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 that the history of modernity has always been (and remains) fundamentally contested. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.
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 righty 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.
Theorizing Modernities article

Understanding Religion in Light of Shifting Practice

Photo Credit: United Church of Christ/Jessie Palatucci. UCC March and Action to Stop Deportations at Baltimore ICE Office. Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister for the United Church of Christ.
Photo Credit: United Church of Christ/Jessie Palatucci. UCC March and Action to Stop Deportations at Baltimore ICE Office. Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister for the United Church of Christ.

Christian Smith’s thesis on what religion is and how it works provides a useful framework for the study of religions in our changing, modernizing, and globalizing world. Its key merit lies in turning attention to the practices that constitute and sustain religions. Such practices, he rightly contends, motivate human beings, as individuals and societies, to turn to superhuman entities in order to obtain “goods.” This reality provides a focus on the religious and their practices, and not the theories that scholars love to build and debate.

Smith distinguishes his approach from others by emphasizing the critical realism that he brings to the discipline. He argues that contending theories are generally too positivistic, in the sense that they offer causal analytical paradigms for why and how humans turn to religion. Critical realism introduces a healthy dose of skepticism to the scholarly enterprise that explains, interprets, and generally attempts to control human social life through its production of knowledge. Smith’s approach places attention on what religious people do and why, and not what they might be doing in spite of themselves.

By putting the goods that emerge within religious traditions at the center, one can focus on religious ethics beyond principles or universal values. Such goods are shaped and sustained by rituals, myths, emotions, individual aspirations, and social communities. They generate values that sustain individuals and communities. The study of religions needs to pay attention to such goods, just as it does to identity, social cohesion, and power conflicts. Smith’s model assumes that these latter are all goods, but I am pointing to a particular sense of “good” that merits careful study within a larger framework of goods.

Photo Credit: United Church of Christ/Jessie Palatucci. UCC March and Action to Stop Deportations at Baltimore ICE Office
Rev. Kent Siladi, Conference Minister of the UCC Connecticut Conference.

Having placed practices and their desired goods at the center of the discipline, students of religion may then turn their attention to the formers’ transformation in the context of modern developments in politics, communication technology, or inter-cultural encounters. Such changes may be significant and obvious, or they may be subtle. Smith does not show this change as part of his thesis, but the possibilities emerge from the list of questions that he proposes for the study of religions in the appendix. For example, changing religious practices of a nation experiencing increasing diversity may provide an indication of how such new conditions are reflected and reshaped in practices. Some religious groups may turn attention to personal and individual goods, or focus on charity. Others might put up the barricades in closed religious meetings. Such adjustments and changes often occupy a significant amount of labor and commitment. Attention to practices and their desired outcomes may provide valuable insight into understanding religions and societies in changing times.

If the main labor of religion is to attain goods like ethics, social cohesion and power, then how and why do humans turn to superhuman entities? Smith rejects the rational economic model of human behavior, and introduces readers to a more complex understanding of attribution from cognitive theories. He places emphasis on persons that engage in such attribution, alone or with others. He does not explicitly rely on any model in this fast-changing field, but formulates a set of possible ways in which religious people attribute goods to superhuman entities. Smith’s discussion leaves no doubt that current theories of religion work with simple attribution theories that are no longer tenable.

Smith finds justification for superhuman attribution in religious behavior and practices. More than this, however, the history of religious practices offers a rich source of how cognition is reflected in public life and sustained in spite of criticisms directed at it. Modern criticisms of religions are a prominent feature of public life, but they often miss or ignore the complex attribution that Smith brings up in this book. This calls for rethinking the familiar models used to think of religion and public life: control, capitulation, co-optation, or rejection. They are often guided by simple and instrumentalist approaches to rationality that put the state in the center. They need adjustment and perhaps complete overhaul.

The value of Smith’s thesis may be further developed by paying careful attention to how and where such attribution is invoked and sustained in existing religious practices. Smith does not venture into this area, but his framework assumes religious discourses and patterns. When he writes on religious practices (prayers, etc.) or the patterns of attribution of goods to superhuman entities, Smith alludes to such discourses but does not develop them sufficiently. I believe that practices that are based on beliefs and assumptions of life are woven into a complex discourse in the way first suggested by Wittgenstein. These include verbal utterances, but also movements of the body, aesthetic frameworks and strategies, emotions and dispositions that constitute what Saussure called a langue. All of the signs form a complex system that makes it possible to articulate a practice (parole). Smith’s argument that these practices are directed at obtaining goods provides an important first step in what religious discourse (langue and parole) might be, and how it adjusts and changes over time.

