Global Currents article

2018 World Cup and Multicultural Belgium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modernity, Women, and War: Struggles for Peace and Democracy in the Middle East

Photo Credit: Nisa Goksel. The Peace Mothers at the 8th of March 2014 (International Women’s Day) demonstration in Diyarbakır.
Photo Credit: Nisa Goksel. The Peace Mothers at the 8th of March 2014 (International Women’s Day) demonstration in Diyarbakır.

“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. 

Modernity, Women, and War

How should we conceive of the relationship between modernist projects, women, and war in the Middle East? Studies of gender in the Middle East have argued that modernization processes have deeply shaped contemporary women’s identity formations and women’s movements (for a good discussion on the topic see Minoo Moallem 2005). Postcolonial feminist theorists like Moallem provide a wider critique of modernity as fundamentally linked to colonialism. My purpose here is to rethink the interrelated projects of modernity and colonialism through women’s struggles as I discuss how Kurdish women in the Middle East fight against the politics of war and violence. Their efforts suggest that new avenues for decolonization and modernity may be created wherein the role of women are radically re-imagined.

I believe that the main difficulty facing studies on women and gender in the Middle East revolves around developing a framework without relying on two premises: 1) the premise that the experiences of women from distinct national, ethnic, religious, and class backgrounds can be homogenized based on their identity as women; and 2) the premise that women’s status or oppression can be reduced to the centrality of Islamic and/or traditional forces (using, for example, dichotomies of “secular versus pious” or “modern versus traditional”). In addition, existing studies do not often take into account the co-constitutive relationship between recent wars in the region and modernity; how wars and modernity interact to affect women’s lives, as women take part in those wars in multiple positions; and how wars as contested sites of modernity and coloniality have transformed the gendered geopolitics of the region.

Let me briefly explain each of these two points. To begin with the first point, we know that feminist theorists with a postcolonial stance have long questioned the monolithic representation of women in the Middle East. According to this representation, women are often viewed as victims in some way—victims of “oppressive” Middle Eastern men; of colonialism; and/or of religious, traditional, and national powers. Feminist critiques effectively demonstrate that what we need to challenge is this homogenous and monolithic representation of women in the Middle East. This homogeneous perspective comes out of an approach that assumes Islam to be the key determining factor in women’s lives. This brings us to the second point, related to what Marnia Lazreg calls the “religious paradigm.” In this paradigm, which is dominant in the social sciences, women of “other” nations are perceived as yet-to-be-modern, for they are seen as trapped by religious/patriarchal dogmas and traditions. Postcolonial feminist debates challenging the centrality of Islam to existing analyses of modernity and women open up the ground for us to reconsider the interrelations among social, political, cultural, and religious forces that impact women’s lives, instead of explaining the status of women through Islam alone.

War and Colonialism

More importantly, another point I want to emphasize is the role of recent wars in the Middle East and how clearly they show the intersectional relationship between modernity and colonialism. This has been one of the main concerns of my own research on Kurdish women’s struggles for peace and democracy across borders. Wars in the Middle East cannot be understood if we merely base our analysis on the relationship between Islam and modernity. The link between modernity and coloniality is another paradigm to be considered when we discuss war-waging techniques in the Middle East. The perspective of Santiago Slabodsky becomes very useful here as he challenges Western modernity and its colonial foundations through a Jewish decolonial critique. Walter Mignolo, too, reminds us of the coupling of Western modernity and coloniality in President Bush’s statement referring to the U.S.’ wars in the region as “spreading democracy in the Middle East.” Democracy, progress, and peace are embedded into the rhetoric of modernity as much as a colonial logic is. Mignolo argues that this is indeed an extended endeavor to secure “the completion of the incomplete project of modernity” in the region (2007, 458). In this sense, any war waged in the name of “humanitarian” intervention is already part of a larger modernist and colonial enterprise. Particularly since 9/11, this nexus of modernity and coloniality has been a key site for the discourse of the War on Terror, the U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the continuing war in Syria.

While the discourse of spreading democracy to the Middle East goes hand in hand with the discourse of “saving women” who are seen as victims of Islamic fundamentalist powers, I see current wars as creating an ambivalent terrain that allows for actions that are particularly destabilizing to existing discourses. This ambivalent terrain of war and violence makes it difficult to categorize women either as victims or as agents, insofar as it allows for various alternative, creative, and revolutionary modalities of political conduct for women. Even though war, modernity, and colonialism are intricately linked in the Middle East, I believe that the context of war is crucial to the formation of alternative women’s movements and groups as well as to the alternative imaginations of modernity, which I will illustrate through two examples from my research on Kurdish women.

Alternative Women’s Movements

The first example I want to draw on is the Peace Mothers organization. This is a group of Kurdish women who mobilized in reaction to the war between the Turkish state and the Kurdish guerrilla organization the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party). This war has been ongoing in Turkey since the late 1980s, alternating between temporary ceasefires or periods of peace and renewed outbreaks of violence. The Peace Mothers group is made up of the mothers of PKK guerrillas. They are visible members of protests in their characteristic white headscarves. These women pursue an end to the war across various national and international political platforms, whether in the streets or the Parliament. The Peace Mothers challenge and shift the boundaries of modern politics through their political participation as mothers. Furthermore, the figure of the Kurdish mother disrupts the image of the “modern woman” so long upheld by the hegemonic Turkish modernization project. The ideal Turkish woman citizen is represented as a mother and wife whose life “benefits” from the modernization project, circumscribed by the code of morality. In this project, mothers are responsible for raising patriotic, Turkish-speaking citizens. Kurdish mothers, however, often resist acting as breeders of Turkish national culture—for example, by speaking Kurdish and embracing Kurdish culture. In this context, the anti-war efforts of the Peace Mothers constitute a ground for claiming the right to be and to speak Kurdish. This stands in opposition to the supposed homogeneity of Turkey’s “modern” national community.

Photo credit: Shervan Derwish and Jack Shahine. Women remove their burqas upon crossing from ISIS-controlled territory into an area controlled by Kurdish fighters.

My other example is from just across the border from Turkey: the Kurdish women fighters in the Kurds’ resistance in Syria. At the time of the outbreak of war in Syria, we witnessed a proliferation of images of Kurdish women in the Western media. Cameras frame images of these Kurdish women smiling, carrying arms, casting off burqas, and smoking cigarettes. These women are portrayed as “modern,” “secular,” and “liberated”. In many of those photos, women cast off their burqas to show that they have been “freed” from IS upon entering Kurdish-controlled areas. These women, whether or not they carry arms, have become the “new” and “progressive” faces of the Middle East. Their fight against IS has been framed as a fight against “Islamic terrorism.” But outside of their supposed fight against “Islam,” the Western media has paid scant attention to the ideological side of these women’s struggle in Syria. In fact, Kurdish women define their fight as a women’s revolution, whose goal is the transformation of all segments of society, and the decolonization of their lands, their minds, their pasts, and their marginalized histories.

Even though the Peace Mothers in Turkey and Kurdish women in Syria continue to struggle, the international public has recently, it seems, lost interest in these Kurdish women. Why has this interest faded so quickly? I believe the answer to this question takes us back to the relationship between coloniality and modernity. Specifically, it returns us to the necessity of a postcolonial feminist perspective on such questions. Yet this interest and fascination with the struggles of Kurdish women is contingent on the Western eye. Indeed, the fetishizing, colonialist gaze is doomed to be short-term. The gaze of interest will inevitably find new objects of attention. To this fetishizing gaze, the acts of Peace Mothers and Kurdish women fighters might seem to juxtapose: one seeks peace and the other takes up arms. Yet both these groups struggle for the same ideal. Each works to build an alternate society by shattering the violent foundations of modernity. Each tries to create a non-colonial modernity and to reclaim modernity’s unfulfilled promise of peace and democracy. These women’s efforts for these goals lead us to ask: is it possible to imagine a modernity that is truly democratic and peaceful?



Further reading

Çağlayan, Handan. 2008. “Voices from the Periphery of the Periphery: Kurdish Women’s Political Participation in Turkey.” Presented at 17th Annual Conference on Feminist Economics, June 19-21, 2008 (Torino, Italy).

Kandiyoti, Deniz. 1987. “Emancipated but Unliberated? Reflections on the Turkish Case.” Feminist Studies 13(2): 317-338.

Lazreg, Marnia. 1990. “Gender and Politics in Algeria: Unraveling the Religious Paradigm.” Signs: Journal of Women and Culture in Society 15(4): 755-780.

Lewis, Reina. 2004. Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel and the Ottoman Harem. London, New York: I.B. Tauris.

———. 1996. Gendering Orientalism: Race, Femininity and Representation. London and New York: Routledge.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mignolo, Walter. 2011. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

———. 2007. “Delinking: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of De-Coloniality.” Cultural Studies 21(2-3): 449-514.

Moallem, Minoo. 2005. Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Politics of Patriarchy in Iran. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

Moghadam, M. Valentine. 1999. “Revolution, Religion, and Gender Politics: Iran and Afghanistan Compared.” Journal of Women’s History 10(4): 172-195.

———. 2003 [1993]. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Üstündağ, Z. Nazan. 2005. Belonging to the Modern: Women’s Suffering and Subjectivities in Urban Turkey. Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University.

Nisa Goksel
Nisa Göksel recently earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University, Evanston. She also holds a graduate certificate from the Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at Northwestern. While at the Kroc Institute as visiting fellow from 2017-2018, she worked on two projects. The first was a book project based on her dissertation about the political mobilization of Kurdish women around peace, democracy, and women’s freedom. In the second project, she examined the participation of women in armed struggles in the Middle East.
Global Currents article

Modernity as Theater of the Absurd

Photo Credit: Gili Getz. IfNotNow march in Washington, DC, May 14, 2018.

This week’s symbolic opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, with attendance from high-ranking American officials and a visual background set portraying the merging of the American and Israeli flags, marked a terribly deadly day for nonviolent Palestinian protesters. Over 61 are now declared dead and almost three thousand more injured, and many may spend the rest of their lives with amputated legs, which (together with spraying tear gas from drones) reveals an operationalized military method to demobilize Gazans. It is not that there are no armed groups in Gaza, but the particular organizers of the protests chose nonviolence, signifying sensitization to the effectiveness—if not the morality—of this method of resistance. Still, how does one expect Palestinians to endure their occupation nonviolently?

