A postcolonial approach to the study of religion and peacebuilding must begin with demystifying the dominant myths that impede productive discussion. Popularized by academics, pundits, and the media, these myths reflect Eurocentric and Euro-American biases that have deep connections to colonialism. Demystifying these myths will make it easier to engage in peacebuilding work across religious traditions.
The first myth is the “clash of civilizations” myth proposed by political scientist Samuel Huntington. Huntington suggests that future wars and conflicts will not be fought because of ideological differences, but because of clashes between religiously based civilizations. His hypothesis became popular because it asserted Western hegemony and provided an explanation of world politics in the post-Cold War era. However, his understanding of cultural and religious difference has deep roots in colonial discourse. In Orientalism, Edward Said pointed out how, in pursuit of colonization, the West created an image of the “Orient” as inferior, backward, and uncivilized for the purposes of control and domination. Huntington reactivated this threat and the fear of colonial difference by treating civilizations as homogeneous and bounded entities with no cross-civilizational interactions and crossovers.
The second myth is the myth of secularization, which regards religion as irrational and incompatible with modernity. The secularist myth sees religion as either irrelevant or a problem for social life in general. More particularly, it sees religion as an obstacle to conflict resolution. Proponents of secularism point to religious elites and religious institutions as the sources of social conflict. This secularist myth displays Eurocentric and colonialist biases when it takes the development of Western history since the Enlightenment as the normative measure of the trajectories of other societies. In Formations of the Secular, anthropologist Talal Asad gives an historical account of the concepts and political formations of the secular that have shaped secular attitudes in the modern West and Middle East. He argues that the secular cannot be viewed as a successor to religion or be seen as more rational than religion. The secular has a multilayered history in different cultures. His study challenges a monolithic understanding of modernity that uses capitalist modernity as the model, and invites further inquiries into what scholars have called “global modernities.”
The third myth is dangerous and Islamophobic, for it proposes that some religions, such as Christianity and Buddhism, are inherently peaceful, while Islam is militant and condones violence and Jihadism. This argument is dangerous because it can lead to false stereotyping and the scapegoating of whole populations. It is ahistorical because it overlooks the Crusades, Christianity’s complicity in genocide and colonialism, and the internal rivalries within both Christian and Buddhist traditions. The association of Islam with religious violence and the language of “religious insurgence” as threatening also shows again a strong Orientalist bias. It downplays the history of colonialism, marginalization, and displacement in the Muslim world. The acts of a tiny minority of Muslim extremists should not be taken as representative of Islam as a whole. There are many Muslim leaders and organizations working tirelessly for peace. In Nonviolence and Peacebuilding in Islam, Mohammed Abu-Nimer shows that there are principles and values in Qur’an, Hadith, and other elements in the Islamic tradition that support peacebuilding and conflict resolution.
Postcolonial studies can help demystify these myths and also shed light on problems inherent in the study of religion. Postcolonial critics point out that “religion” is a problematic category and the study of religion in the modern West has often been linked to racism and the construction of the Other. When the academic study of religion developed in the mid-nineteenth century during the heyday of colonialism, Christianity was taken to be the reference when compared to the “mythic” religions of the East and the “primitive” religions of Africa. As religion emerged as a field of study in academia, there was a tendency to treat “religion” as sui generis and separate from other cultural, social, and political aspects. This reductionist and simplistic approach continues to be seen in introductory “World Religion” courses. Here, different religious traditions are reduced to certain belief systems, creeds, heroes, and a few key practices. In the name of religious literacy, a very truncated form of knowledge is introduced, which may heighten the differences of diverse traditions and reinforce biases students have already held. These kinds of introductory courses do not promote dialogue and peacebuilding because they reinforce colonial and Orientalist myths. Using insights from postcolonial and decolonial studies, Richard King, David Chidester, Santiago Slabodsky, and myself have pointed to new ways of conceptualizing the study of religion and theology drawing on our studies of Indian religions, African religions, Judaism, and Christianity respectively.
Postcolonial studies also offers constructive criticism for the emerging field of religion and peacebuilding, which focuses on the themes of interreligious dialogue, the retrieval of religious resources for peacebuilding in various traditions, and the instrumental role that religious actors and networks play in the dynamics of both conflict and peacebuilding. While studies in these areas have much to contribute, too often their focus has been on male academics, educated elites, and prominent religious leaders. More than thirty years ago, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a leading postcolonial theorist, asked, “Can the subaltern speak?” Her question raised issues concerning the politics of representation, the relation between power and knowledge, and the importance of creating infrastructures so that subaltern voices could be heard and understood. In the study of religion and peacebuilding, it is crucial to pay attention to subaltern religious consciousness and grassroots efforts in promoting peace.
Women’s participation in peacebuilding also needs to be highlighted. Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding discusses the obstacles and opportunities women religious peacebuilders face because patriarchal practices have often prevented them from assuming authority in religious organizations and leadership in peace efforts. Some women seek to work through religious institutions or find other spaces to promote peace and exert their influences. The late Dekha Ibrahim of Kenya, a devout Muslim, served as a trustee of Coalition for Peace in Africa and received several international awards for her peacebuilding efforts. Buddhist nun Mae Chee Sansanee from Thailand led a peace walk and reached out to Muslim women when conflicts broke out between the Buddhists and Muslims in southern Thailand. She has also led interreligious dialogue in conflict zones around the world. Catholic sister Marie-Bernard Alima of Congo formed a network called the Coordination of Women for Democracy and Peace to educate and train women to provide leadership in human rights, political movements, and efforts to prevent sexual and gender-based violence.
Postcolonial critics regard cultures and histories as overlapping and mutually inscribed, and such recognition can aid in peacebuilding. It is helpful to use the lens of hybridity to investigate how different religions and cultures have encountered, learned, and borrowed from one another and changed as a result. For example, when Christianity came to China in the seventh century, it had to borrow Buddhist and Daoist concepts to translate Christian terminologies. The symbol of Nestorian Christianity was a cross resting on a lotus flower, the latter of which is a symbol from Buddhism. A hybridized understanding of religious traditions and religious identities will help overcome a binary construction of “us” versus “them” and recover the history of complex interactions among diverse religious traditions. It will also open avenues to imagine identity and difference as fluid and changing in our increasingly interconnected world.
President Trump’s comment last week that American Jews who vote for the Democratic Party are being “greatly disloyal” has sent shock waves through the Jewish world. What did he mean? Disloyal to whom? Isn’t the accusation of disloyalty an anti-Semitic dog whistle? By not initially defining the object of “disloyalty” Trump opened up various possibilities of how his comment can, or should, be parsed. Groups on the Jewish left such as Jewish Voice for Peace and J-Street to the center-right AIPAC contested this statement. President Rivlin in Israel contested this statement. The Likud-led government said nothing. The overt partisan overtones of the comment resulted in Jewish Trumpists defending the president, saying that, even if the comment may have been poorly articulated, American Jews who vote for “the party of Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar” (this is how Trumpists are reconstructing “the Democrats”) are being disloyal to Israel and, given the current fusion of pro-Israelness and allegiance to the Jews, are being disloyal to the Jewish people.
Critics of the comment claim that the language of disloyalty is anti-Semitic. The problem is that in this case the “dual loyalty” equation implied in Trump’s “disloyalty” locution seems to be inverted. The anti-Semitic trope of dual loyalty has historically been used to claim that the Jews are being disloyal to their country of residence in favor of their loyalty to the Jewish people. Later, the question of loyalty extended to the state of Israel. In the late 18thcentury, the question of Jewish loyalty was posed to the Jewish sages in France in the wake of their emancipation. Could the French Jews, who ostensibly had loyalty to another collective (the Jewish people), ever be fully loyal to France? The French sages responded that the Jews are a people of a religious tradition and not a nation and thus fidelity to the Jewish people does not stand in contradiction to allegiance to the French nation. On this basis they were emancipated.
This precarious equation lasted until it exploded with the Dreyfus affair in 1894 when French officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused and convicted of treason. (The conviction was later overturned.) A young Viennese journalist named Theodore Herzl covered the story and heard the reactions of many French men and women who were convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt. These men and women claimed that Dreyfus, as a Jew, could never give full allegiance to France. In some way, this gave birth to Zionism, which claimed in part that even the fully assimilated Dreyfus’s of the world will never be accepted as full citizens in their country of residence. That is, Jews could never fully shed the suspicion of dual loyalty.
While “dual loyalty” is indeed often an anti-Semitic canard, it is also a real challenge to all of Diaspora Jewry, especially after the establishment of the state of Israel. What is meant, for example, by the 1990s bumper sticker, “I Love New York but Jerusalem is My Home”? What if a passerby said to the driver of a car with such a sticker, “Go home”? Would that be anti-Semitic? In a way, yes it might be, but what about the bumper sticker itself, what is it trying to convey? Today, what does “home” refer to if not the capital city of another country? My point is that if Jews reflexively claim that the accusation of “dual loyalty” is anti-Semitic, we too easily ignore that it was, and remains, one of the great challenges of Jews in modernity.
Here is an example: I have friends—Modern Orthodox Jews—whose son was considering enlisting in the U.S. Navy. Almost everyone he shared his plans with at a Shabbat Kiddush said to him, “If you are going to serve in the army, why not join the IDF?” His response was, “because I am an American.” But what was behind the response of these American Orthodox Jews to this young man? “If you are going to risk your life,” they may have been thinking, “why do it for the U.S.? Why not do it for Israel?” Is this an instance of dual loyalty? If we deflect all accusations of dual loyalty, we miss the ways we practice it all the time.
Trump’s comment on Jews’ “great disloyalty” wasn’t accusing Jews of dual loyalty; in fact, he was suggesting Jews are not exercising dual loyalty enough! Can we thus say that this isn’t anti-Semitic at all? Yes. And no. In the wake of Trump’s comment, at a Close the Camps rally of liberal American Jews held outside Farmington’s Holocaust Memorial Center near Detroit, a white supremacist counter-demonstration showed white nationalists waving an American and an Israeli flag. White supremacists, whose worldview emerges from the KKK and other like-minded groups, are waving the Israeli flag to protest against liberal American Jews. Is there a connection between Trump’s comment and this phenomena?
One way to understand this is to look back at the American Zionism of Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis. In the teens of the 20th century when most American Jews were at best ambivalent about Zionism, precisely because it exacerbated the anxiety of dual loyalty, Brandeis stood as a proud Zionist. But Brandeis deeply understood the challenge Zionism posed to a Jewry desperately trying to become “American.”
My approach to Zionism was through Americanism. In time, practical experience and observation convinced me that Jews were by reason of their traditions and their character peculiarly fitted for the attainment of American ideals. Gradually, it became clear to me that to be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.
Indeed, loyalty to America demands rather that each American Jew become a Zionist. For only through the ennobling effect of its strivings can we develop the best that is in us and give to this country the full benefit of our great inheritance. The Jewish spirit, so long preserved, the character developed by so many centuries of sacrifice, should be preserved and developed further, so that in America as elsewhere the sons of the race may in future live lives and do deeds worthy of their ancestors.
The fusion of Americanism and Zionism for Brandeis was his way of allaying the fears of dual loyalty among many progressive era American Jews. While I am quite certain Trump does not know of Brandeis’s Zionism, and Brandeis certainly did not intend his Zionism to be blind allegiance to a Jewish state (his Zionism was not even promoting a Jewish state), I think Trump is inadvertently using Brandeis’s logic to make two points. First, on Trump’s reading, American Jews are being disloyal to their people if they do not give full allegiance to the state of Israel and its government (Brandeis, of course, lived long before the state of Israel). And second, that such disloyalty is also disloyalty to America since, as Brandeis said, “to be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.”
So when those white supremacists waved an Israeli flag to protest against an American Jewish protest against detention centers in a Detroit suburb, the flag wasn’t about being pro-Jewish (one could reasonably assume some hold anti-Semitic views) or even pro-Israel in any conventional way. It was pro-American. Thus American Jews who support “the party of Tlaib and Omar” are not only disloyal to their people. They are also disloyal to America. Thus Trump’s inversion of the “dual loyalty” equation does not erase its anti-Semitic connotations; it merely recalibrates its implications. Watching white supremacists waving an Israeli flag, as jarring as it may look, is therefore not dissonant at all.
This paper was originally conceived of as a response to an important panel conversation at the American Academy of Religion in Denver, Colorado on November 17, 2018. Moderated by Professor Atalia Omer, the panel was the occasion for a conversation between leading scholars on the theme of “Moral Obligations, Prophetic Actions, and the Search for Solidarity from Historical, Transnational, and Global Perspectives.” The panelists were Professor Daniel Boyarin (in abstentia; UC, Berkeley), Professor Farid Esack (University of Johannesberg), Professor Susannah Heschel (Dartmouth College), and Santiago Slabodsky (Hofstra University).
The to-and-fro and the back-and-forth of the dialogue suggests a conversation that took with the utmost seriousness the intellectual and ethical urgencies of the subject matter, particularly as it relates to the specific cases of South Africa, Palestine, and Israel. These places and cases command and demand our attention today, especially the attention of those of us who work in religious studies inasmuch as the drivers of the devastation and death, both spectacular and slow, monumental and everyday, in these places in the world are inextricably bound up with questions and the very meaning of religion and life together. And now to my response…
While I am unable to do justice to all of the nuances of the panel conversation, I would like to surface an issue that moves at the oblique edges of the discussion. This is the issue not just of colonialism, which was explicitly invoked and theoretically attended to, but of settler colonialism. Here we might think of settlerism along with enslavement as modernity’s inner logos or meaning, the pillars that stand up the modern world as an arrangement or an economy and ecology that, with Cedric Robinson, also bears the name “racial capitalism.” As such settlerism (or land theft) with enslavement (labor theft) is that through which modern consciousness, modern desire, and modern life emerges. It is that through which Western life and thought lives and moves and has being. It is the practice of a violent and limited, an appropriative and expropriative, a thieving and exclusionary “We-ness.”
Putting a fine point on this, Iyko Day observes that “settler colonial racial capitalism is [neither] a thing” nor is it adequately understood as a historically isolable event or series of events. Rather, “[settler colonialism] is a social relation.” That is to say, settler “colonial capitalism is more appropriately figured as an ecology of power relations than a linear chain of events” (112-13). This ecology manifests in relation to that Westphalian international system of states associated with what has come to be called the West and whose activity is carried out under presumption of a particular figure.
This is the figure of “the settler.” Within (post) enlightenment philosophy the settler is known as the sovereign, self-determined subject, and within political thought as the “citizen.” As normative citizen, the settler indexes or represents and even stands as a proxy for what is proper, indeed, for the properly human whose standing is over and against those imagined as Man’s nonhuman or less-than-human Others, those, that is, who fall short of the human as such. If the settler as citizen embodies propriety and proper (political) subjecthood and thus embodies proper life and thus is properly human, then the Other to the citizen gets cast as nonhuman or less-than-human or marginally-human or infra-human and ultimately a threat to the political economy of citizens or those deemed properly human, the community of the human “we.”
However, what philosopher and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter gives us to understand about this imaginary of the human is that it is an “overrepresentation.” By this she means that rather than being made to the measure of the world, this specific genre or version and historical unfolding of the human has come to stand in the place of the human as such. This is the genre whose spatiotemporal and geographical and even geological unfolding is named (Western) Man.
In “worlding” himself, Man enacts two things. On the one hand, Man seizes, settles, or acts to possess the earth for himself. John Locke gives us the philosophy of this settler colonial seizure of the earth through his theory of property. On the other hand, precisely in his geopolitical and geological rupturing or “anthropocening” of the earth, Man also registers the biopolitical production or “massification,” as Jasbir K. Puar has recently put it, of populations. The point of Man’s conversion of populations into unhuman masses is so that total value or total life might be seized or cannibalized, indeed extracted from them for the founding and sustaining of the settler state and for the general sustaining of its central, normative figure, namely, the human (homo politicus, homo economicus). In other words, Man is a figure of ontological and planetary terror, as Calvin Warren powerfully argues. The terror of Man both produces and targets the nonhuman or the less-than-human mass(es) figured as the Racial Other.
The ongoing attacks against black life and native peoples in the United States, along with the specific cases of South Africa and Palestine in the latter’s ongoing struggle against Israeli settler colonialism, I contend, showcase the problem of the human as the central problematic internal to settler colonialism. But also, I would argue, it is at this site of the unhuman, the loci of an “inhuman” darkness, that we find a strange, queer diaspora that, precisely in its unhumanity, its parahumanity, its humanimality, indeed, in its adjacency to the mushroom—which, as Anna Tsing elaborates, finds a way to survive devastation—bespeaks an alternative: Modes of life beyond or in excess of the temporality of Man. Let us, again, call this the mass(es), that dark swarm whose movements are like the murmuration of starlings, a murmuring mass. Like the wandering monks of old (I mean the “gyrovagues” who freaked out St. Benedict and against whom he wrote his “Rules” of obedience), the murmuring mass is a wandering, borderless, non-settler “we” whose very presence unsettles every property line, every boundary that the settler imposes. This is a different kind of “we,” one not centered on the human. This is a ”we” that is before, after, and beyond every state-sanctioned or exclusionary “We the People…” We need a language for this different, non-statist we-ness.
When Professor Boyarin calls for a “deep theorization of diaspora” that is neither the same as a “statist nationalism,” with its racism and violence, nor like a “denatured German-style Reform in which ‘Judaism’ is a faith, or a ‘religion,’ or even a prophetic turn of mind, as per the American Council of Judaism,” but rather is a diaspora devoted “not to the government” but to an otherwise we-ness, a we that is “both here and elsewhere” and that is also Palestinian inasmuch as the Palestinian “we” is a “we” “whom ‘we’ [Jews] . . . oppress”—when Professor Boyarin says these things he is pointing to something like the alternative we-ness of which I speak and that settler colonialism seeks to arrest through the imposition of state logics. The alternative isn’t elsewhere, but instead is an elsewhen marked by a kind of quantum communion that is irreducible to statist or biopolitical logics, including statist or settler colonial logics of religion and the settler gods. Professor Boyarin, in effect, calls for the decolonization of time itself. As Caribbean-Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip puts it, our moral obligation is to “snap the spine of [humanist] time” (141) inasmuch as within settler colonial or humanist time support for racist, statist, anti-Palestinian Zionism, which must be rigorously distinguished from Jewish identity, in effect operates as an extension of white supremacy into the Middle East in the name of supporting the state of Israel and in complex ways reverberates back into the U.S. in both antisemitic and antiblack ways. This is the circuitry of settlerism as political theology.
This all brings me to something Professor Heschel says. I am thinking of moments in the course of her comments in which she takes us into what might be thought of as the spirituality of the issues at hand. Her comments are powerful and, in a good way, absolutely arrested me.
After talking about her sojourn through the 1960s and about how hearing Dr. King affected her so, Professor Heschel asks the question, “What does it mean to be moved?” This is a powerful question, worthy of just sitting with, brooding with, dwelling with, as we meditate on our moral obligations in this moment of settler colonial devastation of peoples and of the earth itself.
“What does it mean to be moved,” she asks?
This question is utterly bound up with social movements as historical-empirical phenomena, movements like Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. But also what emerged out of May 1968, such as what traveled under the name “Black Power.” And more recently, what is called “the Movement for Black Lives” and the movement for a free Palestine. But never taking her eye off of social movements in their phenomenal appearing, Professor Heschel invites us, as it were, to look inside of such movements to ask a question, to catch sight even if only in a flash of another order.
Hers is the question of how a movement moves you. What in a movement moves you? What gives itself through a movement even as it exceeds the mo(ve)ment? What moves (within) the movement? This is a question of the sacred interior, which is not the interior of the would-be sovereign individual or the settler-as-citizen subject. This is the interior of the mass(es), an interior mass whose fundamental entanglement manifests the sacred and bespeaks a poetics of the social. Perhaps when Frantz Fanon inquired into “that within,” the gulf or abyss or the indefineable vanishing point that exceeds racialization or what epidermal blackening and browning as cultural operations aim to arrest, he too was approaching the question of what moves subterraneously, underneath, and in excess of the political.
“What does it mean to be moved,” Professor Heschel asks.
It’s then that just as her listeners, an audience of scholars, might expect her to offer your classic or scholastic (read: typically academic) answer to the question she poses, she pulls back. She refuses to answer—at least in such a way that would freeze the question in answering it. What comes through is that it is not so much about the answer as it is about keeping the question alive in whatever answer one gives. It’s, in other words, about the ongoing quest(ion)ing.
And so, immediately following upon her asking her moving question, Professor Heschel says that to be moved in social movement is to undergo something. It is to be set in flight, to be set roaming and roving and wandering, to be opened out into what exceeds you, to move into the open, to have one’s limits crossed, all borders breached, the very notion of “world” broken open. In short, it’s to be “in the break.” This Heschel calls “religious experience,” about which she says, “I need that.”
Finally, Professor Heschel caps her reflections by further saying, in effect, that to undergo social movement is precisely to not give into despair, knowing (and this is very deep) that “there is something else coming.” Affectively caught in the wave, so to speak, in the sensation, carried by the feeling of what’s coming, to be touched by and to haptically surrender to that something else beyond the political as we know it—about this Professor Heschel says, “I have to hold onto that,” for “that I guess is what keeps me going with the praxis.”
There is a terrible beauty borne in what Professor Heschel, I think, is getting at. Here we glimpse social movement as an anticipatory praxis of something else coming, manifest in a kind of ante-political assembly, a mode of gathering or assembly or commune-ion that falls outside of though it surges through the violences of state time and history. Her words are a kind of “sorrow song” that celebrates the mass(es) or social movement even if that celebration is singed with some sort of sadness. This all arrested and moved me, I must say, inasmuch as I’ve been thinking a lot about what spirituality means in settler colonial times, about the “mysticism” of social movements, something I’ve recently called the “the mysticism of the riot” and the spirit(uality) of the general strike. What if spirit is of the riot? What if spirit is the general strike, ritual of an alternative cosmology?