The challenge of writing a theory of religion that fits all forms of cultural life regarded as religion can be daunting. Mostly, such theories serve an academic purpose which identifies an abstract or reified framework that is then difficult to identify and apply to religious traditions. Sometimes it seems that Smith is also engaged in this exercise. But I think his focus on practices and goods provides a useful paradigm for thinking about religion in general and also for thinking about particular religions as they change and confront challenges in the world.

Abdulkader Tayob
Abdulkader Tayob is Professor of Islamic Studies, Religion and Public Life at the University of Capetown. He has published extensively on the history of religious movements and institutions in South Africa. He now works on Islam and public life in Africa, and contemporary intellectual trends in modern Islam.
Field Notes article

In Pursuit of Our Aesthetic Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mohammad Ali
Mohammad Ali is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Islamic Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, India. He is also a student in the Madrasa Discourses program.
Field Notes article
Kirsten Hanlon
Kirsten Hanlon is a Neuroscience and Behavior major at the University of Notre Dame, with a minor in Peace Studies. She joined the Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive in Kathmandu in July of 2017.
Theorizing Modernities article

Toward a Common Respectful Attentiveness to Religions

Offering of ghee into Yajna Agni, the sacred sacrificial fire.
Offering of ghee into Yajna Agni, the sacred sacrificial fire. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Religion is a richly textured and rightly complex book, in which Smith seeks to talk about religion as it functions in societies and individual lives; the five major chapters are wide-reaching, exploring the what, why, how, and future of religions.

Smith’s approach is to focus on practice and the practical, seeking out what motivates people to read the human condition in light of powers beyond it that they can relate to, powers such as can be approached with discernible benefit to humans. This is a wise approach; while the book is erudite and conversant in current conversations in the social scientific study of religion, his return again and again to what people do in specific circumstances is wise. He is also insistent on the openness of his approach, which refuses to settle for a divide between those who are religious and those who study religion. In a page-long footnote (on page 18), he points out that it is helpful to see the social scientific approach as compatible with the internal perspectives of traditions, neither in conflict, nor the one replacing the other. The social scientist, in other words, now finds herself in a public space where she does not have a higher, privileged viewpoint, only a viewpoint that is to be honored, but within a strategic frame of having to build compatibility with religious people.

While admitting that he is not an expert in all religions—but who would be?—Smith is diligent in bringing in examples from various traditions along the way in his major chapters, and a diverse range of illustrations appear throughout the volume. Each chapter begins with two epigraphs: the Indian Sama Veda and a Christian hymn, the Guru Granth Sahib and the Gospel according to Matthew, etc. Smith explains in his preface that by these citations he is showing his awareness of the diversity of traditions, which stubbornly refuse to be reduced to religion in any simplistic way. Still, these epigraphs are a bit of a puzzle. What does the opening hymn of the Sama Veda have to do with the hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past?” We are given no clue. My instinct though would be that once the hymns are cited, they lead to some particular kind of chapter, not the one that Smith gives us. I return to this point below.

The questions posed to those of us contributing to this symposium were similarly thorough. We were asked to think about how far Smith’s understanding of religion might be extended in making a difference in the public sphere today: why does religion endure, and how significant is it with respect to ending or fomenting violence? How can we cultivate a public role for religions in an increasingly individualized age? In very diverse societies with many positive and negative attitudes toward religions, how can we foster an optimal public role for religions? Smith’s practical approach suggests that we look not to doctrines or controversial ethical issues, but to the motives for why people remain religious when we don’t have to; for there we will find common ground. This is a wise move; but it then turns us to the personal, discerning why people act in certain ways in certain situations, and for that, we need also to understand the truths and values of traditions. And all of this requires presence, spending time with people. Theory, such as Religion proposes to us, orients us in the right direction, to take seriously how religious people live, their choices, their personal and communal agency in being religious people.

In other words, we are then drawn out of our offices and libraries and conferences, into the realm of interreligious dialogue. Attending to the practical commitments of religious people leads then into the pragmatism of convening conversations where we listen as well as speak. Smith does this well, bringing different religious cases to bear in the course of his chapters. This also makes sense to me personally. I am a Jesuit and Catholic priest, and as such I have been involved in direct dialogues over four decades and more, and I have many Hindu friends. My study of the traditions gives me a wonderful vantage point, but this does not put me above the persons and communities I meet in the course of the dialogue. I have a clear and considered viewpoint, but it is not a higher viewpoint.

