/or Christianity that distinguish them from other religious traditions. On the contrary, they are commonly found in “non-Western” versions of religious nationalism as well (e.g., Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamist). They are key, then, not in the sense of grounding a typological distinction between religious traditions, but rather in the sense that they underlie the elective affinity between religious nationalism and right-wing populism.

What do I mean by “right-wing populism”? There is widespread scholarly agreement that populism is not an “ideology,” at least not in the sense that, say, liberalism or communism are ideologies. Populism does not have a Mill or a Marx, a treatise or a manifesto, nor a program of reform or revolution (e.g., the expansion of individual rights or the abolition of private property). And yet, while it may lack the intellectual systematicity of these 19th century ideologies, it is not without a certain coherence. Some analysts have proposed that it is best understood as a political discourse centered around the notion of the “sovereign people” and related notions such as “popular will” and “popular unity.” This is why populist rhetoric often has a democratic ring. However, as proponents of this interpretation are quick to point out, right-wing populists also reject core elements of liberal democracy, such as the rule of law, the rights of the minority, and the internal pluralism of all peoples.

Building on Arlie Hochschild’s work, some scholars, including myself, have argued that populism is not just a discourse but a narrative. In her widely-read ethnography, Strangers in Their Own LandHochschild argued that her subjects interpreted the world through the frame of a “deep story,” a narrative that they were not always able to articulate themselves, but which they immediately recognized and affirmed as “theirs” as soon she articulated it for them. The central event in the populist story is “line-cutting.” Hochschild’s subjects imagine themselves to be waiting patiently in a long line that leads to the “American dream” of material prosperity. But the line is standing still. In fact, it hasn’t moved in years, decades even. Why? Up ahead, her subjects notice, other people are cutting in line, immigrants and minorities who just recently arrived. Not only that, the Federal Government is guiding them to the front of the line. This, they feel, is deeply unjust.

In my view, Hochschild’s deep story is just one variant of a more generic narrative that underlies right-wing populism. It features four actors: a pure people, a corrupt elite, an undeserving other, and a messianic leader. The people have been betrayed by the elite which is allied with the other, and the leader promises to restore the people to its birthright. There is also a left-wing version of this story. It features three actors: an oppressed people, a corrupt elite, and a social movement. In this account, the people are being exploited by the elite and have joined together in a movement of liberation.

Right-wing populist movements have at least two other common, if not universal features. The first—and the most important for our purposes—is a charismatic leader. Because the populist goal of popular unity can never really be achieved it is often performed. In left-wing populist movements, unity is usually embodied in “the movement.” In right-wing populist movements, by contrast, it is more often incorporated in a leader. The second common feature of right-wing populist movements (sometimes found in the left-wing variant, too) is the performance of “bad manners,” above all by the leader, but also by his (or, occasionally, her) followers. By “bad manners,” I understand ongoing violations of social norms of polite speech and sometimes also of dress and grooming. The speech of populist leaders is often impolite and profane. And their personal appearance is often unconventional. Bad manners serves two purposes: it distances the leader from the elite and signals his or her closeness to the people. But it also distances the leader from “ordinary” people and suggests extraordinary talents or superhuman powers.

Having enumerated some important characteristics of both religious nationalism and right-wing populism, it is now possible to identify some of the elective affinities between them. They run in both directions. Religious nationalists are attracted to right-wing populist movements and parties if and insofar as they:

  1. Invoke notions of blood sacrifice, blood conquest, blood purity and, more generally, attribute mystical powers to human blood.
  2. Paint the contemporary situation in Manichean and apocalyptic terms, as a cosmic struggle between good and evil, that is hurtling towards its final denouement.
  3. Portray the dominant ethno-cultural majority as a persecuted, religious minority; in particular, a minority persecuted on account of its faith.
  4. Are headed by a charismatic leader who makes messianic promises and claims messianic powers.

Conversely, right-wing populists are attracted to religious nationalism if and insofar as it:

  1. Emphasizes the moral purity of the common people.
  2. Blames national decline on cultural elites, and especially on secular intellectuals.
  3. Clearly identifies moral and/or religious others who can never become full members of the people.
  4. Sanctifies the charismatic leader, despite or even because of his or her bad manners.