The stories conveyed in the American stagecraft and, importantly, the stories silenced or omitted, reveal the U.S. to be actively fueling the conflict it claims to want to resolve and increasing the divide between non-Israeli Jews and Israeli Jews. In the Trump era, antisemites and Christian Zionists are co-positioned as moral authorities, delegitimizing the U.S. as an honest broker in the region. Questioning the honesty of the United States’ brokering is not new. What is new is how clear this argument has become given the juxtaposition of the carnage in Gaza and the pomp and circumstance in Jerusalem. This juxtaposition conveys the complexities of modernity through a specific set of discourses and practices. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation of Palestine cannot be understood without interrogating colonialism, orientalism, and antisemitism and how they relate to one another in narrating (Christian) modernity.

The indiscriminate violence against protesters in Gaza expressing their right of return, and the unilateral and provocative decision of Trump’s U.S. to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, only serve to deepen existing divisions, amplifying some narratives and silencing others. One narrative is most critically concerned with decades of Israeli occupation and the denial of Palestinian experiences of displacement. Relatedly, the many dead and injured people are often presented as faceless statistics, showing how entrenched colonial narratives about Israel and Palestine are. Palestinians, like other indigenous communities around the globe, appear to be both “ungrievable” and their dispossession instrumental for modernity as “progress.” Indeed, the siege on Gaza is a constant embodiment of coloniality as the constitutive dark side of modernity.  Another narrative is about the consolidation of an expansive conception of Jerusalem as pivotal for the Jewish-Israeli nationalist imagination. Religious messianic Zionism is as modern as the secular discourses of national self-determination and could have not come into fruition if it were not for multiple “secular” Israeli governments’ subsidizing of the settlement project in the territories occupied in 1967.

There are other less muscular and less ethnoreligious narratives of Israeliness. However, these are increasingly diminished in traction. In recent years, internal critics of the occupation have been marginalized with the intensification of censorship and the delegitimization of groups such as Breaking the Silence. That President Trump appears to have a high percentage of approval in the Israeli public denotes both the partisan nature of American policy in the region and the diminished capacity of the United States to act as an honest broker. It is not only that its policy decision to relocate the embassy cohered with Benjamin Netanyahu’s aspiration and his coalition’s ideological underpinnings. It is also the case that the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from an internationally ratified agreement with Iran is very much in line with Israeli agenda as articulated by Netanyahu and his political allies in Israel and the United States. Let us not forget Netanyahu’s effort to meddle in the deliberations in the House of Representatives, pleading with Congress to reject the Iran Deal in 2015. He now has what he was lobbying for.

The symbolic opening of the embassy amid destruction and death in Gaza also points to the silencing of suffering, routine violence, and military control over every facet of Palestinian lives. It allows one historical memory of Jewish suffering to trump and authorize others’ suffering and constant state of domination. This is the legacy of European Jewish modernity. The segregation, ghettoization, and eventual elimination of Jews is framed as a unique event, blinding Jews to the humanity and suffering of Palestinians whose displacement is so intertwined with the replacement of Jews in Palestine, and whose ghettoization in open air prisons such as Gaza presses upon us the terrible ironies of this modern narrative. But, memory, as argued powerfully by Michael Rothberg, does not need to be a zero-sum game. Holocaust memory too can be fruitfully decolonized.

The eruption in Gaza and the Jerusalem provocation also convey the coalescing of radicalization in Israel with the currents of Christian Zionism in the U.S. and their access to, indeed occupation of, the U.S. government, as indicated by the choice of pastors Robert Jeffers and John Hagee to offer benedictions and open the dedication ceremony of the embassy. Jeffers is infamous for his explicit anti-Muslim, anti-Mormon, anti-LGBTQI, and anti-Jewish statements. Hagee is likewise well known as the founder of Christians United for Israel. Both have theologized about pre-eschatological apocalyptic events in the Middle East. With the transfer of the embassy and the dissolution of the Iran Deal, they got the match they have been praying for and thus both offered words of praise to Trump as an instrument in their end-time drama.  The symbolic ceremony in Jerusalem embodied the merging of the cynical, ideological, and eschatological as well as Islamophobia (orientalism), Zionism, and antisemitism. Meanwhile, in besieged Gaza, Israeli forces demonstrated a profound disregard for human life.

Choosing these pastors to lend supposedly moral authority to the event illuminates what became clear for critical American Jews and other non-Israeli Jews: in the Trump era, antisemitism and Zionism can go hand in hand, with someone like Richard Spencer celebrating his euphemistically labeled alt-right as “Zionism for white people.” Indeed, they also go hand in hand with multiple other bigotries. Hence, the most hopeful story is the protests led by IfNotNow, the millennial-led movement of American Jews. They assert, first, that Occupation is “not my Judaism” (#NotMyJudaism) and that the embassy move is an act clearly designed to entrench the occupation. These young people are indignant about their leaders’ warm relationship with the clear consolidation of antisemitic strains of Zionism. They also know that Israel does not make them safer. On the contrary, antisemitism is on the rise and their leaders seem to be okay with this. Otherwise, how could they enable the theater of the absurd that unfolded in the ceremonial opening of the embassy in Jerusalem.

The relocation of the embassy, the carnage in Gaza, and the honoring (and vindication) of Hagee and Jeffers point not only to the discrediting of the U.S. as a broker of peace in the region. It also points to the changing dynamics between Jews and Israelis, and the complex interplays between antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Zionism. This moment offers unprecedented clarity of the Trump Administration’s partisan support of a particular ethnoreligious nationalist version of Israel. What was previously expressed more opaquely (i.e. American support of the occupation, the enduring settlement project, and Israeli militarization) is now unequivocally clear. This clarity deepens the parting of the ways among non-Israeli and Israeli Jews. It also paves the road for a paradigm shift in terms of modes of imagining cohabitation. With the discrediting of the American brokerage, we hear loudly the nails in the coffin of the two-state solution.


Atalia Omer
Atalia Omer is Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her research interests include the theoretical study of the interrelation between religion and nationalism; religion, nationalism, and peacebuilding; religion and international and global relation, the role of national/religious/ethnic diasporas in the dynamics of conflict transformation and peace; solidarity and long-distance activism, multiculturalism as a framework for conflict transformation and as a theory of justice; the role of subaltern narratives in reimagining questions of peace and justice; intra-group dialogue and the contestation of citizenship in ethno-religious national contexts; and the symbolic appropriation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in other zones of conflict.
Global Currents article

“Love” and “Punishment” for Muslim Others

Stand Up To Islamophobia One of a series of rallys around the UK in response to hate crimes against Muslims.
Photo Credit: Tim Dennell. Stand Up To Islamophobia. One of a series of rallies held on April 3rd, 2018 around the UK in response to hate crimes against Muslims.

The promotion of April 3 as “Punish a Muslim Day” brought considerable alarm and concern to Muslims in Europe and North America. It is unclear who created the flyers, which were circulated by mail to several predominantly Muslim communities in Britain in March of this year and spread to other countries soon after, but they are indicative of a climate increasing hate crimes and discrimination against Muslims and the increased volume of Islamophobic rhetoric in politics. In the face of Islamophobia’s reductive fear-mongering and will to collective retribution, it is tempting for liberals to invoke a love for the persecuted in their general humanity. However, coming to terms with the diffuse workings of Islamophobia reveals the limits of professing ecumenical allyship, and of the frameworks for distinguishing responsibility under the contemporary security state.

The “Punish a Muslim” phenomenon exemplifies the layering of conceptions of the other conceived within the imaginary of a community wronged. Purportedly appearing in Britain in March, a series of fliers declared their support for vigilante action against Muslims, ranging in reward from verbal harassment, to sexual assault, to acid attacks, to the destruction of Mecca. That the flier’s idiosyncratic presentation led some Muslim commentators and comedians to take it as a joke. It would indeed be difficult to judge its seriousness without knowing who made it, and on social media it could potentially call to anyone to find a Muslim at hand to punish. Crucially, it also does not state what Muslims had done to merit punishment. It rather presumes a world of real and imagined violences attributed to Muslims, of a general and inchoate sense of the problem of Muslim religious difference so often expressed in blunt and subtle forms.

The idea of Muslims’ shared culpability emerges strikingly in a recent essay by Bari Weiss, the New York Times’ opinion editor. The piece is noteworthy both for its proximity to the crude “Punish” phenomenon and for how it implies the same collective guilt with the apparent sobriety of a journalist’s report from the field. Weiss describes the brutal murder of Mireille Knoll, a Holocaust survivor, in Paris, which the president of France and other officials have called an anti-Semitic hate crime. After detailing other attacks by young Muslim men against older Jewish women, Weiss points to surveys that indicate disproportionate anti-Jewish sentiment among Muslims as opposed to France at large. Weiss does not state how a community’s prejudices implicate it collectively in the violent crimes of individuals. She does not ask what effects anti-Muslim sentiment in France has on the dispossession and marginalization of Muslims there, or the nation’s participation in the US-led war in Afghanistan that has led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths. The point here is not to propose a model to correctly parse personal and group culpability, but to consider why and how some complex situations of precarity and violence elicit the undifferentiated application of collective responsibility, while others do not. Contrast William Connolly’s descriptions of the assumption that black urban crime in the US is pathological to Talal Asad’s illustration that crimes committed within the work of the security state are only adjudicated individually, if at all (Connolly, 40-74; Asad, 20-38). These default accounts of collective and individual culpability are shaped by the imaginary of the confrontation of crime and terrorism, which Weiss marks with Muslim religious difference.

Weiss’ commentary on community relations in France evinces a view of global Muslim ritual danger. She notes several reports of the perpetrators of violent crimes pronouncing the Arabic formula of takbīr, that “God is greatest”. Takbīr is a fundamental part of the daily ṣalā prayers and a marker of Muslim soundscapes around the world. While Muslims do not all practice religion the same way, the takbīr is one of that practice’s clearest significations, audible practically anywhere among Muslims. Both in its specifically-Muslim sacredness and everydayness, Weiss is promoting a trope that Muslims’ address to the divine should inspire fear in others. The association of non-Christian religious ritual with shocking violence has an extensive colonial history. However, here Weiss pairs this sign of Islam with another universal, that of anti-Semitism itself, reconfigured in every generation, “the oldest hatred in the world”. Even if this is true, anti-Semitism is not present in all places and times equally, and its intensification in the recent centuries of modern European nation-building culminating in the Holocaust is obscured in Weiss’s imaginary of timeless forms of danger, in which those who “shouted” takbīr were “apparently animated by the same hatred that drove Hitler” (Mufti, 37-90).

Photo Credit: Aia Fernandez. Love and Peace Poster.
Photo Credit: Aia Fernandez. Love and Peace Poster.

