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. 
Global Currents article

This City that Isn’t One: Fragments on a Fragmented City

Photo Credit: Dr. Kupietzky, Wikimedia. 2017 Jerusalem jubilee celebration at Givat Hathmoshet

The city that speaks its fragmentation and divide so clearly and loudly cannot be forced into coherence because “cities” do not cohere. Only people do.

The story is well known: On June 27, 1967, the Israeli Government officially annexed the seventy kilometers of land the Israeli army conquered a couple of weeks earlier. East Jerusalem and its 69,000 Palestinian residents were incorporated into the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem.  On July 30, 1980, the Israeli Knesset voted and approved the “Jerusalem Law,” which declared unified Jerusalem the capital of the state of Israel despite critique from the UN. Since then the efforts to declare and celebrate the city’s unification continue, perhaps because a meaningful and valid unification continues to fail.

1. Most modern cities are divided: separating the rich and the poor, concealing racial segregation by relating to the city’s different neighborhoods in terms borrowed from folklore: “colorful,” “authentic,” “unique” etc. Hoods and slums are naturalized as the lower ends of the town, while gated communities or otherwise rich parts, are similarly seen as a natural urban development. Inequality, separatism, classism, and racism are translated into and masked by imaginary urban geographical terminology. This is true for modern, western cities: Paris, London, Los Angeles, Berlin, Toronto, NYC, and many more. But unlike these and other cities, Jerusalem is divided at the core. It is geographically divided into two, with one part (the West) serving as the location for all Israeli government activities since 1948 and the other side (the East) occupied since 1967, but in no way integrated. Access to Jewish holy sites is well maintained for both sides, but this by imposing military sanctions and policing on the majority of the native population (Palestinians). In short, the logic of so called unification is one of increasing maximum mobility rights to Israeli Jews in the occupied Palestinian populated areas while providing minimum resident rights to Palestinians in turn. Jerusalem is a city that emblematizes partition as such. Divided, it divides. And the more it is said to be unified, the more divided it is.  For the unification is not about unity but about militarized colonial control. A city that is colonized and occupied cannot be unified but by force.

2. It is no secret that within the borders of pre-1967 Israel/Palestine the population (of Israeli citizens) is already sharply divided: there are Jewish Israeli citizens (“full citizens”) and there are Palestinian Israeli citizens who, to borrow Homi Bhabha’s language from another colonial context, “are almost the same but not quite” (Bhaba, “Of the Mimicry of Man,” The Location of Culture,  1994: p. 86). In short, pre-1967 Israel is a partitioned nation, whereby the divided populations (Arab Palestinians and Jews) live radically apart. After 1967, with Israel conquering the West Bank, Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Gaza, the status of partition becomes even more pronounced. If the divide between Jewish and Palestinian Israeli citizens was sharp and decisive in itself, the new geo-political reality created a further and even more dramatic partition between citizens (Israeli) and non-citizens (Palestinians residing in the occupied territories). The one place where all these divisions, partitions, inequalities, and symbolic demarcations come into play all at once is Jerusalem. Here you find, primarily on the West side, Israeli Jewish citizens and in lesser numbers, Palestinian Israeli citizens. While on the East side, (with the exception of about 200,000 Jewish settlers with citizenship, who are there to “Judaize” East Jerusalem), you find mainly Palestinian non-citizens: non-citizens living in the claimed capital of the only democracy in the Middle East. Politically speaking, then, close to a fourth of the residents of Jerusalem are in fact ghosts. They live in a capital (a city in which they are residing as if by mercy) of a nation to which they do not belong (they are non-citizens). While many have lived in East Jerusalem for generations, in 1967 they became non-citizens with temporary residence (since 1967, over 14,000 Palestinians have lost their residency): they are not-quite there.

3. Truthfully speaking, Jerusalem was never unified. Once it was partitioned in 1948 it remained so, despite (or maybe due to) the repeated declaration of its unification. Split in two, with a modern light rail train crossing in the middle, Jerusalem is the mirror through which Israel’s true nature as apartheid state becomes visible to all. The impossibility of this city reminds us that there is no “Jerusalem” but “Jerusalems” and that “Israel” too, acquires its coherence and unity only on the basis of making Palestine and Palestinians forgotten, erased.

4. To speak today of “Jerusalem,” then, is to continue to propel an image of coherence and unity that has never existed. Since 1967, Israel has been celebrating the unification of Jerusalem. But what is celebrated, especially in the last few years, when the unification parties have become so extravagant and visibly excessive, is not unification. What is celebrated with flashy lights, music, flags and fireworks is the militarized presence of Israel all over East Jerusalem: in the gates to the Old City, in the alleys, by the train, by the universities and schools. What is celebrated in other words, is the Occupation. And the celebration of power is itself a sight of power and a vulgar demonstration of dominance displayed all across East Jerusalem. This is not the sight of unity being celebrated. It is a sight of colonial aggression.

  • Photo Credit: Lisa Nessan. A woman walks along the Jerusalem separation wall.

5. The so-called “unified Jerusalem” is primarily a rhetorical manipulation. But it is also an urban experiment in unifying geography while keeping populations apart. Jerusalem, then, cannot be Israel’s capital, even if Trump fancy’s so, because there is no one Jerusalem. The city that speaks its fragmentation and divide so clearly and loudly cannot be forced into coherence because “cities” do not cohere. Only people do.

6. After occupying East Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli state did the only thing it knows how to do when it comes to Palestinians: it pretended the population didn’t exist or that it would soon somehow miraculously disappear. Instead of fostering real and meaningful unity between residents of East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem, between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, the Israeli state invested in a futile goal: unite land, not people. And when land could not be united because of people, Israel built a wall. In 2002 a mighty and ugly separation wall cut through neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and placed areas and populations previously “in” Jerusalem on the other side of the Wall. People who were residents one day, could no longer enter the city the other. We now have at least three Jerusalems, each in a different position vis-à-vis the Wall.

7. Unified Jerusalem is a myth. The very term masks and covers a politics of extreme divide and inequality. West Jerusalem and East Jerusalem may be connected nowadays by a fast train but the division between citizens and non-citizens, those who enjoy water and other services and those who are cut off from municipal services, cannot be overcome by any such simple means of connectivity.

  • Jerusalem-Bethlehem militarized checkpoint with sign: "Love and Peace."
    Photo Credit: Ted Swedenberg. Jerusalem-Bethlehem militarized checkpoint with sign: “Love and Peace.”

8. Jerusalem today is an ill place. A lab for social hostilities. A city surrounded by walls, divided by walls. Jerusalem, “a holy city” as they say, is the end result of a politics of partition, colonial aggression, and ethno-national separatism. No place on earth could be less suitable to be called “unified,” no place on earth less qualified to be(come) a capital. The matter here is not how holy the city is for Jews, Christian, Muslims or others. These debates, important as they may be, simply mask the fact that, at present, too many of the city’s inhabitants are discriminated against and kept apart in order for the city itself to be celebrated as unified.

9. Last year, during the 49th anniversary of “unified Jerusalem” (yerushaliam ha-meochedet) as it is called in Hebrew, Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu announced: “It has been 49 years since Jerusalem has been released from its shackles. We shall never go back to a reality of a wounded and torn apart city (ir sh’sua’ v’ptzua’)!”

10. This year, in response to Trump’s endorsement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Nir Barkat, mayor of Jerusalem had this to say in defense of Jerusalem’s unified status: “I talk to Palestinians living in East Jerusalem and I can tell you, they want to live in unified Jerusalem, they understand what is best for them, they compare themselves to others living anywhere in the middle east and they realize they are much better off with Israel.”

Through such a thick colonial mindset (knowing what is better for the occupied and for the city itself) even a city so brutally divided, and a reality so antagonistic, violent and unjust, can seem “unified.”  It is this blinding power of the colonial enterprise that must be combated for the residents of a city which is not one (and which under current circumstances cannot become one) to be seen and heard equally, across walls and divisions which cannot be cheaply done away with.

Gil Hochberg
Gil Hochberg is Ransford Professor of Hebrew, Comparative Literature, and Middle East Studies at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the intersections among psychoanalysis, postcolonial theory, nationalism, gender and sexuality. She has published essays on a wide range of issues including: Francophone North African literature, Palestinian literature, Hebrew literature, the modern Levant, Semitism, Israeli and Palestinian Cinema and art. Her first book, In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs, and the Limits of Separatist Imagination (Princeton University Press, 2007), examines the complex relationship between the signifiers “Arab” and “Jew” in contemporary Jewish and Arab literatures. Her most recent book, Visual Occupations: Vision and Visibility in a Conflict Zone (Duke University Press, 2015), is a study of the visual politics of the Israeli-Palestinian. She is currently writing a book on art, archives, and the production of knowledge.
Global Currents article

Gold-Plated Jerusalem

Photo Credit: Bon Adrien. Jerusalem Old Town Market, with children playing in the background.

Like many Jews around the world, every morning I engage in a somewhat arcane ritual of placing leather boxes on my forehead and arm containing scriptural verses handwritten carefully by a scribe and, among other things, I pray for the flourishing of Jerusalem. And quite often, along with many Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others, I hope for a peaceful resolution to the conflict of Israel/Palestine, including Jerusalem. Am I praying and hoping for the same thing? Is praying and hoping the same thing? The same Jerusalem?

After the Six-Day War in 1967 Israeli poet Naomi Shemer wrote a song entitled “Jerusalem of Gold” celebrating the beauty of a city that many Israelis and Jews considered “liberated” and “unified.” Songs, like poems, are more often aspirational than a reflection of a messy political reality. “Jerusalem of Gold” became a classic. But what Jerusalem does it represent? Whose Jerusalem does it represent?

From 1948 until 1967 Jerusalem was truly a divided city; the western half part of Israel, the eastern half part of Jordan. The Six-Day War did not unify the city; in some way it re-instated its divided status, putting both halves, still divided, under one sovereign. There are segregated cities and divided cities. Boston in the 1960s and 1970s was largely a segregated city. Jerusalem is a divided one. East and west today have separate bus systems, school systems, separate sanitation collection, even separate mail delivery systems. Western Jerusalem is a Jewish city, eastern Jerusalem a Muslim city; in the west the lingua franca is Hebrew, in the east, Arabic. Those in the west, most of whom are relative newcomers but view the city as the fulfillment of their religious and national aspirations, largely see the city as theirs, those in the east, many of whose families have lived in Jerusalem for generations, see it as theirs. The illusion of a unified city in Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” is just that; an illusion. That is, if we understand the question of unity to be more complex than simply power. In the real world, west Jerusalem is the capital of Israel; east Jerusalem is a city in waiting. Jerusalem the holy city is in exile.

Photo Credit: Bradley Howard. Dividing wall in Jerusalem/Gaza.

From the halls of the Israeli Parliament to the fresh cut lawns of American Jewish summer camps, one hears the refrain that Jerusalem is the capital of “the Jewish people.” This is an interesting assertion. First, as my colleague Liora Halperin noted in a Facebook post, the Jewish people do not have a capital because the Jewish people are not a nation-state. Israel is not the state of the Jewish People, even if you maintain it is a Jewish state, largely because about half of the world’s Jews choose not to live there. Like every nation-state, Israel is state of its citizens. Second, Jerusalem is certainly the holiest site of the Jewish people, the center of its homeland, and the place of its longing. But as Hannah Arendt noted in her 1947 essay “To Save the Jewish Homeland,” a homeland is not a state and, in fact, a state may undermine a homeland. Homelands too are aspirational, states by definition often destroy aspirations. As Franz Rosenzweig suggested, homelands, or holy lands, are places of longing. In states longing too often is buried in the messiness of injustice and inequality. Finally, Jerusalem in the Jewish imagination was not limited to a place, much less a state, but also traditionally functioned as a marker of robust Jewish life in the Diaspora. Thus Vilna was called “The Jerusalem of Lithuania,” and Lublin “The Jerusalem of Poland,” etc. If you look at the “real” Jerusalem, the city behind the theology, which is, as Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai so pointedly put in his poem, “Tourists,” the place where “A man buys fruits and vegetables for his family,” Jerusalem is a divided city where a significant portion of its inhabitants (not of all whom are even citizens) do not even recognize the sovereignty which that capital represents.

What drives the rhetoric of “Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel” is the erasure of a divide separating aspirational theology and Realpolitik. In his 1922 Political Theology, Carl Schmitt argued that modern politics is little more than secularized forms of pre-modern theological precepts. Is Jerusalem a proof of his theory, or an exception? I suggest the latter. The sleight of hand in Schmitt’s thinking is the way secularism serves as a veil, a rational frame that conceals non-rational motives driven by claims founded on theological beliefs. In some way, Zionism may confirm such a theory. Even some of the most secular architects of Zionism claimed that Zionism contains elements of messianism, broadly defined, without which it could not sustain its force or popular appeal. But Jerusalem might be different because in the case of Jerusalem, for Jews at least, the secular veil is not even translucent, it is transparent. It hides nothing. And yet it is precisely in this transparency and in the very claim  of Jerusalem’s unification, that the vulnerable underbelly of Jerusalem is exposed; the erasure of any difference between prayer, and hope, between theologically-based aspirations and the workings of modern statecraft. Israel is not a theocracy, but it, and Jerusalem in particular, is too often theologically justified.