To be moved by the more-than-now, by a wholly-other, something-else-future is to be under fugitivity’s sway. Per the black radical tradition’s meditations on the historical figure of the fugitive and the arts of escape, fugitivity here bespeaks an other order of time. This other temporality bespeaks, as Melissa Louidor puts it as she thinks with Fred Moten, a certain “mobilization of black vitality.” It is a “futuristic impulse to claim the not-yet-forged possibilities of existence.” That impulse, to stay with Louidor a bit longer, might be thought about in terms of certain “biomechanic and metaphysical forces [that] activate” imagination, which is to say “effort, an effort that is integral to claiming survival.” To dwell within fugitive time or to be fugitively on the move is to resonate with, indeed to reside or tarry with, the im/possibility of other worlds. I’m talking about new ways of dwelling with and being on the earth. This is a kind of quantum communion, the veritable entanglement of all things precisely at the level of thingliness itself, at the level of base matter or raw vitality. In short, the modernity of fugitivity names the mobilization of a queer vitality, an “aliveness,” Kevin Quashie might say, beyond racial category. While constantly engaging politics and maneuvering with respect to state structures, that which moves in fugitive time moves under the sociopoetic propulsion of an uncaptureable force that is irreducible to political ontology and its presumption of the human. As such, fugitivity is an insurgent practice of prophesy, though without the figure of the singular or sovereign prophet. For in fugitive time the prophet is the mass(es), the swarm of social movement as such.
I cannot help but hear Professor Heschel’s question—What does it mean to be moved?—in conversation with a tradition of black radical thought and the distinct notion of the sacred that is internal to this tradition and that drives its arts of escape, the arts of black rapture. The something-else-future that Professor Heschel’s language conjures or is reaching for is, like black radicalism’s poetics of the sacred, of an insurgent, dissident, rebellious, anti-doctrinal, and non-teleological future. Felt in the present, Professor Heschel’s question registers as a disturbance that is always already in play and that as such witnesses to an alternative present. Such a temporality, such a future, is radical. It is a future without frame, without foreclosure, marked by a peculiar kind of nonhumanist dispossession, movement outside of propertied self-possession.
To be under the claim of such a future is to be indebted to a future of something else coming, Heschel says, or that is “a’comin’,” to purloin from Judith Weisenfeld. And because it is a’comin’, it moves one into a different kind of now, a now that, again, exceeds the time of the human. This revised understanding of the future where the future is not merely what follows past and present suggests what might be called, defying grammatical convention, the tense of the future-now.
What might the future-now mean, where both “the now” and “the future” are unmoored from liberal humanist progressive narratives or temporalities (of death), unhooked from time schemes that presume the settler, or the sovereign, individuated subject? What could freedom released from settler time mean? And, what does this all mean for social movement(s), for a free Palestine, for Palestinian life in its adjacency to black life, and for a Jewishness released from Zionist-statist-settler logics and thus thought of as conspiring with, literally breathing with, blackness and Palestinianness, a Jewishness entangled in “blackpalestinian breathing”?
With Professor Heschel, I offer this answer which is not and cannot be one. At a minimum the tense of the future-now might be thought of as the opening of the imagination to the impossible. The tense of the future-now brings into view what settler time forecloses as not possible. Nevertheless the impossible surges through, fracturing time and history to announce another beginning. Genesis otherwise. The tense of the future-now is the tense, to borrow from Dawn Lundy Martin, of “unforeclosure” and the unforecloseable.
Unsettling settler time or the time of patriarchs and sovereigns, the tense of the future-now is marked, as experimental film maker and video artist Arthur Jafa has put it, by both tension and potential. Beyond time as given to us to shut down imagining the im/possible, the future-now discloses every instant as measureless, saturated by “potension.”
Could this be what moves a mo(ve)ment? Could it be that the tense of the future-now is nothing less than the tense of spirit-time, what is of the life (and) times of the unhuman wherein we are given to dwell with the earth even as we work to survive the settler world (of Man)? The riot, the rebellion then, is a threshold of the sacred where in passage we dwell in fugitivity’s future-now, rhythming “freedom time,” an alternative conception of time that presences an alternative present. Music-ing fugitive time is the creative, the ethical, the “poethical” task. . .Task of a homiletics of the unhuman, witnessing to a wounded, unspeakable joy . . . Task of something else a’comin’ . . .
J. KameronCarter, “Black Malpractice (A Poetics of the Sacred).” Social Text 139 (forthcoming).
The idea of “vitality” and “aliveness” reflects conversations with Quashie around his forthcoming book, Black Aliveness; or, The Being of Us.
*The opinions expressed in this piece do not represent the official opinions of Contending Modernities research initiative and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies or their faculty and staff.
J. Kameron Carter is Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. He works in black studies, theology and philosophy of religion, and literature and poetry. His book is Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press, 2008). He’s just finished a book manuscript titled American Religion: White Supremacy as Political Theology and he is in the final stages of another book project whose topic is blackness and/as the sacred.
Israel is a nation that has no secrets. The democratic process of self-exposure is celebrated time and again. Its model of self-reflection, however, has changed over 70 years of military brutality, occupation, and settler colonial violence. Long ago, it used to follow a model of remorse, also known as “shooting and crying.” The tradition is traced back to S. Yizhar’s powerful novella Khirbet Khizeh(also spelled: Hirbet Hizeh or Hirbet Hizah), originally published in 1949. The novella tells the story of several young Israeli soldiers who are ordered to “clear” some Palestinian villages right after the end of the 1948 war. The text is a moving depiction of post-war atrocities, of colonial violence, of performative militarized masculinity, and of the inner turmoil of the narrator, who himself is a young soldier. The soldier wishes to belong to his fellow warriors, but his conscience hurts. Eventually he decides to join the rest in evacuating the village and leaves his remorse to be dealt with in the future.
Yizhar’s text is important because it is a very early documentation of the Nakba (Arabic for “Cataclysm” or “Catastrophe”). The significance of including the Nakba (with detailed accounts of destruction, violence, and expulsion of Palestinians) in one of the earliest Israeli novels to be published in Hebrew post 1948 cannot be overstated. That this very text became required reading for all Israeli high-school students right around the 1967 war, then a best seller, and finally a TV series a few years after the 1973 war, leaves little doubt about the significant impact this short text has had on generations of Israelis. What is this impact? Without undermining the outstanding literary qualities of the text (there are but a few Hebrew writers as talented as Yizhar, and this novella is a true masterpiece of modern Hebrew literature), one must recognize the poetic and political ethos of this text as one that soon became a model for many future Israeli novelists, songwriters, and filmmakers. In the work of acclaimed authors such as Amos Oz, David Grossman, and even more contemporary writers, this trope is dominant. A few of the more familiar cinematic works that follow this model include Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Lebanon (2007), and more recently the TV series, Fauda (2018).
If the tone of remorse and hesitation is strongly captured in Yizhar’s early novella, over the years the trope of “shooting and crying” has become just as much about remorse and moral dilemmas as it has become about self-justification and the creating of a masculine, warrior subject. Such a subject is human and sensitive, but also logical and responsible. Amos Oz—a writer who has always been considered “leftist” by the right and “right” by the left—best captured this model of subjectivity in his response to a question about his feelings concerning his service as an Israeli soldier in both 1967 and 1973: “I have done many things that I am sorry I had to do, but nothing that I am ashamed of.”
“Sorry for things I had to do.” This “non-apologetic apology” was the model of self-critique advanced in Israel in many politically reflective works of literature and cinema. “Shooting and crying,” as this style became known, was a way of maintaining the nation’s self-image as youthful and innocent, along with its sense of vocation against the reality of war, growing military violence, occupation, invasion, and an overall sense that things were going wrong. All in all, this long poetic tradition, which has at times produced better works than others—Waltz with Bashir is undeniably a cinematic masterpiece—followed the very same logic of Golda Meir’s somewhat less artistic, and significantly more coarse statement: “We can forgive you [the Arabs] for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.”
But the days of shooting and crying are over. Shooting continues, but crying has stopped. It has been replaced with laughter: hysterical, cynical, crude, perhaps even desperate laughter. The general logic is the same: Israel hides nothing. It does not deny the violence and the shooting in which it is involved. It does not deny the occupation, the violations, the torture. Israel denies nothing. On the contrary, it openly depicts and documents its wrongs. In the past, it was the soldiers who were shooting and crying. This time around, the soldiers are shooting and the rest are dancing. And everything takes place out in the open. There is nothing for anyone to look for, to dig up, to expose; all is out in the open, because Israel has nothing to hide.
So what do we get now, when we are no longer shooting and crying, but rather shooting and singing? The more recent and more cynical (and perhaps more effective and dangerous) Israeli poetics and politics of self-reflection no longer bothers to portray Israelis as sensitive beings who shoot out of necessity, “We will never forgive them for what they made us do to them!” This change in style can be first detected in Waltz with Bashir, a film in which the old melancholic tone of the crying soldier is replaced with a dance soundtrack, neon colors, and a club scene. But it has only recently reached full maturity in the most vulgar presentation of a campy campaign that promotes something like: “We’re here, we’re occupiers, get used to it.”
Late last week, Israel released a response to the ongoing international critique against holding the 2019 Eurovision contest in Tel Aviv. Produced by a private media company, the video features two singers (one identifies as a Russian, the other as Arab) who meet two reluctant young blond tourists at the airport, most likely with the intention of convincing them that they should support Eurovision in Israel. The young tourists never appear convinced. On the contrary, they seem concerned, suspicious, and bitter, and they eventually leave their hosts. Meanwhile the Arab and Russian Israelis are jumpy, lively, and overtly “marketing” the country: “Stop! Don’t say a word! I know just what’ve you heard—that it’s a land of war and occupation.” The singing goes on, sparkles in the air, as the four leave the airport for a brief tour: “We are here to be your guide—a small country with pride!”
Truthfully, the video is confusing. If one does not know it is part of an official Israeli campaign, one is likely to think it is a parody, or perhaps even another BDS commercial (part two of the queer for Palestine dance revealed earlier this month). “This is the land of honey, honey . . . Our land is always sunny, sonny” the two hosts sing as they invite their hesitant tourists into a short “indoctrination,” telling them everything Israel has to offer in addition to the occupation: a dying Dead Sea that is shrinking due to capitalist activity; beaches full of bitches (also known as feminine gay men); lots of Jews (and only some are greedy); great shawarma everywhere; and the Al-Aqsa Mosque as symbol of “the beloved capital.”
So why would this be the formal Israeli campaign? Precisely because this “humor” and campiness have become clear and identifiable political and poetic tactics that can be easily mimicked, regenerated, and used as if following a narrative of reclaiming. Once again, Israel generates its message from the position of “strategic weakness”: the world says these horrible things about us? Well then it is either because everyone is anti-Semitic (they think all Jews are greedy!) or because they think we don’t know what they know and they think they need to teach us. But we know all there is to know, and we know better than they know. Even so, they patronize us, suggesting we don’t know what we do know: “the occupation isn’t nice.”
Shooting and crying is passé. Shooting and singing is more appropriate, especially as a promo for Eurovision in Tel Aviv. There is no point in denying the Israeli occupation (no one denies it) and no point in denying colonial violence and destruction (no one denies it). So? Lets dance! Where the mockery about nostalgia (“land of milk and honey”) comes on the same plate with the self-negating anti-Semitic jokes about greedy Jews and the matter of fact acknowledgement of the occupation (in the campaign’s first line no less!!), there is not much left for the critic to say. This is the importance and the danger of this new “campy” style. Its self-reflexivity and ironic nod is far more sophisticated, politically speaking, than crying. This is not merely replacing shooting and crying with shooting and singing. It is more like replacing shooting and crying with shooting and singing about just how vulgar it is to be shooting and singing. The bottom line message? Do you want to be shooting and crying? Crying about shooting? Or… would you rather join the singing? Don’t spoil the party. That’s not cool.
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.
On March 31, 2019, student leaders from the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA; the Chicanx Student Movement of Aztlán), a U.S. Latina/o/x organization present on many high school and college campuses across the country, voted to change their fifty-year old name. They decided that they had to drop two of the most mythically politicized facets: “Chicanx” and “Aztlán.” Although they haven’t decided on a final name, right now they have chosen an Espanglish acronym: Movimiento Estudiantil Progressive Action (MEPA). In an Associated Press story, some MEChA alumni criticized the students for running away from or trying to erase their history.
Given that the names “Chicano” and “Aztlán” have been contested for fifty years, by debating these terms and voting to alter their names these students are actively participating in that history. In a statement on the decision, their national board made clear that they are not disavowing earlier generations.
Becoming MEChA: Historical Context
In the late 1960s, across the country, students mobilized to demand courses and programs of study that decentered modern European thought and reflected a greater sensitivity to the full human experience. The struggle for self-naming was part of the struggle for self-determination and greater educational opportunity that proliferated among these movements. For those engaged in decolonial struggles, there was often a hope that pre-modern stories and traditions might offer fuel in resisting contemporary colonial structures. The names “Chicano” and “Aztlán” were themselves invested with meaning by young people who were searching for names and ideas that would reflect their self-perception better than the terms outsiders had placed upon them.
At the same time, these movements were always more diverse in composition and less unified in perspective than later narratives like to depict. As a student of Christian scriptures, I am familiar with the ways on-the-ground human diversity often gets flattened in the memorialization of supposed moments of origin. I partially offer this reflection in the hope that MEPA narratives can do a better job of remembering how much of their fifty-year history has involved a multiplicity of perspectives and ongoing contestation.
Dominant Chicano movement narratives offer a clear and progressive origin story that begins with the triumphal inclusion of Chicano and Aztlán as terms of self-identification. In March of 1969, possibly 1500 activists met in Denver with a focus on Chicano nationalism. The term “Chicano” had started to circulate among activists a few years before. It felt like a reclaiming of an older term, and a variety of myths about the exact origin of the word abounded, though many thought it came from “mechicano,” a reference to the indigenous Mexica peoples. “Chicano” was also deployed with pride in contradistinction to the derogatory names that had been placed upon “ethnic Mexicans” (a term I take from historian Ernesto Chávez in order to speak to the pan-ethnic conglomeration of diverse peoples) by outsiders since the United States had seized and conquered the northern half of Mexico in 1848. From the history of 19thand 20thcentury lynchings in the borderlands amid Anglo depictions of “dirty Mexicans” to the use of “Operation Wetback” as a name for a mid-20thcentury federal government operation of mass deportations, ethnic Mexicans had confronted a variety of slurs employed to justify violence.
During the 1969 conference, the poet Alurista wrote the preamble for El Plan de Aztlán, where he renamed the southwestern United States “Aztlán,” the land the Aztecs migrated from before moving to the Valley of Mexico and the land to which they promised to return. Alurista intentionally drew upon a myth that antedated European colonialism, a myth that invoked both a pre-Columbian past and a future where colonial sufferings have ended.
In choosing the name “Chicano” for themselves and “Aztlán” for the lands on which they met, activists refused dominant depictions of ethnic Mexicans as foreigners. Instead, the United States was the foreign interloper in a grander history. Chicano/a/x activists were claiming a deep ancestral connection to the lands on which they lived. Precisely because ethnic Mexicans had faced so many forms of displacement and erasure in U.S. history, the powerful longing for place that rests behind these names persists through fifty years of engagement with Aztlán.
In April 1969, more than one hundred ethnically Mexican students, staff, and faculty from twenty-nine of California’s public colleges and universities met in Santa Barbara in order to craft a plan for higher education. But they also brought together several distinct student organizations and combined them into one new group: MEChA. The name was meant to signal a radical vision and commitment to self-determination. They were not “Mexican American” but Chicano. They were a movement in Spanish. They were not in California but Aztlán, the mythical homeland of the people we call Aztecs. Collectively, they became a mecha, a “matchstick” or a “fuse.”
Contestations over Aztlán
Yet Chicanos were themselves a diverse group, and they were more divided over the name and their platform than the October 1969 publication of El Plan de Santa Barbara makes it seem. Chicana feminist and Santa Barbara steering committee member Anna Nieto-Gómez has long observed that the published text flattened out the diversity of voices and the plurality of visions that had been present in Santa Barbara. Nieto-Gómez tells a different narrative about the Chicano movement’s history. For her, certain questions and practices of internal contestation were always part of ethnic Mexican student activism.
Even in 1969, some young activists already wondered if the name “Chicano” represented too much of a break from their own past. The term “Chicano” was more commonly used within particular academic and activist contexts. What about friends and family who were not as educated in activist lingo? Many wondered whether the name worked to exclude rather than to unite.
Aztlán, with its promise of a once and future homeland, was also quite pliable in its imagination and reception. Some participants in the Chicano movement, as filmmaker Jesús Treviño describes in his autobiography Eyewitness, may have hoped for a more literal reconquest of Mexico’s northern territories. And some activists, like Alfredo Acosta Figueroa as he describes in his book La Cuna de Aztlán, may have really believed that they had found the literal homeland of the Aztecs in a specific place in California.
Most, however, quickly turned to a more spiritualized description, where Aztlán became more of a state of mind. They saw it as an alternate utopian space, or, as Luis Leal described it, “Aztlán symbolizes the spiritual union of the Chicanos, something that is carried within the heart, no matter where they may live or where they may find themselves.”
Current MEChA member from Seattle University, Nicolás Cruz, in his widely circulated paper criticizing Aztlán (“Reflections on Aztlán and Its Role in the Chicanx Student Movement”) makes note of the possibilities of this spiritualized approach. Cruz particularly engages with the analogy of what Israel means to different Jewish communities, highlighting their long history of contesting the meanings of homeland and diaspora. Yet, he still leaves that comparison wondering if spiritualizing Aztlán sufficiently addresses critics’ concerns.
Cruz’s criticisms and those of other student leaders target these visions of Aztlán as themselves implicated in colonialism, racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, and transphobia. In a move familiar to students of religion, many elder activists depict these criticisms as contemporary impositions that fundamentally misunderstand an ancient myth and the historical context of the movement from which these ideas emerged. But I would suggest that, even if we discuss them on different terms now, all of these critiques have long histories.
As early as the 1970s, some activists wondered if Aztlán relied too much on a romanticized, imperial vision. Aztlán, as it was imagined, partially derived its power from Spanish interpretations and manuscripts. The Mexicas, to whom “Chicano” supposedly referred, also colonized and dominated a great diversity of indigenous peoples before the Spanish arrived. Many ethnic Mexicans are indigenous but not Mexica. Additionally, in the last fifty years, the U.S. Latina/o/x population has grown and diversified dramatically. Many members of MEPA trace their ancestors to various parts of Latin America and not just Mexico.
Moreover, appealing to the Mexica people and to Aztlán grew out of a 1920s Mexican nationalist revolutionary mythos that valued racial mixture (mestizaje) rather than indigeneity. As Néstor Medina has succinctly outlined in his book Mestizaje, certain Mexican nationalists appropriated indigenous imagery even as they opposed indigenous rights and erased Mexicans of Asian and African descent.
Attempts to narrate and contest the complex racial stratification of the Americas have hundreds of years of history, even if, again, how we name those contestations now looks different. So too, in the case of the Chicano movement, do we find long-standing concerns about how indigeneity is respected in relationship to mestizaje. Indeed, indigenous ethnic Mexican objections to the concept of Aztlán may have been one of the most important factors in the decision to change the name. Even Alurista quickly rethought his positions, and his Nationchild Plumaroja (1972) sought to be more gender inclusive and more focused on indigenous traditions rather than mestizaje.
Since 1970s Chicano activism was borne out of solidarity with other minoritized communities, some activists also asked about the rights of other minoritized populations, such as African Americans, American Indians, and Asian Americans. Aztlán seemed to refuse other claims on a shared space.
In the history of settler colonization of the Americas, many colonizers entered territories and mapped new names (or misappropriated indigenous names) on places that already had names recognized by the indigenous people living there. What does the idea of Aztlán mean for the place names of the many living indigenous communities throughout the United States? Do visions of Aztlán enable solidarity with their quests for sovereignty, or does Aztlán simply become another settler colonial misappropriation and misapplication, where an indigenous name from one part of the continent gets appropriated and mapped onto another, erasing the claims of indigenous peoples? This question is at the heart of the current debate and decision to move beyond Aztlán.
The criticisms around the inclusion of women and LGBT* students also have longer histories, even if they are not as directly apparent in the vision of Aztlán. Triumphal unified narratives of the 1970s Chicano movement too often focused on the leadership of cis-male heterosexual mestizos. As Maylei Blackwell researched in ¡Chicana Power!,Chicanas formed their own organizations quite early in order to create space outside of patriarchal demands. The Chicana feminist newspaper Hijas de Cuauhtémoc was already in print by 1971, and in Houston, more than 600 Chicanas gathered for the Conferencia de la Mujer.
Nieto-Gómez, among others, laid challenges to Chicano movement leadership structures that favored men and compelled women to be subservient, enabled sexual harassment and abuse, and that proclaimed an ideology of family grounded in patriarchal hierarchy while erasing women. Feminist critics specifically coined the term “hermanidad,” a more gender inclusive sense of siblinghood, to counter the more masculine dominated language of “carnalismo” or “brotherhood.” By the late 1970s, Chicana feminist Anna Nieto-Gómez was pushed out of Chicano activism because some figures wanted to eliminate practices of internal contestation, especially feminist contestation.
As Richard T. Rodríguez has demonstrated in Next of Kin, LGBT* Chicana/o/xs also worked inside and alongside the movement to create their own visions of Chicano/x/a familia and Aztlán. In the early 1990s in her collection The Last Generation, author Cherríe Moraga said “Aztlán gave language to a nameless anhelo [longing/yearning] inside me.” Yet this reflection is found in an essay (“Queer Aztlán”) that underscored the ways patriarchy and machismo had undermined the 1970s movement.
Why Aztlán’s Time Is Up
Moraga may have found a way to queer Aztlán, but every generation wonders if they should continue to refashion the myths they have inherited or if it is time to create new ones. MEChA is not the first 1960s/70s-era Latina/o/x organization to confront such a name change. The National Council of La Raza changed its name to UnidosUS in 2017. Rodríguez has also wondered about whether familial metaphors are still usable, after the movement-era struggles around hermanidad and carnalismo (and queer belonging within and outside of both metaphors). He argues that the long-standing power of familia means that these metaphors cannot be abandoned, but he still awaits a “next of kin,” some other approach to fictive family.
To be sure, the generation that created MEChA, and the generations in between who benefitted from their struggles, have an emotional attachment to the name. Chicano scholar and activist Alvaro Huerta captures how important MEChA was to transformations in his consciousness and his life in “Reflections of a MEChista.” I wrote my 2016 book, Revelation in Aztlán, precisely because I was intrigued by the power that this mythic place name wielded for people who felt that they have been denied place in the United States.
Today’s students, however, are still carrying forth the legacies of conscientization, rigorous intellectual debate, and critical social action that made Aztlán a potent utopian imagination for previous generations of MEChistas. Current students have seriously debated the meanings of “Chicano” and “Aztlán,” and despite recognizing their potent histories, they worry that the baggage associated with them hinders their abilities to craft the better world that earlier generations sought.