Unfortunately, faced with a fear of Muslims that looks for complicity, guilt, and punishment in Muslim life anywhere, it is difficult to imagine liberal responses that move beyond the gestural. Leading up to April 3 media reports focused on the coalescence of opposition to the “Punish” discourse under the hashtag #loveamuslim. Because #love is reacting to #punish, it shares applicability to Muslims in aggregate, which is perhaps understandable. However, it also shows the limits of our present conceptual resources in countering Islamophobia, particularly in an “interfaith” context. For one, “love” as universal and transcendent has a distinct Christian patrimony, which while this does not present a problem in and of itself, it does not ask what non-Christians might want anti-prejudice undertaken with them to look like. Furthermore, “showing love” in the face of one potentially menacing manifestation of aggression does not yield up alternatives to the policies of targeted surveillance, entrapping prosecution, and intermittent warfare that keep marginalization, extremism, and Islamophobia in cycle together.

Non-Muslims who want to respond critically to the routinization of this kind of politics should begin not by presuming intimacy with our Muslim neighbors for the sake of showing our goodwill, but by first asking ourselves some questions. What forms of mutuality does pluralized common life require? How can we relate to others as individuals? How might we also make common spaces for others to constitute communities within and without us? How can we recognize and respond together to different forms of biological, socio-political, and historically-contingent vulnerability? How can we respond to violence with justice?

Timothy Gutmann
Timothy Gutmann is a scholar of Islamic and East Asian intellectual histories, education, critical theory and postcolonial thought. He is completing his dissertation titled "Conscripting Traditions: Islam, Confucianism, Modernity" at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Field Notes article

Translating Islam Across Cosmologies in Qatar

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

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

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

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

The Urgency of Translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clay and Evolution

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

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

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

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

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


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

Our Jerusalem of Unspoken Stories

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

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

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

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


Loss and Memory

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

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

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

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

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


The End of Nablus Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Silence and Imperfect Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 
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.
Authority, Community & Identity article

On the Theologico-Theatrical: Explaining the Convergence of Pentecostalism and Popular Culture in Nigeria

Photo Credit: Ebenezer Obadare. Christ Embassy Ibadan North “Night of Bliss” poster with comedians Buchi and Bishop Chikancy among others.


Over time, Nigerian Pentecostalism has taken on many of the externalities of popular culture in Nigeria, creating a unique composite of spirituality and secular entertainment. This enfolding of Pentecostalism and popular culture is one of the more fascinating aspects of the continued evolution of Nigerian Pentecostalism. What accounts for this joining at the hip? What socio-cultural and economic dynamics are at work here? Whither the imperative in Nigerian Pentecostalism to outsource the work of inspiration to performers and jesters? What light does this convergence of the spiritual and the profane throw on both?

My answers to these questions fall under three not necessarily distinct rubrics, but before offering them, I will supply two vignettes to demonstrate the phenomenon.


In October 2015, the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Lagos Province 20, was in the middle of preparations for a three-day outdoor crusade, and Pastor Toyin Ogundipe, who is also professor of Botany at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), needed a personality who could be relied upon to galvanize the audience. After weighing his options, Pastor Ogundipe decided that popular Fuji musician, Alhaji Wasiu Alabi, better known as Pasuma (or “Paso” for short), was the ideal candidate for the job, and he rang him up. Although a Born Again Christian, Pastor Ogundipe, a lover of Fuji music, apparently saw nothing wrong with inviting Pasuma, a practicing Muslim and one of the most famous faces in the Nigerian entertainment industry, to come and fire up a Christian audience. Pasuma would later confirm as much in an interview, pointing out that during the telephone conversation with Pastor Ogundipe, the latter had brushed aside his initial rejection of the invitation by reassuring him that all he needed from him, Pasuma, was to “come there… so we can get one or two or three people to change their lives. We want to use you to change some people’s hearts” (10:55).

Although Pasuma and Pastor Ogundipe clinched a deal, the crusade would not go ahead as planned, for hardly had the poster of the event featuring, among other things, a large picture of Pasuma sporting his trademark dark glasses gone into circulation when it ran into a storm of criticism. Most of the criticism centered on the propriety of inviting into the “sacred space” of a church “crusade” a “Special Guest Artist” who (1) happens to be a practicing Muslim, and (2) whose music is notorious for its profanity and ribaldry. As criticism mounted, the RCCG hierarchy intervened quickly by canceling the planned crusade and suspending the errant pastor.

As it happens, Pastor Ogundipe was not the first pastor of a major Pentecostal church to invite a secular artiste to, as it were, light up his congregation. In April of the same year, Senior Pastor Bolaji Idowu of Harvesters International Christian Church Center, Lekki, Lagos, had drawn flak for inviting emerging singer-songwriter Korede Bello to perform his hit song, ‘God Win,’ to the congregation in celebration of Easter Sunday. Of the many condemnations of Pastor Idowu, the angst-ridden statement by US-based Pastor Olusola Fabunmi of the RCCG, City of Faith in Maryland, went farthest in summarizing the concerns of those worried by what they saw as the latest instance of the church’s seemingly inexorable surrender to “the world”:

But it’s written here, that when we chose (sic) the way of the world, we have clearly chosen our paths; becoming an enemy of God. Please, there must be a clearly defined boundary of who sings, and/or ministers in churches. Some of the questions that come to mind are: is he born again? Sanctified with the spirit of God and baptized in the Holy Spirit? Also, let’s ask ourselves, what’s even the purpose of people singing in churches and Christian concerts? …. So I believe very strongly that one major purpose of choristers or Psalmists singing is to prepare the minds and hearts of the people for the word of God.

Since these two incidents, and for all the widespread condemnation, the entanglement of Nigerian Pentecostalism with Nigerian popular entertainment has in fact intensified. For instance, during field research in Ibadan in the summer of 2017, I observed that popular artistes were represented on a significant number of billboard advertisements for Pentecostal church events. In some of them, the entertainers in question were, like the aforementioned Pasuma, described as “Special Guest Artistes.” Like visual prompts intended to arrest the gaze and tantalize the prospective attendee (this being Nigeria, I often wondered whether some of the artistes in those advertisements were even aware of their presence in them), other billboards carried only the images of popular entertainers without any information as to their specific roles in the advertised events. The odds of sharing the pew with WizKid1 next Sunday? What better way to find out than to be physically present at Sunday service?

Gospel Comedy

Photo Credit: Ebenezer Obadare. Poster for hybrid church-comedy program featuring gospel entertainer Olarewaju Bolaji (Big B) and comedians Woli Arole and Woli Agba, among others.

Furthermore, and in a notable deepening of the trend, not only is it gradually becoming de rigueur to invite standup comics to perform at regular Sunday services (a practice that, similar to the invitation of Pasuma and Korede Bello, has drawn fire from a section of the Christian community)2 a new sub-genre of Nigerian comedy known as “Gospel Comedy” appears to have taken form. The leading names in this emerging comic form are, in no particular order Woli Agba (real name Ayo Ajewole), Akpororo (Jephthah Bowoto), Mazi Prosper, Bishop Chikancy, Buchi (Onyebuchi Ojieh), M.C. Crucsio, Woli Arole (Bayegun Oluwatoyin), DA 13thDisciple (Adefuwa Oluwagbemiga), Gee Jokes (Adejobi Omogbolahan), and Aboki 4 Christ (Olufemi Michael). By definition, if not practice, Gospel Comedy crystallizes the emerging convergence of Pentecostalism and popular culture in Nigeria. And because they are self-confessed Christians, hence speaking from within the fold, gospel comedians, unlike “regular” comedians, appear to enjoy greater artistic license regarding otherwise theologically sensitive material. As a matter of fact, such is their desire to emphasize the primacy of their identities as Born Again Christians that many of them (Woli Arole for instance) typically preface their commencements with the caveat that “I am not a comedian.”


I propose the following explanations.


One explanation is that such is the inherent permissiveness, some would say promiscuity, of Yorùbá metaphysics, that such an embrace could not be avoided. There is solid literature on the subject, notably the late sociologist J.D.Y. Peel’s oeuvre, which locates this permissiveness in the dynamic copresence of three religious traditions (Islam, Christianity, and indigenous Orisa) in the Yorùbá space and imagination. In a recent study, I drew on this scholarly tradition to argue that a culturally mandated amity among otherwise competitive religious traditions is a major explanation for Muslim adoption of Pentecostal devotional and evangelistic repertoires in western Nigeria. The point is that given the power and widespread acceptance of this metaphysics, the extension of an invitation to a popular entertainer who happens to be a Muslim is not the singular act of transgression it would appear to be at first glance. Nor is there any obvious contradiction in a Born Again Christian like Pastor Ogundipe being partial to Fuji music as many Yorùbás, Muslim and Christian, are. Indeed, not only has the Fuji scene always been the best place to judge the vitality or otherwise of popular culture as conducted in Yorùbá,3 the music itself has played an outsize role in the liberalization of the Yorùbá public sphere. One conclusion from this is that, in extending an invitation to Pasuma, Pastor Ogundipe was unwittingly validating two facts, one cultural, the other sociological.

The cultural fact is that although both the pastor and the entertainer profess allegiance to two different faiths, they remain, culturally speaking, sons of the same mother. Further, Pastor Ogundipe was validating the sociological fact of Fuji’s undoubted eminence as the most innovative form of popular music in contemporary western Nigeria. While a full development of this observation falls outside the ambit of this discussion, I note in passing that over time, and in part through a process of steady appropriation that is classic Yorùbá, Fuji music has transcended its religious origins in urban working class Muslim Ramadan ritual to become a transnational, class-neutral, crossover secular genre. As a crossover genre, not only has it internalized the Yorùbá idea of Jesus as a cultural figure for multi-purpose social invocation, which means that Christian songs of appeasement for heavenly intervention have been assumed into its repertoire; it has taken full advantage of Jùjú’s decline as a Yorùbá musical form.4 Pasuma is, if nothing else, the very emblem of this transition, arguably the most successful crossover artiste in the contemporary Nigerian music industry. Hence the appeal—Fuji’s and Pasuma’s—to Pastor Ogundipe. Nothing, it seems, not even Pentecostalism, a force of nature in its own right, can resist the propulsive energy of Fuji.