This came through quite clearly in Shmuel Rosner’s recent op-ed in the New York Times “Of Course Jerusalem is Israel’s Capital” (December 5, 2017). Rosner begins with a discussion about the Jerusalem Temple destroyed over 2,000 years ago and the conclusion of the Passover Seder “Next Year in Jerusalem” as “proof” of Jerusalem as the capital of modern-day Israel.  What Rosner doesn’t mention is that the rabbinic tradition relegates the rebuilding of the Temple and collective return of the Jews to the messianic age, which Jews believe is still forthcoming. Nor does he mention that the aspiration “Next Year in Jerusalem” is theological rather than political: Jews celebrating Passover and Yom Kippur in Jerusalem also say “Next Year in Jerusalem” (some say “the re-built Jerusalem”).

It is not insignificant that the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan that created the state of Israel and is so often used by pro-Israelists to justify its international status establishes Jerusalem as an “international regime…to be administered by the United Nations Trusteeship Council.” This declaration was made with full knowledge of the complexity of Jerusalem and perhaps recognition of the inability to disentangle it from its theological and aspirational status, at least in the initial stages of statecraft.

Photo Credit: BDNEGIN. Old and New Jerusalem

This nuance seemed lost in President Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But such nuance was understood quite well by the likes of Shmuel Rosner and Prime Minister Netanyahu. For Rosner it fortified the permanent erasure of theology and politics and in doing so made the former a handmaiden to the latter. The danger here is that when there is no distinction between prayer and hope, between an aspirational Jerusalem and a divided city, God becomes no more than a means to human power and religion a Machiavellian church. For Prime Minister Netanyahu the primary victory is the erasure of “east” and “west” thereby “unifying” a city not through collective bargaining but by the political will of a global power. In this sense, Jerusalem is now under the sovereignty of the United States. What the Prime Minister gets in return is a case against a Palestinian State since he knows that the Palestinians would never, and arguably should never, accept a state that does not have (east) Jerusalem as its capital. Shortly before his death, Netanyahu’s father Ben Zion Netanyahu responded to the question as to whether his son favors a Palestinian State. The elder Netanyahu responded  “He supports the kind of conditions they would never in the world accept.” President Trump has arguably just confirmed Ben Zion Netanyahu’s prediction.

But if we move beyond the power politics and return to those morning prayers and afternoon hopes, to Schmitt’s claim about politics and to Jerusalem’s sacred status, we can ask whether using God to rule over others is actually antithetical to praying to God to redeem the world. My point is not to sink into some kind of sentimental piety. Rather it is to suggest that Jerusalem—both aspirational and real—is a great way to enter into the mosh pit of religion and politics, a great counter example to Schmitt that affirms his principle while challenging his assessment of the secular. Jerusalem is theology all the way down, and Trump just affirmed that this is sufficient to undermine the contemporary Palestinian narrative and make a geo-political claim of ownership. In this sense, Trump’s declaration is certainly Schmittean.

But if we want to take theology in another direction then we might suggest the very opposite of what has transpired. One of history’s great purveyors of Jerusalem is, of course, the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied,

Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, And make them joyful in My house of prayer; Their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices Shall be acceptable upon Mine altar; For My house shall be called A house of prayer for all peoples (Is. 56:7).

Rosner’s inclusion of the Jerusalem Temple only goes half way. If it’s the Temple upon which Jerusalem is based (and that is how Rosner begins his op-ed) then it is not about sovereignty, certainly not only about sovereignty, it is also, perhaps primarily, about inclusivity. This is the prayer. And the hope.

In the 1980s Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, architect of the Jewish Renewal movement penned an “Open Letter to Teddy Kollek,” then mayor of Jerusalem. In his letter he made the case for the internationalization of Jerusalem as an expression of aspiration where prayer and hope could co-exist. For Jerusalem to be truly “unified” it should be “internationalized.” This kind of unification is the submission of human sovereignty to that which lies beyond, or inside, it. Not using theology as a handmaiden of human power but human power as a handmaiden of theology. Where theology could serve a humanizing function, what Martin Buber called “Hebrew Humanism.”

The tragedy in President Trump’s Jerusalem decision is that its ostensible obviousness belies its destructive potential, and not only in regards to violent protest or political fallout. Rather, it undermines the sacrality of Jerusalem for three religions, essentially relegating it only to one. As Isaiah saw it, that exclusivity undermines Jerusalem’s sacredness. As a lover of gold, Trump has inadvertently undermined Shemer’s song and given us a cheaper version: a gold-plated Jerusalem. Shemer saw a vision of the future even though it was still an illusion; Trump abandoned any spiritual vision for the cheaper shininess of the now.

I affirm all Judaism’s religious claims to Jerusalem. And I affirm all Islam’s religious claims to Jerusalem. And Christian claims. And I reject all of them as leverage to the modern secular nation-state called Israel. I can live with my prayer and my hope as having two separate objects. Jerusalem, a city divided, and the Jerusalem that aspires one day to be unified. But I can only tolerate the “unification” of my prayer and my hope if such unification maintains the object of my prayer as an integral part of the object of my hope. The U.N. Partition Plan made “internationalization” an exercise in pragmatism. They likely did not have Isaiah 56 in mind. But I do. And it is my prayer and my hope that moving forward, Isaiah’s words will once again be heard from the City of Peace, not as a triumphalist claim of sovereignty but as a true call for “unification.” Only then can the holy city of Jerusalem truly be a capital of anything.

Shaul Magid
Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University/Bloomington and a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. This year he is the NEH senior research fellow at the Center for Jewish History in New York City.
Theorizing Modernities article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dignity is Not Power Blind

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephanie 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

The Tragedy of Otherness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing Madrasa Discourses at the United Nations

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

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

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

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

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

UN headquarters, New York City.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations, Aadil!


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Chinese Community in Banda Aceh.

Photo Credit: Adnan Ali. “Red Lanterns.”

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


Authority and Community: Social Acceptance and Resistance

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

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

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


Religious and Social Identity

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

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

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


Conversion to Islam: Muallaf and Muallaf Organizations

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

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

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


Some references:

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

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

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

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

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

The Portland Samaritans and Politics Moving Forward

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Tony. “Empty Car”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hospitality and Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madrasa Graduates: Children of Abraham and Aristotle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerusalem and the Soul of the Abrahamic Traditions

Abraha’s attack on Mecca, from a 17th or 18th century manuscript copy of “The Book of Wonders of the Age” (St Andrews University Library)

A well-known tradition in Islam records that on the year of the prophet Muhammad’s birth, Abraha, the ruler of Yemen, laid siege to Mecca. The caretaker of Mecca at the time was ‘Abd al-Muttalib, Muhammad’s grandfather. As the population evacuated the city to the surrounding hills, ‘Abd al-Muttalib entreated Abraha to release his camels to make sure they would not perish in conflict. Abraha’s intentions were to take the city and raze the shrine that housed the city’s gods, the Holy Ka‘ba, to the ground. At this point, the astonished Abraha reportedly lost all respect for ‘Abd al-Muttalib: what kind of leader would prioritize mere livestock over the house of God? Upon noticing Abraha’s disdain, ‘Abd al-Muttalib explained, so the tradition goes, that his camels were his responsibility. The shrine, on the other hand, he remarked, was God’s responsibility, and God would protect it. One of the units in Abraha’s army was an elephant cavalry that dramatically refused to ram the Ka‘ba, and ultimately, a flock of birds descended to lay waste to the aggressors. It was in reference to this event that the one hundred and fifth chapter of the Qur’an, entitled “The Elephant,” was revealed.

Photo Credit: Eric Stolz, Wikipedia. Tomb of Abraham in the Cave of the Patriarchs.

My mind dwells on his tradition when I think of Jerusalem today. ‘Abd al-Muttalib had is priorities in order. He could have put his life, and the lives of countless innocents, on the line to save the sacred shrine of Mecca. He assessed his odds and chose not to resist. That choice was grounded in a profound belief in divine providence and power. In light of this tradition, one might ask whether it is our belief in God, or lack of belief, that makes us—Jews and Muslims—vie for the land? And let us not forget the third in the trinity of Abrahamic faiths, Christianity. If ‘Abd al-Muttalib cared so much for his herd, what would the very Lamb of God say about what is happening in the Holy Land today? In these brief reflections, I draw on perspectives from each of the three Abrahamic faiths on how to think and feel about Jerusalem: Yerushalayim, “abode of peace”; al-Quds, “The Holy.” It is a harsh and bitter irony that the holiest sites of the Abrahamic faiths are either abodes of exclusivism, such as Mecca, or abodes of strife and conflict, such as Jerusalem. How can these sites become symbols of peace, love, and the fellowship of humanity, instead of triumphalist bastions that have become hollower than they are holy, whether by consumerism or conflict?

The word ger (or a derivative), meaning “stranger,” appears more often than any other word in the Torah. One of my favorite references is Exodus 22:20: “And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This verse is among those that are cherished by students of scripture, for it gives a not just a command, but also the reason for the command that becomes enshrined as an eternal principle. The reasoning this verse provides is none other than the celebrated golden rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you. Rabbi Hillel famously summed up the whole Torah in one sentence: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; all the rest is commentary.” We should pay attention when a tradition articulates its first principles so clearly. Is there a contradiction with Exodus 22:20 and the illegal occupation and settlement of lands, the overwhelming use of military force, and the crushing treatment of gerim that borders on apartheid? The answer to this question is yes, you bet there is.

But, what is the alternative? Israel argues that the circumstances it confronts today are exceptional and the threats existential. If the alternative is annihilation, then the first principles must be suspended in favor of survival. Morality follows life in order of priority. Bombastic rhetoric and violent resistance by the Palestinians only serve to fuel further aggression. The charter of Hamas begins with this statement from the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” This is not helpful for the Palestinian cause. In fact, it is a total disaster, both morally and strategically. Especially since the resistance is so asymmetrical, involving the desperate and indiscriminate targeting of the other side and the never-ending sacrifice, not simply of camels, but of generations of human beings.. Where are the ‘Abd al-Muttalibs today? Make no mistake: Hamas is a resistance movement, but the manner of its resistance has only legitimized further aggression, land grabbing, isolation, starvation, loss of moral clarity, let alone moral high ground, and now, from what it looks like, the loss of Jerusalem.

The Palestinians need to ponder the cost of protracted resistance to innocent lives on both sides—however legitimate that resistance may be—against a foe that has overwhelming military, economic, and technological advantage. One of the arguments the Jewish nation has against the Palestinians is that they are part of a larger Arab nation, while the Jews have no home of their own. This argument is doubly mistaken. One, all Arabs are not the same. The Palestinians are no more similar to the rest of the Arabs than the modern day Irish are to Australians or Canadians. It would be absurd to ask modern day Australians, for example, to transfer themselves to other “white” English speaking lands to make room for aboriginals so they can establish an aboriginal democracy. What is a little difference in accent, right? Wrong! Two, it is wrong because it assumes that democracy can be constructed through demographic control by manufacturing a majority unjustly through a systematic program of ethnic control, if not ethnic cleansing.

Photo Credit: Rafah Kid, Wikipedia. Palestinian residents gather belongings from their homes in the rubble of Israeli air-bombings during the 2008-2009 Gaza War.

How could this happen as the world looks on, eyes wide open? Surely, Israel is on the wrong side of history. But it is on the right side of power. The Arab and Muslim world is an embarrassing disgrace when it comes to reaching for the moral high ground or to reaching for power. What if we were to compare the sins of Israel to the sins of Saudi Arabia against Yemen, ISIS against Iraq and Syria, and the Syrian regime against its own people, just to take a few immediate examples? As a Muslim, I cannot in good conscience point a finger against Israel without four fingers pointing right back at me. And as a citizen of a nation—the United States of America—that has provided material and diplomatic cover for both Arab and Israeli policies for decades, the finger I point at Israel may as well be pointing back at me as well, as if I were pointing in a mirror. If everyone and everything is so messed up—Israel, the Arabs, the Americans, and the rest of the Muslim world—how is it possible to have any kind of moral stance, whether in favor of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions or in favor of more military and economic aid that ends up supporting occupation and settlements?

The answer might at first appear simple: clarity comes with focus. More occupation on the one hand. More resistance and terrorism on the other. The problem is that we often choose to focus on the speck in the stranger’s eye instead of the beam in our own. If Americans worked to reform politics and special interests in America; if Israelis were critical of their mistreatment of Palestinians; if Palestinians gave up all forms of armed resistance and anti-Semitism, accepting at least partial blame for the predicament they find themselves in; if the Arab world showed more wisdom in how it invested its exorbitant wealth and forged unity among its ranks; then we might make progress towards the peaceful resolution of seemingly intractable conflicts. Unfortunately, what appears simple at first is more complicated than it seems. That is because many of us have hybrid identities: some Muslims are also Americans, some Palestinians are also Christians, some Israelis are also Arabs, some Americans are also Israelis, and the most ardent of Zionists are born again evangelical Christians. We each need to look within before causing chaos without.

Introspection, however, is a hallmark of spiritual traditions, not secular politics. Like people, religion and politics can also have hybrid identities. Secular aims can mask themselves as religious: “We don’t want their oil, we just want to spread God’s gift of freedom!” Religious aims can appear in the garb of secular objectives: “We need more land only because we need strategic depth!” The sacralization of partisan politics and secularization of spiritual traditions are the cancers of the world, and they have become malignant in an age of social media and cable news that is driven by market forces. Simple issues like what’s happening in Israel-Palestine become complicated. And complicated issues like terrorism and its causes become simple. Morality is compromised. Intellect is insulted. History is lost. 9/11 happened out of the blue. “We didn’t ask for this war!” “They hate our freedom!” According to this narrative, Christian America in under attack, and secular America does the dirty work needed to defend our borders against the barbarians. The Muslim world is no different. “The problem is colonialism…Hey, boy, bring me some more tea!” O Jerusalem! “A land without people for people without land!” In our own ways, we are all hypocrites.