In this regard, these current students are also participating in debates that rage across the globe about how best to relate to the traditions our ancestors passed down to us, especially when those traditions seem deeply implicated in historical practices of oppression such as colonialism, racism, heteropatriarchy, and/or transphobia. Some figures, like Moraga and Rodríguez, struggle to retrieve the histories of complexity and contestation without abandoning those myths. Some like Leal repurpose the content of those myths and how we engage with them, in order to find ways to make them useful to the current moment.
But other generations give up on those myths altogether. In 1969, student activists decided to give up on the names they inherited, and they turned to a mythic past in order to create new names for their present. Current students have likewise decided they no longer wish to carry the names they inherited forward. What students of religion around the world should take note of here, however, is the students’ decision to reject the name without creating a finalized alternative. These students were skeptical that any previous tradition might be made usable for the present.
For students of religion in the United States, we may see a familiar lesson in this decision to change MEChA’s name. Sociological studies of religion in the United States have found a similar dramatic decline in youth participation in Christian churches. Many of our students no longer want to associate themselves with inherited traditions that have been mobilized to oppress people. Even as these students have taken much of their vision of social justice from previous generations’ articulations of Aztlán, they wish to move their organization forward without evoking ancient mythic traditions. This decision is one option familiar to those who watch how minoritized populations navigate the competing modernities they have inherited.
Still, a change of name does not necessarily mean students are running away from their history or disavowing the struggles of generations before them. In fact, MEPA students embrace the same desire to self-name that marked previous MEChA generations’ quests for self-determination. They know that names are always ambivalent, contingent, and contested, that utopias are always unfinished works-in-progress. Future generations may someday find MEPA’s new name inadequate, but el movimiento will keep moving then too.
One of the main findings of the Science and the Human Person working group (the larger project to which these essays contribute) is that the discursive traditions of Islam and Catholicism offer valuable insights, but not a full account, of the human person. One of the project’s podcasts (in which I was honored to participate) described debates among Islamic jurists on the permissibility of organ donation. Herein I will weave together these threads, albeit partially, by outlining fundamental questions raised by the science and practice of uterine transplantation. I will further suggest that to better conceptualize, and eventually furnish, ethical guidelines that attend to the bioethics of uterine transplantation a multidisciplinary model is required, one where secular and religious bioethicists partner with social and medical scientists.
Procedurally, uterine transplantation involves removing the uterus from a living individual, or from an individual who fulfills the neurological criteria for death, and grafting this organ into a willing female recipient. Uterus transplantation, like limb and face transplantation, is part of the growing area of research into vascular composite allografts where multiple tissues types are transplanted as one functional unit. Uterus transplantation is unique in that it is a temporary measure; once the transplanted uterus fulfills its function in the donor it is removed and discarded. As with all organ transplants, the viability of the organ depends on a myriad of factors including the condition of the uterus when it is removed from the donor, the medical status of the recipient, the immunological compatibility between the donor and the recipient, the surgical technique utilized, and the efficacy of the immunosuppressive drugs the recipient takes to forestall organ rejection. In order for the donor’s sacrifice, the surgeon’s labor, and the recipient’s daily ministrations to be ethically justified, the ends of the procedure must be righteous and likely to be attained, while the risks and side effects relatively minimal. Accordingly, over the past decade, uterine transplantation has become an increasingly viable procedure with acceptable risk-to-benefit ratios, and the success of carrying to term and delivering an infant via a transplanted uterus increasingly probable. This biomedical advancement births bioethics questions both old and new.
For one, uterine transplantation forces clinicians and ethicists to (re-)examine the ambiguous line between therapy and enhancement; is this purported therapy restoring bodily function, adding a new physiologic capacity, or something in between? Uterus transplantation is an experimental procedure/emerging therapy for women with absolute uterine infertility (AUFI). AUFI refers to the inability to bear children because women either (i) lack a uterus (congenitally or because of surgical removal due to disease), or (ii) have a uterine abnormality that prevents embryo implantation and/or gestation to term. For these women, uterus transplantation holds the possibility of (re-)gaining the ability to gestate and birth a child. If uterus transplantation is judged to be a clinical therapy, then AUFI is termed a disease. To consider the therapy vs. enhancement question ethicists must delve into both the medical and the social bases upon which AUFI becomes a disease and uterus transplantation its treatment, as well as the implications thereof.
As noted above, women with AUFI are not all the same. Some cannot bear children for they were born without a uterus or without one that permits gestation. For this group uterus transplantation is technically not restorative because their bodies innately did not have the capacities theoretically offered by a transplanted uterus. Rather, in these cases uterus transplant offers an opportunity to rectify the body’s perceived deficiency by allowing for childbirth. This fix is based on patient desire, as well as on social expectations of womanhood and cultural notions of the normative body being one that contains reproductive capacity. Certainly, social scientific data will attest to the fact that some women with AUFI, as well as those unable to bear children for other reasons, experience profound loss. This sense of missing out on an essential part of life motivates their seeking procedures like uterus transplant. Yet this sense of something missing does not fully support a claim of uterus transplantation as restorative. It certainly adds meaning, value, and enhances perceived flourishing, but it does not restore an innate ability for someone suffering from AUFI. In one way it is more akin to enhancement in that it provides women without a uterus the chance of having a child of their own, much like a prosthetic extremity allows congenital amputees to gain a limb. The extremity adds a capacity, enhances functioning, but does not replace something that was lost, for the extremity was either not there or not fully formed or functional in the first place. The other group with AUFI, those who have had to undergo uterus removal due to disease are, arguably, different because they lost a capacity their bodies previously contained. For them uterus transplantation may be deemed restorative.
I am certainly not suggesting that clinical therapies must be restorative in order to be ethically justified; there are many genetic therapies and surgical procedures that seek to rectify abnormalities in structure, function, and phenotype that are part and parcel of ethical medical practice. Rather, ethicists (be they secular or religious scholars) must appreciate the ways in which uterus transplant and AUFI makes visible the ways in which social expectations and ideas about the normative body interact with the ethical ends of medicine. A host of bioethical questions arise when uterus transplantation is considered as a social practice: Is the fact that some women with AUFI suffer and are desirous of a solution sufficient enough justification to categorize it as a disease that demands medical remedy? Or does the fact that gestating and birthing is perceived to enhance the flourishing of some women sufficient grounding to make it part of routine medical practice? At present uterus transplantation is a procedure undertaken by willfully consenting adults, but if we could perform it on children with less complications and better success would it be ethically justified? On a related note, would medicine deem women who are born without a uterus diseased at birth or do they become diseased only because the need for a child arises later in life? Is either group, the child or the adult, somehow physiologically deviant due to no fault of their own, therefore making it medicine’s task to graft reproductive capacity upon them?
AUFI illustrates how all diseases are socio-culturally constructed; some have physiological or functional correlates (e.g. coronary artery disease), while others are thus classified because they are deviations from social norms (e.g. idiopathic short stature). Women with AUFI fit into both categories in that they are deemed to have a physiological or functional “disability” based on a “missing” function, and accordingly uterus transplant blurs the line between treatment and enhancement. There is no doubt that women with AUFI suffer considerably because they cannot have offspring. Although uterus transplantation may offer a solution to this suffering there are other potential “therapies” to not having children, such as adoption or gestational surrogacy. The appeal of uterus transplantation may be strong, and the procedure may be ethically justified, but it is also carries greater risk than these alternatives. In this case, as in others, ethicists need to fully consider the social forces that turn atypical anatomy or physiology into malady, and difference into disorder. Scholars may find interesting parallels to draw upon in the deaf community where some opt to not have their deafness (or that of their children) “remedied” because they do not see deafness as a disease and reject such stigmatization.
As religious bioethicists weigh in on the ethics of uterus transplant they need to examine conceptions of the normative body from the lens of tradition. For example, both Islam and Christianity have versions of an imago Dei doctrine. Does this notion offer insight into distinctions between therapy and enhancement when it comes to reconfiguring the body by adding a uterus? When building out conceptions of the normative body based on scriptural indicants, both traditions must confront the issue that in some narrations womankind was generated from the first man. What sort of normativity can be attached to the uterus, an organ only present in female bodies? Similarly, both traditions speak to the value of procreation with scriptural texts that command the faithful to “be fruitful and multiply.” Does this directive envisage women without a uterus as being removed from God’s bounty out of wisdom, or can it ground uterus transplantation as a meritorious deed because of a desire to fulfill this teaching? In addition to these new wrinkles, uterus transplantation livens up “older” debates about organ transplantation in religious traditions. Although organ transplantation is generally permitted by Muslim scholars when it is life-saving, uterus transplantation is not technically life-saving for the individual recipient. Would the fact that it allows for a future generation to exist which would not have otherwise accord it life-saving status or does it have a different merit? Islamic scholars debate organ transplantation’s ethico-legal permissibility because it can, arguably, detract from the honor, dignity, and inviolability accorded to the human being as God’s creation because it reduces the human beings into a mix of interchangeable parts. Does uterine transplantation change this stance appreciably?
Continuing on to other social constructions, uterus transplantation necessarily implicates notions of motherhood. The transplanted uterus, if all goes well, would allow a woman to gestate and give birth to a baby. By definition, it would then appear, that uterus transplantation generates a child-parent relationship. Yet it has always been the case that motherhood is constructed upon social as well as biological foundations. Biomedical advancements have made the biological linkages between offspring and potential parents all the more varied, and uterus transplantation adds to this complexity. At one level, the link between a parent and a child is based on shared DNA, the propagation of these building blocks of life from one organism to another links one generation of a species to another. The DNA provides data on one’s origin and ancestry, generates one’s phenotypic and physiological profiles, and speaks to one’s probabilities for disease and longevity. DNA science has replaced “older” methods of evaluating the linkage between offspring and parents. For example, in the Prophet Muhammad’s time, the science of physiognomy was practiced to certify links between progeny and progenitors; today DNA science has supplanted this practice. Yet, modern biomedicine can now offer multiple other biological claims to parenthood as the chain from progenitor to progeny can be further subdivided. Nowadays the ovum and the sperm cell (either with or without the nuclei that contain the cell’s DNA) can be donated from people other than those who desire a child, and the womb within which the fused zygote is gestated can either be hired from a third party or, in the case of uterine transplant, come from a donor.
Thus the couple desiring a child can legally claim to be rightful parents of an infant they have no DNA or gestational link to. Perhaps there is no ethical issue with such a claim because adoption provides some precedent. Adoption, in ancient times as well as today, has always been a practice that privileged social over biological bonds where accepting a child into one’s home and rearing them created a parent-child relationship. Contemporary biomedicine seems to have innovated beyond this older method with egg, sperm, embryo, and uterus donation. However it is likely that couples who have children via the method of egg and sperm donation plus gestational surrogacy would not consider themselves to be adoptive parents. Technically, however, they are not biological parents either. Is a new category of parenthood needed to cover this situation? Returning to the matter of uterus transplantation, the same question arises: does the act of gestation ground kinship ties and accompanying ethical claims? Gestational surrogacy arrangements, where they are legal, may provide some precedent, but these are also not without their controversies. Would the uterus donor be able to claim parental rights? Or in the case that the donated uterus was deficient in some way would the gestated child be able to make claims of the “right not to be born” against both the uterus donor and the recipient since the functional issue arose only after the uterus was transplanted into the new body?
A further complication, at least for Muslim thinkers, is that the womb and gestation are particularly significant in Islamic theology. One of God’s names is derived from the Arabic root for the womb; and Muslims are warned not to sever the ties of the womb lest it sever God’s mercy from the individual. Similarly the Qur’an emphatically declares that the “true” mother is the individual who birthed (and gestated) the child. Rearing is an important function but not one that grounds parental rights in this world or the next in the Qur’anic paradigm. As such a uterus donor’s ethico-legal claims of parentage would be harder to dismiss. Moreover, another analogy may be drawn from within the tradition. According to Islamic law, milk maids have parental rights, and some thinkers argued gestational mothers should be treated similarly. Does a uterus donor mother need to be added to the mix? Even if Muslims were to not seek uterus transplantation as a remedy the question is nevertheless pertinent to Muslims and Islamic law. With opt-out policies of organ transplantation gaining momentum in multiple countries, it is possible that a deceased Muslim women’s uterus may be used for transplantation purposes in the future. What would the relationship be between the child born to the recipient of that uterus and the children of the donor? Would kinship ties ensue, and the prohibition of marriage amongst siblings be invoked?
Having marked out several important bioethical questions uterus transplantation gives rise to, and noting how these questions have religious dimensions, I would like to close by discussing, in broad strokes, how social science and religious tradition might work together jointly to address these questions. In my view the project of defining terms such as motherhood and distinguishing between enhancement and restoration is a task religion can take up. Religious texts and scriptural teachings provide theologies and ontologies that provide frameworks upon which to build out such conceptions. At the same time, it is important to note that religious interpretations are not neutral; the way a text is read, understood, and explicated is contextually-dependent. These contexts go back, as well as carry forth, into time and make a tradition lived and always evolving. Hence when the religious frameworks are brought to address contemporary questions, their historicity and weddedness to social contexts must be acknowledged, and the frameworks revised as needed. Moreover, the experiences of motherhood, how notions of motherhood play out in society, and how patients invoke conceptions of restoration and enhancement in seeking healthcare are all topics of social scientific research. Even if the individuals studied are religious actors, their decision-making is also shaped by a myriad of other cultural, political, and social forces. Consequently social science has much to offer religious bioethics; it helps to clarify human experiences, understandings, and contexts, both historical and contemporary.
Scholars on this forum have grappled with the many ways in which biomedical advancements spur the reexamination of religious doctrine and teaching and also have forecast how religious theologies can give fuller meaning to the discoveries of biomedicine. They have further commented on how this bilateral exchange is framed by larger social, political, and economic forces. Attending to the pressing bioethical questions of uterus transplantation requires scholars from all three disciplines—religion, medicine, and social science—to come together in trialogue.
Dr. Padela is an emergency medicine physician, health services researcher, and bioethicist whose scholarship focuses on the intersection of community health, religious tradition, and bioethics. He is Director of the Program on Medicine and Religion at the University of Chicago.
Weeks before Civil Rights icon Angela Davis was to be honored for her unflagging commitment to human rights, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) rescinded the February 2019 award, due to concerns that Davis’ support of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement had been challenged as “anti-Semitic.” In the struggle against modern day racism and oppression, solidarity for Palestinians had yet again been set aside—by a Civil Rights institute no less—as the “exception”: a site of injustice that only one identity group—Jews—might legitimately mobilize for or even discuss, and even then under great stigma. In the past few days, Davis has since been reconfirmed for the award by BCRI, and Michelle Alexander’s “Time to break the silence on Palestine” editorial has placed the issue squarely in the public eye—for the moment.
A year ago, on April 9th-11th, 2018, students from Columbia University and Barnard College held an “Academic Freedom Week” responding to the persecution of progressive academics. Below we share the lecture given on the first day by Columbia University professor and panelist Gil Hochberg on “The Palestinian Exception” (to freedom of speech). In her critique of the forms of censorship performed and enforced by pro- and anti-Zionist Jews and allies, Hochberg identifies the intrinsic narcissism of measuring “real” and “good” Jewish identity with the yardstick of the Palestinian “question.” Discourse and action defining the contours of Palestinian survival become circumscribed to Jews speaking from within Jewish resources about the politics of solidarity—by whom, for whom?—while other identity groups are relegated to a status as secondary allies or excluded from these conversations altogether. As Davis noted, how to navigate these complicated, layered questions of identity, authenticity, and solidarity is a question that strikes at the very heart of the indivisibility of justice.
April 9, 2018
1. Anti Semitism/Anti Zionism
News doesn’t last long. A quick flipping through the online news sites of Fox News, CNN, ABC but also the New York Times, LA Times and lesser-known papers today reveals that the latest crazed attack on Gaza has already been forgotten. Hardly even mentioned. News moved elsewhere: to Syria, back to Trump and his kids, back to all sorts of questions and places. There is nothing surprising about this, of course. It takes a lot for Palestine to “enter” the news and it is almost impossible for it to stay there. Part of it is simply “news fatigue“ (how many times can you read or see the same thing, witness the same atrocities when nothing follows in the form of actual political change?). But part of it is of course the strong Israeli lobby and the sad bitter and perhaps inevitable “mix” of the Palestinian question with the longer and stronger (in terms of its impact) Jewish question, translating always to the ghost of anti-Semitism: new or old, real or not.
It is by now become a cliché to argue that a critique of Israel, or of Zionism, is anti-Semitism. I say a cliché because this argument is used time and time and again to silence criticism against the Israeli state, the occupation of Palestine, or Zionism as an ethnic-national principle of separatism that is undemocratic by definition (I remind you of the then Knesset member Ahmad Tibi’s brilliant phrasing: “Israel is Jewish and democratic: it is democratic for the Jews and Jewish for the Arabs”).
It is really a tiring argument that I trust many are tired of debating. Many have combated it before so I do not want to spend the whole time doing so again. Let me say a few words about this twisted logic and then move on to what I believe needs to be part of the next step of our public conversations about censorship and the Palestinian exception.
Anti-Zionism, like Zionism, like any -ISM, can take many forms. It can become or take the form of anti-Semitism, and so can Zionism. But there is absolutely nothing inherent in the critique of Zionism as a principle, or the critique of the state of Israel, that is anti-Semitic. The suggestion that any expression of anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic is an indication of severe paranoia at best, and a manipulated rhetoric at worst. Unless we agree that Jews are by default hated and that anti-Semitism is a mode of collective subconscious; there is no logic to the argument that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.
At times this crude logic takes a particularly vulgar turn, making the entire discourse of freedom in Palestine out to be mask for anti-Semitism. This is a perverse argument that suggests that caring for Palestinians and their wellbeing is somehow really about hating Jews and seeking their destruction.
The issue with this zero-sum game (one is either for and against Jews or Palestinians), is not just that it is so limited but that it is further used as an effective silencing machine, time and time again.
Indeed, the so-called ‘new anti-Semitism’ associated with the critique of Israel or Zionism is used by Israeli state officials, the IDF, and many supporters of Israel to explicitly justify state terror and protect Israel from international and domestic condemnation.
What Israel is fighting, the image at right seems to suggest, is anti-Semitism, represented by the Palestinian flag hugging the swastika. The two are the same. One hugging the other.
This tactic, which aims at silencing critique of occupation, state terror, racism, separatism, and other similar violations, is directed strategically. It aims at Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labor Party, for example, but not at Richard Spencer or Steven Bannon. And it is perhaps most effectively used in attacks against Jewish critics of Israel or Zionism, with the goal, as Judith Butler has noted, not just to silence critique but “to cause pain, to produce shame, to isolate and identify a political position with a personal pathology.”
Jews who criticize Israel or Zionism are thus said to be “self-hating” sell outs, in short: “bad Jews.” And as we shall see, there are bad Jews and good Jews, and real Jews, and all kinds of Jews, all aligned around in different positions vis-à-vis the question of Palestine.
2. Good Jews, Bad Jews
Let me pause for a second and share a bad joke with you. And I warn you in advance of its poor taste. But it is nevertheless quite funny in a dark, bitter way. Or perhaps it is funny because it is in such bad taste, as is often the case with pessimistic jokes. It goes something like this: Why is the Palestinian question really a Jewish question? Because only Jews talk about it, and when they do it is mostly in order to argue among themselves about who is the better Jew.
I introduce this joke which is bitter and funny because it is at once a sad joke about the Palestinian ordeal, which supposedly no one but the Jews care about, and about the Jews who care about Palestine and Palestinians primarily because whatever they say about Palestine determines how they are viewed “as Jews.”
In short the joke captures the irony of history: the inevitable collapse of the Palestinian question into the Jewish question, only that in the 21st century, this historical inseparability, about which Edward Said wrote so thoughtfully, has become somewhat of a farce. Now that the so-called “Jewish question” has no current political urgency, its dominance in framing the question of Palestine has become primarily an anachronistic, narcissistic, and essentialist question about what makes a good Jew.
And here we see how much power the question: “Is Zionism anti-Semitism?” has had at least since the early 2000s. I remind you of Lawrence Summers’ words, published while he was president of no less than Harvard University. Addressing what he saw as dangerous growing anti-Zionist sentiments among intellectuals, he wrote back in 2002:
Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.
Here of course we see the complete collapse between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. One is the other. Therefore it also means that one cannot be “for the Jews” or “with the Jews” or a “good Jew” if one is anti-Zionist because if one is anti-Zionist one is (in effect or intention) an anti-Semite.
Responding forcefully to the implied accusations, Judith Butler published her defense of anti-Zionism a year later, in 2003. What is important to notice is the manner by which Butler’s response to Summers centered on undoing the tie between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, primarily by undoing the misguided identification of Zionism with Judaism. I quote from Butler:
What do we make of Jews such as myself, who are emotionally invested in the state of Israel, critical of its current form, and call for a radical restructuring of its economic and juridical basis precisely because we are invested in it? It is always possible to say that such Jews have turned against their own Jewishness. But what if one criticizes Israel in the name of one’s Jewishness […] precisely because such criticisms seem ‘best for the Jews’? Why wouldn’t it always be ‘best for the Jews’ to embrace forms of democracy that extend what is ‘best’ to everyone, Jewish or not?
But what does it mean to criticize Israel in the name of one’s Jewishness?
For Butler this means to develop an understanding of Jewishness itself as a non-identitarian project. In her book Parting Ways she writes: “being a Jew implied taking up an ethical relation to the non Jew.” This definition allows her to elaborate a discourse of “Jewish ethics” that is based on Jewish diasporic existence and history as one that ultimately leads to co-existence with non-Jews, and hence as radically different than the Zionist formation of Israel as a “Jewish State.”
The idea of basing one’s critique of the state of Israel on “Jewish sources,” “Jewish ethics” and “Jewish history” is also a tactic and position promoted by Jewish Voice for Peace. Indeed, one of their principles as outlined on their website reads:
We are inspired by Jewish traditions to work for justice and such work is part of our own liberation. We work to build Jewish communities that reflect the understanding that being Jewish and Judaism are not synonymous with Zionism or support for Israel.
I fully appreciate these efforts and think that as responses to accusations of internalized anti-Semitism and self-hatred these are effective strategies. They are also effective in combating the monopoly Zionism claims over Judaism. But this discourse of “Jewish ethics” has its limits as well, and I want to draw attention to these limits, not as a sign of my disagreement with Butler, JVP or others, as much as an expression of my sense that we must become more carefully attuned to how discourses on the left also function as censorship. These discourses also limit what we can say, how we can say it, and who can say what—for Jews and non-Jews—when we talk about Palestine.