The “public square” is not a place where people leave religion behind—doctrines, ethical values, practices—but an extension of religious identity and disposition into a new context where basic practical religious attitudes now adjust, in encountering people with other such dispositions, and people who for whatever reason no longer enact the world in a religiously signified manner such as Smith details. The scholar, therefore, needs to rethink not only religion and the behaviors of religious people, but also the notion of allegedly neutral or secular spaces. Religious people don’t own the space, but neither need we tolerate a secular retelling of our public life, as if it were natural or even in touch with reality to imagine spaces somehow free from religion and religions, to which religious people may be admitted.

I would of course have written a quite different book. As a scholar, my work is primarily about the reading of texts, and of Hinduism and Christianity together, and I would have begun my work with the epigraphs, in order to see where they might lead; in other words, rather than adding in such quotations along with photos, to signal the author’s good will toward pluralism, my approach would be to begin with such passages and see where reading them gets us in textual and practical contexts. As they stand, that they float free of the chapters is not entirely surprising. If we attend to such texts and study them carefully, they turn out to be unruly, with a life of their own. They may support the point we were making in quoting them, or take us—as careful readers, believers or not—into ideas, emotions, and practices quite apart from what we anticipated. They will not serve neatly an author’s pre-established intent.

I can take up here only one example. Smith quotes the opening hymn of the Sama Veda, a very ancient set of Vedic hymns meant to be sung in the sacrificial context. It is the first of twelve hymns in a row dedicated to Agni, the god of fire, the deity central to the practice of sacrifices:

  1. Come, Agni, praised with song, to feast and sacrificial offering: sit as oblation-offerer on the holy grass!
  2. O Agni, thou hast been ordained oblation-offerer of every sacrifice, by Gods, among the race of men.
  3. Agni we choose as envoy, skilled performer of this holy rite, oblation-offerer, possessor of all wealth.
  4. Served with oblation, kindled, bright, through love of song may Agni, bent on riches, smite the demon Vritras dead!
  5. I laud your most beloved guest like a dear friend, O Agni, him who, like a chariot, wins us wealth.
  6. Do thou, O Agni, with great might guard us from all malignity, yea, from the hate of mortal man!
  7. O Agni, come; far other songs of praise will I sing forth to thee. Wax mighty with these Soma-drops!
  8. May the rishi Vatsa draw thy mind away even from thy loftiest dwelling place! Agni, I yearn for thee with song.
  9. Agni, the rishi Atharvan brought thee forth by rubbing from the sky, the head of all who offer sacrifice.
  10. O Agni, bring us radiant light to be our mighty succor, for Thou art our visible deity!

All of this promises complications, even beyond translation issues. (Smith fairly enough uses Ralph Griffiths’ 1895 translation, and I have not checked the original, though I’ve touched it up lightly, to make it easier to understand.) We would need to look further into the identities of the poet seers Vatsa and Atharvan, explore the myth of the smiting of the demon Vritras, and the connections/differences between Agni as sacrificial fire and Agni as invoked deity. We would need also to understand more richly the Vedic sacrificial world, to understand the dynamics of this plea to Agni to be present on earth, in this sacrifice, amid these uttered verses, on this day.

And only then would we move to reconsider the hymn by Isaac Watts, paired as an epigraph alongside the Atharva Veda text:

  1. O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home.
  2. Under the shadow of Thy throne Thy saints have dwelt secure; Sufficient is Thine arm alone, And our defense is sure.
  3. Before the hills in order stood, Or earth received her frame, From everlasting Thou art God, To endless years the same.
  4. Thy Word commands our flesh to dust, “Return, ye sons of men”: All nations rose from earth at first, And turn to earth again.
  5. A thousand ages in Thy sight Are like an evening gone; Short as the watch that ends the night Before the rising sun.
  6. The busy tribes of flesh and blood, With all their lives and cares, Are carried downwards by the flood, And lost in foll’wing years.
  7. Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away; They fly, forgotten, as a dream Dies at the op’ning day.
  8. Like flow’ry fields the nations stand Pleased with the morning light; The flow’rs beneath the mower’s hand Lie with’ring ere ’tis night.
  9. O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Be Thou our guard while troubles last, And our eternal home.

This text too is rich in theology. It draws us into a world of devotion and ecclesial practice. Though only 300 years old (rather than 3000, like the Sama hymn), Watts’ hymn has remarkable staying power, and may be heard on many a Sunday in Christian churches today. We could take a long while to unpack its theology, its music, the singing of it, and what it means to believing Christians.