Photo Credit: Arikk, Wikipedia. Joint Jewish-Arab school, of the “Hand in Hand” education group.

Although the conflict is portrayed as being between two sides, Jerusalem is the city of three faiths. And Christians find themselves on both sides. As a significant portion of the Palestinian population, Christians are being crushed under the weight of occupation and the external imposition of a wholesale  identity that equates “Palestinian” (and “Arab” in general) with “Muslim.” As a powerful lobby in the US, fundamentalist Christians are driving a brutal policy of exclusion and dehumanization in the name of an apocalyptic end-times ideology. But all generalizations eventually break down. There are also many non-Palestinian Christians who believe that the Christ of the Cross is with the oppressed, and the oppressed are the Palestinians. Similarly, there are noble Jews whose love and activism on behalf of the Palestinians at times earns them the title of “self-hating” or “refusenik.” All they are doing is upholding the moral commandment of helping the oppressed. They are the true Israelis, in the spirit of a well-known prophetic tradition where Muhammad is reported to have asked believers to support other believers, whether they are oppressed or the oppressors: one helps an oppressor by restraining him, not strengthening him. There are many more voices for peace than of conflict at the grassroots—on all sides—but the market has been captured by secular states and war industries that profit from instability. Of course, foolish religious actors—also on all sides—have played right into the hands of power politics, secular interests, and media sensationalism.

The Quran says that “God’s earth is vast,” enjoining believers to move about freely if they find themselves oppressed. The Quran also says that it is the righteous who will inherit the Holy Land. But no piece of religious real estate is worth innocent lives or losing moral high ground, as Abd al-Muttalib demonstrated so long ago. The words of the thirteenth century Andalusian mystic Ibn ʿArabi, so often quoted by my colleague Ebrahim Moosa, ring true, comparing the dignity of human beings to the value of holy shrines made of stones:

Birds circumambulate Me, hour after hour
From passion, love and desire to touch My legs
The manner in which the noblest of prophets performed the pilgrimage
A rite, that intellect declares, makes no sense
The Messenger, then goes further, and kisses a stone
But how, he declares, can the revered status of the sacred house ever compare to the value of a human being?

In my identity as a Muslim, I pray that Muslim nations develop some sense to support the Palestinian struggle with a unified voice in international forums with dignity and resolve. As a neighbor and well-wisher of Israel, I pray that the Jewish nation is able to show generosity and kindness to those who are now strangers in their own land, as the Torah commands. As an American, I call on the US government to be just and wise in its domestic and international policies, wielding its tremendous influence and power responsibly and fairly.

Photo Credit: James Emery. Mural is located in the Niwano Peace Auditorium below Church of the Sermon on the Mount.

I believe that if and when the time of crises has passed, whether Jerusalem is entrusted to Jews, Christians, Muslims, or shared by all three, its custodians will honor it by welcoming everyone as visitors, guests, and pilgrims in peace. The problem right now is a conflict on who will be Jerusalem’s permanent residents. Here again, the wisdom of our faiths guides us. Nobody is a permanent resident anywhere on earth. “Be in the world as a stranger or traveler,” said the prophet Muhammad. We are all travelers. We are all strangers. Generations come and go. With this reality in mind, let us tread with humility as the fate of Jerusalem hangs in the balance. Rabbi Hirsch, in his commentary on Exodus 22:20, writes: “The great, meta-principle is oft-repeated in the Torah that it is not race, not descent, not birth nor country of origin, nor property, nor anything external or due to chance, but simply and purely the inner spiritual and moral worth that is the nature of a human being, that gives him/her all the rights of a human being and of a citizen.” Jerusalem belongs to us all. Jerusalem is not Israel’s to take, and it is not America’s to give. Nonetheless, if Israel upholds the meta-principle of Exodus 22:20, which is the very same principle offered by the prophet Muhammad in his last sermon, echoing the Great Commandment of Jesus “to love thy neighbor as thyself,” then God may once again make Israel its custodians.

From where I’m standing, that is a very big if. An even bigger if is whether the Palestinians can forgive Israel. Who will take the first step to build trust? From which camp will our Abd al-Muttalib emerge? It takes two ifs to tango. Our religious traditions are a resource rather than hindrance for peace, if only we could tap into them for the right kind of inspiration.

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.
Global Currents article

Christian Zionism, American Modernity, and the Trump Declaration on Jerusalem

Photo Credit: Alan Miller 2008. Evangelical group visits Haifa, Israel.

In the days before and following President Trump’s decision “to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” and to direct the US State Department “to begin preparations to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” political pundits sprang into action, asking who, exactly, was responsible for this policy change.

The speech seemed to contradict a strategy presented by Jared Kushner a few days before, leading to the resignation of Dina Powell, so official Jewish influence was apparently off the table. That the speech was delivered against a backdrop featuring a portrait of George Washington, a Christmas tree, and a steely-eyed Vice President Mike Pence pointed to evangelical Christian influence. Melani McAlister has recently argued that evangelical politics are far too fragmented for such a clear line to be drawn; Jonathan Tobin, writing in Ha’aretz, exonerated both “the Christians” and “the Jews” and pointed the finger at Trump himself.

Although Christian Zionism—which I define as “political action, informed by specifically Christian commitments, to promote or preserve Jewish control over the geographic area now comprising Israel and Palestine”[1]—has been my academic pita and hummus over the past few years, I am inclined to follow the complementary analyses by McAlister and Tobin. I differ with Tobin, however, in my assertion that Trump’s logic on Jerusalem is a product of American cultural presuppositions themselves informed by Anglo-American Christian Zionism and its theopolitical antecedents. Christian Zionists in the United States—most of whom are evangelicals—are right to view President Trump as an ideological fellow traveler; this is true not because he is overtly religious but because he epitomizes the America Christian Zionism helped create.

Christian Zionist leaders were quick to heap praise on President Trump’s decision. Cheerleading, however, does not point to policy creation. Jumping to pin the tail on the evangelicals illustrates a tendency among commentators from many different points of the political spectrum to overemphasize religious dimensions present in the midst of political conflicts. While comprehensive analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must acknowledge its theopolitical dimensions, analysis overplays religious elements when portraying them as sole drivers of politics and policy. Christian Zionists, like other religious actors, are highly responsive to the cultural, historical and political contexts within which they operate.

One example of blaming “the Christians” (as opposed to “the Jews”) was titled “Armageddon? Bring It On: The Evangelical Force Behind Trump’s Jerusalem Speech,” also published by Ha’aretz. There, Allison Kaplan Sommer reported on an explanation of evangelical politics in a Twitter thread from prominent progressive Christian historian Diana Butler Bass (later expanded into an editorial). Sommer quotes Butler Bass saying that President Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem is one of many “theological dog whistles to his evangelical base.” This is so, Butler Bass says, because “They want war in the Middle East. The Battle of Armageddon, at which time Jesus Christ will return to the Earth and vanquish all God’s enemies. For certain evangelicals, this is the climax of history.” The key phrase here is “certain evangelicals.” While Butler Bass’s analysis is pithy, it only applies to a certain segment of religious believers: premillennial dispensationalists.

My analysis of polling data since the mid-1980s suggests that, among American voters, beliefs alone cannot predict levels of support for the State of Israel. Instead, support for configurations of US policy favoring Israel over the Palestinians (the declaration on Jerusalem being a clear example) is predicted less by adherence to conservative doctrines than by a combination of religious traditionalism, belief in American exceptionalism, and whiteness.[2]

These racial, nationalist, and religious elements link Christian Zionism to American fundamentalism and the theopolitical sources of American identity and mission. Its roots are interwoven with the Puritan movement which formed the idea of America itself. Thus, it is not surprising for rhetoric resonating with Christian Zionism to crop up in political discourse. Christian Zionism is not only compatible with President Trump’s rhetoric of populism and ethno-nationalism—it is a direct source. In what follows, I outline several ways the December 2017 announcement on Jerusalem resonates with Christian Zionist social imaginaries and thought structures.


Literalism, Religious and Political

Photo Credit: Zeeveez. Israeli and US flags during official US visit to Israel in 2008.

Christian Zionists promote literalism. Although, in the United States, literalism is associated with debates over science, literalism in the English Reformation context was focused on biblical prophecies regarding Jews. When the Bible mentions Israel or Jews, Henry Finch argued in 1621, it means “Israel properly descended out of Jacob’s loins…The same judgement is to be made of their returning to their land and ancient seats…These and such like are not Allegories…but meant really and literally of the Jews.” Rejecting allegory (and with it, Catholicism), this interpretive move promoted historicized biblical interpretation.

President Trump appears similarly literalist; a debate has swirled about whether or not his own words should be interpreted literally. The declaration on Jerusalem eschewed all previous US Presidents’ nuance and context when interpreting the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. The text of the law provides an escape from lockstep literalism—an escape Trump refused.

One of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s primary goals is the destruction of Palestinian nationalism. Trump’s Jerusalem announcement directly supports this process of delegitimization. In Trump, Netanyahu found an American president willing to take literally political demands the rest of the world has read as rhetorical or figurative. Supporters of Netanyahu’s vision—including many Christian Zionists—could not react to Trump’s action with anything other than shock and awe.


Fueling Extremism

Christian Zionists, like all Abrahamic believers, have learned to live with some measure of unfulfilled prophetic expectations; eschatological hope provides dynamism. Instituting prophetic visions is akin to establishing utopia; the move risks unleashing forces of dystopian extremism. This political and religious literalism, while psychologically comforting for some, can be lethal, especially when wedded to the military might of global and regional superpowers.

Religious extremism, as I have written elsewhere, is devoted solely to the manifestation of its ideology rather than the wellbeing of human communities. Christian Zionism often exhibits this characteristic. As prominent evangelical leader Richard Mouw has observed, “Evangelicals who are Christian Zionists want to see events unfold, but they aren’t so concerned about justice.”

Prior to his Jerusalem declaration, President Trump was warned by governments throughout the Middle East that such a move had real potential to fan the flames of extremism: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic. While rhetoric around moving an embassy can be minimized as figurative, symbols involving Jerusalem are fissile material in settler and jihadi nuclear reactors.


Jerusalem: Means to the End

My historical research into the roots of Christian Zionism revealed it to be a tradition that constructs Jews for explicitly Christian purposes and the systemic interests of empire. Christian Zionism, both old and new, ultimately manipulates Jewish existence for Christian purposes alone; Jews and Judaism thus become mere means for Christian theological ends.

Following the declaration, Christian Broadcast News reported the views of John Hagee, who founded Christians United for Israel in 2006. Hagee indicated that President Trump’s message to evangelicals was that while “Other presidents have failed you … I will not disappoint the Christian community in this issue. I will stand with Israel.” Notice here that “Israel” is framed as a Christian issue alone; neither Hagee nor Trump (in Hagee’s rendition) have concern for Jewish or Muslim communities in Jerusalem. Hagee continued, saying “I believe at this point in time, Israel is God’s stopwatch for everything that happens to every nation, including America, from now until the Rapture of the Church and beyond.” Hagee’s Christian Zionism, for all its Judeo-centrism, has little to no concern for Jews, as Jews, existing with integrity outside of Christianity as the ultimate referent.

For Trump as well, Jerusalem and its peoples appear to be little more than symbols or abstractions. When policy is crafted on such a basis, the lives of flesh-and-blood humans living in and around Jerusalem do not enter into the equation. While governmental policy often involves cold calculation, purportedly religious groups can be critiqued according to a different standard. It is reductive and unethical—both in relation to the nature of the city itself and the communities living there today—to treat Jerusalem as a mere pawn in a geopolitical game.

Simplistic, literalist, and extremist declarations on Jerusalem that reject complexity do not reflect the realities of the city. Such statements reveal egocentrism and hubris, traits long associated with President Trump. But as Jerusalem legal expert Daniel Seidemann—founder of Terrestrial Jerusalemtweeted on December 5, “Jerusalem is a wise and kind city towards those who treat her and her complexities with the caution and dignity they deserve. She is cruel and vengeful towards those who don’t. Forewarned.”


Faint Concern for Arab Christians

Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis. Greek Orthodox church of Saint George in Israel.

While President Trump promised certain things to his Evangelical Advisory Board, he hadn’t requested much consultation from the Christians in Jerusalem or elsewhere in the Middle East. Throughout the region, Christians were deeply angered by the announcement, which ignored an appeal from the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem. Vice President Pence, an evangelical standard-bearer, intended to travel to the Middle East the following week. The trip was billed, in part, “as a chance to check on the region’s persecuted Christians.” The visit began falling apart as Christian representatives announced their intention to refuse meetings with the Vice President.

Christian Zionism emerged within a Reformation context facing Catholic and Islamic threats; its self-serving imagining of Jewish allies was supplemented by deeply anti-Catholic and anti-Islamic thought. Much contemporary Christian Zionist concern for Arab Christians is filtered through this unreconstructed, proto-Orientalist lens. This operationalized Islamophobia sidesteps any analysis of western colonial manipulation in the Middle East and bolsters perceptions of the State of Israel as an essential ally against what President Trump insists on calling “radical Islamic terror.” Palestinian Christians, who make up about 1% of the total population in Israel and Palestine, receive sentimental support but little foreign policy consideration.