Now, let’s face it. I am speaking partially, not only, but partially, as a Jew. Perhaps I am even here as a kosher guard (always good to invite a Jew when discussing Zionism, anti-Semitism, and Palestine). I by no means am implying that the organizers of the event had such intentions in mind. But I also don’t want to ignore this position from which I am speaking which is a position that comes with specific expectations, privileges, and limitations when it comes to speaking about Palestine.
I cannot but speak from this position, which is already over-determined in this context, but I try, very hard, to also speak across it. Because I come to the question of Palestine, to the question of our ability or inability to speak about Palestine, not just in relation to the censorship imposed on us by the right and by academic institutions, but also by the censorship imposed, directly or less so, by the left. When it comes to the question of Palestine, to the question of speaking about Palestine, or the question of who is allowed to speak about Palestine and how, the left has generated some clear frameworks of policed discourse that I find almost as problematic as the attempts to shut down the discussion about Palestine altogether by the right. One such frame is the one I call the “good Jew, bad Jew” framework. It sets the expectation for Jews to speak as Jews and mobilize “Jewish ethics,” thus inevitably turning the question of Palestine into a Jewish question and a question which is ultimately about Jews.
Of course the need to distinguish Zionism from Judaism, in light of Israel’s speaking in the name of the Jews, and as a Jewish state, is very important. But that work, I believe, is now mostly done. I am also quite wary of the language of authenticity (“real,” “true,” “authentic”) because it ends up functioning as yet another wall of censorship and identity regulations, once again in the name of “what makes a real Jew”—an essentializing discourse that renders one’s political views about the state of Israel and the occupation of Palestine in exclusively Jewish terms.
The question I generate for us (for some of “us”) today is: Do we want to go on playing the “good Jew, bad Jew” game? Do we need to play the “good Jew, bad Jew” game when we simply want to voice our resistance to state terror, military occupation, and racial segregation?
I end here, leaving you with the words of Mahmoud Darwish. Not with a poem, but with words he shared in an interview held in Amman back in 1996 with the Israeli literary critic and poet, Helit Yeshurun. At the time he was waiting for his permit to return home to Palestine:
Do you know why we, the Palestinians, are famous? Because you are our enemy. Interest in the Palestine problem comes by way of interest in the Jewish problem. . . If our war had been with Pakistan, no one would have heard of me. So we are unlucky that our enemy is Israel, which has so many sympathizers in the world, and we are lucky that Israel is our enemy, because Jews are the center of the world. You have given us defeat, weakness, and publicity.
These words are provocative. They are meant to be. And to take them seriously, I think, is to begin to reconsider and rethink the idea of what it means to be speaking “as a Jew” or from a “Jewish position” or about “Jewish ethics” when speaking or trying to speak about Palestine. Can a Jew speak about Palestine, about the atrocities that take place in Palestine, not as a Jew? Can she speak in the name of solidarity, not in the name of authentic Jewishness or Jewish ethics? Can the question of Palestine ever become something that isn’t already and essentially a Jewish question?
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.
The first panel at the Ansari Institute’s inaugural conference brought to the fore a core issue in global politics today: the issue of migration. Alicia Turner (York University), Erin Wilson (University of Groningen), William Canny (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), and Atalia Omer (University of Notre Dame) provided us with perspectives into different aspects of forced migration that are located at the intersection of modern nationalisms, racisms, and the presence of global religions.
Rooted in her studies of the genocide of the Rohingyas of Myanmar, Alicia Turner prompted us to question the normative hegemony of borders and to identify the ‘silenced victims’ of the construction and enforcement of borders. Turner eloquently disclosed the intertwining relations between the hegemonic establishment of ‘modernity’ with the formal and informal presence of borders whose sole goal is to maintain control over knowledge production, and thus, over the differentiated ‘valuations’ of humanity. In the context of modern binaries, ‘humanity’ is a reward that can only be attributed to those who are within the border. Meanwhile, those who find themselves outside of the border only serve as ‘others’ to affirm the hegemonic selves of the former.
One epistemological goal of modern hegemonic binaries is to produce an illusion of neat and categorized history, in which ‘us’ and ‘them’ are easily differentiated from each other. This illusion works to sustain a façade of hegemonic stability and erases the inhumane realities of lives outside the border. In other words, those who live outside of the border not only pose a threat to their counterparts within the border, but also pose a significant threat to the order of life itself. Hence, as elaborated by Erin Wilson in her presentation, the acts of ‘border-crossing’ from outside the border into the border have always been designated a ‘crisis’ with all of its senses of danger and unpredictability. The acts of moving from one geopolitical locality to another by marginalized others—acts that are otherwise seen as ‘normal’ when they are taken by White ‘Western’ bodies—become an affront to the supposedly peaceful, normalized way of life maintained by the illusion of modern hegemonic binaries.
Furthermore, William Canny assessed the readiness and contribution of Catholic institutions and organizations in dealing with the issue of forced migration. One important point that deserves further discussion from Canny’s presentation is the problem of insularity among Catholic institutions in responding to the many forms of forced migration. The absence of a strong cooperative network among Catholic institutions has led to siloed and fragmented humanitarian work. A cohesive and systematic network is needed to effectively respond to the issue at hand. The same problem can be found in other major religious institutions around the world and has significantly weakened religious-based responses toward the protection of displaced people, immigrants, and refugees in general. In addition, the stated problem also presents a hurdle to tapping into global religious networks as a resource for the advocacy of the rights of migrants.
All of those different facets of the issue of forced migration were elaborated further in Atalia Omer’s rejoinder and response. Omer illuminated the violent underbelly of modernity by interrogating the contours of exclusivism that come with the erection of borders and boundaries. In addition, inspired by the conference of ‘Bandung of the North’ (Saint-Denis, May 4th-May 7th, 2018), Omer called for the construction of socio-political alliances of decolonized experiences in the Northern Hemisphere.
Another important point that was highlighted in Omer’s rejoinder concerned the ‘securitization of religion’ by the modern institution of the ‘nation-state.’ In this ongoing process of securitization, the presence of religion in public space is seen as yet another example of ‘boundary-crossing’ in which secularism is a norm and religiosity is an exception at best, and a threat at worse. Such a process can be seen clearly in the rise of Islamophobic policies in the US and many parts of Europe where Islam, and by extension Muslims, are relegated to a position of threat to the ‘cultural integrity’ of both regions, whatever that means. In addition to the violent implications against the marginalized-religious other, ‘securitization of religion’ also results in a skewed perspective where state-sponsored violence is justified due to the normativization of secular violence and the demonization of religious-based violence.
What we can infer from this panel is an interlocking presence of borders that are created out of political, racial, and religious differences and are employed to justify violence on marginalized others. These borders are then sustained and legitimated through the hegemonic presence of the ‘nation-state’ as the arbiter of ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ violence. If there is one thing that ties these phenomena, it is the fact that the political, racial, and religious markers that compose those borders are also etched and negotiated on the bodies of the marginalized others as ‘border-crossers.’
A Way Forward?
What is left rather unexplored from the conversation on religions and forced migration in the panel are two key areas. First, there is the question of the ways in which external borders are projected onto the bodies of ‘border-crossers.’ Second, I question what alternative forms of plural and hybrid embodiment exist that can be used as models for thinking about the constructedness and fluidity of boundaries.
In this context, looking into how the bodies of women of color accommodate, resist, and reconstruct the various ‘borders’ that are imposed on them would be a fruitful endeavor to undertake. As a case in point, in many discourses surrounding bad/good Muslims in the US (which also automatically translate into bad/good immigrants), one’s decision to wear hijab or not wear hijab is intrinsically associated with one’s position within or outside certain borders. When a Muslim woman wears a hijab, she is both the icon of ‘oppressive Islam’ and the ‘ideal’ figure of the Muslims’ ‘faith.’ Meanwhile, when she does not wear a hijab, she is an ‘enlightened’ (good) Muslim who embraces the mythical gift of ‘agency’ from the ‘Western world,’ and also at once a traitor to her own community of Muslims. In other words, the borders are not only located out there in physical, socio-political, and conceptional forms, but also within the liminal bodies that are located at the forefront of ‘border-claims.’ On the one hand, this fact shows the pervasiveness of patriarchal paradigms that exploit women’s bodies as a benchmark of patriarchal morality. On the other hand, it represents a liminal capacity inherent in women’s bodies that could serve as a model for a microcosm of plurality in today’s world.
Another contemporary example of the fluidity of the ‘liminal self’ can be found in the lives of many Southeast Asian female migrant workers whose jobs as domestic caretakers reflects the hybrid role as ‘mothers’ (to their own kids back at home) and as ‘surrogate mothers’ (to the family that they take care of). This intersectional and violent experience is created in the ‘borderland’ between home and host countries, but is rooted in one embodied experience of motherhood. What the hybrid roles of female migrant workers show is a mode of being that takes on boundaries (with all of their violence) as a site in which to live through the shifting constitutions of selfhood. Using terminology from Muslim feminist theologian Sa’diyya Shaikh, the Southeast Asian female migrant workers are living up ‘moments of resistance’ in which deconstruction of the boundaries is not what counts, but rather their creative survival.
When it does not pose any danger towards the women themselves, the fluidity of borders within the bodies of women of color represents an appreciation of a plurality of living in which borders and boundaries have lost their exclusivist contours. Aware of the violence performed on them by hegemonic boundaries, many women of color embrace the beautiful mess of liminality in which they construct alternative spaces defined by multiple identities. In this context, ‘religion’ functions as one of the languages with which their creative survival is expressed. It serves as a locus for those ‘moments of resistance’ due to its capacity to deconstruct hierarchies and advocate for humanity in the name of the Divine. It is to such hybrid modes of belonging that we must anchor our hopes in a time where ‘humanity’ is seen as a privilege accorded only to those who live inside the border.
Lailatul Fitriyah is a Ph.D candidate and Presidential Fellow at the World Religions and World Church Program, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame, Indiana. She holds a MA in International Peace Studies from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her current research is focused on the construction of feminist theologies of resistance in post-colonial Southeast Asia, feminist theologies of migration, and feminist interreligious dialogue.
With the United Nations climate change panel recently releasing a report that stated limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius “would require rapid, far reaching and unprecedentented changes in all aspects of society,” the Ansari Institute’s panel on “Sustainable Habitats: How Religions Can Repair Unsustainable Environments,” proves timely. While we are used to hearing scientists, economists, and politicians weigh in on the environment, it is less common to turn to religious traditions as potential collaborators. Nosheen Ali (Aga Khan University), Daniel Castillo (Loyola Maryland), and Ana Mariella Bacigalupo (University of Buffalo) showed the rich resources these traditions can bring to the conversation. One commonality that ran across each presentation was the importance of reimagining the relationship between humans, other animals, and the earth. Given that we are now in the age of the anthropocene—climate change brought about by human actions—such reimaginings are key for developing a sustainable relationship with the earth.
Daniel Castillo raised dual concerns from the Catholic tradition: how can the life of faith inform both the preferential option for the poor and the option for the earth? Castillo drew our attention to the reality that these two concerns are intimately interlinked: those who will suffer the most from the earth’s rising temperatures are those in the Global South who do not have the economic resources to shield themselves from the effects of climate change. Turning to the Hebrew scriptures, Castillo rejected the harmful anthropocentrism that has arisen in response to the Genesis 1 narrative of man having dominion over the earth. He instead emphasized Genesis 2:15, which calls humanity to cultivation and care. Castillo argued that the symbolic vocation in Genesis 2 is the gardener who lives out the imago dei (image of God) through love of God, neighbor, and the earth. Cultivation and care extends toward both neighbor and the rest of creation, emphasizing our embeddedness within these relationships.
Nosheen Ali spoke from an Islamic perspective and the context of her fieldwork in Shimshal, Pakistan. Ali noted that policies focused on sustainability have become entrenched in the very capitalist system responsible for creating environmental degradation in the first place. We can learn from the people in Shimshal who, because of their view that nature is sacred, have developed forms of human labor that can complement the processes of nature. Yet, Ali noted, often this sacred view of nature is “denied legitimacy in mainstream notions of science.” She underscored the importance of making space for ecology as a spiritual concept. Ali then considered the history of asceticism in Islam, describing Baba Farid (1173-1266), a revered Sufi spiritual leader, who believed a practice of anti-accumulation was essential to his religious life. An ecological spirituality combined with an emphasis on anti-materialism offers a model for sustainable human practices.
Ana Mariella Bacigalupo presented her ethnographic research with impoverished Peruvians who “draw on indigenous traditions to collaborate with sacred, sentient landscapes.” Bacigalupo presented the Peruvian workers’ divinization rituals as a form of resistance against the extractive resource industry. They believe the natural world has its own moral agency and argue that we have angered the earth. This has led to a movement, amongst some Peruvians, demanding the recognition of the legal personhood of nature. Bacigalupo argued that this approach to nature as a sacred, sentient landscape has led to new models of mobilization against climate change.
These three scholars show us that ecological spirituality as an embodied practice has the potential to reorient our relationship with the earth. Practices of caring for a garden, cooperating with nature, and extending solidarity beyond human persons to the rest of the natural world foster a vision of a relationship with the earth grounded in kinship rather than extraction. This allows the human person to see herself as not only embedded in the human community but also in the broader community of the earth and all creatures.
Yet, as we recover and/or develop these ecological, spiritual practices, Ali warned us to guard against universal solutions. Each ecosystem has unique features, and so each community will need to develop their own ways of cooperating with nature. In the words of the American poet, novelist, and farmer Wendell Berry, the over-emphasis on “Think Big,” such as macro-level planning, policies, and laws, has blinded us to the power of “Think Little” and the creative possibilities that emerge when we fully engage in our own backyard and community. Religious actors, traditions, and resources can also help to further develop this point. For instance, within my own Catholic tradition, Pope Francis has emphasized that we require a “lifestyle and spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm,” because technical expertise can only provide, at best, a partial solution to climate change (Laudato Si’ #111). Pope Francis calls for an “ecological conversion” within each of our communities (Laudato Si’ #219). While public policies and laws are important, for Ali, Berry, and Pope Francis these measures alone won’t save us. We must also foster ways of thinking little within our local communities, which as a collective have the transformative power to impact climate change.
The Ansari Institute’s panel offers an important starting point for thinking about religious resources for combating climate change. Moving forward, it is important that panels like this attend to intersectionality at a deeper level. While the intersectionality between the environment and the poor was highlighted, other points of intersectionality, like gender, deserve more attention. During the question and answer period, Harvard Divinity School professor and Director of the Religious Literacy Project Diane Moore raised concerns to Castillo that the same Genesis 2 text being used to safeguard the environment has also been used to suppress women. For example, Genesis 2:18 states: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Historically, this has been used to justify a hierarchical relationship between men and women. The same text used to support a relationship of care with the earth has also been used, in one prevalent reading, to justify the subordination of women. In our attempts to correct a harmful tradition of anthropocentrism, can we use a text that has been used to discount women’s equity?
For the feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, we must address both forms of oppression together because “the subjugation of women has formed the symbolic basis for the subjugation of the earth.” This means that work in ecotheology must also attend to gender. In the case of Genesis 2, the ecotheological reading of the human person as a gardener that images God by nurturing the earth must be in conversation with feminist theological interpretations of Genesis 2 that challenge sexist readings of the text. Otherwise, we risk realizing justice in one dimension only to undermine it in another.
The stakes of incorporating an intersectional lens are more than theoretical; there are substantive practical implications as well. For example, recent studies have shown that women are disproportionately affected by climate change, particularly in communities where they also lack equal access to other resources such as education and economic opportunities. Given this reality, it is necessary to think about how religious resources and ecological spiritualties interact with gender as well as other pertinent issues such as racism and decolonization. Indeed, such a process is necessary in order to build a spiritually informed, holistic vision of climate justice.
Suggested Further Readings:
Theology and Ecology across the Disciplines: On Care for Our Common Home. Edited by Celia Dean-Drummond and Rebecca Artinian-Kaiser. London, UK: T&T Clark, 2018.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013.
Moore, Niamh. “Eco/Feminism, Non-Violenc and the Future of Feminism.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 10, no. 3 (2008): 282-98.
Marie-Claire Klassen is currently a PhD student in Moral Theology at Notre Dame. Prior to attending Notre Dame she completed an MA in Global Studies, with an emphasis on religion and human rights, through the Erasmus Mundus Global Studies program.
The ink of scholars is holier than the blood of martyrs.
–Attributed to the Prophet Muhammad
Beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword.
Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.
Bright boxes with eager faces lit up the computer screen, revealing a new batch of madrasa graduates from India and Pakistan. A handful of boxes were blank, cameras off to maintain the privacy of veiled female participants. One video feed was pitch dark, not for privacy, but because the power was out in the remote village outside of Delhi; it is a good thing that the laptop was charged and connected through the cell tower. Each of the twenty-six students in class that day logged in from a remote location. The camera of one of the participants, also from India, could be seen bouncing around, as if from the set of a reality show. He had logged in using his mobile device while on a train that had been delayed. One participant from Pakistan joined us from Saudi Arabia. He had not yet returned from the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Half way through the customary first-day introductions, a box appeared with what seemed like the inside of Hesburgh library in the background. A Notre Dame student, helping with the project through the peace research lab, had just logged in to take attendance. Thus began the second year of an ambitious effort to advance theological and scientific literacy in Madrasa Discourses (MD).
Professor Ebrahim Moosa, himself a madrasa graduate, initiated MD within the Contending Modernities (CM) research initiative in the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies within the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Perception matters: Why is a Catholic institution interested in reforming Madrasa education? Within Notre Dame, MD aligns with the goals of the school and institutes within which it resides. The Keough School of Global Affairs advances “integral human development” through “transformative educational programs”; MD generates “greater understanding of the ways in which religious and secular forces interact in the modern world,” which is the purpose of the CM research initiative; and the activities of MD contribute towards “strengthening the capacity of all for peacebuilding,” which is the mandate of the Kroc Institute. The project is supported with external funding through the John Templeton Foundation, which encourages “civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians, as well as between such experts and the public at large.” The project’s image benefits from the reputation of Notre Dame as a ranked research university in the US that is committed to global engagement for furthering the common good.
Authentic “Insiders” at the Helm
The project also has the advantage of having a strong team of authentic “insiders” at the helm. As the Principal Investigator, Ebrahim Moosa is a world-renowned scholar and himself a madrasa graduate. As the lead faculty responsible for implementing the project, I have a background in the sciences, Islamic studies, and experience working with credible Islamic institutions with global recognition. Like-minded and authoritative partners in India and Pakistan serve as lead faculty to guide and mentor the madrasa participants. MD has no formal institutional partnerships overseas. Instead, MD has contractual agreements with individuals who, in turn, have strong ties to important institutions in their respective local contexts. The lead faculty in India, Waris Mazhari, is a graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband, one of the most prestigious madrasas in India. He serves on the faculty of the Jamia Hamdard, is the founding director of the Institute for Religious and Social Thought, and he has been editing the journal of the Deoband “Old Boys Club” for almost two decades. Dr. Mazhari holds a Ph.D. from Jamia Millia Islamia, a century-old institution of higher learning founded by prominent Indian Muslim leaders.
In Pakistan, our lead faculty Mawlana Ammar Khan Nasir is the associate director of the Al-Sharia Academy where he edits an influential online monthly journal addressing topics at the intersection of Islam and modernity. Mawlana Nasir, also a graduate of the traditional madrasa system, has an MA in English literature, is completing his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Punjab University. He served for several years on the faculty of GIFT University in his hometown of Gujranwala, just outside Lahore. The Sharia Academy is founded and directed by Mawlana Ammar’s father, Mawlana Zahid ur Rashid, who also the head of a traditional Sunni Madrasa, Nusratul Uloom. Our colleagues have provided invaluable support in the recruitment of students, supported curriculum development, taught regularly in the program, established an Urdu public website, and translated curricular and supplementary texts from English into Urdu for the journal. Our partnership helps to allay any concerns that our project has colonial or surreptitious designs through an intimate intellectual kinship forged on trust and mutual respect.
Goals and Methodological Principles of Madrasa Discourses
The goal of MD is to transform the intellectual culture within madrasa scholarship by bringing it into conversation with contemporary intellectual currents. A fundamental premise of the project is that madrasa education, by and large, is falling short of preparing graduates to meet the intellectual challenges of the day. This failure has resulted in a marginalization of religious scholars (‘ulama’) in society coupled with a collapse of their moral authority. Whereas the ulama were once the intellectual and spiritual guides in Muslim societies, they are now relegated to relics who are largely irrelevant if not ridiculed as being out of step with the times. In order to achieve the goal of raising the level of the intellectual discourse in madrasa circles, MD has recruited a handful of madrasa graduates to participate in a three-year curriculum designed to provide conceptual tools as well as language proficiency to help them better navigate contemporary academic literature in English. Although the instruction takes place in an intimate environment out of the reach of the public largely sequestered from social media, we have launched a public website Tajdīd to allow the conversation that is taking place in the classroom to spill over into the public sphere.
The goal of MD is to transform the intellectual culture within madrasa scholarship by bringing it into conversation with contemporary intellectual currents. A fundamental premise of the project is that madrasa education, by and large, is falling short of preparing graduates to meet the intellectual challenges of the day.”
Guiding MD are two vital methodological principles. The first is that we derive our inspiration to engage critically with new knowledge by appealing to terms or frames of inquiry that are native to the Islamic scholarly tradition. MD draws on the rich textual heritage of Islam to make the case for critical inquiry, dynamism, and creativity as aspects that are native to Islamic religious thought. Although MD is primarily an educational program, it is nonetheless framed within a broader agenda of peacebuilding, affirmation of human dignity, and furthering the common good. Conflict manifests in conceptual categories as well as lived social realities; it can be viewed through the imperfect temporal concepts of “tradition” and “modernity” or perhaps even less perfect cultural/geographic designators of “Islam” and “West.”
The Elicitive Approach
Drawing on theories in conflict resolution, then, and wedding these theories to the educational aspect of MD, our approach is an “elicitive” one. Contrasting with a “prescriptive” approach that “understands the training event as built around the specialized knowledge of the trainer, which is taken to be both transferable and universal”, the elicitive approach “understands training as a process that emerges from already-existing, local knowledge.” The adoption of an elicitive model, which builds on frames of inquiry that are embedded within the vast storehouses of the Islamic scholarly tradition, enables MD to extend the conversations from the past to the present, leading us out from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This not only avoids the shock value of some of our provocations, it also allows us to proceed systematically, taking the familiar ground of the Islamic tradition as the intellectual journey’s point of departure. The elicitive approach allows participants to build on their existing knowledge base and encourages them to make organic connections instead of struggling to assimilate what is foreign in a manner that would be both disorienting and unsettling.