Both texts are rich in theology, and it would be foolhardy to focus just on the singing or role in communal worship. Yet neither is the theology in these hymns free-standing doctrine, abstracted from real life. (But really, is doctrine ever entirely abstracted from the lives of real people?) We can learn to sing these hymns (here in the West, easily the Watts hymn; and with extraordinary difficulty, I fear, the Vedic hymn), visit sites where they are performed in a worship context, talk with practitioners. And then, after appropriation of both, we would begin the rich interactive process of knowing them together, what I call comparative theological learning. We might begin with the first lines of each: “Come, Agni, praised with song, to feast and sacrificial offering: sit as oblation-offerer on the holy grass,” and “O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home,” and ponder the problems and possibilities of singing them one after the other. And then, we would go back to the two communities, to one of which we may belong, and find ways of speaking of the realities—the what, why, how, and future—of interreligious learning.

All this in the short run turns out to be quite different from what Smith is up to; as I said, I would end up writing a quite different book if I studied the epigraphs for all five chapters. Yet it ends up in a place not entirely different, by way of a common respectful attentiveness to religions as they are practiced, lived, thought intelligently, shared. Practitioners, scholars, and social scientists who study religion; theologians and comparative theologians; people who no longer believe or never believed: we all share the same living spaces. Smith helps us to see that people who are religious can with more confidence lay our claim to a public sphere which turns out to be no longer a neutral, secular space where religious people are at best politely received. It is rather where we who are religious and we who study religion are at home too.

Francis X. Clooney, SJ
Francis X. Clooney, S.J. is Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at Harvard Divinity School. His primary areas of Indological scholarship are theological commentarial writings in the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions of Hindu India. Professor Clooney is also a leading figure globally in the developing field of comparative theology, a discipline distinguished by attentiveness to the dynamics of theological learning deepened through the study of traditions other than one’s own.
Theorizing Modernities article

On Sameness, Difference and Wholeness

Unveiling of the Grand Tangka during the Shoton Festival at the Drepung Monastery near Lhasa, Tibet. Image courtesy of Max Pixel.

My work in religion focuses on Buddhist philosophy, practice, and the liturgical traditions of India and Tibet. My experience of religion is broader: born Jewish, raised Protestant, with compelling memories of attending Catholic Mass with a Catholic friend every New Year’s day from sixth grade through high school. Other than that, by the time I was thirteen my parents, due to their own divergent views, took a hands-off approach to me and religion. Left to my own devices, I morphed to a comfortably agnostic posture until I encountered Buddhist thought, language, and literature in graduate school and then in situ in Tibetan communities in India and Nepal. I mention this by way of underscoring an underlining principle of Christian Smith’s Religion—that the hows and whys of religion’s impact on our lives derive as much from our historical, familial, and personal location as from the actual traditions we contact. They interact with every component of our lives, and with each other. They impact not only how we view our own religious tradition, or lack thereof, but the degree of distance we feel toward “other” religions. They also impact the kind of gulf contemporary cultures construct between “religious” and “secular” (which doesn’t really exist in traditional cultures) as well as the contemporary intermediate zone of “spiritual but not religious.”

The importance of remembering this interactive dynamic grows ever more evident. Christian Smith’s laudable wish to “generate new fruitful research” that furthers such reflection animates his book and inspires my reflections here. In practice, religion may be institutional, inherited, haphazard, or even professional. But it is always personal. Lived experience therefore provides a good starting point.

The Presumption of Otherness

In my case, entering the arena of Tibetan Buddhism when it was still little known in the West, much less in the academy, meant often being the only Buddhist scholar or practitioner at conferences or social gatherings. Nonetheless, I still feel a possibly naïve amazement at how “other” my friends seemed to perceive the cultural matrix of Buddhist thought and practice. This was true even of friends whose education, family backgrounds, and general worldviews are very similar to mine. True, most of them hadn’t lived in Asia or in Buddhist communities as I had, just as I had not shared important areas of their life experience, including their religious background. Yet, overall our easy conversation and body language suggested that we inhabit a shared linguistic and symbolic universe. But Buddhism seemed curious, if not outright strange, to them.

As I reflect on this, a memory resurfaces. Some years ago I was invited to be part of a public discussion among four scholars of religion. As often happens, though thankfully a little less so today, all of us were white and US-born. I was the only female, and also the only Asian religionist. The discussion was friendly enough, and probably bland as well. Afterwards, as we rose from our seats to say goodbye to each other, one colleague from another University said, in the same friendly tone, “You know I always find it difficult to talk with someone from a tradition without a Creator God.” “Really? Why is that?” “It’s just difficult. It’s so different.” Mind you, he and I were both educated in the Western academy, and grown up in families where Christianity was important. For my part, based on my mother’s regularly reading Bible stories aloud to me before I could read myself, and also perhaps due to my church going, however modest, I was comfortable with Jewish and Christian ideas of creation. Even though they were no longer part of my explicit belief-identity, they will always be part of my “born in the USA” identity. And as I learned more about Buddhism, I also came to feel that even traditions that looked so different on the surface had enough in common not to seem so very strange to each other.