Court Theologians of Global Empire

As Brookings Institution analyst Shibley Telhami noted regarding President Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, “It is almost impossible to see the logic.” No major domestic constituency, including evangelical Christians, was demanding this announcement at this time. It is not necessary, therefore, to blame anyone else for this policy shift: President Trump, with only slight affirmation from “the Jews” and “the evangelicals” is cause enough.

The connection with Christian Zionism is found in the essential Americanness of both that theopolitical movement and in President Trump himself. He is a potent distillation of one form of American identity—capitalist, heteronormative, hyper-masculine, and xenophobic. All of this renews what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

The first documented manifestation of Christian Zionism (if one accepts my narrowly political definition) was in January 1649, when Johanna and Ebenezer Cartwright, English subjects living in Amsterdam, petitioned the War Council led by Lord Thomas Fairfax and his deputy, Oliver Cromwell. This political communication stood on a scaffolding of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation stretching in England back to 1585, a hermeneutic with antecedents in the prophetic speculations of Christopher Columbus.

In its dialectical formation of Anglo-American identity through apocalyptic imaginings of Jews as allies and Muslims as enemies, Christian Zionism provides a specific example of what Enrique Dussel describes as eurocentric modernity’s efforts to establish universal colonial hegemony. In response, the Argentine-Mexican philosopher critiques both eurocentric readings of modernity and relativist postmodernity, positing instead a “transmodern” position toward the construction of a globally inclusive ethics. The intertwined relationship of modernism, imperialism, and western Christianity is exemplified in the Cartwright Petition, the charter document of Christian Zionism.

In their petition, the Cartwrights proposed that “this Nation of England, with the Inhabitants of the Nerther-lands, shall…transport Izraells Sons & Daughters in their Ships to the Land promised to their fore-Fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for an everlasting Inheritance.” This suggestion was made in the context of an intensifying trans-Atlantic slave trade; in 1651, England’s offer of economic partnership with the Netherlands was rejected, the Navigation Act was passed, and a trade war broke out between the two Protestant economic powerhouses. Menasseh ben-Israel’s correspondence with Oliver Cromwell and the subsequent policy shift allowing Jews to live openly in London took place within a context of economic interests involving Jamaica and Barbados. The settler-colonial practices of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were by then already in full swing.

Photo Credit: Gerry Dincher. Benson Free Will Baptist Church in Johnston County, North Carolina, USA.

American identity was formed in its nascent stages through a tripartite alterity encountered in New World peoples presupposed to be barbarian savages, African communities victimized by slavery, and continued competition with subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Cotton Mather’s most popular writings detailed the experiences of Europeans held captive by American Indians and Barbary Pirates. Peter Silver has explored how conflict with American Indians in the mid-1700s transformed Europeans who never would have cooperated in the Old World into a unified people under the banner of whiteness. It is not incidental that the “hymn” of the Marine Corps begins with auspicious references to fighting battles not in North America but in Latin America (“from the Halls of Montezuma”) and the Maghreb (“to the shores of Tripoli”), events that can be celebrated with Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade or interpreted as efforts to protect colonial interests and economic trade routes.

Each of these processes in the assemblage of Anglo-American modernity—including the sanctification of economic interests, the military protection of international trade, the normalization of occidental conflict with the Islamic world, and the construction of liberal toleration under the common interests of whiteness—was accompanied by refinements in the Anglo-American tradition of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation. As Dussel asserts, “Modernity includes a rational ‘concept’ of emancipation” but simultaneously “develops an irrational myth, a justification for genocidal violence.”[3] This conception of American identity and mission—including a facile acceptance of sacrificial violence—informs contemporary American Christian Zionism and the core theopolitics of the Trump/evangelical alliance.

Close to a decade ago, I was part of an effort organized by the National Council of Churches in the United States to study and respond to Christian Zionism. Our working group produced a four-page brochure. The wording was strong and succinct. At that time, few of us were cognizant of the deep roots Christian Zionism has in Anglo-American culture. I have since become convinced that the movement will be successfully countered by something far more forceful than a well-worded pamphlet.

In the same way, I do not share Melani McAlister’s optimism that American evangelicalism will be fundamentally reformed through its emerging generations of globally-informed leaders and growing numbers of communities of color. Nobody should underestimate the resilience traditional, white leadership within evangelical and Christian Zionist movements, including market-driven capacities to absorb and commodify critique. Christians United for Israel, for instance, is intensifying its efforts to recruit Black and Latinx evangelical and Pentecostal communities into its fold. The establishment’s eagerness to promote the global military-industrial complex is far too profitable to let lapse.


The chief political function of contemporary American Christian Zionism in relation to this political moment is not to be a catalyst of foreign policy; rather, its function is to reinvigorate a sacred canopy of theopolitical validation, sanctifying and mystifying policy options, rendering them immune from rational critique. Reinforcing the proclivities of American empire, Christian Zionists like John Hagee and Paula White serve as court theologians, constantly working to refine and justify the myth of sacrificial violence underlying America’s Novus Ordo Seclorum, which for now enables President Trump’s efforts to bend the world to his will.



[1] “Christian Zionism” isn’t a self-evident phrase, especially if one assumes Zionism is an essentially Jewish category. In naming this phenomenon, I follow not only contemporary self-identified Christian Zionists but also Nahum Sokolow, who appears to be the first to use the term “Christian Zionist” in English literature. See his History of Zionism, 1600–1918, two vols. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1919), 1:162; 1:174; 2:410.

[2] The continuing importance of whiteness for comprehending evangelicalism (often with Christian Zionist elements) is underscored by Melani McAlister when she points to recent studies in which persons of color who are evangelical show dramatically different political orientations. In the age of Trump, evangelicalism has again been confirmed as Republican and white (as in this tweet from former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee). McAlister’s forthcoming The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals (Oxford, 2018) appears promising.

[3] Enrique Dussel, “Eurocentrism and Modernity,” boundary 2, 20:3 (1993), 66.



Recommended further reading

Yaakov Ariel, An Unusual Relationship: Evangelical Christians and Jews (NYU Press, 2013)

James Carroll, Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World (Houghton, 2011)

Enrique Dussel, Beyond Philosophy: Ethics, History, Marxism, and Liberation Theology (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003)

Gershom Gorenberg, The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount (Oxford, 2002)

Goran Gunner and Robert O. Smith, eds., Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014)

Donald M. Lewis, The Origins of Christian Zionism: Lord Shaftesbury and Evangelical Support for a Jewish Homeland (Cambridge, 2014)

Mitri Raheb, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes (Orbis, 2014)

Faydra L. Shapiro, Christian Zionism: Navigating the Jewish-Christian Border (Cascade, 2015)

Robert O. Smith, More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013)

Timothy P. Weber, On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend (Baker Academic, 2004)

Robert O. Smith
Robert O. Smith is academic director of the Jerusalem Global Gateway of the University of Notre Dame. He holds concurrent faculty appointments in the Keough School of Global Affairs and in the Department of Theology.  Before coming to Notre Dame, Smith served for eight years in the Global Mission Unit of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), overseeing church engagement in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Smith is author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013) and editor, with Swedish scholar Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014). For six years, Smith and Gunner co-led the Seminar on Christian Zionism within the American Academy of Religion. A graduate of Oklahoma State University, Smith holds an M.A. in Islamic studies and Master's of Divinity from Luther Seminary (St. Paul, Minn.). He completed a Ph.D. in religion, politics and society through Baylor University’s Institute of Church-State Studies.
Global Currents article

Other Jerusalem Realities: The “City of Prayer” in Palestinian Nationalist Imaginaries

Photo Credit: Michele Benericetti. The wall surrounding the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, Palestine, painted with the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

On December 6, 2017, President Donald J. Trump declared that the United States would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He described the decision, which overturned decades of US policy, as a recognition of the “reality” that the Holy City was the seat of Israel’s national government.

This reality, however, was of a particular sort, picked out to appease important constituencies of Trump’s political base: right-wing US Evangelicals who view Israel through Christian Zionist lenses, for example, and also US Jewish activists and organizations that back the maximalist policies of the present Israeli government. Significantly, too, Trump’s preferred reality resulted from Israel’s annexation and settlement of conquered land and from its discriminatory regime of control. Such actions are a violation of international conventions that proscribe acquisition of territory through war, rule out the expropriation of an occupied population for expansionist purposes, and insist on the legal rights of the occupied.


The Global Reaction

Attuned to their exclusion, Palestinians of all backgrounds—and concerned Arabs and Muslims globally—have responded in sharp tones. Palestinian Christians, who comprise a small but significant minority, have reacted strongly against the Trump announcement; but their statements have received little to no coverage in a US media conditioned to reduce Palestinian politics to the Hamas-Fatah rivalry. Arab and Muslim responses have occurred on a far wider, global scale. At this writing, mass demonstrations convulse cities and towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as in Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Map of the separation wall around Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza. Wikimedia Commons. Similar map here.

The response has not been exclusively an Arab or Muslim one. The United Nations General Assembly passed overwhelmingly a resolution denouncing the Trump Administration’s decision. The UN Security Council voted 14 to 1—the United States was the only vote against and its vote served to veto the resolution—to demand reversal of the US decision. Strong criticism, too, has come from individual European governments and from groups in the United States committed to opposing the occupation, upholding international law, and reviving peace negotiations. More than 160 Jewish Studies scholars in the US have signed a letter condemning the US move. With Palestinian Catholic communities in mind, Pope Francis has also issued a statement insisting the international status quo with respect to Jerusalem be maintained and emphasizing the city’s religious importance to Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

Predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem—cut off by Israeli settlements, sealed behind the “separation wall,” and subject to a stringent police presence—has remained relatively calm, although breaking reports describe violence occurring at the gates to the Haram Al-Sharif platform. Armed groups in Gaza, some of them aligned with Hamas, have launched missiles across the border fence into Israel, leading to the inevitable Israeli retaliation: air bombardments have killed four Gazans.


Protest through an Orientalist Lens

In US media, the Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim reaction appears yet again as violent and unreasonable. Once more, young men masked in keffiyeh scarves hurl rocks from behind burning tires; anonymous massed bodies demonstrate in the streets, burning US flags; and militants in military fatigues, green or black scarves tied around their heads with the Islamic shahada emblazoned on them, sling automatic rifles and ammunition belts across their backs.

The images project into a void of knowledge. The interpretive lens that substitutes for informed understanding—a filter that the memory of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the wars that have followed it, and the lurid violence of the Islamic State have reinforced—presumes a simple but intractable dichotomy between a reasonable West, inclusive of a beleaguered Israel, and a threatening Middle East beholden to a barbarous Islam.

The dichotomy bends in instances in which the masked militants are “our militants” fighting for “our values” of freedom and democracy. Examples include the Reagan Administration’s support for Afghani mujahidin in their fight against the Soviet invasion and, recently, US support for anti-regime forces in the Syrian civil war. When these groups turn against US interests, they revert to the category of civilizational threat. And, so, in the case of Israel, the binary bends back to form: the violence of Israel’s occupation—military, settler, and structural—either goes unremarked or presents within this interpretive frame as justifiable self-defense.

The Orientalist bifurcation that casts the non-West as atavistic produces a Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim civilizational exception. Devoid of context, “their” reactions figure as symptoms of a cultural pathology that only resolves once “they” relent and accept what “we” value. And yet, a moment’s reflection reveals “their” reactions to be anything but exceptional; the responses have comprehensible antecedents in the history of the three monotheisms as they have intersected in Jerusalem and in the formation of modern national imaginaries.


Jerusalem in Palestinian Nationalist Discourse

Jerusalem figures centrally in Palestinian nationalist discourse, secular and religious. It stands in metonymically for Palestine itself. In Muslim Palestinian homes in Palestine and in diaspora communities abroad, an enlarged, often gold-framed photographic image of the Dome of the Rock rising above the walls of the Old City adorns the main sitting or dining room. Christian Palestinian families might display images of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These images are present in the most ornate villas and in the humblest of refugee shelters. The images gesture to Jerusalem, to Palestine, and to the nation that seeks to return and recover it.

Photo Credit: Patrick McKay. Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem.

The force of the images for Palestinians flows from remembered and persisting social and economic ties that intertwine intergenerationally with the city and its institutions. Some of these institutions, like the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Holy Sepulchre Church, date to late Antiquity and the early centuries of Muslim rule that followed the conquest of Jerusalem in 637 C.E. These religious sites became destinations for local and regional pilgrimage, especially during important moments in the liturgical calendar like Ramadan or the Christian Holy Week. Other institutions, secular ones, like the Khalidi family library, appeared later as part of a cultural efflorescence that saw elite families assume leadership positions in the Ottoman and British Mandate structures.