Against this backdrop, the ongoing love affair between Donald Trump and white evangelicals becomes a good deal less perplexing. Trump has a peculiar (and possibly psychotic) obsession with human blood, particularly but not exclusively, women’s blood. He espouses a dark, “us vs. them” view of the world, always on the brink of disaster. He espies conspiratorial plots and nefarious enemies most everywhere he looks. And he imagines that he can easily fix difficult problems with simple solutions that have somehow eluded his predecessors. Conversely, Trump-supporting evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Franklin Graham envision the United States as a Christian nation that has been corrupted by secular elites, often on behalf of underserving others (typically racial, religious or sexual minorities), and they have not only given Trump a series of “mulligans” for his personal morality, they often seem to revel in his bad manners, particularly when they are aimed at those they dislike.

The goal of this memo has been to sketch out the cultural logic that underlies the elective affinity between religious nationalism and right-wing populism and, more broadly, to dispel the view, quite widespread among Western intellectuals, that the alliance between religious nationalists and neo-populists is purely instrumental or patently hypocritical. While I am confident that this framework can “travel”—i.e., that it gives us some theoretical purchase over other cases of neo-populism, Western and non-Western alike—I do not imagine that it would survive such a journey unscathed. Further comparative work is of course necessary, particularly comparisons that go beyond Europe and the Americas to include various regions of Asia and Africa. Nor do I wish to suggest that this cultural analysis constitutes an adequate explanation much less an exhaustive account for the rise of neo-populist movements or their relative success or failure. That would require a fuller analysis, not only of national-level factors (e.g., party systems, immigration patterns, religious demography etc.) but also of global and geopolitical changes as well.

Philip Gorski
Philip S. Gorski is Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Yale University, where he leads the Critical Realism Network. He is a comparative-historical sociologist with strong interests in theory and methods. His empirical work focuses primarily on religion and politics in early modern and modern Europe and America. He also writes on the philosophy and methodology of the social sciences. His most recent book is American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present  (Princeton, 2017). 
Authority, Community & Identity article

Côte d’Ivoire’s Working Definition of Gender Empowers and Excludes

Photo Credit: Global Partnership for Education. 5th grader in class in Mamakoffikro, Côte d’Ivoire, December 2015.

My previous blog focused on grassroots understandings of modernity in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) that emphasized the dimensions of “change” and “novelty” related to western influence on local patterns of life. Gender reform is another major concept of my current research. The cornerstone of contemporary gender theories is the idea that in any society, gender roles and categories are not given but constructed, and hence can be deconstructed as well. I dwell on the state’s working definition which shapes state gender policies today in Côte d’Ivoire. I take it for granted that “gender” reforms are a “modern” concern in the context of Africa, again if modernity is taken here to encapsulate western influence on local practices. The point I want to make is that, although Côte d’Ivoire embraces gender equality concerns, the state concept of gender does not include the LGBTQ community and focuses mainly on closing the gender gap between men and women instead.

Distribution of Power

Although structured by both matrilineal and patrilineal systems of kinship, like most West African societies Côte d’Ivoire is predominantly patriarchal in the distribution of power between men and women. It is generally assumed that in patriarchal societies women are ruled by men, but a differentiated approach to gender power relationships reveals a much more complex picture in Africa. Even though it is true that men hold more power than women in society, this is not the case in all sectors of social life. For example, regarding political power, the Baoule—a major Akan sub-group found in Côte d’Ivoire—venerate as their founding ancestress a female figure called Queen Abla Pokou who they claim led them from present-day Ghana to their current location. She then became their first ruler and was succeeded by another woman, Queen Akoua Bony, who ruled them from 1730 to 1760 before men took over the kingdom. The kingdom has lasted three centuries and has been ruled by twelve sovereigns, including three women. The third woman, Queen Monique N’ga Tanou, was consecrated in August 2017, taking the name Nanan Akoua Boni III.

Photo Credit: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations. Women and children at social services event in Côte d’Ivoire, 2013.