Western monotheisms understand that a Creator with infinite creative power brought forth this world and its inhabitants. This Creator also indicated how we are to behave toward our fellow human creatures. On the one hand, there is the golden rule, “Do unto others….” That seems a pretty clear instruction, though we see it enacted or dismissed in wildly different ways by self-identified Christian groups. And of course the Ten Commandments aren’t the only behavioral referent. Biblical passages such as “an eye for an eye” complicate things. However, the larger truth is even a relatively homogenous understanding of creation does not mean that the “what then”—the way believers actually behave toward other living beings—is not extremely variable. Antipathies and estrangements among and within traditions are so widespread that we may presume them normative and unassailable.

It is also the case that Western monotheisms distance themselves more vigorously from “other” traditions than is common in much of Asia, where participation in multiple traditions are common. Japanese say they are born Zhinto, marry as Christians, and die Buddhist. That’s not to say there isn’t seriously politicized and racialized religious friction, but the overall cultural compass is broad.

Yet, if we consider things more or less objectively, it is not at all obvious why, in the face of so many basic and clearly evident human commonalities, these particular religious differences should provoke such powerful feelings of otherness, disdain, or downright enmity, with respect to people who are, in most ways, very much like ourselves. And really, every human being is much more like us than not. When we study medicine, biology, even the arts such as dance and music, we understand this. But when we study religion, do we take it for granted that difference dominates? Scholars, as well as other cultural custodians including politicians, bear some responsibility for this. Nonetheless, as is often observed, expressions of love and illuminating knowledge are a crucial essential of virtually all religious, spiritual, and humanitarian traditions. To love the divine or, in the secular context, to choose equality, is to loosen one’s own fixed sense of identity in ways that conform with Christian ideas of “becoming like a child” to enter the Kingdom, with Sufi ideas of recognizing the Friend in everyone, and Buddhist ideas of recognizing one’s true face and thereby finding a potential Buddha in every being. Sameness, or at least a potential for connection, surfaces right along with difference.[1]

The Wholeness of Infinite Variety

Drepung monastery is one of the largest monasteries in Tibet. It was from here that the 2nd through the 5th Dalai Lama lived and ruled - until the 5th commissioned the Potala to be built.
Photo Credit: Ernie R. Drepung monastery is one of the largest monasteries in Tibet. It was from here that the 2nd through the 5th Dalai Lama lived and ruled.

Religion, like language and like life itself, is infinitely various. A moment’s reflection establishes that variety and change are perhaps the most ubiquitous characteristics of everything we encounter. Yet, when it comes to religion and to culture more generally, we humans often exhibit powerful expectations of sameness, and seem surprised, if not dismayed and even violent, when we don’t find it., Does narrowing our focus to particulars cloud the larger compass in which multiple styles all participate? Even if not, it seems clear that awareness of that compass gives all of us a wider berth as humans. Some folks sing well, others dance with special grace, still others leap over hurdles, swim, or run at record speeds. All display a capacity that nearly everyone possesses, if to a lesser degree. Recognizing the infinite variety of song, dance, and physical prowess across cultures helps us appreciate that our own expressions are part of something larger than any one modality can reveal. Do we not in fact often recognize this, at least implicitly, when we take pleasure in art or ways of being associated with traditions quite different from our own and which, partly for that very reason, surprise and delight us?

My colleague who found it difficult to converse with a tradition lacking a Creator deity overlooked a crucial matter. Virtually every tradition, great or small, is preternaturally interested in the issue of creation. We all want to know how we got here. Even Confucianism, which doesn’t look into creation as a past event, is nonetheless deeply concerned with creating a humane present and future. Why is this shared interest in creation not more compelling than the different narratives about it?

Monotheistic communities focus on believers’ relationship with the Creator—love, obedience, above all a sense of belonging to something of ultimate grandeur, power, and meaning. This relationship generally undergirds a sense of responsibility for self and kindly conduct toward others. Other traditions emphasize not a creative person but the emergent creative process itself. Buddhists for example take great interest in causal properties of intentions and actions, and thus are dedicated to reducing reactivity, thereby setting in motion positive causes through ethical, kindly behavior.

Regardless of how a tradition characterizes the forces of which we are all the fruition, it pretty much always concludes that some type of love and understanding is key. Moreover, when we look at these varied iterations, we find, as has often been noted, that the moral outcomes are disarmingly similar.