Economically, the city had long integrated itself with surrounding towns. Villagers would travel to the city’s markets to sell their produce and pray at Al-Aqsa or at the many churches. The War of 1948, which divided the city between Israeli and Jordanian controlled halves, severed or stunted these connections. Jews, too, experienced this cutting, prevented as they were from traveling to the Western Wall, a site of Jewish prayer since the 16th century. After the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israeli government razed the Moroccan Quarter, the harat al-maghariba, to create the large Kotel plaza in front of the wall. The displaced Palestinian residents of the quarter sought shelter in the Shu`fat Refugee Camp along the northern municipal boundary. The forced removal was yet another instance of mass displacement that has so powerfully defined the Palestinian sense of loss and demand for return.[1]

The 1967 War, in which Israel conquered and then annexed the entire city, expanding its boundaries into the West Bank through land confiscations and settlement building, restored Jewish access to the city. This restoration, however, entailed a further cutting off of Palestinians. Since the Second Intifada (uprising) in 2000-2005, Israel has built what it calls a “separation wall” putatively to stem infiltration of armed Palestinians. Effectively, the wall solidifies Israel’s territorial and demographic dominance in the city.

Israel’s annexation and Judaization of Jerusalem, rather than annulling Palestinian attachments, have instead amplified the city’s symbolic importance for Palestinians. The event that ignited the Second Intifada, known commonly as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, was Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif in a bid to shore up right-wing settler support for his effort to win the premiership. As Jewish settlements push aggressively into Palestinian areas, as politicians and settlers at times force their way onto to the Haram platform, and as Israel undertakes archeological excavations under the Haram’s walls, Palestinian activists raise the alarm, as they are now in the aftermath of Trump’s declaration, of “Al-Aqsa fi khatar” (Al-Aqsa is in danger!). In response, they take to the streets to demonstrate, enacting the longstanding Intifada practices of burning tires, throwing stones, and chanting slogans.

The centrality of Al-Aqsa and the Haram Al-Sharif to Palestinian national discourse reaches back to the origins of Palestinian nationalism in the first decades of the 20th century. Formed through the intersection of multiple currents—incipient Arab nationalism stemming from the Great Arab Revolt of 1916-1918; late 19th century lay Arab Christian advocacy of nationalism as a counter to the power of church hierarchs within the Ottoman governing system; the emergence of lay Muslim-Christian Associations; reaction against the growing assertiveness of Zionism—the Palestinian national movement increasingly came under the sway of elite families in Jerusalem.

The Husayni family, in particular, gained special prominence through the activism of Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, a strong supporter of the Arab revolt and of the pan-Arabism of Amir Faysal. Appointed Mufti of Jerusalem by the British High Commissioner in 1921, Al-Hajj Amin, as al-Husayni became known, gained the presidency of the Supreme Muslim Council, an institution the British had created to co-opt Palestinian leadership. Al-Husayni transformed the council and the Al-Aqsa Mosque and its institutions into a platform for the global projection of Palestinian national demands. In 1931, in a bid to rally Muslim support for Palestinian statehood, he hosted the first Islamic Congress at Al-Aqsa. The Congress was the culmination of outreach to Muslim leaders and movements worldwide, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt but also the Khilafat Movement in India. Both groups rallied to the cause of Palestine, sending delegates to the congress and, in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood later, armed irregulars to fight in Gaza during the War of 1948.[2]


Jerusalem in Fatah and Hamas’ Discourse

After the war, in the wake of the forced exodus of 750,000 Palestinians from their villages and towns, the national movement regrouped. Hearkening to a revived pan-Arabism—Arab nationalist leaders like Jamal `Abd al-Nasser and the Ba`athist parties had ascended to power across the Middle East—the founders of the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah), which eventually took control of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1968, emphasized the centrality of Palestine to the Arab nationalist cause. The new movement presented itself as a state in exile, inclusive of all the diverse groups comprising Palestinian society. Christians, especially, supported the PLO and its various factions. Individuals like George Habbash, founder of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an important PLO faction, came from Christian families.

Jerusalem remained politically important to this new form of PLO nationalism centering the ethnos. It repeatedly figured, for example, in the demand, “dawla filastiniyya `asimatha al-quds” (a Palestinian state the capital of which is Jerusalem). Yet, the focus rested primarily on the liberation of the land of Palestine.

Fatah’s coat of arms. Wikimedia Commons.

This emphasis manifested symbolically, for example, in Fatah’s coat of arms. The image features a representation in green of the geographical space that the British Mandate once constituted. Within this space—the space of Palestine—Israel took form. Crossed in front of the territory are two automatic rifles, a grenade, forearms cuffed in the Palestinian national colors, and the slogan, al-`asifa (“The Storm”), a reference to Fatah’s armed wing. The message is clear: Fatah commits itself to the armed struggle—the “revolution until victory”—to liberate the usurped homeland.

Fatah’s crest does not include any image or reference to Jerusalem. The national politico-geographical space, not the religious one, is central. That space incorporates the autochthonous Arab Christians and Muslims. In Fatah’s conception of indigeneity, those Jews (Palestinian Jews) who had lived in Palestine before the arrival of the Zionists from Europe were also legitimate members of the Palestinian nation. Given this pluralistic vision, the elision of particular religious symbols in the coat of arms becomes comprehensible. Palestine subsumes Jerusalem and its people in all of their subnational groupings.

During the two decades after the 1967 war, Islamist movements rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood challenged Fatah and the PLO. The viability of this challenge, as journalists and historians have long noted, resulted in part from Israel’s strategy of suppressing PLO-affiliated groups while allowing Muslim Brotherhood activists to organize. Islamists took nimble advantage of the opportunity to create a forceful counter to secular nationalism.

The signal event in this process was the emergence of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) during the First Intifada in early 1988. Hamas immediately contested leadership of the uprising. During the Oslo Process, it used violence to undermine Fatah’s negotiations with Israel. In 2007, Hamas and Fatah fought a brief, bloody civil war that ended with Fatah’s expulsion from the Gaza Strip. Palestinian political leadership has since remained fractured.

Hamas redefines national belonging in sectarian religious terms. In doing so, it mirrors the political theology of Zionism, which conceives of Eretz Israel as a land belonging to Jews solely.[3] In similar terms, Hamas invokes “Muslim Palestine” and speaks of liberating Al-Aqsa in metonymic reference to Jerusalem. Its discourse resurrects the symbolic and discursive links that Al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni forged between the Palestinian national cause and Islamic movements in the wider Middle East and South Asia. It also resuscitates memories of the guerrilla movement that Shaykh `Izz al-Din al-Qassam led in the Galilee just prior to the outbreak of the Great Peasant Revolt of 1936-1939.[4] Hamas’ armed wing calls itself the `Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade.

Hamas’ Coat of Arms. Wikimedia Commons.

Hamas’ coat of arms, in sharp contrast with Fatah’s, explicitly invokes Muslim Palestine and Al-Aqsa in its imagery. In the center background is the Dome of the Rock, the most prominent built structure in Jerusalem’s Old City. The image of Palestine as constituted during the period of the British Mandate appears in green above the Dome as if linking the structure to the heavens. The Dome is the unmistakable and irrefutable symbol of Islam’s territorial and religious supersessionary claims to the city: it and Al-Aqsa next to it sit dominantly atop the platform from which the Jewish temple once rose. The Dome, in its magnificence, also rises preeminently above the silver cupola of the Holy Sepulchre Church. The representations of the Palestinian flag that frame the Dome in Hamas’ coat of arms feature the Islamic shahada that “there is no deity but the one God” and that “Muhammad is God’s messenger.” The inclusion of the shahada on the national banner reinforces Islam’s priority: the nation is a Muslim one. Through this choice of imagery—the Dome, the Islamized flag—Hamas excludes Jewish and Christian claims to the city.

Additionally, the crossed swords, which contrast with the modern rifles and grenade images in Fatah’s crest, redefine the meaning and objectives of Islamist politics globally. The swords mirror the sabre that appears in Saudi Arabia’s national flag. In both instances, Saudi and Palestinian, the symbol evokes the Islamic conquests of the 7th Century C.E. The critical difference in the Hamas crest is that the swords cross in front of the Dome. This arrangement renders Jerusalem the centerpoint of Islamist politics. Hamas reinforces this centering in articles 14 and 15 of its 1988 covenant. In those passages, the movement calls Muslims globally to free the Holy Land as the prior condition to returning Islam to its rightful place of power in the world.  Jihad in the path of God” to free Jerusalem (Palestine) has become, according to Hamas, a fard `ayn—a prescribed individual duty such as the five daily prayers—of Muslims everywhere.



This religiously framed call to struggle—in the broader sense of jihad as the effort to resist injustice—has increasingly resonated with Palestinians in Western diaspora communities, where affirmation of Islamic identity has intensified partly in response to spiking anti-Muslim racism. In 2013, for example, the American Muslims for Palestine organization, one of the most prominent groups advocating on behalf of the Palestinian cause in the United States, adopted the Qur’anic verse, “al-ladhi barakna hawlahu”—“the surroundings of which we have blessed,” a reference to Al-Aqsa and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, generally—as the slogan of their annual conference. The reference implicitly cast activism for Palestine as a sacred struggle on behalf of an inalienable Islamic patrimony that God, through the miraculous journey of his messenger across the night sky to “the farthest mosque,” had bestowed upon his faithful.

The official recognition by the Trump Administration that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital settles nothing. On the contrary, it reinforces the exclusionary logics of the contesting claims to the city. The announcement reinforces this zero-sum game in favor of Israeli-Jewish hegemony. Still, Jerusalem, deeply significant to Muslims, Christians, and Jews, to Israelis and Palestinians, defies the zero-sum. Any attempt to impose the dominance of a single group necessarily entails violent exclusion and suppression and the inevitable resistance they provoke. Recognition of this fact and of the corresponding necessity to live and govern equally with others remains the sine qua non of any peace worthy of the name in the Madinat al-Salah (City of Prayer) and in the wider territorial expanse that Israelis and Palestinians claim as their own.


[1] See Tom Abowd, Colonial Jerusalem: The Spatial Construction of Identity and Difference in a City of Myth, 1948-2012  (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2016).

[2] See Muhammad Y. Muslih, The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988); Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern Consciousness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); Robert Haddad, Syrian Christians in Muslim Society: An Interpretation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970); Omar Khalidi, “Indian Muslims and Palestinian Awqaf,” Jerusalem Quarterly 40 (2009): 52-58; Uri Kupferschmidt, The Supreme Muslim Council: Islam under the British Mandate in Palestine (Leiden: Brill, 1987); and Abd al-Fattah Muhammad El-Awaisi, The Muslim Brothers and the Palestine Question 1928-1947 (London and New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 1998).

[3] Zionism, like Palestinian nationalism, is internally complex. Important movements within Zionism have promoted bi-nationalist and two-state conceptions of Jewish-Arab national coexistence. Other powerful tendencies within Zionism, however, have advocated and actively pushed forward ethno-nationalist ideas that envision exclusive Jewish territorial dominance, especially in Jerusalem. For a trenchant critique of these various ideological orientations as they have manifested within Israeli Jewish peace groups, see Atalia Omer, When Peace Is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp Thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[4] Abdallah Schleifer, “Izz al-Din al-Qassam: Preacher and Mujahid,” in Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East, edited by Edmund Burke III and David Yaghoubian (Berkeley, Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2005; Ted Swedenburg, Memories of Revolt. The 1936–1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past (Little Rock, AK: The University of Arkansas Press, 2003).





Loren Lybarger
Loren D. Lybarger is an associate professor in the Department of Classics and World Religions at Ohio University, Athens, where he teaches courses on Islam, Sufism, Political Islam, Theories of Religion, Religion and Violence, and American Religions. He is the author of Identity and Religion in Palestine: The Struggle between Secularism and Islamism in the Occupied Territories (Princeton, 2007).
Global Currents article

Evangelicals and Jerusalem

Palm Sunday procession with Palestinian flags
Photo Credit: Scottgunn. Palestinian flags wave at a Palm Sunday procession down the Mount of Olives into the Old City of Jerusalem, 2017.

Essay posted in conjunction with Georgetown’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Are evangelicals the magic ingredient in the recipe that led Trump to claim he would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? Yes and no. Vice President Mike Pence unquestionably influenced the discussions in the White House, and Trump certainly felt himself in debt to white evangelicals in the US, but the role of Saudi Arabia’s Mohamed bin Salman in promoting a “peace plan” that betrayed Palestinian hopes for Jerusalem as their capital also had an immediate and forceful impact.

American evangelicals are, after all, divided on how they feel about President Trump, especially when theologically conservative Asian, black, and Latino Protestants are counted.[1] And when the announcement was made in early December, the evangelical community was already in turmoil over the lead-up to the special election featuring Roy Moore in Alabama. Still, the president and vice president clearly thought they had a heartwarming moment prepared for their conservative white base when they put together the Jerusalem photo op, with Pence standing by Trump’s side.

Indeed, evangelical Christians in the US, particularly white evangelicals, have long been a key base of support for Israel. The reasons for that support are many. Often, the assumption is that evangelicals’ views are based on biblical prophecy, and there is no question that, for a significant subset of evangelicals, the belief that Jesus will return to fight in the great battle of Armageddon (Har Megiddo) is key to their political and emotional commitments to the Jewish state.

But there are more prosaic reasons as well, including the powerful role that Holy Land tourism plays in shaping Americans’ perceptions of the region. Ever since Israel took control of all of Jerusalem in the 1967 war, American evangelicals have declared their support for its territorial ambitions by voting with their plane tickets. Within a month of the war’s end, Americans were rushing to join trips that no longer required complicated travel to Jordan. Israeli tour guides quickly ventured into the new territories, working in towns that just recently were controlled by Jordan, heading into tourist sites that had, just weeks before, been hosted by Palestinian guides. In late June of 1967, Israelis “took the wrong roads, wandered mistakenly into strange quarters, and spent part of their time asking directions as they moved through Bethlehem and Jerusalem.”[2] The control of those unfamiliar places would turn out to be quite lucrative, as an avalanche of tourists and dollars began to flow into the region. The number of tourists increased from an average of 269,000 arrivals a year in the 1960s to 772,000 a year in the 1970s.[3] In 2016, there were 2.9 million.