Some have argued that in pre-Islamic and pre-Christian Africa, gender differentiation and hierarchies were less rigid and therefore more flexible than those inherited from Islam, Christianity, and colonial legal systems that current gender reforms seek to correct. Africa, like many other parts of the world, has a long way to go to close the gender gap. But overall, as the data of the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report suggests, Africa is making progress, with some countries even doing far better than most Western countries. The best performance on the continent is that of Rwanda, which is ranked 4th in the world.  Also doing well are countries such as Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana. The 2017 Global Gender Gap Report ranks Côte d’Ivoire 133rd out of 144 countries evaluated. Its overall score suggests that although Côte d’Ivoire is closing the gender gap in areas such as education and health, it still has a long way to go on the economic participation of women and their political empowerment.

Focus on Women

Let us now consider the state construction of gender and how it impacts social and economic empowerment.

Côte d’Ivoire’s major public policy document articulates gender policy as follows:

An approach to development which aims at reducing social, economic, political, and cultural inequalities between men and women, between boys and girls. It reveals injustices and discrimination which are encouraged or tolerated in various social contexts, very often against women. These include, among other things, opportunities, obligations, and rights awarded to any individual (man or woman) within a society. A policy that integrates the notion of gender is a policy that comparatively analyzes the situation of men and women, identifies the sources of inequality between the sexes, and attempts to reduce them. Gender is also defined as all the implicit or explicit rules that govern the relationships between man and woman on the basis of different values, responsibilities, and obligations.1

In terms of gender policy innovation in the last decade, the focus has been on the empowerment of women. To enhance the economic and political participation of women in public life, a Compendium of Female Competences project was launched in 2011 and has led to the production of a Directory of Competent Women in various domains. The concern about the economic empowerment of women is behind the creation in 2012 of the special “Fund for Women in Côte d’Ivoire” to facilitate the access of women to microloans. A Plan for the Implementation of the National Gender Policy was released in 2014 as well as a Roadmap for the Implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But it is in the sector of education that much progress has been noted because education is seen a major driver of empowerment for women. The General Census of 2014 indicates that the rate of illiteracy in Côte d’Ivoire is about 56.1% of which 49.3% are men and 63% are women.

It is evident that the Ivoirian state gender policy does not include any concern about the forms of sexual orientation that characterize the LGBTQ community. Although the emergence and visibility of LGBTQ identities is still a hotly debated issue in Africa, heterosexuality remains the norm both institutionally and in collective representations. The question of the existence of homosexuality in precolonial Africa is highly debated in the public sphere, including among scholars. Whatever the case, the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa was instrumental in giving some visibility to African homosexuals as they came to be classified among the highly vulnerable groups requiring special attention. The Ivoirian Penal Code does not explicitly criminalize homosexual acts, but Article 360 in its second paragraph accentuates sanctions against public indecency involving people of the same sex. Although there are no laws in Côte d’Ivoire which explicitly criminalize homosexuality, LGBTQ Ivoirians can be targets of various forms of violence because of their sexual orientation, especially when they strive for more visibility.

The state concept of gender in Côte d’Ivoire does not include the specificity of the LGBTQ community. As an Ivorian member of this community rightly puts it, “In Côte d’Ivoire, the conception of gender is limited to the binary opposition male/female, the equality of man and woman. But they [state policy makers] should understand that the concept of gender is broader and evolving. So the national document on gender has a lot of deficiencies from this respect.(Interview, Member of the LGBT community, Lesbian Life Association, Abidjan, 2017). This raises questions about the inclusivity of the state construction of gender.

[1]Framing of “Gender” in the Ministère de la Famille, de la Femme et des Affaires Sociales, 2009. Document de Politique Nationale sur l’Egalité des Chances et le Genre, Abidjan.


Ludovic Lado
Ludovic Lado is Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at the Center for Research and Action for Peace in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. His publications include Catholic Pentecostalism and the Paradoxes of Africanization (Brill, 2009); Le Pluralisme Religieux en Afrique (PUCAC, 2015); and Towards an Anthropology of Catholicism in Africa (forthcoming).
Global Currents article

2018 World Cup and Multicultural Belgium

Photo Credit: Miguel Discart Photos. World Cup 2018–Belgium vs Japan. Notice Moroccan flag in center.