Yet, we often fasten on the arguably much less significant differences, dividing the world, our cities, neighborhoods, even families, accordingly. There are, however, compelling reasons to recognize that no matter how we understand creation, whether we believe, with Buddhists and Hindus, that the universe is born through our own actions, or see through the eyes of Jews, Christians, and Muslims that it arises through divine agency, we easily conclude that we are all the children of the same powers that be. We can interpret creative powers differently while still recognizing they are something we all share. Recognizing and calling out this variegated wholeness is a sameness that makes a difference.


[1] See Klein, “The Knowing Body” in Women and Interreligious Dialogue, eds. Catherine Cornille, Jillian Maxey.


Anne C. Klein
Anne Carolyn Klein /Rigzin Drolma, is Professor of Religion at Rice University, co-founder of Dawn Mountain Center for Tibetan Buddhism and a Lama in the Ancient (Nyingma). Tibetan tradition. Her training, in addition to her academics, includes close study with major Tibetan Lamas in three of Tibet’s great traditions, with about ten years overall spent living with these teachers.  Her writings and teaching-retreats draw from all these, with special emphasis on Nyingma and Heart Essence traditions.
Her translation work includes Tibetan texts and oral commentaries on them.  Her central thematic interest is the embodied interaction between head and heart as illustrated across a spectrum of Buddhist descriptions of human consciousness and its cultivation.  She has also been a participant in Mind Life and other conversations between Buddhism and contemplative science. 

Her seven books include Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse and Meeting the Great Bliss Queen and, most recently, her translation of Strand of Jewels: My Teachers’ Essential Guidance on Dzogchen by Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche. She is currently working on The Sunlit Sky: Longchenpa’s Open Secret.
Field Notes article

Sharing Madrasa Discourses with Singapore

Minister Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim (center left) and Dr. Ebrahim Moosa (center right) stand in the Notre Dame Dome with the full Singapore delegation, which includes representatives from the Ministries of Culture, Community, and Youth; Communications and Information; Education; and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a young Singaporean Muslim. Your dream is to serve your community as a spiritual leader, and so you leave your home to study at one of the world-renowned Islamic theological centers in the Middle East or North Africa. Three years later, steeped in your tradition, you return home as an imam or religious scholar.

Singapore is a multi-cultural society and, seeking your guidance as an internationally-educated spiritual leader, your fellow Muslim citizen of Singapore bring the following kinds of questions to you:

  • What are the sharia guidelines for regulating interfaith weddings today?
  • What are the ethics of assisted reproductive technologies in Islam?
  • Can good Muslims participate in the religious festivals of their neighbors of other faiths?

These are constant and real concerns in a complex, religiously plural, scientifically forward-looking, and secular Singapore. Off the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, global financial powerhouse and city state Singapore has an active and integrated Muslim population of about 840,000, 15% of the population. While less buffeted by the questions of identity affecting Muslim populations in other states, Singaporean Muslims are nonetheless sensitive to hardening views on what constitutes Islamic tradition and practice. Young Muslims, recently returned from studies abroad, also bring home approaches and perspectives that might not be in accord with the cosmopolitan nature of the city state.

Minister Yaacob Ibrahim asks a clarifying question about the Madrasa Discourses curriculum.

Recognizing the importance of developing local programs for the education of Muslims, especially for Singapore’s future Muslim religious leaders, an official Singaporean delegation visited a variety of institutions in North America last December. The inter-departmental ministerial delegation, headed by Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information of Singapore as well as Minister-in-charge of Cyber Security and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, have traveled to many institutions around the world, learning from their experiences in religious education. Singapore envisages launching a  homegrown Islamic College offering a degree program comprising courses in traditional Islamic sciences, enriched with modules on contemporary issues and professional skills to meet the needs of the Singapore Muslim community. The ministry and education authorities are exploring models for the design of such an institution.

Dr. Yaacob’s delegation visited the University of Notre Dame at the suggestion of CM Co-Director and Madrasa Discourses Primary Investigator Dr. Ebrahim Moosa. Interested in religiously-informed tertiary education, the delegation joined Dr. Moosa and others for a visit to the Dome with ND Vice President Michael Pippenger, a conversation on the Keough School of Global Affairs, a detailed presentation of the Madrasa Discourses curriculum, and a visit with Notre Dame students of all levels, from freshmen to PhDs.

Madrasa Discourses

Mahan Mirza presents the Madrasa Discourses Curriculum to the Singapore delegation.