On tours led either by pastors or other well-known religious leaders, American evangelicals and other Christians, have learned to love Israel in the most material of ways—seeing the land, eating the local foods, “walking where Jesus walked”—all while being told that Israel could be counted on to guarantee their access to the religious sites they loved, in Jerusalem and beyond: the Garden Tomb, the stations of the cross, the Mount of the Beatitudes near the Sea of Galilee.[4] It is though these ordinary practices of visiting Israel—and ignoring Palestine—that American Christians have most commonly come to understand themselves as tied to the land, to Israel, to Jerusalem.

There are other motivations as well. Some evangelicals make political arguments about US interests, others simply argue that God has declared his preference for Jerusalem in the Bible. The combination of factors has made love of Israel into a kind of evangelical common sense over the fifty years. It was no surprise, then, when a raft of American evangelicals welcomed President Trump’s announcement that he would recognize Jerusalem. A roll call of conservative leaders lined up: James Dobson of Focus on the Family; Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University; Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas; Pentecostal pastor Paula White; and prophecy promoter Johan Hagee all touted Trump’s decision as an act of bold and faithful promise-keeping. Even Samuel Rodriguez, president of the national Hispanic Leadership Christian Conference, who had been critical of Trump on immigration issues, said that “the historical record, empirical fact and our faith all confirm that Jerusalem is in fact the capital of the Jewish people.”

And yet, on closer inspection, evangelical opinion was far more divided than all the ring-kissing seemed to imply. When Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today (CT), opened a podcast discussion of Trump’s decision, he commented that, while he did not feel like he was particularly well educated on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Trump’s announcement made him “uncomfortable.” CT’s Morgan Lee made a similar comment: There were so many evangelicals hailing and praising the move, she said, and many of those evangelicals were the same ones who were saying that evangelicals in the US really needed to “stand up” for Christians in the Middle East. But those Middle Eastern Christians were not particularly happy about this decision. So, she said, “I really wanted to get at what the disconnect was.”

Disconnect indeed. Evangelical Christians in the Middle East were outspoken about their feelings of anger and betrayal at Trump’s announcement, supposedly rendered (in part) to make evangelicals happy. Botrus Mansour, a Baptist leader who is co-chair of the Lausanne Initiative for Reconciliation between Israel and Palestine (a working group of the Lausanne Movement, a global evangelical organization), told CT that the announcement “will increase resentment and possibly spark unnecessary violence, making peace harder to obtain.” In addition, he said, “America will lose any remaining legitimacy it had as a fair broker.”

Photo Credit: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Trump and Netanyahu during Trump’s May 2017 visit to Israel.

It is far from clear that the United States had any such legitimacy left, but the striking thing was exactly the “disconnect” that CT’s reporting had highlighted. For more than two decades, the persecuted Christians movement among global evangelicals (and some other Christians) had talked about the “suffering church.” As a social movement built on web activism and church-based activities like the International Days of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, that movement had both conservative and liberal implications. On the one hand, the modern focus on Christian persecution emerged from, and profoundly fed into, the anti-Muslim tenor of much of evangelical life, both in and beyond the US. Violence against Christians was a real and persistent problem in many parts of the world, but since the 1990s when evangelicals took up the cause of the International Religious Freedom Act, religious activists had not infrequently misrepresented conflicts that emerged from on-the-ground tensions over land, resources, or power as matters of Muslims’ personal hatred of Christians.[5]

At the same time, the persecuted Christians movement had emerged out of the human rights activism of the 1970s and 1980s, and had pushed Americans and others to pay attention to the difficulties of fellow believers in the global South, bringing issues from human rights violations to hunger to HIV/AIDS to the attention of the broader evangelical community. And it encouraged the American church, in particular, to give more consideration to the racially diverse believers who were well on their way to becoming the global majority of evangelicals. That meant that, when Middle Eastern Christians talked, American evangelicals should, theoretically, listen. And, indeed, a small subset of US and other evangelicals had begun to pay particular attention to what Palestinian Christians were saying about their situation under Israeli governance. A number of those Americans had joined in the bi-annual conference, “Christ at the Checkpoint,” sponsored by Bethlehem Bible College.

This self-awareness about the globalizing of evangelicalism meant that even a moderately conservative journal like Christianity Today responded to Trump’s announcement by asking how a move of the US embassy would affect relationships between American evangelicals and Christians in Middle East. In recent years, CT reported, many evangelicals had decided that “we must become better friends, and work harder for the persecuted church’s flourishing in the land of its birth.” When reporters asked people in those churches what they thought of the policy change, some were blunt. Mitri Raheb, an evangelical Lutheran pastor and author, said that “local Christians [had been] sacrificed on the altar of imperial politics.” The head of the Coptic Church in Egypt announced that he would not be meeting with Vice President Pence during his visit to Israel and Egypt in December. The Christian mayor of Bethlehem also announced he would not meet with Pence. The message was clear, for those who wanted to listen.

The Trump announcement also came at a moment when cracks were showing in the pro-Israel edifice at home. It turns out that younger American evangelicals, much like younger Jews, are tracking differently than their parents. According to recent polls, evangelical millennials have far fewer attachments to Israel. Forty percent of evangelicals aged 18 to 34 say they have no particularly strong views about Israel. When asked whether the founding of Israel was an injustice to Palestinians, 19 percent say yes, and 47 percent are not sure. In fact, when younger evangelicals consider the key issues facing the Middle East, they are more likely to think about Iraq and ISIS than Israel. Compared to previous generations of evangelicals, they are simultaneously more critical of Israel and less interested in it.

President Trump’s embassy announcement seemed to have been designed as yet another attempt to encourage his base, thumb his nose at European allies, and give shape to his foreign policy. He may have succeeded at all of those goals. But if his goal was to curry favor with evangelicals, there is a lesson that he has yet to learn: evangelicals are global, and their politics are changing almost as fast as their demographics.


Essay posted in conjunction with Georgetown’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

[1] On believers of color, see the discussion “Am I an Evangelical?” featuring a group of Protestants of color, hosted by The Witness, a Black Christian Collective.

[2] NYT, June 24, 1967.

[3] Tourist numbers from Israel in Statistics, 1948-2000 (Jerusalem: Central Bureau of Statistics, 2008).

[4] See Hillary Kaell, Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage. New York: New York University Press, 2014.

[5] Melani McAlister, “The Politics of Persecution,” Middle East Report (Winter 2008),

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.
Field Notes article

The Names of God: Pluralism’s Civic and Theological Frameworks

Photo Credit: Eduardo M. C. A boy rides past election advertising for Jokowi and Ahok in Jakarta in December 2013.

Sources of Authority

In the context of Indonesia, pluralism is actually a deeply and widely shared value. After all, it is an idea that lies at the origin of Indonesian nationalism and nation-building (Indonesia’s national motto is “Unity in Diversity,” Bhinneka Tunggal Ika). So, any meaningful approach and understanding of pluralism in contemporary modern Indonesia, in my view, has to start from the authority or framework of this ethical nationalism. This is not the narrow nationalism wherein the self is defined against the other. Rather the ethical nationalism of Indonesia is marked by inclusivity, pluralism, and hybridity. Authentic or ethical nationalism seems to be a language of pluralism that has the highest degree of normativity and acceptability in Indonesian society, across many religious or ethnic groupings. Indonesian nationalism is in fact a modern construct, but it has come to be rooted in the common experience of many groups within the nation, and over time it has accumulated affective or emotional status among most contemporary Indonesians. It has become crucial ‘social and cultural’ capital for the life of the nation. This affective or emotional aspect of nationalism is extremely important as a unifying force, especially when heated and polarizing debates or contentions occur on many aspects in the life of the nation.

The second source of authority, one that is becoming more crucial yet remains highly sensitive and underdeveloped, is theological reasoning. Indonesians in general are religious and take theology (religious doctrines and the theological foundations of their community) very seriously. For most of them, religious or theological doctrines are not just “communal consensus” that stem from historical contingencies. Rather, they have a much closer connection with a Divine reference (God’s Revelation). In recent years, thanks chiefly to the internet and digital culture, public theological discourses are mushrooming in Indonesia. Lay people debate and discuss theological topics. Even without proper educational credentials in religious matters, such as degrees from traditional Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) or Islamic theological colleges, people are quite forthcoming about their theological opinions. The situation can be chaotic, although some good theology does emerge from these discussions.

Here, I would like to offer some notes on the suitability of the term  “pluralism.” In some circles of Indonesian (mainly Muslim) society, the term “pluralism” (Indonesian: pluralisme) has a rather suspicious connotation. It is perceived to be a suspect Western concept and ideology. Especially in the field of religion, the term “religious pluralism” is at times understood not as a sheer fact of life, but rather a Western ideology of sanctioning the rights of any religion or religious community to exist, with all their claims to truth and legal recognition. Thus, in the minds of some people, it is connected to the idea of religious relativism that gives every religion the right to exist and to claim theological truth. In this regard, the term “religious pluralism” is understood too narrowly as a (Western) position that relativizes theological truths in unacceptable ways (akin to the pluralist position in the theology of religions). However, the situation changes dramatically when the Indonesian word “keragaman” is used. This term has roughly the same meaning (that is, diversity or pluralism), but without the above negative connotation. This is the case because “keragaman” (or, “kebhinekaan”) belongs to the basic concept of Indonesian nationhood (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika), that is, the authority of Indonesian nationalism mentioned above. So, whenever possible, it is better to use this indigenous terminology than the Western one.


A Case in Point

Photo Credit: Izzy. Photo of a “Free Ahok” protest, May 9, 2017.

In this regard, the case surrounding Mr Basuki Tjahaya Purnama (Ahok) in the last Jakarta Gubernatorial Election in late 2016 and early 2017 provides some insight and I would like to use it to highlight the need to talk about pluralism by using the framework of ethical nationalism as well as theological reasoning.

Considered unfair and politically motivated by many, the verdict against Mr Basuki (two years in prison) has led to an unprecedented civic movement in support of him. This movement quickly morphed into a larger movement involving diverse religious groupings beyond the narrow Muslim-Christian tension, and in support of the ideal of the nation, that is, unity rooted in pluralism (Indonesian: kebhinekaan). Very interestingly, it has given rise as well to ‘theological reasoning’ among scholars of different religious persuasions. An important line of these theological reflections is the need to develop a theology of love or mercy (based on the idea of God as the Merciful) that takes into account the specificity of the current Indonesian context.

In a way, the naming of God has become a public discourse in Indonesia most recently, particularly in the aftermath of the Jakarta gubernatorial election, as shown by a flurry of articles on the theme in major newspapers, such as Kompas Daily.[1]  The aforementioned civic and peaceful movement is a public expression of the idea of the merciful God and Islam as God’s blessing and grace for the whole universe.  Ahmad Syafi’i Maarif, one of Indonesia’s most respected Muslim scholars and leaders, categorically says:

Based on my limited knowledge of Islam, I have come to the conclusion: the most inclusive framework for Islam is “Islam as rahmatan lil’alamin” (God’s mercy for the whole universe), not only for believers, but for the whole of humanity, even for the universe. So, everything has to be put in this framework. Otherwise, it is deviant.

In particular Maarif speaks against a misguided “Arabism” as well as the theology of death (misguided martyrdom) that lies behind religious violence and fundamentalism. This style of Islam is at odds with the merciful and universal Islam that, among others, can accommodate local realities, including the ideals of Indonesian nationalism. For him, Islam in Indonesia has not been consistently practiced as a universal blessing (or mercy) for non-Muslims as well as for the universe. He contends that this is more of a problem for the Muslim community itself where internal conflicts and divisions are rife. What we see here is the growing awareness among Muslim theologians on the need to understand God as Merciful, and Islam as God’s mercy for all. So, there is an awareness of the theological nature of the problem, namely, the way we name God and the implication of this naming on our life together, beyond the confines of our own religious communities.

The current divisiveness and tensions in Indonesian society have raised serious concerns and doubts for many about the hybridity of its cultural traditions and the open-mindedness of its people. In this regard, a properly theological account of God’s mercy might provide a theological framework that can account for these pluralities and particularities more deeply, something that would appeal to religious believers when it is worked out properly, that is, when they see that this account comes from the authenticity of their religious tradition. In this regard, diverse religious scholars have begun to reflect on the need to give a proper place to the inclusive state ideology of Pancasila within their religious traditions. One can say that in the current religio-political life in Indonesia, the naming of God becomes a public discourse geared toward a theology of inclusivity that can be based on the idea of God as Merciful. There is a growing agreement that a responsible naming of God in the current Indonesian context has to meet this demand of inclusivity. Indonesian nationhood has been hailed as the framework of the common good for all religious communities. Thus, this non-theological category has actually become a category of public and civic theology of inclusivity, including the theology of God as Mercy. A constructive theology done by religious communities together, in ways that are still possible, can push this process further so as to bring fruits that the ever-changing Indonesian society needs. A contextual comparative theology, such as a Muslim-Christian theology of mercy, might have a role in this process.

Photo credit: Anton Muhajir. Pancasila Monument, Indonesia.