A video circulating on Facebook shows a crowd of men standing in front of a cafe cheering and dancing to the rhythms of a darbouka, a Moroccan tambourine. The video was shot in Molenbeek, one of Brussel’s nineteen communes, which recently gained international notoriety due to the implication of a few of its residents in international terrorism. Yet in this context, the commune was the setting for a more joyful event. A crowd of men of Maghrebi origin danced and sang while waving the Belgian flag as cars drove along, honking to the rhythms of the dancers. The crowd was celebrating Belgium’s advance to the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup—a historic event for the country, which had only reached that stage one time earlier when the team around the legendary Jean-Marie Pfaff managed to make it to the semi-finals of the World Cup in Mexico in 1986. But there are important differences between the team that qualified in 1986 and this one, differences which also explain why large parts of Molenbeek were celebrating this historical achievement. With the presence of Belgian-Moroccan star players Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli, in addition to two players of Congolese descent, Romelo Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi, the composition reflected the highly diverse demographic realities of the Belgian metropoles. Furthermore, this victory comes at a moment when intense tensions about migration run through the country, providing a welcome counter-narrative to the doom and gloom scenario that prevails in the rhetoric of the leading nationalist political elites.

Photo Credit: Erik Drost. Romelu Lukaku at the Cleveland FirstEnergy Stadium, 2013.

Analysts have often held ambivalent views on the potential that soccer, and sports in general, have in overturning existing power imbalances and racial hierarchies within societies. The overrepresentation of ethnic-cultural minorities in various sports is not a novelty. Like other professional circuits, such as music, sports have traditionally been one of the spheres through which racialized minorities could progress and gain a degree of fame, wealth, and social mobility. One of the reasons often advanced to explain this overrepresentation of minorities in sports is the way in which it comfortably confirms, rather than disturbs, racial hierarchies and stereotypes: Black or Arab men are primarily seen as productive bodies, with entertainment value. This is also why many have warned against mistakenly seeing a diverse national football team as a sign of tolerance or inclusion. The victory of France in the 1998 World Cup, with a team coined “Black, Blanc, Beur” [beur meaning Arab in slang], did not stop the political advance of the National Front a few years later, nor did it stand in the way of rampant anti-Muslim rhetoric and strong secularist measures targeting veiled women that continue to this day. Furthermore, figures like Zinédine Zidane were even hailed as examples by some commentators of the success of the French model of laïcité and assimilation. Born to an immigrant father from Algeria, Zidane does not display an explicit identification with Islam. Another danger looms in the uncritical celebration of football as a carrier of diversity, in that players of foreign descent are only hailed when they are heroes, but are immediately castigated when they fail. The same football star, Zidane, who achieved a quasi-divine status in football and was celebrated as a model of integration, went overnight from hero to savage (Arab) during the historic confrontation with Italian player Materazzi in the World Cup final of 2006.1

There are, however, reasons to also consider another side of this story, particularly when it comes to the Belgian national team and the celebration of it. Due to its fragmented political and social history, Belgium never successfully managed to tell a coherent national story about itself. And it is precisely this absence of a unified national project that allows for a triumphant recuperation of national symbols by ethnic minorities and expressions of difference that are otherwise marginalised.

Since its establishment in 1830, in the aftermath of the defeat of the Napoleonic empire and as a result of a mobilisation of a Catholic and Francophone elite who were unhappy to live under the tutelage of a Protestant Dutch monarch, the small kingdom of Belgium, with its 11 million inhabitants, has been beset by a never-ending succession of tensions around language, religion (Catholic/secular), and economy—with postcolonial migration being the newest addition to the historical fault lines identified by the Belgian sociologist Luk Huyse. Most of these migrants are descendants of workers who came to the country after the Second World War from Italy, Spain, Morocco, or Turkey. The nineties saw another wave of immigrants, mostly political refugees from Belgium’s former colonies in Africa’s Great Lakes region (Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda). The result is a highly diverse reality where metropoles like Brussels, which are home to players like Fellaini, Lukaku, or Batshuayi, have become minority majority cities where Arabic eclipses Dutch as the most used language after French. This multicultural composition of the country sits uncomfortably, however, with the prevailing models of inclusion which, in contradistinction to France or the UK and the US, are not unified into a single national model. In Flanders, a region where separatist and nationalist parties represent more than one-third of the electorate, an ideology of linguistic and cultural purism prevails. The Francophone part of the country is, in turn, highly influenced by the French model and puts more emphasis on secularism, although its various attempts to inscribe laïcité in the national constitution have so far failed.