A second methodological imperative of MD is to emphasize from the outset that participants should get used to an intellectual environment characterized by indeterminism and complexity.”
A second methodological imperative of MD is to emphasize from the outset that participants should get used to an intellectual environment characterized by indeterminism and complexity. We do not tell anyone what the answers are, nor do we expect right or wrong answers. Our project is about questions. But we do expect participants to reason well. MD challenges anti-intellectual modes of religious thought that prevail in contemporary madrasa discourses. We do our best to highlight complexity wherever possible so that participants are not able to hide behind formulaic responses transmitted from generation to generation. By working through the rich history of the Islamic scholarly tradition, we emphasize that intelligent people can disagree. In fact, the Islamic scholarly tradition is built on creative tensions. If history is our guide, intelligent students should expect to arrive at different answers to the theological conundrums of our time. When grounded in sound arguments that are accessible to all in a transparent and shared public space, difference is not something to decry. Difference can be something to celebrate.
The Curriculum: History, Science, Theology
The curriculum – designed together by the core faculty – is conceptualized in three parts, one corresponding to each year of study. The first part deals with history. The second with science. And the third with theology. Themes of each of the three parts are interwoven; the core theme of any of the years cannot be treated in isolation from the rest. History provides context for both theology and science; science is informed by history and influences theology; and theology is reconstructed in light of both history and science. Nonetheless, it has been helpful for us to isolate a dominant disciplinary lens through which to enter the conversation in any given year. Poetically, the three years mirror chronology: 1) history (past), 2) science (present), and 3) theology (future). The locus of theology in the future reflects the project’s ambition of “reconstruction” or “renewal” of theology in light of a more expansive view of the past and a receptive attitude toward new knowledge in the present: a kindling of the moral imagination.
The curriculum – designed together by the core faculty – is conceptualized in three parts, one corresponding to each year of study. The first part deals with history. The second with science. And the third with theology. Themes of each of the three parts are interwoven; the core theme of any of the years cannot be treated in isolation from the rest.”
The program begins with confronting the pluralism of beliefs in human cultures. Human beings have always held different views about their origins and destinies. These differences manifest themselves in varieties of myths and religions. The very first class of the program invites students to confront pluralism through creation stories. We have used short and accessible articles published online by National Geographic series on “The Story of God” hosted by Morgan Freeman. The website offers articles on “Creation Myths from around the World,” “Australian Aboriginal Stories,” and “What We Know about Where We Come from.” Unlike the other myths, new knowledge today helps us construct a fresh creation story by integrating the findings of multiple disciplines in the natural sciences. Beginning with pluralism enables us to get to the core scientific and theological questions that undergird our entire program: How do we privilege our beliefs over the beliefs of others? How did the Islamic scholarly tradition address the question of pluralism? What was the role of reason, independent of revelation, in classical Islamic thought, in answering these questions? Is science today adding anything new to the conversation that could be a game-changer for theology?
When the Abrahamic creation story that the Quranic account participates in is juxtaposed to other creation myths, it becomes evident to students almost instantly that our story seems just as “mythical” as the rest: God talks to the first man and woman in a garden with temptations by Satan or a serpent. The humans are deceived and banished to life on earth. On what basis can Muslims claim that their version is truer than the others? It so happens that the founders of one of the major theological schools in Sunni Islam, Abu Mansur Maturidi (d. 944), addresses this very question in his theological Treatise on Divine Unicity or Kitāb al-Tawḥīd. According to Maturidi, if every group were to rely simply on its own traditions as authorities for the truthfulness of their creeds, there would be no way to mediate between them. For that, one must appeal to reason that is universally and independently accessible to all parties. This is why treatises in classical Islamic theology begin with a position statement on theories of knowledge. The fourteenth century theologian Saʿd al-Din Taftazani (d. 1390) informs us that by his time – almost five hundred years after Maturidi –theology (kalām) had become virtually indistinguishable from philosophy (falsafa). Several centuries earlier, the formidable Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) had already declared theology as “the universal science among the Islamic sciences.” This is because “the theologian (mutakallim) is the one who looks into the most basic of all things (aʿamm al-ashyāʾ), which is Being (al-mawjūd).” Seeing that the study of nature was a theological imperative for Muslim scholars of the past, how could it possibly be that insights into nature gained through the various scientific disciplines today are no longer relevant to the foundation of Islamic theology? Should not theologians today engage new knowledge in science and philosophy just as the theological masters of the past had done in their own time?
Our instinct to begin with pluralism is well founded. The sociologist, Peter Berger, affirms: “It is my position that modernity has plunged religion into a very specific crisis, characterized by secularity, to be sure, but characterized more importantly by pluralism.” More recently, a pioneering work in the budding field of Big History entitled Maps of Time offers: “Maps of Time attempts to assemble a coherent and accessible account of origins, a modern creation myth.” Ian Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, begins his reflections on A Theology of Engagement with the same question. Markham argues that pluralism is a historical fact, that our traditions are heterogeneous, and that the Church might consider reorienting itself to derive lessons from this reality instead of posturing to change the world in her image.
The connections that the theme of pluralism allows us to make with history, theology, and science are developed in the first semester of the first year through the relationship between epistemology and history. We draw on competing ideas of “reason” used by scholars from across the intellectual spectrum from the likes of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209) to Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). We spend time with Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) to witness beginnings of theoretical approaches to history, but also ponder why such critical approaches were never truly absorbed into the mainstream theological tradition. We switch gears by turning to recent historians like R. G. Collingwood and philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer, which stretches the discussion from the medieval to the modern period. Collingwood defines philosophy as second order reasoning, or “thought about thought.” Collingwood connects history with philosophy by identifying both as concerned with “the science of absolute presuppositions.” History enables us to illuminate the dark corners of our own minds by empathizing with others as we strive to know the causes of events and motivations of actors on the historical stage. Given that historical reports emanate from the subjective vantage of observers, that observations are selective, and that interpretations of observations are theory-laden, it may never be possible for us to fully recover the past, even when we have copious reports about a particular event. This is why, argues Gadamer, every generation must re-interpret the past for itself. Successive communities of interpreters must constantly renegotiate meaning in light of fresh experiences that generate fresh questions. Such notions of historical criticism are entirely new to MD participants, and they are indispensable for text interpretation and retrieval of “tradition” in contemporary academic discourses. The second semester invites students to reflect more deeply on Islamic intellectual history and the meaning of “tradition.” Through writings by historians like Marshal Hodgson and Dimitri Gutas, we attempt to place Islam within the broader spectrum of human history, working with concepts such as Karl Jasper’s “Axial Age,” as well as the Greco-Arabic Translation movement from the ninth to eleventh centuries. Foreign influences on Islamic thought in this formative period do not permit us to speak of the intellectual tradition as being “purely Islamic.” To further the historical sensibilities of students, we trace the divergent reception of Aristotelian cosmology in the works of great scholars like Biruni (d. 1048) and Ibn Sina (d. 1037). Ghazali and Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) demonstrate contrasting positions on the relationship between philosophy and theology. Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn ʿArabi (d. 1240) exemplify alternative modes of reasoning from their predecessors. Ibn Taymiyya levels a devastating critique on logic, while the latter decries system of thought altogether, setting sail to the winds of allegory. By the end of the first year, students come to view the Islamic tradition as one that is deeply contested.
Students engage with all this material online in an interactive classroom. In addition to the four core faculty members, we also have the privilege of involving guest instructors from various departments at ND. We have had guest appearances by Gabriel Reynolds in theology, Deborah Tor in history, Rashied Omar in peace studies, Thomas Burman in medieval studies, Hussein Abdulsater in classics, and Adnan Aslan in philosophy. The presence of guest instructors in the online classroom has been tremendously enriching for the participants.
The Second Year: Science
The second year focuses on the history and philosophy of science, contemporary theories in the philosophy of religion, “big history,” and the deep history of humanity as it unfolds through “thresholds of increasing complexity” from the earliest stages of the cognitive revolution to a globally networked technological society. Among the questions that we ask are: Does modern science liberate us from God? Is contemporary science independent of metaphysics? Does science prove things with certainty? Is the method of science universal? Is there such a thing as progress in science? How do we distinguish between science and pseudoscience? What are the laws that govern scientific change? If scientific theories and worldviews change, how can we trust the scientific theories of our time? In order to engage these questions meaningfully, the course introduces students to competing theories of truth, thinking philosophically about “facts,” concepts like realism vs. instrumentalism, the underdetermination of theories, and “worldviews” as an interlocking web of theories comprising of empirical facts, philosophic ideas, and methodological approaches. We then apply these concepts to the history of science by studying the transitions from the Aristotelian-Medieval worldview to the contemporary worldview. Names like Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Darwin come to life in our survey.
Contemporary texts from the Islamic tradition accompany us on the journey. In fall 2017, for example, we dissected an essay published in Urdu that attempts to interpret issues in Islamic scriptural sources that are in apparent conflict with science.”
Contemporary texts from the Islamic tradition accompany us on the journey. In fall 2017, for example, we dissected an essay published in Urdu that attempts to interpret issues in Islamic scriptural sources that are in apparent conflict with science. This article draws our attention to prophetic sayings such as Adam was sixty feet tall, a baby’s gender is selected by whichever partner’s fluid dominates, one wing of a fly has a disease while the other has a cure, and the sun will one day rise from the west. The exercise of close reading and careful analysis helps students identify strategies for interpretation that are useful as well as others that are weak if not downright fallacious.
Another text authored by Anwar Shah Kashmiri (d. 1933), a renowned scholar in madrasa circles from the early twentieth century, argues that Quranic statements about nature and the heavens are not intended to be “realist,” but rather “perspectival,” describing things as experienced by humans rather than “as they truly are” according to the latest theories of science. These arguments echo Galileo’s position in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, which was rebutted by Cardinal Bellarmine. In a fascinating twist, Cardinal Bellarmine’s response mirrors a position by another prominent Madrasa scholar of the twentieth century, Ashraf Ali Thanvi (d. 1943). In this way, students are able to witness great debates on science and the interpretation of scripture in their own tradition today that replicate debates that transpired four centuries ago in Europe.
Our treatment of the contemporary worldview includes Einstein’s theory of relativity, Quantum mechanics, and the theory of evolution. According to Richard DeWitt’s Worldviews: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science, “all of these theories require substantial changes in our worldview.”The changes required by these new perspectives to our intuitions about the nature of reality boggle the mind. According to them, space and time are no longer absolute, actions appear to have influences across distances at speeds faster than light, and we are what the universe becomes when it has a chance to evolve over billions of years.
In the spring semester of the second year, we read a coherent account of human history and imaginative account of human future as portrayed in Yuval Noah Harari’s bestsellers, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.Sapiens takes us through a journey that begins with the earliest humans, tracing different theories of their origins and evolution. Drawing on a vast array of sources in innumerable disciplines in the natural and social sciences, Harari expertly weaves religion, psychology, politics, ethics, economics, and empire, even including reflections on the meaning of life and human happiness, into his historical narrative. This narrative is not contested by experts; but it is one of the most coherent ones available that serves our purpose of theological provocation very well. Harari helps us start a conversation, not end it. These first two years of the program thus prepare the foundation for the work of theological reconstruction in the third year.
The Third Year: Constructive Theology
Out of the thirty-four students who began the first year with us, ten to twelve of the most promising students will continue to the final year of the program beginning fall 2018. These students will draw on the concepts and theoretical tools from the first two years to ask research questions and engage in a program of constructive theology. The research cohort of the third year may be clustered thematically into three groups. Let us take a look at the issues that each of these three research groups might deal with, bearing in mind that what is said here is provisional.
“The best of generations is my generation, then those that follow them, then those that follow them.” This saying of the Prophet Muhammad has animated Muslim sensibilities through the centuries. It evokes a sense of loss with every passing generation as our temporal gulf from the lifespan of the beloved Prophet continuously expands with the flow of historical time. In that sense, decline is in-built in the very fabric of Prophetic religion. Devotees fulfill their longing to be near the Prophet – the best of creation –through obedience, emulation, and love. It is natural for the breathtaking changes we witness today in our knowledge of the cosmos, nature, and history, accompanied by new patterns of life dictated by mechanical clocks instead of the rhythms of nature, not to mention our new conceptions on the origin of man and his possible future as an interstellar transhuman species, to be unsettling to adherents of revealed religion. The disorientation, loss, and confusion, is unimaginable yet understandable. The nostalgic tug from a past as we hurl inexorably towards an uncertain future poses a dilemma, if not crisis. Can believers remain faithful to their tradition while at the same time engaged and optimistic in what the future holds, or are they forever condemned to view paradigm-changing shifts in human understanding, technical progress, and social development with suspicion?
According to Islamic teachings, the prophet Muhammad is God’s final messenger to humanity (Q. 33:40). He comes at the end of a succession of prophets – reportedly up to 124,000 –to all peoples in every age for their guidance. One of the reasons that God sent messengers was so that people would have no argument against Him on the Day of Judgment (Q. 4:165). The doctrine of the finality of prophethood is so central that it led the government of Pakistan to declare anyone who does not believe in it a non-Muslim.
The finality of prophethood naturally implies that the Prophet Muhammad’s message is universal; it no longer applies merely to a particular group of people at a given moment in history. Instead, it applies normatively to all people until the end of time. This doctrine fits neatly within a linear framework of history that is common to the Abrahamic traditions. As the narrative goes, God sent messengers aforetime in succession because human society and civilization was in a process of growth and development, much like an individual slowly advancing through various stages from childhood to maturity. The message needed to be renewed or updated with changing times with successive prophets. After the prophet Muhammad, there would be no need for messengers because the guidance and teachings of the final messenger would suffice for future cultural and intellectual contexts – forever. That is why God has taken it upon Himself to safeguard the final scripture (Q. 15:9), and that is why traditionalists have paid scrupulous attention to the transmission of tradition from generation to generation.
The doctrine of the finality of prophethood has made it difficult for Muslims to disentangle Islamic norms from the cultural practices of the Prophet and his Companions in seventh century Arabia. Arabness was subsumed within Islam. Because of the fusion of Arab cultural practices with transcendent divine teachings, Muslim scholars have always been well aware of the need to separate contingent social culture from universal religious norms in the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. This tension, however, has never been fully resolved, with the result that the most venerated of scholars even today gravitate towards seventh century Arab culture, at times erroneously and anachronistically identifying later practices with prophetic norms.
Sherman Jackson offers a riveting critique against this tendency in the American context. Immigrant Muslims, he argues, falsely “universalize the particular” by elevating their particular cultural practices to universal religious norms, a move that effectively extends a system of cultural domination over Blackamerican Muslims who are still feeling the effects of another legacy of oppression in the West.”
Sherman Jackson offers a riveting critique against this tendency in the American context. Immigrant Muslims, he argues, falsely “universalize the particular” by elevating their particular cultural practices to universal religious norms, a move that effectively extends a system of cultural domination over Blackamerican Muslims who are still feeling the effects of another legacy of oppression in the West. Consequently, in adopting Islam and accepting the authority of scholarship whose provenance is in Muslim lands and whose content fuses divine doctrine with foreign culture, Blackamericans become compelled to disregard their own legitimate cultural experiences. But how does one begin to identify the line between cultural experiences and transcendent doctrines?
What happens when Professor Jackson’s critique is extended to more stable doctrinal issues that ostensibly lie beyond culture, “intra-Muslim pluralism” notwithstanding? For example, are issues like slavery, marriage, and war under the purview of “culture” or “doctrine?” Our sensibilities in these areas are very different today than they were at the time of the prophet Muhammad. If the Prophet is the best example for all time, could his personal conduct in these areas be considered universal norms of exemplary conduct today? Even sympathetic observers of the Prophet Muhammad’s life will have a very difficult time considering his behavior as universally normative in these areas. The world has changed. But prophecy has ended. How does one square today’s moral norms with virtues that are anchored in the life of a seventh century Arabian prophet? Participants in the third research year may choose to develop research questions in this area, revisiting this doctrine in light of pressing new questions raised in an age of accelerating change.
The movement of history testifies that history did not end in the seventh century. In fact, with rapid Muslim conquests across much of the inhabited world in the first few centuries of Islam, Arabs encountered vastly diverse ethnic, linguistic, and intellectual worlds that they assimilated into their conceptual universe, interpreting scripture in light of ancient philosophy – the “new knowledge” of the time. Just like Islamic thought interacted with Greek philosophy in the past to forge a scholastic intellectual tradition that has been taught in traditional madrasas for centuries, how must the academic formation of Muslims today change in light of new knowledge about the nature of human beings, their place in the cosmos, and the miracles of techno-science?
Acceleration and Islamic Theology
A contemporary historical concept that helps us convey the urgency of the need to rethink long held assumptions about human nature and the human condition is “acceleration.” The German historian Reinhart Koselleck, speaking about the changing nature of human perception of historical time, writes: “there occurs a temporalization [Verzeitlichung] of history, at the end of which there is the peculiar form of acceleration which characterizes modernity.” The columnist Thomas Friedman, in his recent bestseller Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in an Age of Accelerations, speaks of accelerations in three areas, which he identifies as technology, the market, and mother nature.
Cynthia Stokes Brown, scholar in the budding field of “Big History,” places acceleration in the context of cosmic history: “Acceleration, an increase in the rate of change, is occurring both in the universe and in human culture on planet Earth… On the cosmological or geological scale, change is measured in millions or billions of years. On the biological scale, with natural selection setting the pace, change occurs in thousands to millions of years. On the scale of human culture, large-scale change used to occur over millennia or centuries, but now it is taking place in decades or even years.” Friedman observes that acceleration itself is accelerating, noting with sympathy that: “This is dizzying for many people.”
In Homo Deus, the sequel to Sapiens, Harari argues that things are moving so quickly, we are seeing developments today that make it not too farfetched to suggest that human beings are at the threshold of making a bid for divinity:
Homo sapiens is likely to upgrade itself step by step, merging with robots and computers in the process, until our descendants will look back and realize they are no longer the kind of animal that wrote the Bible…This will not happen in a day, or a year. Indeed, it is already happening right now, through innumerable mundane actions…humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human…Calm explanations aside, many people panic when they hear of such possibilities.”
Among the people who panic are theologians who see demonic elements behind all these developments. Acceleration is also part of the end-of-time narrative in Islam. If one believes that one lives – after successive periods of decline – in the end times, one’s attitude to things that are new is grave, optimism in the future of this world is dull, and resolve to participate in science is stunted. What you end up passing down to the next generation is cynicism and closed minded conservatism. What can the outcome of an education that embodies an “end time” mentality be other than graduates who are sideshows on the stage of history—if future history remains to be made? Islamic culture needs to contend with the real possibility that there may be centuries if not millennia ahead of us that will witness the most rapid and sweeping changes to human experiences ever known to human history.
Islamic ideas of human nature are closely associated with terms such as nafs (soul), fitra (nature), ruh (immaterial spirit or divine breath). How are we to understand these terms today in light of modern science? Should science influence and reshape traditional doctrines and views, and to what extent? How much of a role does ancient philosophy play in the interpretation of these terms in the premodern scholarly tradition? Should traditional views guide scientific inquiry, and if so, how? Can religious voices lead in the path to scientific progress, or will they always follow, respond, and restrain? Phrased differently, can there be a scientist, working on the forefront of research and innovation, who is not at the same time a heretic? The cosmic decentering of humanity that began with Copernicus has not yet reached its culmination. Scientists are today contemplating the elimination of the distinction between human life and other kinds of life, whether biological or artificial. Can a religious scientist working in these areas be invested in the preservation of traditional theologies based in premodern interpretations of scripture, or must her lived theologies be as dynamic and fresh as her lived experiences?
The challenge for our research group will be to grapple deeply with new knowledge in science: Should there be limits to human enhancements and genetic engineering? What is the definition of human life, and when does it begin and end? As our knowledge of ourselves changes, along with our ability to manipulate who we are and what we can be, what social and political arrangements will be best suited to maximize human flourishing? When does manipulation of nature become unacceptable tampering with God’s creation, and when does is remain within acceptable boundaries?
Tradition, Traditionalism and the Heretical Imperative?
Questions of science and human nature intersect with ethics, governance, and public policy. This challenges students to think carefully about conflicts between classical Islamic thought and contemporary international norms in the areas of gender relations and human rights. Prominent Muslim scholars from around the world recently came together through the convening power of Morocco’s monarch in a summit to address the issue of the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim lands. Called the Marrakesh Declaration, an executive summary of the resolution that has been published online declares that the provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are in harmony with the principles of Islamic teachings, particularly as they appear in the Charter of Medina. The Charter of Medina was a contract in early Islam in which the prophet Muhammad entered into a constitutional alliance with members of other faith communities. Although noble in its intent, the Marrakesh declaration stops short of offering any explicit legal opinion, instead sticking to principles and objectives of the law to make pronouncements that are aspirational. The declaration leaves the grunt work to others, for it calls “upon Muslim scholars and intellectuals around the world to develop a jurisprudence of the concept of ‘citizenship’ which is inclusive of diverse groups. Such jurisprudence shall be rooted in Islamic tradition and principles and mindful of global changes.” In the terms of Rumee Ahmed, it is a summons to a wholesale “hack” of the legal tradition in the area of minority citizenship in Muslim majority societies. Notably, the Marrakesh declaration does not mention women and gender. It only addresses the rights of religious minorities. Nonetheless, once conversation on equality of citizenship begins in light of emerging international consensus and norms, it will be impossible to exclude the issue of gender in Islamic law from re-examination. This is all the more so because the Marrakesh declaration affirms the values embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in turn affirms the equal rights of both men and women.
As Islamic law attempts to align itself with international norms, triumphalist readings of Islamic history will need to be revised, especially as the question of equality before the law within increasingly plural societies comes center stage. All of the tools and concepts that students will have acquired over the course of Madrasa Discourses will need to be harnessed to think critically and constructively about the present and future of human beings on this planet.”