A second explanation has to do with the specific character of Pentecostalism itself, especially as a form of mediation “taking place” in a public sphere underwritten by liberalization and commercialization of the media. Anthropologist Birgit Meyer’s astute observation regarding Ghanaian Pentecostalism’s transgressiveness applies to the Nigerian context: “Relatively undisturbed by the state, but all the more indebted to the emerging image economy, Pentecostalism has spread into the public sphere, disseminating signs and adopting formats not entirely of its own making and, in the process, has been taken up by popular culture. In the entanglement of religion and entertainment, new horizons of social experience have emerged, thriving on fantasy and vision and popularizing a certain mood oriented toward Pentecostalism” (308). Similarly, in his work on Malawi, anthropologist Rijk van Dijk shows how  Pentecostal ideology unwittingly created “the space to experience witchcraft in terms of mockery, laughter and amusement” (99). In Nigeria, and as I have argued elsewhere,5 the incorporation of Pentecostalism into popular culture is indicated by, among other things, the celebrification6 and eroticization of the figure of the pastor; the appropriation of media technologies by Pentecostal churches; and the conversion of many popular entertainers to Pentecostalism (cf. anthropologist Jesse Weaver’s work on the religious conversion of comedians and musicians in Ghana), resulting in the further blurring of the boundaries between secular and religious entertainment. Significantly, not only are popular entertainers converting to Pentecostalism; in an emergent trend, a growing number of retirees from the Nigerian movie industry, Nollywood, are taking up pastoring. The list of retired movie stars who are now bona fide pastors of Pentecostal churches includes Eucharia Anunobi-Akwu, Ernest Azuzu, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Zack Orji, Larry Koldsweat, and Liz Benson. One result of all this, especially the appropriation of media technologies, is the transformation of the religious landscape across the African continent. A more directly relevant effect is what Hackett describes as the facilitation of “homogenizing cultural flows” (258). The mutual interpenetration of Pentecostalism and popular culture in Nigeria sits against this all-important backdrop.


Photo Credit: Ebenezer Obadare. The Redeemed Evangelical Mission (TREM) Potter’s Place program poster featuring comedians Gee Jokes and DA 13th Disciple.

A third explanation for the convergence of Nigerian Pentecostalism and popular culture is the commercial imperative, i.e., the need by churches to adapt to the changing conditions of an intensely competitive religious marketplace. One effect of the success of Pentecostalism as the dominant form of Christianity in Nigeria and several key African countries is the sheer explosion in the number of churches. As Pentecostalism has exploded, so also has its appetite for space, as historian Olufunke Adeboye demonstrates in her analysis of Pentecostal appropriation of public spaces like nightclubs, hotels, and cinema halls in Nigeria. I propose (1) that the identified success of Pentecostalism has led to a glut in the supply of “religious goods,” and (2) that Pentecostal churches’ cultivation of popular culture, as illustrated by the overture to popular entertainment figures, is in part explicable by the logic of competition in a saturated religious marketplace. I argue that because the supply of what Robert B. Ekelund, et al., describe as “assurances of salvation” arguably now exceeds its demand in the Nigerian religious market, churches, especially Pentecostal churches, are forced to come up with all manner of “product differentiation” innovations in order to either hold on to loyal patrons (existing members of the congregation) or attract new customers. This is why, for instance, the billboard advertisement of the RCCG Lagos Province 20 that I referred to at the beginning not only features an image of Pasuma, but also tantalizes prospective attendees with “gift items” like flat screen televisions, motorcycles, mass transportation tricycles popularly known as “Keke Marwa” or “Keke NAPEP,” and electric power generators. A related and no less plausible argument is that, in a context of serious and persistent economic deprivation, “assurances of salvation” are no longer enough to draw crowds to church; accordingly, churches have to offer other products (entertainment, commodities, etc.) in addition to their core product.


The intertwining of Pentecostalism and popular culture in Nigeria is a complex phenomenon, and the foregoing is merely a sketch and a preliminary attempt to offer an explanation. While Pentecostalism is a global phenomenon, the power of local inscription means that general hypotheses must be advanced with caution. In the Nigerian Yorùbá world, a pragmatic cultural disposition gives rise to a Pentecostalism that is accepting of popular culture, generating new spiritual and artistic forms that warrant scholarly analysis.


End Notes

[1] Popular Nigerian entertainer. Real name Ayodeji Ibrahim Balogun.

[2] The most vocal critic of this practice is Pastor Mike Bamiloye, founder of the Mount Zion Faith Ministries. See for instance Accessed June 3, 2018. Interestingly, as dramatist, actor, producer, owner of a television station—Mount Zion Television—and pioneer in the Nigerian Christian film industry, Bamiloye arguably played a leading role in introducing Nigerian Pentecostalism to popular culture.

[3] I thank Tade Ipadeola for this insight.

[4]  Jùjú’s slow decline is due to many reasons, and awaits a full accounting. My tentative guess is that the decline owes in part to the conversion of one of Jùjú’s leading exponents, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, to Pentecostalism in the early 1990s, marking the importation of Jùjú into “the mainstream of Christian music” (see Kalu 2007, 25). Crucially, the importation was facilitated by the fact that in its basic identity as a form of popular culture, Jùjú was essentially “Christian”. If my guess is right, Jùjú is a victim of Pentecostalism’s success, insofar as Pentecostalism further blurred the line between Jùjú and Christian Gospel music.

[5] Ebenezer Obadare, “The Charismatic Porn-Star: Social Citizenship and the West African Pentecostal Erotic” Citizenship Studies, 22(6), 2018. Forthcoming.

[6] As opposed to ‘celebritization.’


Further Reading:

Olufunke Adeboye, “A Church in a Cinema Hall? Pentecostal Appropriation of Public Space in Nigeria” Journal of Religion in Africa, 42(2): 145- 171, 2012.

Rijk van Dijk, “Witchcraft and skepticism by proxy: Pentecostalism and laughter in urban Malawi” In Henrietta L. Moore and Todd Sanders, ed. Magical Interpretations, Material Realities: Modernity, Witchcraft and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa (London: Routledge, 2001).

Olivier Driessens, “The celebritization of society and culture: Understanding the structural dynamics of celebrity culture” International Journal of Cultural Studies16(6): 641- 657, 2012.

Robert B. Ekelund, Robert F. Herbert, Robert D. Tollison, The Marketplace of Christianity (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2006).

Rosalind I.J. Hackett, “Charismatic/Pentecostal Appropriation of Media Technologies in Nigeria and Ghana” Journal of Religion in Africa, 28(3): 258- 277, 1998.

Ogbu Kalu, “The Big Man of the Big God: Popular Culture, Media, and the Marketability of Religion” New Theology Review, May 2007, pp. 15-26.

Birgit Meyer, “Impossible representations: Pentecostalism, Vision, and Video technology in Ghana” In Birgit Meyer and Annelies Moors, eds. Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).

Ebenezer Obadare, “The Charismatic Porn-star: Social Citizenship and the West African Pentecostal Erotic” Citizenship Studies, 22(6), 2018. Forthcoming.

Ebenezer Obadare, “The Muslim Response to the Pentecostal Surge in Nigeria: Prayer and the Rise of Charismatic Islam” Journal of Religious and Political Practice, 2/1: 75- 91, 2016.

Jesse Weaver Shipley, “Comedians, Pastors, and the Miraculous Agency of Charisma in Ghana” Cultural Anthropology, 24(3): 523- 552, 2009.

Ebenezer Obadare
Ebenezer Obadare is Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas and Research Fellow at the Research Institute for Theology and Religion, University of South Africa. His research has concentrated on the civil society-state interface, with particular interest in informal strategies of resistance under changing dynamics of rule. He has also researched and published extensively on religion and politics, civic engagement, and citizenship in Africa. His latest book is Pentecostal Republic: Religion and the Struggle for State Power in Nigeria(Zed Books/University of Chicago Press, 2018). He is the author of Humor, Silence, and Civil Society in Nigeria(University of Rochester Press, 2016.) editor of The Handbook of Civil Society in Africa(Springer, 2014) and co-editor of Civic Agency in Africa: Arts of Resistance in the 21st Century(James Currey, 2014) and four other books.
Theorizing Modernities article

On Crossroads: Learnings from Modernity, Feminisms, and Transrational Peace

Photo Credit: Steve Wilson. Crossroads in Hampshire, UK.

“To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads”
Gloria Anzaldúa

How do you know you are alive?

I have asked myself and others this somewhat unusual question, and “breathing,” “thinking,” “feeling one’s heartbeat,” and “relating to others” are among the answers I have received. These empirical responses align with Descartes on the importance of thinking to human experience, summarized in his famous quote “I think therefore I am” (2005:51). However, they also show a larger spectrum that includes sensorial, somatic, and relational aspects. As vital as thinking is for human existence, it is also important to acknowledge that it does not encompass life in its fullness.

Descartes’ famous saying, and the way subsequent generations have appropriated and developed it into what is referred to as modernity, poses many problems for peace. Using rationality as the main premise for identifying life prioritizes beings and things that can be rationally understood. In modernity, this rational understanding is restricted to things susceptible to mathematical or logical explanation, employing a conception of science that is mechanistic, quantitative, Eurocentric, and secularized (Martínez Guzmán 2000: 52). Peace, therefore, is understood as a singular and absolute concept, a predictable outcome of calculated steps. This leads to the troublesome view of peace as a product of universal applicability, developed by neutral experts, which could be exported to supposedly unpeaceful people in civilizing and development projects. The violent consequences of such projects attest the problematic premises upon which this concept of peace is based.

A modern understanding of peace, based exclusively on rationality, falls short in offering multifaceted perspectives of the world and appropriate tools to navigate it. This understanding stems from the observation that there are opposites in the world (Dietrich 2012). From the need to make sense of and thrive among these oppositions emerges the strategy of categorizing opposites and evaluating them. One is given precedence over the other, resulting in distinctions such as good and bad, right and wrong. Repression and suppression of difference results in the grueling effort to reach a self-referenced yet delusional ideal of goodness, righteousness, and purity.

One consequence of this logic is the exclusion of others who do not think like “I” do. Modernity’s use of reason as the premise to identify life, or to acknowledge the right to existence, lays aside a whole range of beings which do not correspond to its definition of thinking. Nature is seen as devoid of consciousness and therefore exploitable to serve the lives of beings who think. Furthermore, this logic lays aside all those human beings who do not share “my” thinking or abide by “my” worldview. Considering that this “I” is restricted to a normative combination of identities, it devalues groups considered as others, such as women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color, some ethnicities and nationalities, and lower income classes. Intersectionality shows even more complicated nuances of this logic of exclusion. The consequence then is similar to that befalling nature: exploitation and an existence that serves the normative “right” identity, the one against which all other existence is referenced.

In the same vein, when thinking is elevated as the only valid source of knowledge, other ways of knowing are suppressed. Sensing, feeling, intuiting, and witnessing (Koppensteiner 2018) are denigrated as irrational and unscientific. Besides losing touch with the richness of human experience, the supremacy of thinking prevents balancing and complementing reason with insights coming from the body, the heart, intuition, and spiritual inspiration. Such balance contributes to an awareness of relationality and the interconnectedness of life. Without balance, the problematic combination of the claim to absolute truth, a rejection of otherness, and the striving for purity may reach extremes and threaten difference altogether (Koppensteiner 2009).