Tradition is complex and contested, began Mahan Mirza, introducing the Madrasa Discourses curriculum on the afternoon of the visit. In order to move forward in grappling with the questions of today, we must also look back and recognize the rich intellectual history of Islam as internally contested and deeply influenced by the philosophical currents of the age. Some of the tools Muslims need today, he explained, exist within parts of the Muslim tradition that have been neglected. For instance, the great theologian Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d. 936) grounded his theology in a version of reason that was independent of revelation. The historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), stressed that understanding history required the aid of philosophy. And, the renowned Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) placed an emphasis on logic and the centrality of lived conditions of human existence to the foundations of religious thought. Eliciting the resources within the Muslim tradition, Muslims can fruitfully engage modern thought in a way that is both faithful to the past and relevant in a new and changing world where scientific cosmologies and even newer philosophical worldviews reign.

Notre Dame students stand with the Singapore Delegation and Contending Modernities team at the University of Notre Dame.

In sharing the goals and methodology of the Madrasa Discourses program, CM’s Ebrahim Moosa and Mahan Mirza sought to contribute to the broader conversation in which the program is embedded: updating and strengthening Muslim education to face the challenges of modernity. The Madrasa Discourses program provides continuing education for a handpicked group of young Muslim theologians from India and Pakistan. With a similar aim, the Ministerial delegation approaches this conversation largely to train Singapore’s future religious and spiritual leaders. Moosa, who has visited Singapore several times and taught members of the rising theological fraternity in that country, said the proposed educational program was an innovative move to adequately prepare the next generation of Singaporean Muslim theologians. It will make theological education more efficient and the outcomes can transform and impact the region, he added with optimism.

The ND Experience

Minister Yaacob Ibrahim speaks with undergraduate Notre Dame students.

Before the Ministerial delegation embarked on their drive back to Chicago in light snow, the group also met a select number of Notre Dame students. Sitting together at the front of the room, undergraduate and graduate students from all fields of study responded to Minister Yaacob’s questions about their choice of university. Spirituality, many students noted, was important to them and hence they chose Notre Dame. Few Universities in the United States blend a top-tier rating in the sciences and humanities with an express commitment to religion. Religion can’t be set aside or siloed, echoed one Masters student of Global Affairs. It’s an integral part of the human experience.

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

Ethical Discernment and Coexistence

Photo Credit: Enda Nasution. 2009 Indonesian Presidential Debate.

It was a great pleasure and honor to participate in the “Beyond Coexistence in Plural Societies” conference organized by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in collaboration with the State Islamic University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah of Jakarta, Indonesia on July 10-11, 2017. I have been deeply impressed by the significant findings from the careful research on coexistence in Indonesia presented at the conference, featuring many foci and methodological approaches. I would like to highlight a few issues emerging from the conference that most attracted my attention.

Portraits of Human Struggles for Coexistence

As I listened to the presentations, most findings showed a positive dynamic at the grassroots, as communities found their place and space within their own historical contexts of pluralism. This is clearly shown in the cases of the ethno-religious identity of Chinese settlers and non-Muslim minority groups in Aceh, in the experiences, negotiations, and struggles of a number of Islamic groups in Java, and in the experiences of women voicing their strategic and practical gender interests amidst the rising patriarchy of some orthodox Islamist groups.

A positive dynamic does not mean the absence of conflicts; conflicts do exist among the groups researched by the ACI Indonesia working group. While a few conflicts emerged to the surface, others are contained at the level of perceptions. However, local positive dynamics have been damaged by the domino effect of a majoritarian democratic system in a country where the distribution of wealth is not just and is rather accumulated in the hands of a few citizens. Undoubtedly, in such a situation, money talks louder than vision, and money politics destroys the basic foundations of free elections and an equal vote for all citizens. Money politics also destroys neighborhood trust in communal living as mutual caring and engaging (rukun and srawung).

The Role of Individual Ethics

Photo Credit: UIN Jakarta. Dr. Syamsiyatun presents at the 2017 Beyond Coexistence conference.

One question I did not get a satisfactory answer to from the research conference findings is about the socio-ethical vision of people in positions of authority within a given community. While people’s environment is very important in shaping their perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors towards those with different gender, ethnic, religious, and other identity markers, I do believe that each person has the ability to exercise agency, however limited. It is important to study more deeply how these individuals have struggled to accept or develop the social ethics that guide them in navigating the social psychology of plural identities and their respective different interests. For example, how have Chinese women of Aceh exercised their agentic power differently from their male counterparts in order to find their space in society? How have women asserted their various gender interests within the political landscape of patriarchal politics? Research led by Nelly van Doorn Harder and Farsijana Risakotta and their colleagues, presented at the conference, highlights such women’s agency exercised through societal associations, namely Komnas Perempuan (National Commission on Women), and Koalisi Perempuan (Women’s Coalition).