It has become increasingly difficult to gaze at history as the triumph of orthodoxy over heresy. Rather, the champions of orthodoxy as well as heresy seem to participate equally in a kind of “Great Conversation,” to borrow a term from Robert Maynard Hutchins. Debates between scholars of the past are to be visited in ways that show all sides as not only intelligible but also reasonable, allowing students to faithfully choose between them, without polemics or predetermining the winners and losers in these debates. In allowing students to see the construction of knowledge through the experiences of past scholars, we empower them to take their own experiences seriously in order to add to the conversation, thereby becoming not just consumers but also producers of tradition. This is precisely what the eminent sociologist Peter Berger proposes as being the only viable path for religious traditions today: to “try to uncover and retrieve the experiences embodied in tradition,” which he calls the inductive method in religion.
The shift to history will give students theological choices; having choices, in turn, will strengthen both individualism and pluralism; and including former heresies within the spectrum of acceptable religious possibilities will encourage scholars to develop new intellectual skills and adopt new professional roles that require the power of persuasion in settings that are more in harmony with liberal rather than hierarchical or authoritarian societies. Berger reminds us that “The English word ‘heresy’ comes from the Greek verb hairein, which means ‘to choose.’” “For premodern man,” he continues, “heresy is a possibility, usually a rather remote one; for modern man, heresy typically becomes a necessity…modernity creates a new situation in which picking and choosing becomes an imperative.”
Can Islamic education embrace “the heretical imperative?” Our educational institutions have become overcome with fear, fortresses for what Ebrahim Moosa calls “Republics of Piety.” Madrasas are in the business of the preservation and guardianship of orthodoxy, afraid that future generations will lose their faith in an ever-changing world. But this is not tradition, it is traditionalism, which historian of religion Jaroslav Pelikan put so eloquently as being “the dead faith of the living,” in contrast to tradition, which is the “living faith of the dead.” Muslim culture and institutions of learning today have lost the dynamic spark that once animated their intellectual culture.
Dynamism in Muslim educational culture will be driven in no small part by developments in techno-science that are accompanied by seismic shifts in conceptual worldviews and social norms. Friedman offers the analogy of riding a bicycle to help us understand how we might adapt to the dizzying changes that are soon to come due to the exponential changes taking place all around us. He says that on a bicycle, although one is in a state of motion, one achieves a balance akin to what may be called a kind of “dynamic stillness.” Another metaphor that I prefer, perhaps because it is closer to home is of the whirling dervish. His center is still while the rest of him twirls endlessly away. I am arguing here that our intellectual culture needs to learn how to ride a bicycle or whirl like the dervish.
The ulama today no longer minister to masses whose faith can be taken for granted. Our educational institutions need to help the ulama adapt to their new roles as research scholars in an age of acceleration, teachers in public and private schools, counselors in times of crisis, pastors and community leaders, politicians shaping public policy, and, perhaps most importantly, public intellectuals interacting with leaders across the spectrum of human activity in civil society. Madrasas must be cognizant of the changing roles of ulama in a brave new world, where believers no longer flock to the faith in conformity to old patterns, but trickle in (or trickle out) by free choice.
If the world does not end soon, it is going to be a very different place for our children and grandchildren. Whether or not we are at the end of time, our engagement with new knowledge must be thorough, and it must allow us to be open to new theological possibilities. We have to be guided by tradition, but we also have to let new knowledge take us where it takes us. Can “innovation” and “choice,” even in matters of religion, become good words in the moral vocabulary of the madrasa?
Conclusions: What Lies Ahead for Madrasa Discourses?
I hope that this survey has provided a good sense of the rich and complex intellectual project of Madrasa Discourses. Our ambition is for the intellectual conversations we generate to have transformative ripple effects across madrasa circles. Before concluding this paper with some final thoughts about the future of MD, I would like to highlight some of our activities, challenges and unexpected developments we have encountered, and future prospects beyond the initial three-year term of the present grant. One of the major challenges we have encountered is the widely differing levels of preparation of students who are participating in the program. Some know English fluently, while others are just starting to learn the language. Some have read widely online, others only narrowly within their own area of study. Some are tech-savvy, others not so much. Some have completed their madrasa education with honors, while others have had a less rigorous formation. Students are only able to commit themselves to the program part-time, while the demands of the program to read and prepare for classes, learn English, and write, can be onerous. Providing individualized support and feedback to students has also been challenging for our mentors and partners in India and Pakistan, who are, like the students, engaged in the program on a part-time basis. That being said, the overall level of engagement has met or exceeded expectations in the first eighteen months of the program. Evidence from exams and essays, classroom interactions, as well as interactions in the onsite intensives, indicates that provocations are leading to a higher level of complexity in the thought process.
On the positive side, the new generation of madrasa graduates is already predisposed to receive and experience the world in way that we did not expect. The presence of technology has preceded the arrival of MD at the doorstep. Technology has penetrated beyond the walls of the madrasa to touch the private lives of individuals. This has been a game-changer. Students have smartphones, Facebook accounts, and they seamlessly navigate the World Wide Web. We have found students to be intellectually open to the world and even curious in ways that the previous generation of Madrasa scholars could not have been, simply due to the wonders of technology. Given that online communities are typically insular, tending to operate within self-affirming bubbles, our task is nonetheless daunting. However, we have both the resources at our disposal and a receptive audience.
Mahan Mirza was appointed teaching professor and executive director for the Keough School's Rafat and Zoreen Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion on July 1, 2019.
An Islamic studies scholar and expert on religious literacy, Mirza brings extensive pedagogical and administrative experience to his role, including serving as dean of faculty at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, America’s first accredited Muslim liberal arts college. Immediately before his appointment to the Ansari Institute, Mirza served as the lead faculty member for Notre Dame's Madrasa Discourses project, which equips Islamic religious leaders in India and Pakistan with the tools to confidently engage with pluralism, modern science, and new philosophies.
Mirza joined Notre Dame in 2016 as professor of the practice for the Contending Modernities research initiative, a flagship program of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
Mirza holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, an M.A. from Hartford Seminary, and a Ph.D. in religious studies from Yale University. He has taught courses and lectured on Arabic-Islamic studies, western religions, and the history of science, along with foundational subjects in the liberal arts, including logic, rhetoric, astronomy, ethics, and politics. He has edited two special issues of The Muslim World and served as assistant editor for the Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (2018).
He is a fellow with the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the Keough School and continues to serve as an advisor for Madrasa Discourses.
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.
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. The question was whether the Umayyads disregarded the prophetic traditions altogether or if they had a different understanding of them. Debates on representational art developed a new dimension after the invention of the camera. In the Indian subcontinent, the permissibility and impermissibility of photography is still among the most debated religious issues. I faced such contradictions throughout my study of Muslim history. The question was, who should I consider wrong? The conventional view maintained by the orthodox ʿulamā is to perceive the religiosity of the rulers who encouraged and patronized arts with suspicion.
My amazement with Islam deepened as I delved more seriously into the intellectual history of Islam. I found an opportunity to do this in the Madrasa Discourses program, directed by Ebrahim Moosa and Mahan Mirza, Professors of Islamic Studies both based at the University of Notre Dame. This program teaches madrasa graduates modern science and Western philosophy in such a way that the students may develop skills to answer the modern challenges posed to Islam. This past semester we had a long discussion on ‘tradition,’ imagining it as a long rope that connects the past to the present. To keep it going, the people of the tradition have to add new threads to this rope in their respective times. If the people treat tradition otherwise, it will lose its viability. Similarly, Islamic art is one among several threads of Muslim tradition. There is a sense of continuity and progress in it from the very onset up to the modern times. Many of the expressions of this art have been lost, but many are still extant and make us recall the ingenuity and sacredness of the tradition of Islamic art. The best way to perceive it is to experience it personally in art museums, musical concerts, and by visiting renowned sites and monuments.
As a part of the program, select madrasa-educated students from India and Pakistan had a chance to visit the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar during the winter intensive in the last week of December 2017. The museum is located on an artificial island flanked by two huge lawns with a bridge in the middle that connects the old city to the museum. We were told that the architectural design of this museum was inspired by the famous 9th century Ibn Tūlūn Mosque of Cairo. An exquisite edifice, this museum is often portrayed as an example of generating new threads into the old rope of tradition. Inside the museum, it was as if we were visiting our past. A collection of metalwork, glasswork, textiles, manuscripts, and ceramics are housed there representing Islamic arts throughout the centuries. Examining them closely, I admired the inspiration they drew from the world that they lived in and from the tradition with which they were entrusted. Artifacts in the museum such as colorful rugs and silks with figurative designs, griffins crafted on tiles or a sphinx-faced lusterware ewer were evidently the mixture of creative Muslim imagination with the local cultures and civilizations of the lands Muslims came to inhabit.
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.
 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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
“How was Nepal? What exactly were you doing there?” Since I’ve been back in the United States, I’ve struggled to answer these questions. There’s no simple and cohesive answer to describe all of my experiences at the Madrasa Discourses Kathmandu Summer Intensive. What is even harder is trying to explain the context the madrasa graduates are coming from and the need for the Discourses project without reinforcing many people’s perspective that Islam lends itself to extremism and fundamentalism. As soon as I try to describe madrasas (Islamic seminaries), with their intense focus on the Qur’an and often outdated syllabi, I can see some people solidifying their ideas that madrasas create terrorists or all Muslim communities are ultra-conservative at best. I have to rush to explain the warm welcome I received as soon as I arrived, how I was immediately treated as a sister, how every one of the madrasa students wanted to hear the Notre Dame girls’ opinions in discussions, and explain that madrasas are not breeding grounds for terrorism. My incredible time at the Kathmandu Summer Intensive introduced me to many amazing, kind scholars as well as to the strengths and weaknesses of their education. I was able to understand the need to update the framework in which Islam is interpreted and studied around the world in a fuller context because of the people I met and the stories I heard. This juxtaposition of an education system in need of reform and incredibly intelligent scholars is hard to explain, especially when you mix in a currently (and unfortunately) politically charged subject like Islam.
I’d like to share all of my experiences, good and bad, but worry about how my stories will be interpreted hold me back at times, fearing I will inadvertently solidify simplistic, anti-Muslim views. The vast majority of my friends and family are very tolerant, open-minded people who choose to see the good in the world. It’s easy to tell them what happened in Nepal without trying to use a filter or without needing to overemphasize the good things. However, there are some people that I’m close to that are not as open. For example, I have a family member who, while she is a good person, has been previously misinformed and has unfortunately stuck to that misinformation. So, with her, it has been great sharing the many good things that happened. However, as soon as I start trying to explain the importance of the project, she cuts in and asks if madrasas create a lot of terrorists or if Muslim societies are typically fundamentalist. Even after I assure her that the answer to both of those questions is a definite no, she seems suspicious. As soon as I start talking about my frustrations with a lot of the gender discussions that took place in Kathmandu, I can practically see her more negative view of Muslim cultures hardening.
A few nights after my return, the topic of my trip to Nepal came up, and this family member mentioned that one of the participants from the Madrasa Discourses sent her a friend request on Facebook. Her first thought was, “ISIS.” When she told me that, I had to force myself not to walk away from her mid-conversation. I was shocked and repulsed that someone in my own family could say something like that. I hate that there are people out there whose minds immediately jump to terrorism when they see bearded and/or traditionally dressed Muslims, but it kills me that someone so close to me could think this, even after I had explained how wonderful all of the Madrasa Discourses participants were. It’s so hard for me to change my family member’s mindset. I try to balance out the negatives by pointing out the need for change but also trying to explain the good intentions behind them. For this, I always return to my conversations on gender with Hafiz Abdul Rehman (Hafiz), with whom I formed a strong friendship.
Hafiz is a fairly quiet Pakistani school teacher. He’s a devout Muslim who joined these Discourses to learn about different approaches to the Islamic faith. He’s one person I know will bring the things he learns through the Madrasa Discourses back with him to share with others. He is a kind person to the core, is eternally well-meaning, and has so much love to give to the world. I had some amazing conversations with Hafiz the first couple of days, and he really helped me understand the madrasa graduates’ perspectives on the day the lectures focused on gender equality and social inclusion. While I did not agree with his (and most of the other madrasa students’) stance on gender “equality” or how women and men should be seen, he never got annoyed at my many questions. He heard me out every time, and he really tried to understand what I was saying and where I was coming from. In return, he helped me to see that the gender roles in their society help to create strong family units and are upheld by many out of a sense of love and respect. He liked to tell me, “people think we don’t love women in our society. But I think it is that we love women more than men.” He would cite passages in the Qur’an where Mohammed talks about how a mother’s love is unmeasurable or how the mother is most worthy of “good companionship,” even three times over the father. He shared his belief that the separation of men and women and women’s modest dress was to protect women. He told me, and I really feel he believes, that his society values women so much that it wants to protect and provide for women. He explained that the reasons women need to stay home are to raise the children and run the household; he used to laugh at that part and tell me, “really, the women are the bosses of the men, Alaina.” He said that men had to go work in order to give money to their parents and then to their wives. Through all of my conversations with Hafiz, it was very hard for me to voice my disagreements, not because he didn’t let me (he welcomed the opportunity to hear another opinion) but because I knew that everything he did and believed came from a place of love and respect.
These are the things that I want to share with people. I want to show them that even the negative aspects of my experience (like my frustrations with many madrasa graduates’ beliefs about gender dynamics) had positive parts. Most of the time, I found that participants perpetuated these lifestyles out of a place of love. Other times, it seemed that lifestyles continued because of a lack of understanding of other viable options or because they didn’t know how to challenge the status quo. Back in the US, my struggle is that some people stop listening after they hear that traditional or gender-segregated lifestyles are being perpetuated in the madrasa graduates’ communities. (By the way, these lifestyles are culturally grounded and vary vastly among Muslim societies globally.) I can’t figure out how to reach people with an anti-Muslim bias in an effective manner. For some, I choose only to share the positive aspects of my experience. For others, I allude to some of my frustrations surrounding certain conversations in Kathmandu without going into detail. But really, I want to tell everyone the whole story. And, to me, the positives of my Nepal story vastly outweigh the negatives. Yes, there is a huge need for change and for updating, as I learned, but there is also so much good and so much love that I encountered. There is so much in my Nepal experience that gives me hope for the future and for a positive change and updating in Islamic scholarship/madrasa education, however quickly or slowly it may happen.
I loved my Nepal experience. I’m not going to say that I enjoyed the entire thing, the food was sometimes unrecognizable and I put my foot in my mouth far too many times to claim constant enjoyment, but overall, the feelings I take away from my two weeks in Nepal are love and enlightenment. I learned so much, and I met so many incredible, impressive people. I want to share this experience, this entire experience, with others. The fact that I will come across more intolerant or misinformed individuals is a given. Thus far, I have not found an easy way to break open that dialogue with those individuals, but I hope that the more I share my experience, the easier it will be for me to navigate those tricky conversations with a cool head. Sharing my experience has already helped my family member see a little better the world the madrasa graduates I met live in, and I’d like to think that little by little, my stories will help others become more understanding, too.
Before joining Notre Dame’s Madrasa Discourses project, Indian madrasa graduate Aadil Affan would have told you that accommodating or accepting other cultures was a heresy (bid’ah) unacceptable to his version of Islam.
Educated in a madrasa, an Islamic religious school, for most of his formative years, Affan is a young religious scholar, a member of the ulama, and his word carries weight in his community. His perspective on Islam’s approach towards different religio-ethnic groups, on scientific innovations, and many other things, may one day guide the position of the co-religionists around him.
Yet after six months in the Madrasa Discourses project, this recent MA graduate in Arabic from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India, shared a remarkable about face, in no less an esteemed location than the United Nations (UN). Affan’s essay on global citizenship, language, and cultural understanding was selected among 2,000 submissions to the UN’s “Many Languages, One World” youth competition. He writes in his essay:
There are some religious values and cultural norms that we all share, which are acceptable to all. The contemporary world in its present situation needs dialogue among diverse peoples and communities. Such inter-religious dialogue can help to eradicate hatred between people of different faiths which is spread by evil elements. When people start connecting over common human values it leads to mutual cooperation and understanding.
On July 21st, 2017, he presented at the well of the United Nations General Assembly, proposing a solution to the grave paucity of education in his home state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest and most underdeveloped regions. No less remarkable was the fact that his essay, attached below, is written in Arabic, a second language for the young Indian. After visiting the UN, Affan joined his classmates at the Madrasa Discourses Summer Intensive in Kathmandu, Nepal, where his colleagues had been involved in a rigorous exploration of how concepts such as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism intersect with Islamic thought today.
When asked about how the project has influenced him, Affan points to an essay he read in the course by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah on Islam in the United States called, “Islam and the Cultural Imperative”. “Islam is like a “crystal clear river… Its waters  are pure, sweet, and life-giving but—having no color of their own—reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow” writes Abd-Allah (1). Assigned in a Madrasa Discourses module that shed light on the encounter and exchange between Muslims and other societies, such as Greek philosophy and Persian courtly culture, students explored the flexibility of Islam in welcoming new practices and modes of behavior. The openness that Muslim societies showed to the variety of human experience enabled them to organically plant roots in new places, and humankind has benefitted as a result, not least through the “epoch-making” translation of millions of important Greek texts to Arabic that preserved Aristotelian and other works for posterity (Gutas, 8).
Channeling what he learned in an online session from Notre Dame’s Professor Rashied Omar, Affan noted that Islam is a “culture friendly” religion, and that many other religions today appreciate diverse forms of good conduct and behavior. This does not mean “blind acceptance,” Dr. Omar notes in a 2015 sermon students also read: “The process of adopting sound customary practices from local cultures was facilitated by Islamic jurisprudence through the technical process known as al-‘urf or al-‘adah” (7). Yet this friendliness and openness is important because “culture governs everything about us, molding our instinctive actions and natural inclinations,” Affan went on. “It’s human nature to love peace and hate disorder.”
Originally taught a strict interpretation of Islamic tradition, which left little if any room to question the authenticity of material, or to consider the possibility of different and equally legitimate perspectives, Affan tells us the Madrasa Discourses program “has changed my way of thinking…. I am now enjoying navigating uncovered areas of Islam that were previously hidden from me.”
In his sermon, Dr. Omar enjoins: “This new reality requires a shift in mindset from an inward-looking disposition that seeks to preserve culture such that it becomes fossilized, to a disposition that is embracing of cultural transformation and growth” (10). Affan took that message to heart and applied it to his role and place in India. Through teaching and service in their respective homelands, many other Madrasa Discourses students are also actively involved in creating and strengthening Muslim identities which are deeply rooted in the Islamic intellectual tradition and influential in shaping positive and relevant Muslim discourses in the modern world. Aadil Affan’s successful essay is but one prominent example.
Biography: Aadil Affan is a graduate of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where he recently completed a Master’s in Arabic Language and Literature. Originally from Katihar Bihar India, Affan learned the value of education early and received his primary and secondary education at Nadwatul Ulama Lucknow. He plans to continue his higher education in the hopes of one day becoming a professor. He is also an avid cricket player and enjoys reading.
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.
When president Obama took the oath to office, he unintentionally uttered a couple of the words in the wrong order. Although the meaning of the oath did not change, sticklers wondered whether the oath was legitimate and if Obama was really president. Doubts like this can linger and spiral out of control into conspiracies. So the matter was corrected in a privately conducted do-over ceremony the very next day. The authority of the Constitution was paramount, and every letter mattered. Rituals are tricky business in any culture, and Islam is no exception. Should the prayer be repeated if the person praying wasn’t facing Mecca? Is lab-grown meat halal to eat? Is that financial transaction valid? Can women serve as Imams of mixed-gender congregations? Who gets to decide?
The Sharia is complex, and that complexity has bred authority to help resolve, mediate, and manage it. A class of jurist-scholars (sg: ʿālim; pl: ʿulamāʾ) emerged to claim the authority of interpreting God’s will in Islamic civilizations. Ulama were authorized within communities of learning and knowledge transmission. They legitimized rulers as valid if they regulated affairs according to the Sharia. Rulers in turn authorized ulama by employing them to administer law and dispense justice. This structure of authority has been in crisis since colonialism and the rise of nation states.
The displacement of traditional authority has been traumatizing for Muslim societies, and the ʿulamāʾ have reacted in diverse ways. One response has come to be labeled Islamism: the wholesale attempt to take control of state authority and institutions. Another response manifests in retrenchment: reflexive cultural criticism of anything new and unfamiliar from behind the walls of the madrasa or from the elevation of the pulpit. Between these extremes are alternatives that seek either new forms of alignment between state institutions and traditional scholars (accommodation) or new paradigms of knowledge and authority (reconstruction).
The temptation to simplify might lead the analyst to see clear distinctions between these camps. But this temptation must be resisted, since the lines between retrenchment, accommodation, and reconstruction are in fact blurred. A single person may be accommodation-dominant, while exhibiting tendencies of retrenchment here, reconstruction there. And what believer in the Sharia is not an Islamist in some sense? After all, are the laws of God not designed for the common good? Should not divine wisdom have at least some relevance to public policy? The crisis of traditional authority is one of interpretation; it is not a difference of opinion on the imperative to submit to God’s will.
God’s will in the world is related both to private and public matters. The Sharia regulates not only prayer and charity, but also crime and punishment. And since the debates concerning interpretation have a direct bearing on policy and legislation, the issue of religious authority is inextricably linked to the concerns of those who wield political power. Muslim majority societies—whether they are despotic or democratic, Sunni or Shiite—and Muslims living as minorities all over the world have found their own ways to balance competing interests in the wake of modern dislocations. The space is wide open for creativity, whether genius or absurd.
An example of the latter is a notorious fatwa (legal opinion) emanating from a scholar of the famed Azhar University to deal with the problem of mixed-gendered workplaces. According to classical Islamic law, breastfeeding creates bonds of consanguinity and maternity. Drawing on this example, argued the scholar, men who drink from the milk of their coworkers would no longer have to observe the strictures of segregation in the workplace, becoming, as it were, a kind of household. In fairness, the opinion was retracted after severe criticism from within the very scholarly guild that authorized the scholar who issued the fatwa. But the damage was done. As Khaled Abou El Fadl points out, “One would be tempted to ignore this fatwa as a gross aberration or outlier if it were not part of a trend in contemporary Islamic discourse” (47).
This kind of “Milk Shaykh,” as I jokingly referred to him once, elicits laughter and derision in the classroom. But the point is a serious one: the erroneous Azhar scholar was attempting to respond to a particular crisis using classical modes of thought. In this case, the attempt was patently absurd and rightfully dismissed by his own traditional colleagues. Other attempts can be more sophisticated, but in their sophistication only serve to mask underlying problems that are structural in nature: in many instances, the methodology used to derive legal rulings no longer yields acceptable or intelligible outcomes.