Scholars and practitioners of feminist, gender, and critical race theory have long engaged in questioning the self-righteousness and rigid categorizations of dominant discourse, denouncing violent structures and calling for change. They have developed deep reflections on the causes and structures of violence, questioning systems of oppressive power, and holding violent narratives accountable. This has been of vital importance for peace work. They have called attention to deeper dynamics of violence going on underneath mainstream conflict intervention models and contributed to breaking the modern monolithic interpretation of peace. This rupture found echo in the field of peace studies with the acknowledgment of many and imperfect peaces (Dietrich and Sützl 1997, Muñoz 2006).

Authors such as hooks (1984), Crenshaw (1995), and especially Anzaldúa (1999), to name a few, delved into the exploration of the uncertainties, fears, and suffering of human experience on the margins. My experience with these texts has been painful but also inspiring, as they showed that an investigation of the power dynamics and potentialities within them may open space for tapping into power contained in vulnerability and in the intersections of difference and belonging. In this process, alternatives develop, revealing a potential for different forms of relating, anchored to the vulnerability of an open-ended and constantly shifting subject (Echavarría 2008).

This call for exploring relationality in the processes of changing and being changed that accompany human interaction resonates with a transrational understanding of peace (Dietrich 2012). The transrational approach does not deny or transcend rationality, but crosses through it, integrating reason while weakening its harmful tendencies of absolutism with an emphasis on relationality. Therefore, it invites a twist[1], a reworking of modernity’s split between nature and culture, body and mind, observer and observed, us and them (Dietrich 2012). Twisting this split involves more than simplistic inclusion. It is not about a work of goodness, of integrating people from the margins to the center, while divisive dynamics remain untouched. It involves enlarging the landscape of perception, engaging with people in open relationality, and questioning the different roles that perpetuate violence, including one’s own. It involves shifting the ways power, love, and politics are understood and enacted. It involves acknowledging not only the academy as a locus of production of knowledge, but also schools, political and communal gatherings, and personal experiences. It involves dialogue among thinking, feeling, sensing, intuiting, and witnessing, and dialogue among people with different worldviews.

Twisting this split and healing the wounds derived from it requires hard work, and a profound change in structures and cultural behaviors that perpetuate it. However, this is not an endeavor that is out of reach. It begins with changes in the way each person perpetuates violence, transforms her conflicts and relates to others, and more frequently opens and holds spaces that enable experiences of intra- and interpersonal peace. In a transrational perspective, peace is available as a potential within human beings, who are embedded in the pulsating relationality and connectedness of life. Therefore, while acknowledging the gifts and risks of rationality, it is important also to sustain the energetic remembrance of interconnectedness, or as Anzaldúa suggests: being crossroads in the borderless fabric of relationality.


[1] Wolfgang Dietrich derives the term twist from Gianni Vattimo’s verwindung. Distinct from overcoming, twisting refers to a process of deriving reflections while recollecting, taking into consideration earlier experiences (201).


Further Reading:

Anzaldúa, G. (1999) Borderlands = La frontera. The new mestiza. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Butler, J. (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Crenshaw, K. W. (1995) ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color’ in Crenshaw, Kimberlé, et al. Critical Race Theory: The Key writings that Formed the Movement. The New Press: New York

Descartes, R. (2005). A Discourse of a Method for the Well Guiding of Reason, and the Discovery of Truth in the Sciences. [Ann Arbor, Mich.]: Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership

Dietrich, W. (2014) ‘A Brief Introduction to Transrational Peace Research and Elicitive Conflict Transformation’ in Journal of Conflictology 5 (2), 48-57. Campus for Peace, UOC.

Dietrich, W. (2013) Elicitive Conflict Transformation and the Transrational Shift in Peace Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Dietrich, W. (2012) Interpretations of Peace in History and Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Dietrich, W., Sützl, W. (1997) A Call for Many Peaces. Peace Center Schlaining

Echavarría Álvarez, J. (2014) ‘Elicitive Conflict Mapping: A Practical Tool for Peacework’ in Journal of Conflictology 5 (2), 58-71. Campus for Peace, UOC.

Echavarría Alvarez, J. (2008) ‘Telling Different Stories: Subjectivity and Feminist Identity Politics’. Paper presented at the Panel Gender Theory, Subjectivity and Security’. International Studies Association, Annual Convention. San Francisco, 26-29 March.

hooks, b. (2013). Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.

hooks, b. (1989). Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston, MA: South End Press.

hooks, b. (1984). Feminist Theory from Margin to Center. Boston, MA: South End Press.

Koppensteiner, N. (2018) ‘Transrational Methods of Peace Research: The Researcher as (Re)Source’ in Transrational Resonances. Echoes to the Many Peaces edited by Josefina Echavarría, Daniela Ingruber and Norbert Koppensteiner, 59-81, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Koppensteiner, N. (2009) The Art of the Transpersonal Self: Transformation as Aesthetic and Energetic Practice. New York: Atropa Press.

Martínez Guzmán, V. (2000) ‘Saber Hacer las Paces. Epistemologías de los Estudios para la Paz’. Convergencia n° 23 Toluca: UAEM, 49-93.

Muñoz, F. (2006) ‘Imperfect Peace’ in Key Texts of Peace Studies/ Schlüsseltexte der Friedensforschung/Textos claves de la Investigación para la Paz, Dietrich, W., Echavarría Alvarez, J., Koppensteiner N. (eds.). Vienna: LIT-Verlag, 241-282

Paula Facci
Paula Ditzel Facci is a facilitator and lecturer in the Unit for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and in the Graduate Diploma in Conflict Transformation and Peace Studies with emphasis on Emotional Balance at the Peace and Mind Institute, Brazil. She holds a PhD in Peace, Conflict and Development from Universitat Jaume I, Spain, and was a visiting research fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Previously, she worked with educational and social projects in the development field in Brazil. Her research interest is on methods to elicit conflict transformation, with a focus on dance and movement. Email:
Global Currents article

The 2018 Fashion Exhibit at New York’s Met: Revealing Catholics to Themselves

Photo Credit: John Seitz. Cleric-inspired fashion at the Heavenly Bodies exhibit.

The dominant templates for the designs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibit come from two different Catholic figures, the church’s ordained men (the clergy) and its angels. These two groups belong to what the curators call the “earthly” and the “celestial” hierarchies of Catholic tradition. The “heavenly bodies” in question are both ‘up there’ above and ‘down here’ below. The treatment of the first of the hierarchies, the celestial, is somewhat limited in the exhibit. This group—made up, according to Pseudo-Dionysius’ rendering, of the Councilors, Governors, and Ministers of Heaven—is represented at the Met mainly by its lowest-ranking members, the angels. The curators explain in the exhibit’s wall text that angels “feature most prominently in the imagination of fashion designers” because they “function as guides, protectors, and messengers to humans.” They have been a staple of Catholic art over the centuries. Borrowing from these referents, the exhibit includes a choir of angles standing far above the floor of the main hall. An adjoining hall features another cluster of angels. One or two angel-like figures hover over doorways, other impressively winged angels occupy prominent positions. They are gendered, almost exclusively, female.

Photo Credit: John Seitz. Met Heavenly Bodies exhibit.

But the real emphasis of the exhibit rests on pieces inspired by the church’s earthly hierarchy—a group that the curators tell us is made up of priests (of different ranks and religious orders), bishops, cardinals, and popes as well as “nuns and monks” who have elected a “deliberately modest position” (they leave out deacons). The existence of this clear earthly hierarchy is a boon to the fashion designers, who capitalize on the church’s eagerness to use dress to “reflect and reinforce divisions based on rank and gender.” A good number of the designs reference the habits of women religious, particularly habits that were more commonly worn before the late 1960s. More prominent, however, are pieces inspired by priests’ liturgical wear, items that have remained a steady presence in Catholic life, with some modest changes, up to the present day. Not only do the exhibit’s main rooms bristle with cleric-inspired clothes, but the entire collection on loan from the Vatican, pieces designed mainly with ritual functions in mind, consists of the couture of the ordained, specifically various popes. Hierarchy, and specifically the earthly hierarchy topped by clerics, could hardly be more central.

The exhibit, in other words, is about power as much as it is about beauty. More precisely, it is about the ways beauty inflects power. The question then becomes what kinds of power the exhibit marshals or interrogates and to what ends.

Visual Culture and the Power of Vestments

Photo Credit: US National Archives. Father (Major) Edward J. Waters, Catholic Chaplain from Oswego, New York, conducts Divine Services on a pier for members of the first assault troops thrown against Hitler's forces on the continent. Weymouth, England. 06/06/1944.
Photo Credit: US National Archives. Father (Major) Edward J. Waters, Catholic Chaplain from Oswego, New York, conducts Divine Services on a pier for members of the first assault troops thrown against Hitler’s forces on the continent. Weymouth, England. June 6, 1944.

There may be a clue in U.S. religious history. In recent years I have spent time viewing photographs from the Second World War. There too, priestly clothing  featured  prominently in the stories the image makers were telling. One of the most common visual motifs of the war featured a robed priest—often with arms aloft in the moment of consecration during the mass—surrounded by military equipment, especially weapons, jeeps, tanks, and ships. There were obvious reasons for a focus on priests as part of the U.S. effort to promote its cause during the war. Priests offered a clear signal of “religiosity,” a crucial part of the narrative that aimed to distinguish the Allies from their supposedly irreligious or anti-religious enemies. Priests lent an aura of moral righteousness to the U.S. cause, offering reassurance both of the justice of the war and the eternal security of those fighting it. Priests also allowed image makers to tell a story of U.S. religious pluralism.

The priests-at-war motif served other ends as well. These results can be discerned in part by reading Catholic responses to the images they saw being produced by the U.S. propaganda machine: they could not get enough. Military and civilian photographers put Catholics at center stage in the war effort, and Catholic image makers—editors of Catholic journals, books, and pamphlets who often drew on the storehouse of images made available by the government—loved what they saw. Based on the commentaries and captioning they developed to accompany the images, Catholic writers were particularly fixated on the intersection of “heavenly” bodies and objects—priests and the things they carried and wore—with military objects. To be sure, Catholics weren’t just imagining these overlaps. Photographers emphasized them as well through the formal decisions of their art. Led in this way, Catholic writers particularly relished these intersections, routinely pointing them out to readers who might not be aware that they were viewing, say, a mass being said atop an altar jury-rigged out of an ammunition box.