Photo Credit: Кирилл Венедиктов. Michy Batshuayi during the England-Belgium World Cup match, 2018.

Yet, and to the dismay of many, the players of the national team do not neatly abide by any of these scripts—just like many of the postcolonial minorities in the country who are currently challenging Belgium’s colonial legacy and white imaginary. On the evening that Belgium managed to secure a position in the quarterfinals, after an impressive come-back against Japan, Michy Batshuayi circulated a video recorded in the dressing room where he congratulated, in French with some Moroccan terms, the ‘draries’ for the victory, emphasizing the sentiment with expressions of ‘wallah’  [I swear in the name of Allah] and ‘shukran’  [thank you]. The word ‘drari’  [literally: boys] is a Moroccan word used in vernacular language to designate street kids, and has turned into a popular concept within youth culture, just like ‘wallah.’  Referring to the exploits of his teammates Chadli and Fellaini who were vital to Belgium’s win, Batshuayi’s performance reflects the importance of these ethnic and religious markers and the many linguistic crossovers found in youth culture across the ethnically diverse Belgian metropoles. Belgian flags, with the green star of the Moroccan flag added to the Belgian tricolour, circulated as a joke, as did the hashtag #valeurajoutée (added value): a response to the controversial Federal State-Secretary of Migration and Asylum Theo Francken, who openly wondered in 2011 what the added value of Moroccan or Congolese migrants was for the country. A similar event occurred after Belgium qualified for the semi-finals last Friday: Liège-born Nacer Chadli thanked his fans on his Facebook account, concluding with the words, “Allah is the greatest.” In a context where such a formulation, and in particular its Arabic variant (Allah-u Akbar), has become linked with violent extremism, and where public expressions of religion are met with suspicion, this public declaration of faith probably raised more than one eyebrow. And in a recent interview with The Players’ Tribune, star striker Romelu Lukaku opened up about his experiences of racism in Belgium, declaring that he would be surprised to find a single black person who hasn’t faced racism in the country, and challenging the general climate of suspicion that exists towards minorities and migrants in his birth country.

The so-called ‘golden generation’ of Belgian players is exceptional in several ways. Not only does it excel in technical skills and team play, but more importantly in the way it echoes many of the cultural and political developments within the country, not the least of which is the growing outspokenness of the descendants of postcolonial migrants who, by sharing their experiences of racism and openly challenging some of the prevailing colonial narratives, seek to carve out a space of their own. This also partially explains the immense enthusiasm and overwhelming support they elicit throughout the country. Each of the players seems, in his own way, to shed light on different compositions of Belgium, some of which does not conform to the more dominant nationalist or highly secularist narratives in the country.

A few weeks after the 22 March 2016 attacks in Brussels, the Federal Interior Minister Jan Jambon declared in an interview with the Belgian daily De Standaard that “a significant part of the Muslim community was dancing in the streets after the attacks.” His words prompted many angry reactions in the press with people denouncing these statements as an instance of fake news and demanding evidence for these claims while accusing the interior minister of polarising the country at such a sensitive moment. While the Interior Minister failed to substantiate his claims and never apologised for his statements, the expression “Muslims are dancing in the streets” has turned into a parody to mock the Interior Minister. So too with the dancing Molenbeekois who, through their dances and songs, were seen by many as reclaiming this victory as also theirs.

[1]This point is analysed further by Paul Silverstein (2018) in his recently published Postcolonial France. Race, Islam, and the Future of the Republic, London: Pluto Press.

Nadia Fadil
Nadia Fadil is an Associate Professor at the Interculturalism, Migration and Minorities Research Center at KU Leuven. She works on religion, race, and migration in Belgium and Europe.