Academic institutions, particularly in North America and Europe, are beginning to provide a counterweight to madrasa scholars who wield authority in the name of the classical tradition. In bringing the tools of higher criticism to bear on Islamic history, academic scholars argue that traditional scholars do not notice the way that their supposedly objective interpretations of scripture reveal their subjective biases. According to contemporary convention, there is no such thing as objective knowledge. Knowledge is perspectival, history is contingent, and religious thought merely reflects the spirit of the age. This is not to say that all knowledge is relative, that there is no objective reality, or that things are unknowable; rather, it is to say that all knowledge is conditioned by subjective experiences; nobody holds the keys to objective reality, and things are knowable only from certain perspectives.
Ayesha Chaudhry uses the term “idealized cosmology” to express how preconceived notions of reality, particularly when it comes to gender hierarchy, are brought to bear on religious texts. Chaudhry is influenced by scholars like Kecia Ali who argue that the laws of Islam, however brilliant and coherent, cannot simply be tweaked to serve our purposes for today. Muslims need to construct a new legal system from the ground up using egalitarianism rather than hierarchy as a founding principle. Rumee Ahmed reads the history of Islamic law as a series of “patches” and “hacks” in an ongoing effort by classical scholars to keep it relevant for the times in which they live. His work makes plain what the classical tradition obscures: the law is human and subjective, and any attempt to make it appear otherwise is disingenuous. Ahmed, in a creative move of his own, suggests that the law can in fact be purposefully hacked by an anonymous team of activists working in amorphous online networks to develop legal formulas for our time to get us where we want to go. In this forumulation, anyone can be a milk shaykh.
What do these kinds of criticisms mean for religious authority in Islamic societies going forward? Lines have been drawn. Traditional scholars are caught in the old world, ensnared between revolution, irrelevance, and the unwitting support of despotism (see here and here). The dust has yet to settle from, as Wael Hallaq puts it, “the epistemic havoc wrought by modernity” (542). But if history is our guide, then despair not, for traditions are animated by crises. In a fresh and refreshing take on Muslim theology in response to the present crisis, Martin Nguyen argues that crises are a normal feature of religious life. Was not the “fall” of Adam & Eve a crisis? Does not every prophet respond to some kind of crisis, while generating fresh ones of his own? Are we each not preparing for the ultimate crises of death, resurrection, and accountability in the hereafter? In Islamic history, consider the succession of Muhammad, the civil wars in the days of the Companions, the Umayyad and Abbasid revolutions, the challenge posed by freethinkers and philosophers, the inquisition of Ma’mun, the occultation of the twelfth Imam, the reduction of caliphs to figureheads, the Crusades, the Mongols…
Religions are made for crises, and each crisis presents unique challenges. The uniqueness of the present crisis stems from its potential to demystify the past and reset the foundations of our engagement with God’s revelation. “The feminist edge of Qur’anic interpretation,” argues Aysha Hidayatullah, “is the site of dynamic challenges to the boundaries of Islamic tradition” (3). At these edges lie the greatest potentials for creative renewal. The conversation on authority tends to retreat to simplistic either/or categories: either the accommodationist tradition or the new wave of academic criticism toward reconstruction. If the vitriol on social media between these two camps is any indicator, the future may in fact be charted through such exclusivist binaries. Exclusive camps have always been there, and they always will be. Things are most interesting, however, at edges, intersections, and boundaries. That is where complexity resides, and that is where the kind of enduring authority that will command the middle can best plant its flag.
Mahan Mirza was appointed teaching professor and executive director for the Keough School's Rafat and Zoreen Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion on July 1, 2019.
An Islamic studies scholar and expert on religious literacy, Mirza brings extensive pedagogical and administrative experience to his role, including serving as dean of faculty at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, America’s first accredited Muslim liberal arts college. Immediately before his appointment to the Ansari Institute, Mirza served as the lead faculty member for Notre Dame's Madrasa Discourses project, which equips Islamic religious leaders in India and Pakistan with the tools to confidently engage with pluralism, modern science, and new philosophies.
Mirza joined Notre Dame in 2016 as professor of the practice for the Contending Modernities research initiative, a flagship program of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
Mirza holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, an M.A. from Hartford Seminary, and a Ph.D. in religious studies from Yale University. He has taught courses and lectured on Arabic-Islamic studies, western religions, and the history of science, along with foundational subjects in the liberal arts, including logic, rhetoric, astronomy, ethics, and politics. He has edited two special issues of The Muslim World and served as assistant editor for the Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (2018).
He is a fellow with the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the Keough School and continues to serve as an advisor for Madrasa Discourses.
At the end of its four-day long intensive program (July 23–26, 2019) conducted in New Delhi, India, Madrasa Discourses (MD) bid the first batch of its Indian participants farewell. After three years together, the very thought of a farewell was overwhelming for both the faculty and participants; overcome with strong emotions, some of them even choked up and struggled to deliver their closing comments. Nevertheless, most of them were able to express the significance of the program for the madrasa community of India. The following three points can be gleaned from their comments and impressions of the program: (1) the program taught them the value of learning and disseminating knowledge for the common good of society; (2) it trained them to interpret the Islamic tradition in the light of modern knowledge and changed circumstances—a requisite intellectual tool, indeed, to keep any tradition alive; and, (3) though the event marked their departure from the program, it did not mark the end of their intellectual journeys. The emotions and the aspirations of the participants illustrated that they had acquired a sense of responsibility towards their community, a community which is going through, in the eyes of many, an “intellectual crisis.” MD can be considered an initiative to redress this crisis.
This essay outlines the discussions among those ʿulamāʾ invited to the symposium held on the first day of the intensive program at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, on July 23, 2019. It raises concerns about some of the approaches taken by the scholars who attended and points to alternative ways of approaching Islamic thought in the modern world. It should be noted that these are the author’s personal reflections and should not be attributed to MD or any of its faculty.
This intensive was the sixth held by MD during the last three years, and held a significance unlike previous intensives. Until now, MD had not been officially introduced to the circles of traditional ʿulamāʾ and the Muslim intellectual community of India. The first day of the program was designed to facilitate an open discussion on challenges that Islamic thought and the madrasa community have encountered. Prominent ʿulamāʾ and scholars were invited from across the country to take part in the discussion. The objective was to address the contemporary intellectual challenges to Islamic thought, and to inform the attendees that MD, with the help of the madrasa community, is committed to answering some of these challenges. The program was divided into three sessions: the first was devoted to invited lectures, and the remaining two sessions were dedicated to a discussion of the tensions between modern science, speculative theology (‘ilm al-kalām), and questions of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh).
In the first public session, Mawlana Khalid Saifullah Rahmani, an eminent Deobandi scholar and head of the Islamic Fiqh Academy of India, delivered the keynote address. While one might have expected him to express his views on the contemporary theological challenges Muslims faced, Rahmani instead highlighted the historical phases which necessitated the emergence and evolution of early Muslim theology (‘ilm al-kalām). His understanding of ‘ilm al-kalām is fashioned after the common position which holds that the discipline is an intellectual exercise meant to defend Islamic creeds. Rahmani drew upon the historical experiences of Muslim scholastics and theologians and emphasized the need for a new-‘ilm al-kalām, which should be more comprehensive and able to address the modern challenges posed by philosophical and scientific questions. However, he made it clear that the creeds explicitly mentioned in the text are beyond the scope of any intellectual debate. Rahmani also pointed out that the entire battle between science/reason vs. religion uniquely stemmed from Christendom’s experience which turned into a battle of science/reason against religion. It then developed into a revolt against the authority of the Catholic Church followed by the persecution of philosophers and scientists. He suggested that today modern philosophy and science are composed of anti-religious elements thanks to the early opposition to both by the Catholic Church. Islam, on the other hand, had always appreciated the use of reason and thus can constructively engage with modern scientific challenges.
Rahmani’s reference to the historical development of modern science and philosophy forges a story that seeks the culprit in someone else’s camp. It holds the Church as the arch-culprit for fostering enmity between science and religion. What the purpose of such an account was intended to serve was not entirely clear. Perhaps it was intended to defend Islam and Muslims in terms of their historical encounter with science. If this is the case, the opposition of religion to philosophical exercises is not an unparalleled historical experience only found in the medieval Christian world. There are numerous examples that one can cite of anathematization of great Muslim philosophers and mutakallimūn by Muslim clergy that in some instances was followed by their persecution in the medieval Islamic world. It would be better if Rahmani engaged with the historical tensions and complexities that existed between Islamic orthodoxy and philosophy and kalām. It also might have been helpful if Rahmani demonstrated how Islamic thought dealt with contemporary science and philosophy.
Interestingly, the participants in the closed sessions concurred with Rahmani that contemporary Muslims needed a new-‘ilm al-kalām. Mawlana Mahmood Ahmad Ghazi, acting as the moderator, began the second closed session by asking whether the Islamic creeds can neatly categorize Islamic creedal doctrines into categories of debatable and non-debatable. While addressing the question, Mawlana Zishan Ahmad Misbahi stated that there are certain creeds, like the oneness of God, that are mentioned in the Qur’an, and therefore need to be left untouched. However, Misbahi claimed, those which were debated in the early history of Islam can also be debated today. Misbahi’s classification of some aspects of the creeds as fundamental and others as peripheral were consonant with Rahmani’s views, which, I think, represent the general approach taken in traditional thinking. Had the discussion continued along the same line, it could have yielded more valuable insights. However, the conversation veered in the direction of an apologetic theology, one which seeks to offer Qur’anic justifications for existing scientific beliefs. Such an approach superficially eradicates any contradictions between science and theology, but really engages neither science nor theological reasoning on their own terms. One critique that could be leveled at scholars who utilize this approach is that they entirely avoid addressing the underlying philosophical complexities—the tensions between medieval and modern presumptions about religion and science—and hence cherry-pick from a variety of available theories. Furthermore, this method of resolving contradictions between science and religion frequently fails to use a methodological framework based on sound philosophical presumptions, and rather uses an apologetic style of scriptural reasoning.
For example, one of the participants in the discussion reiterated a famous argument that the domains of religion and science are different. According to this participant, religion focuses on generating values on the basis of revelation and is thus redemptive in nature, while science concentrates mainly on developing a lifestyle that is compatible with technological advancement. This participant claimed the latter thus has nothing to do with values. Though the argument seemed convincing to some in the audience, placing science and religion in two separate domains is problematic because human beings do not live their lives in ways that mirror such bifurcation. We live in a new world created by modern science and adapted to it. Treating religion as something unrelated to science is thus a grave mistake and causes contradictions in actions and beliefs.
For most of the participants, the word “science” only referred to material science. An unidentified participant suggested that one should also consider the social sciences in a discussion of science. A professor of physics claimed that the social sciences were entirely based on ignorance, or jihālat. An observer was unsure if he was being sarcastic or serious. It is interesting to note that the term jihālat or jāhili connotes, especially for Islamists, a system—social, political, or knowledge—which is essentially anti or un-Islamic.
In the last afternoon session, the discussion turned to Islamic jurisprudence. I recall a scholar trained in religious education (‘ālim pl.ʿulamāʾ) arguing that Islam prohibited slavery a very long time ago. And those Muslims who practiced it, he claimed, were actually violating the rules of Islam. Additionally, he also explained the “wisdom” embodied in one of the most famous verses of the Qur’an 4:34, which appoints men to be in charge of women. The verse states that if a wife disobeys her husband, he is allowed to strike her. The verse has been a bone of contention among feminists, modernists, and traditionalists. The ‘ālim explained that the verse allows a husband to strike his wife only if she indulges in fornication. Instantly, he was asked should a wife be allowed to strike her husband if he does the same. He replied, without taking a pause, that it would be unnatural for her to do so. To me, the overall view of the ‘ālim sounded rather odd. For example, I later discovered that his view was not supported by Islamic law which reserves the right to administer punishment exclusively for the government—there is no permission for the husband to strike a wife who engages in fornication in Islamic law.
Such explanations assume that every good which can possibly exist has already been explained in the Qur’an. On this approach, where in Western thought human rights which ground prohibitions on slavery and give equality to women are a modern development, in Islam they are much older since they originated with the revelation of the Qur’an; Islam had allocated these rights using an alternative framework to human rights fourteen centuries ago. This type of reading of the Qur’an worries me because it imposes its own modern understanding of the world onto past periods in Islamic history while ignoring the different contexts that shaped how Muslims understood and interpreted the Qur’an. For instance, the modern discourse of human rights entitles a person to certain rights, for example, freedom, equality, etc., on the basis of his/her being a human being. Hence, the word “right” in this context would be interpreted as entitlement. A violation of any human right by an individual or a state would be an affront to a human person. A comparison between the modern western conception of “right” with the medieval Islamic understanding of the word, ḥaqq (wrongly translated as a “right” like a human right) would reveal that the Muslim jurists conceived the word ḥaqq not as “entitlement” but as “duty” towards his/her fellow citizens and the state, which is contradictory to modern rights discourses (Moosa, 2000–2001). This example shows the problems that appear when one equates modern rights discourses with traditional Islamic thought. I could produce several more examples which prove a conceptual departure of Muslims from the medieval to the modern world, however, the scope of this essay does not allow it. The point is that Muslim scholars should accept this departure, show courage to shoulder the accountability of the history they inherit, and be ready to reinterpret parts of their tradition which are inconsistent with their modern experiences. Though it is easy to reject the past or confuse the modern with something already in the tradition, doing so intellectually paralyzes Islamic thought.
The forests of the Amazon are burning. The lungs of the planet will collapse and take the rest of us with them. The United States government is detaining large numbers of immigrants, separating children from their families, deporting parents who work in this country, and planning to lift the limit on how long people can be detained. Americans are dying because they cannot afford their prescription medications, and mass shootings are on the rise while the government does nothing about gun control. But the current resident of the White House made some outrageous remark. Another outrageous remark, just one of several on any given day. And so, all the major news outlets shifted their focus from the enormity of climate change, the precarity of the human race, and our cruelty to each other. This time, the comment was about Jews in America. It was a troubling remark and one that recalls a long history of antisemitism. This kind of talk is dangerous. So, we are swept up by the news cycle and shift our attention to the agenda set by racism—again.
The current resident of the White House, a symptom of larger processes, proclaimed that Jewish Americans who do not vote for the Republican party are disloyal. Not disloyal to their country of citizenship. No, they are traitors to the state of Israel. By the time this post is published many readers will already have seen countless responses to the antisemitism inherent in the idea of Jews as disloyal. So, rather than focus on that specific comment, I want to point to a broader process underway: a shift in antisemitic rhetoric that might make it harder to recognize and therefore all the more dangerous.
In addition to his remarks about disloyal Jews, the same man has also denigrated three junior members of Congress by weaponizing the accusation of antisemitism. He says that Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are antisemitic. These three junior congresswomen, women of color, include one Muslim woman of Palestinian descent, one Somali Muslim woman in hijab, and one Latina. They are outspoken in their opposition to Israeli policy. They call for the end of Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories and for human rights for Palestinians. The man in the White House calls them antisemites. He says that they hate Israel and that they also hate all Jews.
These accusations—one of disloyalty and the other of antisemitism—are themselves forms of antisemitism. This weaponized antisemitism is dangerous for all minorities and people of color. It calls out migrants, and Muslims in particular. It also participates in a much longer historical process of making Jews and Muslims enemies of Europe and of each other, while conflating Muslim with Arab in ways that continue to have serious consequences in Israel/Palestine. But it is especially dangerous for Jews. American Jews have long felt themselves relatively comfortable in their country, and relatively safe from antisemitic rhetoric or acts of violence. The current focus on Jews and the questioning of their loyalty reminds Jews of a long history of similar accusations.
The claim of disloyalty resonates profoundly with older antisemitic tropes. The Jews were accused of disloyalty in medieval Christian times, during the Inquisition, and, more recently, in pre-WWII Europe. Throughout history, Jews have been accused of disloyalty to the crown, the country, the Pope, or to Christ. But how can American Jews be accused of disloyalty to a foreign country? The idea is bizarre unless one presumes that all Jews should support Israel first and at all times because of some kind of tribal, ethnic, or religious affiliation. Should American Catholics be loyal to Rome? Should American Muslims support the governments of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia?
Beyond the absurdity lies the age-old accusation leveled against Jews everywhere: they are disloyal to their country of residence because they are Jewish. In part, this idea results from an inherent problem in the modern identity categories through which we generally navigate our social lives. These categories suggest that national belonging and religious affiliation are separate aspects of identity. A person can be French and Catholic, or Dutch and Buddhist at the same time. Scholars such as Charles Taylor contend that not only are these categories separable, but that in our modern, supposedly secular age, “religion” is a matter of personal choice. That means a French citizen can choose to be Catholic or Protestant or join some other faith group. And, a person can even choose not to be affiliated with any religion. The idea that such distinctions can be made is often considered a specifically Protestant understanding of the term “religion.” Whether or not one agrees with that analysis, it seem clear that such is not the case for the Jews. In the figure of the Jew, the categories of national and religious belonging are at once both separate and conflated. While a Jewish person might be non-observant, or practice another faith, the racialization of Jewishness has meant that no matter what they do, a Jew will always be Jewish. Importantly, Jewishness is understood as a national and religious category. Thus, regardless of their country of residence or their citizenship state, Jews are always and forever foreigners who cannot be trusted as patriotic citizens. They might be granted citizen’s rights, might completely assimilate to the local culture, and might even convert to Christianity. However, they will always be suspect.
Hannah Arendt discussed this conundrum in a piece called “We Refugees.” In that 1943 article, Arendt wrote about the uselessness of attempts at assimilation. She spoke of a character she called Mr. Cohen who, when he lived in Germany was 150% German. When forced to leave Germany, he moved to Prague and became 150% Czech, and then 150% French and so on interminably attempting to demonstrate that he was forever everywhere and anywhere a loyal citizen; anything but a Jew.
Now, in the United States of 2019, we hear people opposing the current Republican administration by quoting another Republican, Ronald Reagan who once fondly quoted a letter he received that said, “You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk.… Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.” It is impossible to repeat this quote without pointing out its erasure of the settler colonial past of the United States, its ongoing genocide of Native Americans, and the fact that the U.S. is a society that was built on the backs of slave labor, that is, people who did not just “come to live in America.” Beyond that, it seems clear that if Jewish Americans are called upon by their government to be loyal to the state of Israel, this picture of becoming American is nothing more than a myth, no different from Arendt’s assessment of the impossibility of assimilation.
But what does it mean to demand “loyalty” in the first place? Loyalty to whom? For what? Is loyalty the same as patriotism? Is it central to democratic living? Should we encourage unquestioning support of state policies? Or would we do better to encourage engagement and critique? The danger underlying this call to loyalty lies in its promotion of an ethno-nationalism that undermines the possibility of equal rights for all citizens in a multicultural society and the impossibility of achieving such rights based on our common humanity. Instead it reinforces the exclusionary nature of nationalism with all its precarity for those deemed outsiders.
This time, though, the accusation of disloyalty came wrapped in a kind of philo-Semitism. “We care about you,” it said. “We, the Republican party, are staunch supporters of Israel, and therefore, by definition, we are good for you. Good for the Jews. And you—Jewish Americans—would be doing the right thing if you supported our party.” The Republican party, or its leader in the White House, is now proclaiming who is a good Jew and who is not. When powerful gentiles begin deciding who is a good Jew, we should all be worried. The leader of the Republican party not only proclaims what counts as “good” Jewish behavior. He has gone one step further and determined that he, and not the members of the Jewish community themselves, knows what is good for them.
One of the things that is “good for Jews,” he says, is unconditional support for the state of Israel. Therefore, the three junior congresswomen are not good for the Jews. They are enemies of the Jewish people. These proclamations are all intended to garner support for his presidency, to appeal to his constituency, including Evangelical Christians (Christian Zionists), and maybe even to reach out to Jewish Americans. But they do something else, too, something more insidious. These comments say that all Jews are, or should be, of one mind. They should all share the same political opinions. In particular, they should all unconditionally grant their loyalty to a foreign country and oppose their own fellow citizens—in this case the representatives for which some American Jews voted—who dare to criticize that foreign country’s policies. In other words, because of who they are, Jews cannot and should not be allowed to identify primarily with their fellow Americans. They must be marked, themselves, as foreigners; their racial and national identity must be conflated again, still.
This notion of “all Jews,” of course, presumes a homogeneity that is very far from the truth. No religious or cultural group is homogenous, certainly not the Jews. To suggest otherwise encourages stereotypical ideas and is fundamentally racist. This notion of Jews as permanent foreigners, and inherently suspect, feeds into larger tropes of global Jewish conspiracies, of their worldwide power, and of their fealty first and foremost to eachother. Suggesting that Jews are disloyal to the modern state of Israel is a form of antisemitism, thinly veiled in terms of caring about Jews. This notion, together with accusations of antisemitism aimed at people of color and those who are critical of Israeli policy, combine to form a toxic antisemitism that stigmatizes some people while producing enemies of groups who might otherwise find shared interests.
The scientific evidence suggests that the CRISPR technique is more precise than older, cruder techniques of genetic engineering. Most scientific discussions about CRISPR are likely to lean towards medical applications, especially its seeming promise with respect to currently incurable human diseases and its use as a tool in the knowledge of human genetics. The broader public debate has narrowed its focus to application questions in human genetics alongside worries about the slippage towards human enhancement, and associated issues of justice concerning access. Many of the specific ethical questions that arise in advisory bodies are the same ones that are already all too familiar to those who have worked in the ethics of human genetics, namely those questions on safety, scope of usage, and means of achieving the end sought. That is, such bodies are most comfortable dealing with issues like safety, which amounts to a thin version of ethics that misses thicker ethical concerns.
What I want to offer here is not a claim to provide a possible consensus between such disparate groups, but rather a way of thinking which can help to rescue our ability to talk about more than safety and efficacy. This approach retrieves the virtue of practical wisdom, not least because I believe that it is relevant even more now that speculation about the possibility of accurate human gene editing is closer to becoming a reality.
Thomas Aquinas considered that there are small steps that ordinary people could take in order to acquire virtues, even those who did not necessarily have any particular religious faith. And crucial to those small steps is the exercise of practical wisdom. Practical wisdom is a source of insight and is a virtuous disposition that is particularly useful in the conduct of ordinary human affairs. As it is aimed at the common good, it can be applied in specific circumstances in different ways. Hence, a particular decision that follows the exercise of practical wisdom takes into account multiple factors in making that decision, even while keeping an open eye on whether that decision serves to achieve the goal of the common good.