Photo Credit: US Marine Corps. US Navy Chaplain O. David Herrmann preparing to hold religious service for US Marines on Saipan, Mariana Islands, June 24, 1944; note wrecked Type 95 Ha-Go light tank used as altar.

War photographers showed U.S. Catholics to themselves in the context of global war. Catholics took those images and leveraged them into stories about the sublime resonance and holy solemnity of their distinctive ways of being religious. The specific materiality of Catholic ritual life was made to absorb, leaven, and sanctify modern means of death and destruction. Catholic objects, and especially Catholic priests, were not irrelevant remnants from a superstitious past, but potent mediators of sanctifying grace in a terrifying world. The war images gave Catholics a way to think their Catholicism in the midst of a destructive and shifting modern context.

A Mirror of the Church: Sex and Spirituality

Heavenly Bodies is likewise a vehicle for showing Catholics to themselves. This time the salient context is not war. The exhibit instead positions Catholic bodies and their special objects amid three volatile cultural touchpoints of signal importance to the church: gender, sex, and spirituality. First, the exhibit takes place amid widespread challenges to inherited rigidities around gender within and around the church. The case for resuscitating women deacons within the church recently gained attention when Pope Francis directed a commission to explore the issue. Non-Roman Catholics, a good portion of whom differentiate themselves from the Roman church mainly through their support for the ordination of women, have stirred up recent waves of scholarly and popular analysis. On questions of sexuality, a recent publication by exhibit consultant and popular author Fr. James Martin, S.J. raised storms within sectors of the church for its call for a caring ministry for and conversation with LGBTQ Catholics. The clerical sexual abuse crisis has not really abated, and continually reopens discussion of the sex lives of priests, with some wondering whether celibacy and the historic silences and repressions of seminary and rectory can be blamed for producing men willing to exploit their power over the vulnerable. Others have seen fit to conflate sexual abuse with homosexuality, thus creating a scapegoat out of gay priests and pushing silence about sexuality deeper into the fabric of the church. More widely, the exhibit takes place after the success of popular media exploring sexual orientation and gender identity, including television shows like Transparent, which dives into the life of a trans woman and her family. The exhibit also rests within the context of heightened awareness about the sexual exploitation of women by men, including accusations against the star of Transparent, Jeffrey Tambor.

Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gallery View, Medieval Sculpture Hall.
Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gallery View, Medieval Sculpture Hall.

“Spirituality” stands as the third dominant context within which “Heavenly Bodies” must be understood. An oft-cited Pew study from 2015 revealed that there are nearly half as many people in the country (9% of the total adult population) who consider themselves former Catholics as those that call themselves Catholic (20% of the total adult population). Another 9% are characterized as “cultural Catholics.” One might look at this positively, and note that 38% (45% if you count those married to Catholics) of adult Americans have been substantively shaped by the Catholic tradition. But interpretations have tended in the other direction, toward handwringing about decreasing affiliation. A rise in the number of people claiming no religious affiliation at all (23%) has aggravated such concerns. Again, the statistics might be misleading since the so-called “nones” definitively have “some” religion in the form of “belief in God” (61%), an affirmation that religion is “very important” to them (13%), and “daily prayer” (20%). But downward trends in these numbers since 2007, and high rates of disaffiliation among Millennials (in comparison with other generations at the same age), have heightened a popular sense that spirituality is supplanting religion. Indeed, if my classrooms at a Catholic university are any indication, the idea of being “spiritual but not religious” has had tremendous staying power. This notion permeates the exhibit (and the history of modern museums) as well. At the press tour before the official opening of the exhibit, the curator, Andrew Bolton, remarked that most of the featured designers were themselves Catholic, although not necessarily actively practicing. Bolton also remembered his own Catholic upbringing, but made no comments about his current relation to the tradition.

It is in these contexts—heightened scrutiny of rigid norms of sex and gender as well as the increasing feeling that religion is faltering before “spirituality”—that the exhibit reveals Catholics to themselves. What they will see, particularly the implicit pairing of official and imagined clerical clothing, has the effect of a kind of funhouse mirror which rather than distorting reality, brings latent or suppressed elements to the fore.

Showcasing a Countercultural Tradition

In this case, Catholics are being shown subversive sides of the tradition vis-à-vis U.S. masculinity, femininity, and idealizations of spiritual autonomy. In simpler terms, Catholics will see the ways the church is gender fluid, sexually playful, and resolutely hierarchical. Unlike many in the church, the designers do not shy away, but embrace and even make a virtue of the abiding anti-Catholic barb about a feminized priesthood. This observation, dating back probably to the beginning of the priesthood itself, has long entertained and riled the church’s critics (from inside and out) who see clerical men—celibate and yet with special access to both men and women’s deepest secrets—as disruptive to gender norms. Martin Luther was famous for reviling the non-procreative priesthood as contrary to nature and God’s law. Other critics of the priesthood have seized particularly on priests’ clothing, especially the long cassock and liturgical chasuble, to suggest that a fundamental perversion of standard sexual norms is woven into the church’s hierarchy (see Gary Wills’ Why Priesthood? A Failed Tradition, 25-27). The designers play with these kinds of gendered expectations, borrowing from priestly cassocks worn in the tradition only by men, for example, to dress a manikin with an Ava Gardner shape. A white and gold get-up topped by a tall mitre—the kind that would only be worn by a pope—rests on a form with an impossibly girdled waist and rounded bosom (Rihanna reinforced the look at the Met Gala). The prominent militant Catholic in the exhibit is Joan of Arc, a visionary woman famous for wearing men’s clothing in her pursuit of a role in the defense of France during the Hundred Years’ War. Ordained and vowed men, as well as vowed women, have long been told that they give up sex and the procreative family in order to be married to Christ or the church itself. In keeping with this standard, the mystical tradition, of course, routinely takes readers into saints’ erotic encounters with Jesus. In these ways at least, as Mark Jordan and Anthony Petro have also helped us see, heterosexuality, gender rigidity, and sexual prudishness are norms that are not actually normative in the church.

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Digital Composite Scan by Katerina Jebb. Mitre of Pius XI (reigned 1922–39) Italian, 1929.
Courtesy of the Collection of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City.

Neither is spiritual autonomy. The tradition, the exhibit reminds us, is resolutely mediated, the opposite of “spiritual” in that it establishes specific and reserved hierarchical pathways through which one unites with God. This interpretation pushes back slightly against the interpretation offered in the exhibit’s curatorial framing. The exhibit’s subtitle, “Fashion and The Catholic Imagination,” borrows from the great sociologist-priest Andrew Greeley, and frames the exhibit as part of the church’s confirmation that God’s grace is available, potentially at least, through everything in creation. This spiritual reading of Catholicism is certainly woven into the tradition. But the centrality of Holy Communion and Confession as means of grace offers a competing notion. In ordinary circumstances these sacraments are required, and themselves require priests. Surrounded by clerical clothes and prominent talk of hierarchy, visitors to the exhibit encounter a profoundly mediated tradition, not a tradition of independent searching, God in all things, and spiritual autonomy.

They see, in other words, another strikingly countercultural feature of the Roman Catholic tradition. While corporate boardrooms and political offices make gestures toward gender inclusivity, the Roman Catholic priesthood resolutely denies it. And even though the theology of priests has moved fitfully toward collaborative, inclusive, and horizontal models over the last one hundred years, the fact remains, in the words of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), that priests’ ordination still impresses upon them a “sacred power” to “teach and rule” in a mode that is different from lay Catholics’ authority “in essence and not only in degree.” And this is still the way Catholics tend to experience priests; for better or worse, they add solemnity and sacred presence to any situation, they are not like “us.” This elevation, of course, is deeply resented, easily ridiculed, and readily abused. But it is also, as the wartime photos aver, deeply desired.

This desire for religious hierarchy, the fascination with and even need for divine intermediaries who stand apart from everyday people, is one of the most revealing lessons of the Heavenly Bodies exhibit. The Gala, where elite invitees walk the red carpet in front of the museum while sporting exhibit-inspired clothing of their own, is thus not at all out of step with the religious nature of the exhibit, but profoundly in keeping with it: they are not unlike priests in their elevation, their supposed transcendence of everyday life, their access to power, and their constant proximity to our adulation, derisions, and rejection. The fashions show Catholic (and Catholic-adjacent) people the abiding resonance of the idea of priesthood.

Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gallery View, Cuxa Cloister.

In all of these revelations, the exhibit is restrained and relatively modest. There was even more room for play with the undersides of Catholic life had the curators wished to explore them. It is reasonable to assume that cooperation with the Vatican and the support of the Archdiocese of New York helped keep radically excessive themes in check. But this restraint has not stopped some interpreters from criticizing the exhibit as either unseemly in its embrace of church luxury or sacrilegious in its playful appropriations of sacred realities. What these critiques miss, and what I myself missed in my initial reactions to the exhibit, are the ways in which the collection offers Catholics a chance to think about their tradition, to see themselves anew, in a contemporary context of spiritual, sexual, and gender fluidity.


John Seitz
John C. Seitz is a scholar of U.S. religion. He serves as Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and as an Associate Director for the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns (Harvard, 2011) and of academic articles about the Roman Catholic priesthood in the U.S., U.S. Catholics in the Second World War, and the study of religion.    
Field Notes article

The Modernity of Witchcraft Asylum Claims

A line of refugees crossing the border of Hungary and Austria on their way to Germany. September 6th, 2015. Photo credit Mstyslav Chernov.

“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. 

Modernity and Witchcraft

In Peter Geschiere’s now seminal work, The Modernity of Witchcraft, witchcraft discourse and the occult more generally in West Africa are presented as a flexible and ambivalent mechanism to consider and engage social change, and not a logically closed system of beliefs and practices in the manner described by earlier structural anthropologists. Witchcraft is highly important today because many individuals from different countries and communities on the African continent turn to forms of magic, vodou, juju, or the supernatural broadly understood to navigate the unsteady and inconsistent challenges of globalization. If Robert Orsi’s contention that the political history of modernity is also always religious history, it merits considering how this might extend to one of the most widespread and omnipresent religious forces and practices in Africa, namely witchcraft as a manifestation of the supernatural. Witchcraft accusations that surface in various guises in asylum claims, and how they are adjudicated and often rejected for various reasons such as not rising to the level of what is considered religion in European and North American immigration courts, provide one context to think about this issue.