The conference presentations portrayed the many confrontations and negotiations involved in creating social space for coexistence. There are always ongoing struggles and negotiations between advancing individual interests as portrayed in the democratic value of on person, one vote, and respecting familial as well as social harmony. The issues become more complex and interesting because each individual has multiple identities, willingly or unwillingly, such as: racial and ethnic group, gender, age group, profession, political affiliation, and religious denomination. Conflict and negotiation for coexistence take place not only between groups in societies, but also between the members of a community.

Modes of Discernment

How do individuals discern their choices regarding coexistence, both for their own identities and in their relations across difference? What sort of ethical compass do they consider or develop to guide their attitudes and behaviors? From the research conference presentations, we understand that religions, positive laws, as well as local cultural norms have been the major basis for Indonesians to develop their ethical views and attitudes. However, it is apparent that there are contestations and sometimes ambiguities, between these three sources of ethical values. For instance, on questions of democracy: a few segments of Indonesian society believe that democracy is not compatible with their local culture, nor is it compatible with their beliefs or religion. However, as citizens they must uphold that practice because it is sanctioned by the positive law. So, there is an interesting question about how deeply, or in what ways, religions and positive or national laws play a role in Indonesians’ modes of discernment, whether individually or collectively as members of associations, political parties, or the like. These questions can be applied to various groups in our societies—such as our diverse political, religious, social, and ethnic groups. What kind of ethical values have the groups under study developed to see their place in Indonesia? How do they construct their perceptions of leaders within a democratic and majoritarian political system? In such a system, what are the political spaces available for minorities in terms of economic access and distribution, race and ethnicity, religion, age group, and other socio-political markers within a democratic Indonesia?

The Way to Coexistence

Photo Credit: Ikhlasul Amal. Examining ballot paper for the Bandung Mayor Election 2013.

I have seen a pattern of rising identity tensions during elections, be they for members of parliament, local majors, or the president. Political parties have instrumentalized voters’ identities to generate support for their candidates, even by demonizing the identity markers of opponents and their constituencies. Such a massive effort to polarize identities in order to win political support and votes has left deep scars in the minds and hearts of many Indonesians. I believe our forefathers and mothers who struggled for independence and imprinted our national aspiration for freedom as manifested in the Muqaddimah Undang-Undang Dasar 1945 (the Preamble of the Constitution) would weep knowing their fellow children citizens were fighting each other in order to advance limited group interests rather than be guided by our common ethical values of creating an independent Indonesia. I’d love to end this short reflection by quoting our normative, ethical, and legal vision of coexistence in Indonesia, because I am convinced this can be our common guide for equal citizenship and for just, peaceful co-existence:

Whereas freedom is the inalienable right of all nations, colonialism must be abolished in this world as it is not in conformity with humanity and justice;

And the moment of rejoicing has arrived in the struggle of the Indonesian freedom movement to guide the people safely and well to the threshold of the independence of the state of Indonesia which shall be free, united, sovereign, just and prosperous;

By the grace of God Almighty and impelled by the noble desire to live a free national life, the people of Indonesia hereby declare their independence.

Subsequent thereto, to form a government of the state of Indonesia which shall protect all the people of Indonesia and their entire native land, and in order to improve the public welfare, to advance the intellectual life of the people and to contribute to the establishment of a world order based on freedom, abiding peace and social justice, the national independence of Indonesia shall be formulated into a constitution of the sovereign Republic of Indonesia which is based on the belief in the One and Only God, just and humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy guided by the inner wisdom of deliberations amongst representatives and the realization of social justice for all of the people of Indonesia.


Some References:

  1. Dean G. Pruitt dan Jeffrey Z. Rubin, Teori Konflik Sosial/Judul asli Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement (Yogyakarta: Pustaka Pelajar, 2004).
  1. Departemen Agama RI, Konflik Sosial Bernuansa Agama di Indonesia (Jakarta: Departemen Agama RI 2003).
Siti Syamsiyatun
Siti Syamsiyatun is currently Associate Professor in Islamic Thought at Universitas Islam Negeri (UIN) Sunan Kalijaga. She earned a PhD in Politics from Monash University in 2006. Since 2010 she has been elected the Director of ICRS (Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies), a consortium of three leading universities in Yogyakarta, as well as named Board Member of Indonesia. Her publications include Pergolakan Puteri Islam (Muhammadiyah Voice Publishers, 2016); Serving Young Indonesian Muslim Women: The Dynamic of the Gender Discourse in Nasyiatul Aisyiyah 1965-2005, (LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010); and “Women Negotiating Feminism and Islamism: The Experiences of Nasyiatul Aisyiyah 1985-2005” in Indonesian Islam in a New Era: How Women Negotiate Their Muslim Identity, S. Blackburn, B. Smith, S. Syamsiyatun (Eds), (Monash University Press, 2008).