Beyond the context of Indonesia, in my view, our time is a crucial moment in history where Christians and Muslims are at a critical juncture of their religious journey, as they are challenged to have a better understanding of who God is. This is a deeply theological moment. The turns of events in the world have challenged Christianity and Islam in their respective understanding of God. Here the understanding of God as Merciful presents itself in both traditions as particularly rich, which can adequately respond to the challenge of our time. Along this line of thinking, Muslim-Christian comparative theological discourse on God as Merciful can bring these communities together in their response to the challenge. As Pope Francis suggests, Christians and Muslims can name their God together, and comparative theology provides a possible avenue for this.

In Indonesia, a number of individual Muslim thinkers, such as Ahmad Syafi’i Maarif, Quraish Shihab, Alwi Shihab, Haidar Bagir[2], and Zuhairi Misrawi, have begun the works of reflecting on the nature of God in terms of love and mercy. A similar enterprise has also been done by major Muslim organizations and institutions. For example, the Nahdlatul Ulama has determined to embark on a long-term mission of restoring the notion of Islam [the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad] as a blessing for the whole universe, an understanding based on the more fundamental notion of God as ar-Rahman ar-Rahim, the Most Gracious and Merciful.

On the Catholic side, any discourse on mercy recently cannot be separated from what Pope Francis has been doing in the past few years, namely, emphasizing the message of God as Mercy that has become the hallmark of his papacy.[3] But his works on mercy are not done in isolation. Mercy has been a central work in Christian theology in general, and a few contemporary Catholic theologians have done work on the theme, among others Walter Kasper, from whom Pope Francis also drew some major inspirations.[4] What Pope Francis has achieved is giving new impetus, a sense of urgency, to this movement of naming God as Mercy beyond the confines of the Church, as he encourages interreligious reflection on God as the Merciful together with Jews and Muslims.



In order to work in the context of plural Indonesian society, the theological framework of naming God has to be done in the spirit of collaboration among thinkers and theologians belonging to different religious communities in line with the nationalist framework above. I believe that with these two frameworks and sources of authority (ethical nationalism and theology of God as Merciful), tolerance will be understood as a civic virtue that is also rooted in a proper understanding of who God is, the Merciful One, particularly among Muslims and Christians. Especially in the context of agonistic pluralism, this civic and theological virtue of tolerance will prove to be helpful, but again it needs to be translated into a larger and sustained civil movement.


[1] See, for example, Kompas 15 Juni 2017 on the seminar on tolerance and religious pluralism; also Kompas May 17, 2017 that publishes an article by Asep Salahudin on the notion of hubb or mahhabah. He argues that love is the core (seed) of religion, of life, of worship, citing Rumi’s famous verse: Love is an ocean without shores.

[2] Cfr. Haidar Bagir, Islam: The Faith of Love and Happiness (forthcoming, Kube Publishing Limited);  See also his various popular works on Rumi and Ibn Arabi, which are also centered around the idea of love, such as Risalah Cinta dan Kebahagiaan (Bandung: Mizan, 2012); Belajar Hidup dari Rumi: Serpihan-Serpihan Puisi Penerang Jiwa (Jakarta: Noura Books, 2015);  Mereguk Cinta Rumi: Serpihan-Serpihan Puisi Pelembut Jiwa (Jakarta: Noura Books, 2016); Semesta Cinta: Pengantar kepada Pemikiran Ibn ‘Arabi (Mizan, 2015).

[3] Cfr. two most recent works of Pope Francis on mercy, Misericordia Vultus (the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy) and his interview with journalist Andrea Tornielli, The Name of God is Mercy (Bluebird Books for Life, 2016).

[4] See various recent works by Walter Kasper on mercy, such as Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (Paulist Press, 2013) and “Mercy – The Name of Our God,” Louvain Studies 39/3 (2015-2016): 205-217.

Albertus Bagus Laksana
Albertus Bagus Laksana teaches at Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. He received his PhD in comparative theology from Boston College (2011) with a focus on Muslim-Christian encounters. Previously he was educated at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was a postdoctoral fellow at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. His research interests and publications include topics in Muslim-Christian comparative theology and theology of religions, mission studies, theology and culture, and Asian theologies. His most recent publications include the monograph Muslim and Catholic Pilgrimage Practices: Explorations Through Java (Ashgate, 2014) and some chapters in Ritual Participation and Interreligious Dialogue: Boundaries Transgressions and Innovations, in M. Moyaert and J. Geldhof, (Eds.), Bloomsbury, 2015; The Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia, in F. Wilfred, (Eds.), Oxford, 2014; The New Comparative Theology: Interreligious Insights from the Next Generation, in F. Clooney (Eds.), Continuum, 2014. He is also the managing editor of BASIS, a cultural journal based in Yogyakarta.
Theorizing Modernities article

‘Not Me, Not That’: Thinking Race and Catholic Modernity

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

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

Claude McKay (The Crisis Magazine) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Words like “modernity” and “subaltern” can feel one step removed from reality, living out there somewhere in the theoretical ether, as opposed to the empirical here below. In my own work on modern European Catholicism, I have engaged with different subaltern voices throughout the years, but I came late to the topic of race. But once I did, it didn’t just give me a richer, more complex sense of my own field, but also a new perspective on what I teach and why, and where I come from. In other words, subaltern voices are not just about “diversity,” but about approximating a more honest, more rich and enlarged sense of truth and the world, and a more candid reckoning with our own place in it.

For several years, I’ve taught a graduate seminar called “Medieval Modernisms” in the History of Christianity at my Jesuit university. It’s a fairly narrowly focused course, exploring an underworld of Catholic thinkers and activists, mostly writers, artists, theologians, and historians from Europe who charted a unique path through the challenges of modernity in the twentieth-century. From roughly 1920-1960, they were the pioneers who helped lay the foundations for the changes inaugurated at the Second Vatican Council. But they had their sights on issues much broader than just the Church. They worked against the violent logic of xenophobic neo-medievalism that was a prominent part of mainstream Catholic thinking, but they were unusual in that they also resisted the secularizing tendencies of most leftist movements in that period. This network included some fairly well-known scholars, such as the Islamicist Louis Massignon (1883-1962), Dominican theologians like Marie-Dominique Chenu (1895-1990) and Jesuits Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) and his student, Michel de Certeau (1925-1986).

When I prepare the seminar syllabus, I constantly experiment with ways to incorporate minority histories into this movement, while still dealing with key canonical, clerical protagonists, men without whom the story of modernity and Catholicism would be incomprehensible. I don’t always know what I’m doing, and I’ve definitely had some misses, but a few successes too. Archival research, for example, has yielded fabulous discoveries of women who were prominent intellectuals and activists in this circuit, though almost entirely forgotten: Marie-Thérèse d’Alverny (1903-1991), Jeanne Ancelet-Hustache (1901-1990), Mary Kahil (1889-1979), Marie-Madeline Davy (1903-1998), and many more. Including these women has meant that the story shifts from seminaries, parishes, the Vatican, to places such as salons, activist centers, libraries, research institutes, and living rooms to find out where the theological and political action was. Other experiments have included de-centering Catholicism to show how this kind of religious modernism and anti-fascist politics was a sensibility that spanned across religious and intellectual traditions. We’ve been fortunate to host outstanding guest lecturers on twentieth-century secular and Jewish thinkers, for example, namely Mara Benjamin on Franz Rosenzweig and Mara Willard on Hannah Arendt. This semester we’re looking at the life and writings of Muhammad Asad, a writer disillusioned with capitalistic culture in Germany who converted from Judaism to Islam in 1926 (and eventually became father to the anthropologist Talal Asad). When one sticks with the clerical Catholic voices alone, Vatican II (1962-1965) looms too large, and the conversation about religion and modernity becomes more exclusively ecclesial than it was in reality. But from these carefully chosen views from the edges, the story is more full of surprises, spinning off into a wider a range of theological and political trajectories, and ultimately giving it a more interesting feel, bringing us closer to its richness and reality.

But, to be honest, it wasn’t until recently that I truly pushed myself to stretch even further and think seriously about race in Medieval Modernisms, the African diaspora in particular. Although I teach on the African diaspora when when I do broader undergraduate courses on religion and modernity, for this particular European Catholic network, I sensed that it was not the African-American or broader African experiences as much as neoscholasticism, European authoritarianisms of all kinds, Judaism and even Islam that organized these intellectuals lives and work. A long time ago, I literally underlined something Tony Judt said in an interview, quoting Gertrude Stein: “not everything can be about everything.” I felt off the hook.

But like so many Americans, these past two years have changed me. I have come to see that our analysis of modernity and religion, even in a place like Paris, even among Catholic avant-garde intellectuals, will never be complete without race. I’m embarrassed to admit that I arrived here pretty late.

Claude McKay’s “Songs of Jamaica.” From NYPL.

This past year, two terrific sources guided my efforts: Kennetta Hammond Perry and Kira Thurman’s excellent “Black Europe: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” and Leora Auslander’s fabulous website full of incredible syllabi on modern Europe with attention race, racism, and anti-racists movements from her teaching at the University of Chicago, including several that deal with religion. There are countless ways these materials can and will impact my teaching, but this year I eventually decided, given the particular contours of my class, to focus on Claude McKay (1889-1948), the African-American activist and poet of the Harlem renaissance, a literary star of the first magnitude. McKaye was Jamaican born, involved in movements for racial equality in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, but eventually, like many African-American writers, set sail for Europe. As James Baldwin described it, “Paris, from across the ocean, looked like a refuge from the American madness.” Travelling in Spain and France, McKay joined internationalist, socialist, anti-racist, and anti-colonial activist communities abroad, and at the same time, witnessed a kind of Catholicism there, probably in the peasant piety of Spain, that seemed to him to embody something counter-cultural. According to Madhuri Deshmukh, Catholicism was, in McKay’s mind, the “most explicitly anti-modern of the West’s religions,” revealing the depth of McKay’s final “discontent with modern Western civilization, the slavery, the colonialism, racism, capitalist expansion, technology, and urbanization that were always the underside of its claim to secularism, rationality, enlightenment.” (This is, it should go without saying, McKay’s perception, not a historical fact.) Back in the United States, McKay became a friend of Dorothy Day’s, and the Catholic Worker published some of his poems. McKay made his way to the Friendship House, an interracial apostolate in Chicago, and converted there in the early 1940s.

In our seminar , before we encountered McKay, we had spent weeks thinking about theology, modernity, and politics from the perspective of white European Catholics. We moved through secularism, WWI, the rise of fascism, the Holocaust. Then suddenly Claude McKay’s voice entered the room. The temperature changed. It was still the same conversation, but it shifted entirely. In his 1943 collection of sonnets entitled “The Cycle,” McKay writes:

Lord let me not be silent while we fight in Europe Germans, Asia Japanese
For setting up a fascist way of might
While fifteen million Negroes on their knees
Pray for salvation from the Fascist yoke
Of these United States. Remove the beam
(Nearly two thousand years since Jesus spoke)
From your own eyes before the mote you deem
It proper from your neighbor’s to extract!
We bathe our lies in vapors of sweet myrrh,
And close our eyes not to perceive the fact!
But Jesus said: You whited sepulcher,
Pretending to be uncorrupt of sin
While worm-infested, rotten through within!


It was a denunciation of the American smug willingness to name, critique, even destroy evil on other shores while being willfully blind to our own. Why were Americans quick to condemn the scapegoating of minorities and authoritarian violence across the ocean and not think about racialized violence and death here? Reading McKay in the context of other subaltern voices – Jewish and female – helped us resist the notion that our empathy depletes as it extends, so it can only be directed at Jewish or black victims but not both, and no more. We read of McKay’s “fifteen million Negroes” alongside the poetry of the Russian Jewish émigré convert Raïssa Maritain, who begged Americans to take seriously what was happening to Jews. One of her poems published also in 1943 – the same year as McKay’s — described “4 million Jews – and more have suffered death without consolation/Those who are left are promised to the slaughter.” McKay expanded our sense of what was happening by seeing our topic from another angle. Who cannot but be moved by both subaltern poets to think harder?

It made me think how I too am part of this story. My own scholarly career has focused entirely on modernity and Catholicism in Europe, and to some degree, probably always will. For an American, there is something deep down more comforting in thinking about xenophobia and slaughter on someone else’s shores, lifting up their heroes, pondering the lessons over there. Of course, this was never a conscious decision but the result of years of cumulative courses, books, papers. Has this all excised me from the history of my country, my past, my entanglements with racialized violence? As I was thinking through all this, I also listened to my colleague Bryan Massingale’s incredible talk on race and social justice in Jesuit schools. Racial justice conversations keep “limping along,” in sad fits and starts, Massingale argues, because the priority has always been white comfort and the protection of white feelings, at the expense of truth. It made me think that the study of Catholic European xenophobia and resistance has been, oddly, a way to stoke comforting feelings. Words from my friend Mary Dunn’s new book on early modern Catholic piety and motherhood suddenly appeared: “Not me. Not that.” These lines are in Dunn’s final, beautiful chapter, drawing on Julia Kristeva’s notion of subject formation as a process that depends on the logic of expelling abjection from the self. Was focusing on European Catholic modernity, violence, and resistance a way to say of America’s terrible shame, not me, not that?