In 2009, the adherents of a vodou priest (bokono) kidnapped Dopé (not her real name) in Cotonou, Benin, and brought her to the atikevodou shrine of Sakpata near Cové where she was imprisoned and raped. After several weeks, Dopé, an educated, married mother, escaped to her husband and then fled to the US to seek asylum. She believed her experiences were the result of her childhood betrothal as trokosi, a form of indebted curse exacted for her mother’s infidelity. Dopé’s supernatural narrative troubled her lawyers and they feared no judge would consider it credible. They reframed her claim by documenting misogynistic forced marriage practices, sexual assault, child abuse, child slavery and the widespread belief in levirate (widow remarriage to husband’s kin). Her lawyers chose gender violence arguments coupled with established precedent pertaining to slavery and trafficking as a strategy to avoid foregrounding the discussion of vodou, often considered a form of witchcraft by adjudicators (asylum-granting officials).

The Asylum Process and the Climate of Suspicion

Dopé’s experience, like those of other women whose testimonies I have been asked to evaluate as an expert witness in federal immigration court, is emblematic of legal strategies unfolding in response to the increasing securitization of migration described by Vicki Squire, and new technologies of adjudication my co-editor, Galya Ruffer, and I have explored elsewhere. Until the 1980s, refugee and asylum legal procedures operated within an informal climate of trust and applicants were generally presumed to be telling the truth. Customized research—such as expert testimony from scholars or professionals or medico-legal reports—was almost unheard of. Since the 1980s, however, significant global geopolitical changes have conspired to turn the refugee experience upside down. The refugee status determination process is now overshadowed by what Didier Fassin and Estelle D’Halluin refer to as a “climate of suspicion, in which the refugee or asylum seeker is seen as someone trying to take advantage of the country’s hospitality.”

What Paul Ricœur first called “hermeneutics of suspicion” characterizes asylum and refugee proceedings and gives rise to new technologies. One such technology, data referred to as “Country of Origin Information” or COI, has become central to the pseudo-scientific testing of asylum narratives, and increasingly it features in so-called “credibility assessments.” Adjudicators increasingly emphasize the importance of empirical research in establishing claimant credibility. Claims and counterclaims must be anchored by objective data, publicly sourced information, and arguments substantiated by scholarly evidence.

Country of Origin Information has emerged as a specialized knowledge category that attempts to answer, with empirical data, the central matter of refugee law: namely, who is a refugee? As Jean-François Lyotard explained, the burden resting on individual asylum seekers to prove claims that often cannot be documented is a “wrong,” but one that is “accompanied by the loss of means to prove the damage.” The temptation to stretch, embellish, or invent narratives that conform to asylum law is thus enormous. Cross-cultural and cross-linguistic communication barriers coupled with physical and psychological traumas add considerable complexity, making inconsistency part and parcel of the process of narration. Indeed, as Jacques Derrida explained, the borderline between “political” and “economic” refugees is very difficult to determine.

Asylum and the Supernatural

Recent scholarship on the supernatural in Africa—including, but not limited to practices described as magic, sorcery, and witchcraft—has returned to the distinction, first articulated by E.E. Evans-Pritchard, between external and somatic supernatural power. Peter Geschiere is one of several scholars to have observed that witchcraft, the preeminent folk terminology for the supernatural, is much more public in Africa today, and features in political and social debate. Witchcraft-driven violence challenges socio-political order with a variety of political and legislative outcomes. Witchcraft and sorcery, in Katherine Luongo’s words, “denote a continuum ranging from supernatural malevolence to supernatural healing.” Harry West has described how on Mozambique’s Muedan plateau the “world of sorcery” is “filled with shades of gray.” By contrast, however, according to Katherine Luongo, “no ambiguity about witchcraft or witches exists” in the “global arena of asylum.” Witchcraft operates as an “embodied capacity” to “harm” and it certainly does not engage the Refugee Convention’s religious protection. Luongo contends that in asylum claims, witchcraft has “an uncomfortable ahistoricity and an awkward detachment from institutions.”

Asylum-seekers are often uncomfortable divulging the full details of the supernatural realm, but generally speaking it is my experience that many are confident that their experiences mark them as constitutive of another Refugee Convention protected category, namely the “particular social group.” Asylum claims in which the supernatural is only one facet in a multidimensional case enable us to avoid entering into the rich but frustrating debate about what constitutes a distinct “social group” basis for asylum. Dopé’s story demonstrates how, in contrast with many adjudicators’ perceptions that “primitive beliefs” are the realm of the poor and illiterate, the supernatural is not confined to lower socio-economic echelons. Dopé, an educated, married mother living in Benin’s economic capital, Cotonou, but originally from the village of Cové, fled to the US after her traumatic experience. Dopé claimed she was kidnapped as an adult in her late twenties by adherents of a bokono and brought to his atikevodou (healing vodou) shrine of Sakpata, where she was imprisoned and repeatedly raped.

As indicated above, Dopé believed her experiences as an adult were the result of her betrothal as a child to a vodou shrine as a form of indebted inherited slavery (trokosi), a form of punishment exacted on her mother for her alleged infidelity. Dopé interpreted her predicament to be the result of her public disavowal of the trokosi obligations when she reached maturity. She had been raped and abused by her kidnapper’s brother multiple times as a child. But when she reached maturity, she simply walked from the compound and moved to Cotonou to begin a new life. Whereas the individual to whom she was betrothed had made no attempt to entice her to the shrine, after his death, his brother dispatched men to kidnap her, consistent with his understanding of levirate.

In Dope’s initial interview, the US asylum officer rejected the idea that educated, literate women practiced vodou. The Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship Services held that only the poor, rural, and illiterate would be involved in sorcery and magic. On appeal in immigration court, this decision was overturned. Whereas ritual enslavement and vodou confounded the first-level bureaucratic adjudicator, defensively resisting slavery, kidnapping, rape, and imprisonment—in a country where vodou is publicly sanctioned and where the state has designated a “National Voodoo Day”—constituted established grounds for social group persecution in the eyes of the immigration judge. Citing the constitution and the statutes of Benin that prohibit many practices attendant to slavery, but importantly make no mention of trokosi and vodounsi, sexual slavery, forced marriage (mariage forcé), and sexual assault in the context of marriage, the judge held that it remained the case that many women continue to be subject to the ‘Coutumier du Dahomey’ which treat them as legal minors and accord them limited rights in marriage and inheritance. Importantly, there was no evidence of enforcement of laws protecting women from some of these human rights violations. Dopé’s legal team thus successfully reassembled her narrative as that of a woman fleeing multiple backward, traditional misogynistic practices, at the center of which was a very violent form of forced marriage for which there was no plausible expectation of state protection.

Questioning Dominant Interpretations of Religion

It’s hard to understand why vodou remains so alien a concept to refugee adjudicators, particularly as the religious observance is so well documented by ethnographers and anthropologists. There is no shortage of lay and scholarly literature about the intrinsic importance of vodou and various other manifestations of animist belief and religious practice. And yet adjudicators remain resistant to interpreting persecution within the context of a vodou-based narrative as engaging the religious persecution protections enshrined in the Refugee Conventions; indeed, Orsi’s framework with which I began this blog post seem almost prophetic.

There are perhaps two reasons why vodou troubles refugee adjudicators. The first is the nature of the judiciary; for example in 2017 the UK judiciary remained composed of a majority of white males, although this is changing. Similar gender and racial dynamics can be found in many jurisdictions in Europe and North America. The second issue is the inherently conservative nature of refugee decision-making. No judge likes to be overturned on appeal. If a decision can be made based on existing and firmly established interpretation of the Refugee Conventions, there is a strong bias to avoid entering into discussion of matters that may raise the ire or the eyebrows of more senior judges or tribunal heads. Fortunately, both of these dynamics are subject to change over time, and I suspect in the near future attorneys representing other cases mirroring that of Dopé may not need to go to such lengths to achieve migrant justice.

Benjamin Lawrance
Benjamin N. Lawrance was a visiting scholar at the Kroc Institute from 2017 to 2018. He is a graduate of Stanford University and University College London. He is a professor of history at the University of Arizona and studies comparative historical and contemporary slavery, human trafficking, cuisine and globalization, human rights, refugee mobilities, and asylum decision-making. While at the Kroc Institute, he worked on a book entitled Nations Inside Out: An African Refugee Grammar.
Field Notes article

Pondering Theodicy in Education City

Photo Credit: Javed Akhatar. Madrasa Discourses students in the Education City Mosque in Doha in December 2017.
Photo Credit: Javed Akhatar. Madrasa Discourses students in the Education City Mosque in Doha in December 2017.

How can old tradition serve new knowledge creation? From a theological perspective, what happens when science begins to see human beings as it sees other animals, plants, and even inanimate matter? To ponder these and similar questions, the Madrasa Discourses project 2017 winter intensive invited about 50 madrasa students and faculty from India and Pakistan to Doha, Qatar. For six days we were exposed to serious and interesting lectures, discussions, dialogues, and workshops on translating Islam across cosmologies.

On the first day, Professor Mahan Mirza, Lead Faculty at the University of Notre Dame for the project, revealed the agenda for the next week: “Not to tell you what to think, but rather just to think!” He drew our attention to the two notions of dhikr (remembrance of Allah) and the verses of fikr (imagination) in the Qur’an. His discussion centered on contemporary theological challenges through which he helped us to understand the link between faith and science. This has been a subject of study since ancient times, addressed by theologians, philosophers, and now scientists. While previously overlapping categories, religious scholarship and the practice of observation and experimentation are now often seen as distinct, with some characterizing the relationship as one of conflict, others describing it as one of contrast, and others proposing convergence (see Haught 2012). On the subject of death and immortality, modern science and modern culture have an entirely different take on life and death as compared to Islamic religious perspectives. The former don’t think of death as a metaphysical mystery, and they certainly don’t view death as the source of life’s meaning. Rather, for many modern people death is a technical problem that we can and should solve. Humans always die due to some technical glitch, for example, the heart stops pumping blood, cancerous cells spread in the liver, etc. These are all technical problems. And every technical problem has a technical solution that in the future can or must be solved (Harari 2015, 22-23)! Students engaged in small group discussions in the late afternoons on various prompts created by Professor Mirza. For instance: “What approach (conflict, contrast, or convergence) between science and faith is acceptable?”“Will modern science succeed in solving the puzzle of death?” “How may a-mortality challenge theology?”

Hermeneutics, history, and tradition were discussed the next day by Professor Ebrahim Moosa, Primary Investigator of the Madrasa Discourses Project and Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His session included textuality in Muslim imagination from authority to metaphoricity, and the intimacy of language and thought in Islam. He emphasized the hermeneutic circle that refers to the idea that one’s understanding of the text as a whole is established by reference to the individual parts and one’s understanding of each individual part by reference to the whole. Neither the whole text nor any individual part can be understood without reference to one another, and hence, it is a circle. Modern hermeneutics includes both verbal and non-verbal communication as well as presuppositions, pre-understandings, and semiotics (Mir et al. 2015, 113; see also McNamara 1994). Several of the concerns that grew out of his lecture became prompts for the afternoon session: “Does the language we use correspond to reality?” “What is the role of culture in language production?” “Why is it so difficult to translate concepts from one language to another?”

The third day, Professor Deen Mohammed, professor at the Hamad Bin Khalifa University and originally from Sri Lanka, talked about ethics and the ‘ulamā’s role related to contemporary problems and upgrading the capacity of theologians. Dr. Mohammed, who studied in a madrasa and a Buddhist monastery, explicitly highlighted the importance of Muslim ideology and introduced us to the ideas of Ghazāli and Shahāb ad-Dīn Suhrawardī. We also had the opportunity to hear from Professor Mohamed Khalifa, an Arab scholar also from Hamad Bin Khalifa University, who drew our attention to several topics, including the harmony between Christianity and Islam; the causes underlying the rise and decline of Islamic communities; the impact of colonialism on the Muslim world; environmental and sustainable development; why the ’ulamā do not talk about science and technology in Jumu’ah khutba (Friday prayer speech); and why do we not translate relevant scientific developments from European languages to our local languages.

These class discussions spilt over into the dining hall, cafes, and field trips.

Bringing the winter intensive full circle, Professors Waris Mazhari and Maulana Ammar Nasir, Madrasa Discourses Project Lead Faculty from India and Pakistan, respectively, talked of language, scripture, and interpretation on the fourth day. Their lectures helped us to understand that we are not alone in trying to reconcile our experiences, understandings, and social realities with our interpretations of the wahy (revelation). Great Muslim scholars, like Ghazāli in the past, also made efforts to reconcile Aql (reason) and Naql (text) and while doing so even faced similar kinds of challenges. They resolved these according to the realities and sensibilities of their own space and time.

The program culminated on the fifth day with Professor Rana Dajani, who discussed teaching evolution in the Muslim world and her strategies to reconcile Sharia norms (Islamic divine law) with the evolving international consensus on human rights, views based on scientific discoveries, and human experiences. During her lecture she stated that the theory of evolution and Islamic ideas are not mutually exclusive.

Photo Credit: Javed Akhatar. Dr. Ebrahim Moosa gives closing words after the Madrasa Discourses Winter Intensive in Doha in December 2017.
Photo Credit: Javed Akhatar. Dr. Ebrahim Moosa gives closing words after the Madrasa Discourses Winter Intensive in Doha in December 2017.

The sixth day wrapped up the winter intensive with summary presentations by the students and concluding remarks by our instructors and mentors. Professor Moosa concluded the intensive with the Urdu couplet of the famous poet Shakeel Badayuni, inviting students to not fear foreign influences, but rather find strength in their ability and culture, and use this strength to good ends (own translation below):

Merā azm itnā buland hai ki parā-e sholoñ kā Dar nahīñ

Mujhe ḳhauf ātish-e-gul se hai ye kahīñ chaman ko jalā na de

(My confidence in self is strong; I’m unafraid of foreign flames

I’m scared those sparks may ignite, that in the blossom’s bosom lay)

After six days of intense material and discussion, we were both mentally and physically exhausted. Our stay in “Education City” was, beyond doubt, a journey to comprehend questions of theodicy such as “how do old traditions serve knowledge-creation in modernity?” and realize their answers. We learned that many old Muslim traditions have never been opposed to modernism, novelty, and fresh interpretation. Moreover, these traditions did realize and comprehend the call for change and they performed their interpretations according to their space and time. Now the ‘ulamā of today, learning from the past, must act the same in accordance with today’s space and time.

We benefited from a variety of constructive ideas. Even if the program ended here, it would still be considered a resounding success for the deep reflection and personal transformation it engendered in us. Truly, it was an unbelievable journey of six days in “Education City”, Qatar, which we by no means are likely to forget.

Javed Akhatar
Javed Akhatar was born and brought up in Kanpur (Uttar Pradesh). Currently, he is teaching at Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi. Akhatar graduated in the science stream from Kanpur University, and received his Master's and Ph.D. degrees in Islamic Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia. His scholarly interests include Islamic Studies, Muslim education, world religions, and Islam in India.
Theorizing Modernities article

Modernities and Religious Identity and Difference



St Bartholomew's Church in New York City.
Photo Credit: Friscocali. St Bartholomew’s Church in New York City.

An important thread that runs clearly throughout the three responses to my book here, and through my book itself, concerns the fundamental human problem of identity and difference. How are we humans truly like each other in ways we can and must recognize and affirm and appreciate? And how are we genuinely different from each other in ways we must also acknowledge and respect? Humans expend massive energy trying to grind out answers to these thorny questions.

Scholars of religion do so when trying to honor the particularities of distinct religious traditions, sub-traditions, communities, and even individual religious experiences—while simultaneously struggling to name and describe a common subject matter, “religion,” that draws our shared focus of attention in a search for patterns across religious differences that may somehow signal something about our common human condition. But not only scholars wrestle with identity and difference. Much of the activity of everyday human life and of extraordinary social movements is also consumed with making sense of the pulls of identity and difference. With or to whom do we belong, and then who is the other, the not-us? Where do we find solidarity, and then who to us are strangers and rivals? What finally binds any of us humans together at any level, and then why and how do we resist being bound too tightly?

Scholars reflect different proclivities in these matters. Some are lumpers who see patterned commonalities, some are splitters who see distinctions. Sociologists tend toward the former by their disciplinary sensibilities, historians the latter. But it is impossible to escape the imperatives and reminders of either. While writing my book, a friend—a splitter—who graciously read the manuscript suggested cautiously that I limit my discussion to those religious traditions with which I actually had some expertise and not try to accomplish anything inclusive, much less universal. I understood. But I resisted. As a critical realist, I believe there is practiced in the real world, objective to our scholarly interpretations of it, a category of meaningful human activity that we call “religion,” and that we might as well get on with describing and understanding it as well as we can. That of course immediately requires acknowledging the massive differences that are evident within religion. Which religious hymns may rightly be paired with which others, for example, and why? What do we make of the fact that some religions have Creator Gods while others do not? The fundamental challenge of identity and difference always remains.

The same is true of lived human experience in modernity. Humans have struggled with problems of identity and difference forever, that is nothing new. We are driven by our basic biological, cognitive, and social human constitution. But modernity as a specific social formation dramatically accentuates the difficulties involved. The modern imperatives of identity become overwhelming at times, whether in modern nationalisms, state collectivisms, or totalizing mass-consumer capitalist lifestyle norms. The contradictory imperatives of difference likewise push to extremes in modernity, whether in radical liberal individualism, identity politics, or the democratization of genius’s obligation that every citizen have an equally valuable opinion to express on everything.

Photo Credit: Dan Nguyen. Wall Street in lockdown, September 2011. Trinity Church in the center, visible through security fencing.

Shifting the frame, we see a central problem as the contradiction in modernity between freedom and control, autonomy and discipline, self-assertion and acquiescence. What is modernity if not the life-or-death cry of “Liberty!”? Who is a modern if not the one who charts her own life path against all external constraints? Yet which of us moderns is not absolutely subject to the invasive eyes and hands of the state, the police, the military, the corporation? We are watched, controlled, disciplined at every turn. Modernity has indeed set “the individual” free while simultaneously perfecting the logistics of totalizing social control and discipline. Self-assertion and surveillance are modernity’s twins who will not stop fighting. In the end, the appearance of self-assertion will likely be coopted by the imperatives of surveillance, because the transcendent controlling interests of the owners of capital and the national security state will demand it, and because mass consumers are trained not to see and resist. Meanwhile, the long, agonistic process of the emergence, intensification, and recurrent mêlées generated by the contradictions of modern freedom and control will continue to write the developing script of human experience in the next decades.

All of this explains why modernity always has and will mean multiple modernities, not a singular modernity. The idea of the latter was an academic delusion generated by the Cold War. But we see now that one enlightened, democratic, capitalist, modern world order did not emerge from the collapse of communism. It could not have. Modernity is not simply a political and economic project, but more deeply a cultural one, in some ways a sacred or quasi-religious project. And the cultural project of modernity has never been internally stable, but contradictory, proceeding not as a unified all-systems-go, but deeply at odds with itself.

Liberty? Order? Freedom? Control? Autonomy? Centralization? Self-expression? Self-discipline? Self-affirmation? Surveillance? These are not “or” questions for modernity but “and” problems of modernity. And given our boundless human capacities for creativity and contradiction, obligation and objection, social solidarity and personal self-assertion, the kinds of concrete historical projects, movements, and institutions that modern actors will inevitably generate, live with, and die for will have the character not of singular unity but multiplicity, difference, and internal opposition.

Here we return to religion in modernity. Religion has of course played a leading role in the centuries of modern agonistic struggle over freedom and control, identity and difference. Precisely because religion possesses so many causal powers to shape people and the world, as I describe in the second chapter of my book, religion has not simply faded away into modern secular irrelevance. It is too potent at every level of human interest to have done that. Simply on the question of identity, for instance—meaning not only the matter of general shared similarities, but more specifically personal and social identifications: Who are my people? To whom do I belong?—religion is a key issue in every important economic and geo-political equation running today. And at the heart of those religious issues sits the unresolvable problem of human identity and difference, sameness and otherness, solidarity and exclusion. Thus, in ways that may previously have been opaque to us, highly diverse questions—such as, for example, which religious hymns might be well quoted together in scholarly texts, whether a Creator God is needed as the basis of mutual comprehension, or when we might attribute some outcome to the work of a superhuman power or not—reveal discernable patterns of underlying significance.

If we summarize our modern global problem as being about how to sustain minimal non-destructive coexistence if not actual self-interested cooperation in a radically pluralistic world in which globalization has liquidated most of the constraints of space-time, we continually return to the matter of identity and difference. What do we share? How are we different? And what practically does that mean? It may be that, far from becoming an irrelevant bygone in a secular age, religion proves, for better or worse, to be the telltale factor.


Featured Image: Wally Gobetz, on “NYC – FiDi: Trinity Church.”

Christian Smith
Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, Director of the Notre Dame Center for Social Research, Principal Investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion, and Principal Investigator of the Science of Generosity Initiative. Smith’s scholarly interests focus on American religion, sociological theory, cultural sociology, adolescents and emerging adults, generosity, the philosophy of social science, and personalism.