Reading McKay helped me see that the American willingness to condemn–even at great risk to one’s own safety–European fascism while ignoring, or even abetting, racial violence at home is part of my own family history. My grandfather, Henry Moore, was a WWII pilot who flew 50 successful B52 missions over Italy and Romania. After the war, he and my grandmother, Mary Moore, rented an apartment outside of Youngstown, Ohio, and he worked in one of the steel mills. My grandfather eventually worked his way up in a machinery company in Youngstown and eventually Michigan. A working class son of Irish parents, he was also, perhaps unexpectedly, a voracious reader and something of a self-taught intellectual. He loved Milton, the poems of Dickenson, and in some ways, was ahead of his time. He advocated for universal healthcare. When I was a freshman in college, he sent me a typed letter encouraging me to continue in my budding interests in “comparative religion,” not exactly typical Irish working-class advice. I was touched, and saved the letter. But a bizarre amount of his studies was fueled by vile, racist vitriol. Not unconscious bias “of the time,” but active loathing and resentment. I remember when I was a teenager he asked me to take a look at an organized set of handwritten notes and charts he had been compiling in a notebook. I checked it out. He was deep in a research project comparing the efficacy of different postal branches. The working thesis was that a higher percentage of African American postal carriers corresponded to higher rates of late and lost mail. White carriers delivered mail on time.

My grandfather’s life embodied the way that many Irish proved their Americanness by emphasizing their whiteness and joining the Anglo cause of racial violence against blacks. We are not them, they are not us. I thought too of something Raïssa Maritain wrote in her journal as an adult, after learning about the depth of her Jewish heritage–something she had never truly considered (she was a convert to Catholicism): “I have all of that in my blood, all of that’s behind me.” Irish American racism: all of that in my blood...

So it was Claude McKay’s beautiful and tragic poetry that helped me think hard about my own gaze across the Atlantic, to the place where I first went at age 16, to Spain, to escape my high school, where I’ve kept returning, in my thoughts and in my words and in my deeds, and even now, with my own kids usually in tow. Claude McKay brought something more powerful and poignant than words like “modernity”, “subaltern”, or “diversity,left in the abstract, can suggest. He brought me an enlarged, more capacious sense of truth, of reality, of the world, and also brought me back down to earth, the earth under my own feet. Yes me, yes that.


Further reading

Guillaume Aubert, “’The Blood of France’: Race and Purity of Blood in the French Atlantic World,” William & Mary Quarterly, 51 (July 2004), 439-478.

Alice L. Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930 (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1997),

Wayne Cooper. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987.

Matthew Cressler, Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Nationalism in the Great Migration (NYU, 2017)

Madhuri Deshmukh, “Claude McKay’s Road to Catholicism,” Callaloo 37.1 (2004) 148-168.

Félix F. Germain Decolonizing the Republic: African and Caribbean Migrants in Postwar Paris, 1946-1974 (Michigan State University Press, 2016).

Paul Gilroy. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Harvard University Press, 1993).

T.S. Eliot, “Catholicism and International Order.” Essays, Ancient and Modern. (Harcourt, 1936).

Caroline Ford, Creating the Nation in Provincial France: Religion and Political Identity in Brittany (Princeton University Press, 1993).

Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (Routledge, 2008)

Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939  (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

John T. McGreevey, “Race and the Immigrant Church,” Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (University of Chicago, 1996).

Claude McKay, The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, ed. Rampersad (Oxford, 2006),

Lynn T. Ramey, Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages (University Press of Florida, 2014)

Tyrone Tillery, Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity (U of Massachusetts, 1992)

William Shack, Harlem in Montmarte: A Paris Jazz Story between the Great Wars (University of California Press, 2001).

Brenna Moore
Brenna Moore is Associate Professor of Theology at Fordham University. She works in the area of modern Christianity, with a focus on Catholic intellectual and cultural history in Europe. Dr. Moore’s teaching and research tends to center on mysticism and religious experience, gender, a movement in theology known as “ressourcement,” (“turn to the sources”) that paved the way for Vatican II, and the place of religious difference in modern Christian thought. She is the author of Sacred Dread: Raïssa Maritain, the Allure of Suffering, and the French Catholic Revival, 1905-1945 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013).
Theorizing Modernities article

Forget Pinkwashing, its Brownwashing Time: Self-Orientalizing on the US Campus

A banner for the Columbia University Students Supporting Israel 2017 "Hebrew Liberation Week: A Celebration of Semitism."
Photo credit: Gil Hochberg. A banner for the Columbia University Students Supporting Israel 2017 “Hebrew Liberation Week: A Celebration of Semitism.”

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

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

It is the ninth week for me as a new professor at Columbia University. The move here from UCLA, where I taught for fifteen years, has been full of surprises, and not always of the kind one expects. But nothing prepared me for the sight I encountered recently as I crossed the main plaza of the college on the way to class to teach Edward Said’s Orientalism to a large group of MESAAS (Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies) majors. I was thinking about how best to make them see the political relevance of Orientalism to our present-day reality, and just then, as if by divine intervention, I noticed a flyer: “Hebrew Liberation Week: A Celebration of Semitism.” Curiously I approached the plaza. After all, I was about to teach Said’s discussion of Semitism as an invented 19th century Orientalist category and this seemed relevant. I soon faced three tall poles mounted with Israeli flags and was surrounded by about a dozen of young men and women wearing kaffiyehs (a checkered scarf, which has long been a symbol of Palestinian national liberation) that were blue and white (the colors of the Israeli flag). “Things don’t look right,” I noted to myself. But it was only when I noticed the bombastic billboards covering the borders of the plaza that the effect became truly chilling.

Photo credit: Gil Hochberg. SSI 2017 "Hebrew Liberation Week" poster of a person in indigenous headdress with "Judah" written across the chest.
Photo credit: Gil Hochberg. SSI 2017 “Hebrew Liberation Week” poster of a person in Plains Indians-style headdress of a lion with “Judah” written across the chest.

First I saw a large portrait of a Native American wearing a traditional headdress, with the word “Judah” written across it.

Another banner, shown above, presented a group of men in indigenous dress with a bearded man in a tallith (a white prayer shawl worn by Jewish men) placed right in the center among them.

There is, of course, nothing wrong in suggesting an alliance between Jews and Indigenous people, and in the context of Jews living in Europe and elsewhere as “inside outsiders” and as part of internal European colonization (too much has been written about “The Jewish Question” for me to summarize here) it indeed makes sense to compare and point out similarities between the position of Jews as a fragile minority and the position of other oppressed groups, like the indigenous, colonized, enslaved, and more. However, placing such images underneath the Israeli flag makes them, at best, tasteless depictions of a pseudo alliance. Suggesting, as the posters do, that Jews have been driven out of their land (like indigenous people) and have finally returned to Israel–a trajectory that all indigenous people should unite behind–is a crude and cynical manipulation of (Jewish) history and a vulgar fabrication that not only makes no sense, but is also offensive in its use and abuse of indigenous peoples’ histories of oppression.

Photo credit: Gil Hochberg. SSI 2017 "Hebrew Liberation Week" poster of Philippino-Israeli IDF soldiers.
Photo credit: Gil Hochberg. SSI 2017 “Hebrew Liberation Week” poster of Philippino-Israeli IDF soldiers.

Indigenous people are not the only ones exploited in this campaign, run by SSI (Students Supporting Israel). SSI is the new kid on the block of campus hasbara groups (only five years old) but this kid is well funded by the usual suspects. A notable amount of the $319,598 in 2015 contributions SSI reported on tax forms comes, for instance, from the Milstein Family Foundation, which also supports CAMERA, Stand with Us, Hasbara Fellowships, and other right-wing Israel advocates. The mission of SSI, as their webpage indicates, is “to be a clear and confident Pro-Israel voice on college campuses,” and for this mission, they even offer scholarships for students “to visit Israel and come back to campus ready for action!” Nothing on the webpage, however, mentions what SSI’s current campaign at Columbia University makes clear beyond all doubt: that the organization has decided to shamelessly appropriate histories, narratives, political symbols and imagery of indigenous people, Native Americans, Africans, and even Palestinians for the purpose of producing a fictitious, if colorful, narrative of Jewish indigeneity and self-Orientalization. By Self-Orientalism I mean, in this context, a certain instrumentalization of Orientalism and its stereotypes for the purpose of producing a figure of a modern Jew/Israeli who is at the same time ancient, biblical, Semitic, Oriental. This figure is in fact an updated and improved version of the early Zionist invention of the Occidentalized ‘New Jew.’ If the Occidentalized New Jew was said to bring European civilization and progress to the East, this updated version is no longer associating the Israeli Jew with the West and its promise of modernity and progress. On the contrary, the self-Orientalized Jew/Israeli embraces his/her position as the son/daughter of the East. He/she is the native indigenous of the east (Palestine, the biblical Holy-land, Israel) whose temporality expands from the biblical time to the present.

Photo credit: Gil Hochberg. SSI 2017 "Hebrew Liberation Week" poster of Black and Brown IDF soldiers.
Photo credit: Gil Hochberg. SSI 2017 “Hebrew Liberation Week” poster of Ethiopian IDF soldiers.

As a bold background to the blue and white kaffiyehs being sold on location, there were posters covering the plaza, inundated with images of Brown and Black people and proud Israeli soldiers: Asians (children of mainly Filipin@ guest workers who became Israeli citizens and “won” the opportunity to serve in the Israeli army), Ethiopian Jews, Bedouins, and overtly joyful Druze. If yesterday’s message was that the Israeli army is welcoming of gays*, today’s message is that the IDF is a place where Brown, Black, African, and Arab people all feel happy. Together.

In addition to the soldiers, there are images of Arab-Jews (Mizrahim) who must not be forgotten, not again. Images of Yemeni families, perhaps making their way to the Promised Land, are shown on other banners.

Photo credit: Gil Hochberg. SSI 2017 "Hebrew Liberation Week" banner of Yemeni family.
Photo credit: Gil Hochberg. SSI 2017 “Hebrew Liberation Week” banner of Yemeni family.

One must ask: why a “Brown people campaign”? Or: How did all the Israelis (or Jews, the campaign isn’t clear) become so Brown all of a sudden? (I ask as a very fair Polish Jew!) Why does an organization like SSI feel the need to “celebrate Semitism” and parade Ethiopians, Yemenites, and Druze in order to make historical claims of belonging and ownership? And why the sudden need to create the pretense of a coalition with the indigenous people in North America?

The answers are to be found in the logic of political tactic and not in the realm of a real existential identity transformation. In other words, Orientalism–which here functions also as self-Orientalism–is meant to do political work, masking settler colonialism with the language and images of nativism. But what is the political work of self-Orientalizing? What is gained by associating Zionism with the struggles of Native peoples and people of color? Correctly identifying past and present trends of the liberal and the radical left (the focus of indigenous rights, multiculturalism, and siding with the colonized and the oppressed) SSI disdainfully adopts these characteristics in order to unarm leftist critique. Indeed, if Israelis are indigenous people returning to their colonized lands, their political struggle must be considered valid and progressive.

SSI’s Semitic campaign is based on a simple but dangerous manipulation of historical facts. It abuses the historically ambivalent position of the Jew in the West as not-white-not-quite and the Orientalized modern biblical iconography of the Israelites as prototypical Orientals and Semites to create a narrative of a present-day political hallucination, according to which Jews are the colonized natives fighting for their land. If only this fantasy wasn’t so cynical, offensive and well-funded, we might have had a good laugh.


*Pinkwashing is a term by the growing global gay movement against the Israeli occupation to denote Israel’s deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of progressive modernity symbolized by Israeli gay culture. See: Sarah Schulmann, “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing’” Opinion, NYT, Nov 22 2011.

Further Readings:

Self Orientalization:
Grace Yan and Carla Almeida Santos, “China Forever: Tourism Discourse and Self-OrientalismAnnals of Tourism Research, Vol. 36, No. 2, (2009): 295–315.

Matthew Jaber Stiffler “Consuming Orientalism: Public Foodways of Arab American ChristiansMashriq & Mahjar 2, no. 2 (2014): 111-138.

Arif Dirlik, “Chinese History and the Question of OrientalismHistory and Theory, Vol. 35, No. 4, (1996): pp. 96-118.

Plamen K. Georgiev. Self-Orientalization in South East Europe. Springer, 2012

Cultural Appropriations:
Yonatan Mendel and Ronald Ranta. From the Arab Other to the Israeli Self: Palestinian Culture in the Making of Israeli National Identity. Routledge, 2016

Nicholas Rowe “Dance and Political Credibility: The Appropriation of Dabkeh by Zionism, Pan-Arabism, and Palestinian NationalismMiddle East Journal Vol. 65, No. 3 (Summer 2011): 363-380

Susan Slyomovics. The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Gil Hochberg
Gil Hochberg is Ransford Professor of Hebrew, Comparative Literature, and Middle East Studies at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the intersections among psychoanalysis, postcolonial theory, nationalism, gender and sexuality. She has published essays on a wide range of issues including: Francophone North African literature, Palestinian literature, Hebrew literature, the modern Levant, Semitism, Israeli and Palestinian Cinema and art. Her first book, In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs, and the Limits of Separatist Imagination (Princeton University Press, 2007), examines the complex relationship between the signifiers “Arab” and “Jew” in contemporary Jewish and Arab literatures. Her most recent book, Visual Occupations: Vision and Visibility in a Conflict Zone (Duke University Press, 2015), is a study of the visual politics of the Israeli-Palestinian. She is currently writing a book on art, archives, and the production of knowledge.