While the moral virtues, such as justice and courage, on their own will incline their possessors towards right action, this inclination is not sufficient, which is why practical wisdom is so important. Practical wisdom helps to recognise those subtle differences that lead to a different course of action in given circumstances. Part of the challenge for CRISPR-Cas9, as with any other new and potentially influential technology, is that ethical decision making should not consider only the implications for one individual or family, but should also consider the wider socio-political implications. Truly moral decisions are not based on autonomy alone.
Practical wisdom, for Aquinas, has eight qualities, all of which are important in making a good decision. These qualities are: memory, teachableness, acumen, insight, reasoned judgement, foresight, circumspection, and caution. Memory (memoria) must be “true to being.” And it does not take long to realize that historical reflection forces a closer look at the long shadow of eugenics in the application of genetic science, a manipulation of human reproduction and discrimination against those with disabilities for ultimately political ends. Teachableness (docilitas), or open-mindedness, is a quality that many scientists will respect, since without open-mindedness discovery is much more difficult. But it is also a reminder that decisions are always embedded in complex networks of human needs and interests.
Acumen (solertia) includes the ability to act clearly and well in the face of the unexpected. Acumen makes it possible to act aright even when the time to make a decision is compressed. Insight and reasoned judgement, which are also in the list of intellectual virtues that practical wisdom requires, need to be brought to bear. Yes, some readers will now ask questions regarding, for example, whose insight and which reasoned judgements are assumed in such an account, but these questions do not undermine the effort to discern what should be done. What seems reasonable to one may not be to another, but in so far as prudential reasoning includes deliberation, it tries to take into account different reasonable points of view.
What additional elements need to be in place for practical wisdom to be possible? The first element here is foresight, which is the human corollary of divine providence, since divine providence always aims at the ultimate good, while foresight seeks to imitate that orientation. Foresight is the ability to know if certain actions will lead to a desired goal. The judgements of practical wisdom are not fixed or certain in ways that might be the case if it were simply an application of rules or principles. This component is crucial for judgments about CRISPR-Cas9, especially in view of the fact that many of the so-called predictive beneficial effects have not come to pass in genetic medicine. Is this newest and what looks like the most promising technology an exception to that trend, or is this yet another example of over-enthusiasm in the wake of a new and exciting discovery? Are the uncertainties sufficiently strong to be tolerated or not? And who will be the major beneficiaries?
Aquinas also includes circumspection and caution in the list of the components of practical wisdom. Circumspection is the ability to understand the nature of events as they are now, while foresight is the ability to understand events as they might be in the future. The difficulties with CRISPR-Cas9 are that it is very hard for a non-specialist to fully understand what is, in fact, certain knowledge and what is less so. Caution has to do with imprudent acts that are too hasty, and avoiding obstacles that might get in the way of sound judgements, though caution that leads to inaction is not really what Aquinas had in mind either. In this sense, freezing all action due to an over-inflated sense of caution may not be appropriate, but caution has to keep in mind the overall trajectory of scientific research in this field. Caution here refers not just to safety issues, but wider more substantial questions about the kind of human community that is envisaged—in other words, what human flourishing actually means. In addition, Aquinas also recognises the place of gnome, that is, the wit to judge when departure from principles is called for in given situations.
Practical wisdom as setting the mean of the moral virtues is concerned with individual prudential decisions. But practical wisdom reaches beyond this in order to inform political governance. While Aquinas’s discussion of practical wisdom bears some relationship to that in Aristotle, in this respect it is different, for Aristotle confined his attention to individuals. The common good is that which is related to the good of all and the good of each, and in Aquinas’s time it meant the state. While the rule of nation-states are more complicated now with international laws, and the power of transnational companies exceeds that of some states, the overall intention of political practical wisdom towards the common good still applies.
Part of the contestation of CRISPR is related to questions about what that good means, and for whom. In other words, what does it mean for a human community to flourish? Aquinas is also more communitarian compared with the individualism that prevails in the current climate, so when individual practical wisdom clashes with economic or state practical wisdom, the former has to give way to the latter. Distributive justice and political practical wisdom work together for the same end though they can be distinguished in their role. It may be that the rhetoric of the “common good” was once used to promote eugenic practices. But in the current context of deliberations over the use of CRISPR technologies, using such technologies to promote racial purity by a powerful elite for their own particular ends would be necessarily excluded. Hence, rather than opposing eugenic practices by avoiding any collective sense of what the good might require and resorting to individual autonomy as the way forward, a more promising approach is to insist on a greater scrutiny of what social, political, and collective goods require using the tools of distributive justice and political practical wisdom.
Just as individual practical wisdom sets the mean for the moral virtues, so political practical wisdom sets the mean for distributive justice. Distributive justice is concerned with the relationship between the community and individuals, but what this distributive justice might require is not self-evident in all cases, and needs to be supplemented by political practical wisdom in much the same way as correct decision making for the moral virtues must be supplemented by individual practical wisdom.
Political practical wisdom is one way of helping to heal the rift between public and private morality, and the false divide between a “subjective” virtue ethic that is concerned with individuals and principled “objective” approaches that are more often concerned with wider social contexts. This is particularly significant in adjudicating heated public contestations regarding CRISPR technologies, since much of the discussion seems, like many other controversial issues, to rest on key exemplars which provide the basis for lobbyists either in favor or against this technology. Take, for example, the case made by Erika Check-Hayden based on the example of Ruthie Weiss, who has albinism and who has appeared in media reporting on CRISPR. Check-Hayden reports that when you ask patients like Ruthie, or her parents, if they would they have used CRISPR to prevent albinism, the answer is a resounding No. Why? Because what makes Ruthie Ruthie is the challenge she has faced and the particular determination to live in spite of these disadvantages.
Poignant though this story is about the virtue of perseverance in the face of hardship, I am less convinced by arguments of this type. This is because the arguments rest on a particular subjective experience of an individual who suffers from a particular disability. Was it prudential for the parents to indicate that Ruthie should not have been engineered? Of course, simply from the parental perspective, given that Ruthie’s life was viewed as positive, they would not have wanted Ruthie to be anything other than who she is. Their memory of the positive aspects of her life informed judgments about what was right to do. But what if both Ruthie and her parents had suffered inordinately from her condition and could imagine doing virtually anything to change it? In that case, the option of CRISPR could well have seemed prudential to those parents. The point is that prudence takes into account not just our subjective feelings and experiences but wider societal constraints, circumspection includes knowing all the details from many different perspectives, so familial anecdotes are insufficient to make public policy. Further, assuming, as the parents did, that Ruthie would have been changed for the worse, does not really understand the nature of genetic engineering. Ruthie would have been a very different child if engineering had been permitted, so it would be virtually impossible to project back into the past and ask if some of her unique characteristics could thereby be compromised. The voices of those who have been excluded from discussion certainly need to be taken into account, but as a way of informing wider discussion rather than resting on a few emotively charged media-driven examples.
Practical wisdom applies to different levels; the level of the individual, yes, but also at the level of the family, the community, and the state or system of governance. Such an approach which stresses a movement away from isolating the individual towards complex multivalent levels in envisaging the good applies whether or not a specific Christian and Thomistic understanding of that good is sought. To be clear: individual goods in the approach I am arguing for are not denied, but such goods are sought within a much broader context of what that good might mean as embedded in specific social contexts operating at different levels. Bigger questions that relate to that part of practical wisdom called foresight include taking account of broader consequences, such as whether the technology is desirable at all for the common good; thus, who is really going to benefit from the use of the technology, what implications are relevant for a given community, what impact such applications might have on the use of resources, and so on are just as important. Which population groups will be used in clinical trials that will inevitably be set up to test efficacy, such as gene technologies that work to “correct” AIDS or other immune deficiency diseases such as Severe Combined Immune Deficiency (SCID)? Single gene diseases such as Tay Sachs may seem obvious as a first step in the application of CRISPR-Cas9, and may even be preferable for conservatives since the manipulation will be on sex cells rather than the embryo, but a prudential decision in a given community will also place such seeming advantages in a wider social and political context. Practical wisdom also helps to judge what the virtue of justice requires in given circumstances in so far as it is orientated towards the common good. It seems highly likely that the most vulnerable will be the target of any such campaign for trials in the lead-up to large-scale application in therapeutic treatments. Are all such treatments necessarily desirable as ends to promote overall human flourishing or not? However, in the Thomistic tradition practical wisdom provides the means, at least, to attempt to take account of a multiplicity of factors in decision making, including what such “balance” might look like in practice; for example, by giving moral priority to the weak, but not just those who are suffering various diseases.
Practical wisdom is not a panacea, but it may be an important alternative to the idea that all we need to do is apply fixed principles such as individual autonomy to ethical problems that are, at root, the same. A broad framework for decision making through a prudential lens acts as a guide that is less about absolute rules of right or wrong and instead concerns taking appropriate responsibility for human flourishing as perceived according to specific virtues of the human community, namely those virtues of practical wisdom, charity, compassion, and mercy.
 This blog draws on ideas that are further developed in the following: Celia Deane-Drummond, “The CRISPR Challenge and the Beatific Vision: Recovering Practical Wisdom as a Guide for Human Flourishing,” in Eric Parens and Josephine Johnson, eds., Human Flourishing in an Age of Gene Editing (Oxford University Press, 2019).
Celia Deane-Drummond is Director of the Laudato Si’ Research Institute and Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, University of Oxford. She is also Visiting Professor in Theology and Science at the Centre for Catholic Studies, University of Durham. She was previously Professor of Theology and Director of the Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing at the University of Notre Dame. She holds two doctorates, one in plant science and one in systematic theology. Her research is at the intersection of theology and theological ethics and the biosciences, including evolutionary anthropology, evolution, genetics, psychology and ecology.
We live in an age where we have become accustomed to the constant onslaught of technological interventions in our lives. Some of it is positive, enriching, and conducive to our flourishing; much of it is frightening. In the arena of medicine, we fear the possible consequences of these interventions—consequences to our physical bodies, but also consequences to our identities. Our identities as persons cannot be separated from our bodies; nor can we imagine that they are formed in isolation from other persons. Yet, with knowledge of genetics we confront the reality that much of “who” we are is shaped by the matter that makes up our physicality. For that reason, interventions directed at our genes elicit great alarm, especially when those interventions tamper with germline cells ensuring that the effects will be passed on to future generations.
Genetic interventions are not new. Since at least the 1980s, we have been able to manipulate genes directly and indirectly. This manipulation is mostly driven by medical science with its goal of treating diseases and reducing human suffering. Yet lurking in the shadows is the worry that this goal could easily be put to nefarious uses. The most recent development in this arena is what is referred to as CRISPR-Cas9 (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), a technique of genome editing that provides an easily accessible way to directly change the makeup of individual genes. CRISPR has been described by many as a radical development in genetic engineering, mainly because unlike earlier interventions it allows us to modify individual genes in a highly targeted and cost-effective manner. As with all earlier advances in genetic technologies, the hype distorts the reality. For example, an online news account describing how CRISPR works has the following subheading: “Everything you need to know about the genome editing breakthrough that one day could cure disease, eradicate species and build designer babies.” One can see in such a quote the way that important distinctions, such as between treatment and enhancement, are elided.
In this brief comment, I will bracket the possibility of nefarious uses of this technology and ask instead how even positive uses of this type of intervention (to cure disease, for example) might affect human identity. My question will be framed by Roman Catholic conceptions of identity and personhood. Insight into the Catholic view is especially important in light of the perception that the Catholic church rejects bio-technological interventions. Understanding how this particular faith community navigates a path between fear of technological overreach and the pursuit of medical advances allows us to see the complexity of the relationship between human identity and genetic intervention. There are three features of identity central to the Catholic view that can also illuminate public discussions about the future of genomic editing and its impact on human identity. These are: humans exist in a tension between dependence and responsibility, humans are relational, and humans are embodied. As I shall argue, properly understood, all three of these features can serve as the scaffolding for a society that values justice.
Human identity in the Catholic context is derived from the understanding that humans are created in the image of God, meaning that humans possess rationality and the capacity to know and pursue the good. Humans exist in a tension between being creatures of God and “free” agents who are responsible for their actions. Hence, they are both dependent and free. This status grants humans the ability to pursue their moral good while also leaving them the possibility to turn away from it. Human identity and personhood are thus premised on this capacity. The choice to modify individual genes is a consequence of that fundamental freedom, but it also challenges the relationship of human dependence on God. Critics of genetic interventions often invoke the metaphor of “playing God” as a way to signal human overreaching, arrogance, and pride. This tension between dependence and freedom/responsibility ought to function as a sort of horizon against which to understand moral choices, both individually and communally. As individuals, our actions are constrained by this tension; yet when expanded to society, the tension forces us to reflect more deeply on what it means to be responsible to our fellow humans. Applied to genomic editing, this suggests a prudent course which expands the range of consequences of our actions that count as relevant. Thus, for example, responsibility to persons on the margins of society, who are least likely to benefit from these interventions, must be a driving force in our moral reflections on this issue.
Also fundamental to Catholic conceptions of personhood is the connected idea that the person is relational and communal. The moral injunctions to love one’s neighbor and to do justice presume that human identity is shaped by and for interactions with and responsibility to others. For Catholics, there is a theological backdrop to this notion of relationality—one grounded in the idea of God as three persons in the trinity, suggesting that God, in his very essence, is relational. Yet, even without the theological backdrop relationality implies human caring. It connects caring for the other with the inclination of all humans to self-preservation. Our bonds with other humans drive us to pursue medical technologies. One common concern about recent developments in genomic editing is that they threaten to undermine our bonds to future generations by altering future genomic maps. This concern extends the idea of relationality to a different temporal horizon.
In some sense the most fundamental Catholic belief about the nature of human identity is the emphasis on the embodied nature of human existence. Beyond a mere statement of fact, this claim is normative insofar as morality is experienced in and through the body. Yet, making the body central is not to suggest that the human is merely a whole made up of its component material parts. The body is endowed with meaning and it also creates meaning. While the Catholic tradition’s relationship to natural law is complicated, there is strong agreement that the body can provide information, and perhaps even guidance, for determining morally appropriate actions. Exactly how this happens is complicated by the fact that bodies are mediated culturally and the meanings we derive from them are shaped by broader webs of meaning. It is possible to see this third feature as existing in tension with the other two.
All three of these features of human identity support the centrality of respect for human dignity to Catholic ethics. Genome editing’s ability to manipulate an individual’s genetic identity can easily be seen as an assault on human dignity, especially if dignity is conceptualized as material integrity or wholeness. Yet, a different picture emerges when one expands integrity to mean well-being and human flourishing in a community governed by the norms of justice. Put differently, we must be vigilant to maintain the first two features of human identity alongside the third one.
These accounts of human identity and dignity to tell us that tampering with the physical building blocks of the human person has far-reaching consequences that threaten to disrupt the essence of the person. Yet, do they provide us with sufficient evidence to support the view that genome editing ought to be morally prohibited? Earlier debates about the ethics of genetic technology focused on drawing lines between germ cells and somatic cells, and between therapy vs. enhancement. Those lines were intended to protect any perceived threats to human identity—threats that might embolden humans, leading them to forget the tension in their relationship to God, or to lose sight of their fundamental relationality, or to mistake their embodiedness as a purely material construct. The news in late 2018, that scientists had succeeded in editing the embryonic genes of twins born in China suggests that this technology will not disappear. The question for moralists is whether or not the moral arguments deployed in earlier conversations about genetic technology will prove sufficient to the task of addressing this latest twist. My view is that drawing this line between shorter-term somatic cell interventions and irreversible germ cell interventions is still a prudent course of action as well as a morally sound one. The three features of Catholic thinking about human identity can function as groundwork for the line-drawing task by reminding us of human limits, communal commitments (to the present as well as future communities), and the meaning of embodiment. While the ease and availability of CRISPR technology makes the line both harder to draw and to hold, it is important that we not lose sight of these fundamental views about identity.
 It is referred to as editing since it enables the scientist to target specific parts of the DNA sequence that have been identified using letters of the alphabet. The question of the implications of the editing metaphor is important to consider. The Nuffield Council report issued in 2015 addresses this important point and draws attention to the reductionism as well as the “overstretching” that can result from relying too heavily on a metaphor. Nuffield Council on Bioethics, “Genetic Editing: An Ethical Review,” (London: Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 2016).
Aline Kalbian is Professor and Chair of Religion at Florida State University. She has published on a range of issues in bioethics, sexuality, gender, and moral theology. She is also co-editor of the Journal of Religious Ethics.
Much has happened with gene-editing since Contending Modernities’“Out of the Lab” podcast. Despite the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s 2018 recommendations that gene-editing should be stringently regulated and only used for a limited number of somatic diseases at this time, a surprisingly stunned world witnessed the birth of twin CRISPR-Cas9 edited girls in China in November, with a third baby on deck. Voices across the spectrum—scientific, ethical, theological, policy-oriented—excoriated the researcher, He Jiankui. Repeatedly described as a “rogue scientist,” it now appears that He may have had at least one US collaborator.
Listening to the above commentary, a trained ear might hear a pattern, a subtle but regular pulse, that signals the heart of the matter. Where Adil Najam fears a “gap” between the ethical, policy, and “entrepreneurial realities” surrounding technologies like gene-editing, I would suggest that these are, rather, all neatly aligned. To put it pointedly: the CRISPR conversation makes clear that bioethics, as it has emerged since the 1980s, is a deeply neoliberal project.
This is a big claim—one that can hardly be thoroughly argued in a blogpost. A complete argument would require detailing the intertwined histories of neoliberal economics and bioethics as they emerged post-World War II. Here I will only point to four notes that resonate throughout the literature. When taken together, they sound the dissonant chord of neoliberalism. These are: CRISPR as a technique, concerns about commercialization, dyspepsia about regulation, and the framework of bioethics itself, particularly its understanding of the person.
First, the briefest primer on neoliberalism. Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, in his important book Caring for Souls in the Neoliberal Age, defines neoliberalism as “the free market ideology based on individual liberty and limited government that connected human freedom to the actions of the rational, self-interested actor in the competitive marketplace” (2). Arising in the early 20thcentury, neoliberalism emerged in full force in the late 70’s-early 80’s with the Reagan-Thatcher era and the Washington Consensus. Central tenets include the liberalization of trade barriers, privatization of social services, globalization, and deregulation. In order to limit government, neoliberalism calls for sharply reducing or eliminating social services and welfare programs. The “social” is perceived as a mythic restraint on individual freedom. Neoliberalism aims to maximize the freedom of the individual, homo economicus—a person whose fundamental activity is choice and who chooses the good as she-or-he defines it based on a rational calculation of pure self-interest. Society is little more than an aggregate of autonomous individuals each pursuing their own good. Notably, however, freedom is redefined in market terms.
Neoliberalism is not simply an economic theory. It is a cultural project that subtly and pervasively organizes contemporary life. Rogers-Vaughn, in tracing how neoliberalism has transformed psychiatry, provides a template for making visible how it has likewise altered other areas of medicine and clinical research. CRISPR-Cas9 embodies a new approach to thinking about diseases, social problems, and human identity that he refers to as “methodological individualism.” Since roughly 1980, when mental illness was reconceptualized in the DSM-III, through “gene therapy,” stem cell therapies, the BRAIN initiative, neuroscience, and individualized or personalized medicine, a subtle shift has occurred that locates the source of diseases or problems within particular individuals rather than within social or political structures. Illness, here, is conceived as highly individualized, rooted deeply in the nano-loci of personal biology—genes or neural signatures. This new etiological framework drives a search for “biologically-mediated person-specific treatments.” CRISPR envisages the human genome as a biological text that needs “editing.” There lies the problem. Having defined disease as biologically mediated, the medical-industrial complex then hunts for biological interventions that can efficiently fix mistakes that are located at the deepest level of our being—or, via enhancement, that shape our identities.
Though justified by the goal of reducing suffering, a second neoliberal commitment catalyzes the hunt: economic efficiency and maximizing profits. In the podcast, Maura Ryan raises concerns about “commercialization.” Aline Kalbian repeatedly refers to CRISPR’s “entrepreneurial aspect” and our free market, competitive context. He Jiankui’s motivation for creating the CRISPR babies was “personal fame and fortune.” Others in the Contending Modernitiesseries raise concerns about commodification. But exorbitant prices, pervasive commodification, and a focus on market share and ROI are not accidental. They are the result of intentional neoliberal policies. The 1984 Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act transformed the pharmaceutical market. In 1985, the FDA approved, for the first time, direct-to-consumer marketing for medical products. In 1989, NIH established the Office of Technology Transfer to maximize the financial profits of government-funded research. The list could go on. Moreover, via Gary Becker and the Chicago School, the market extends to an ever-wider array of social realities; the market becomes, in the catchphrase of Freakonomics, “the hidden side of everything.”
Kalbian notes in the podcast that commercial aspects of new medical technologies are not being regulated. David Baltimore, chair of the National Academies’ committee on gene-editing, laments the “failure of self-regulation in the scientific community” in the CRISPR babies case. But we should not be surprised. As Michael Fitzgerald more realistically states in “Out of the Lab”: “regulation gets in their way.” Deregulation, as mentioned earlier, is a central neoliberal platform. Regulations, characterized as the demon of big government, constrain the market’s freedom. Rogers-Vaughn notes a concerted movement, beginning in the late 70s, to make “governments reduce or withdraw laws and rules requiring corporations to consider any purposes other than pursuit of profit.” In the mid-1990s, when I served on the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, Big Pharma was a visible presence at our quarterly meetings, exercising a watchful eye over ethicists or community members who might seek to put limits on R&D.
Almost to a point, current analyses of gene-editing reprise those 1990s debates. CRISPR-Cas9 is essentially gene therapy 2.0. New technologies are more efficient and likely more efficacious than adenovirus vectors. But the same ethical arguments were made in the 1990s as now; the same guidelines were put in place. The bioethical framework has not changed. From the National Academies to ethicists and analysts, the debate remains mapped by beneficence, non-maleficience, justice, and respect for persons, pastiched over a bedrock of utilitarianism. Or…is it respect for persons? As I have narrated elsewhere, 1980 is not only a key moment in the history of neoliberalism. It is also a key moment in bioethics. For in 1979, another subtle but important shift occurred: Belmont’s respect for persons morphed into Beauchamp and Childress’ respect for autonomy.
The “person” as a regulative concept in medical ethics emerged at a particular historical moment: post-War Europe, first gestured at in the Nuremburg Code in 1948. (Is it a coincidence that second phase of neoliberalism begins around 1950?) Imported to the US in the late 1960s after a series of research scandals, “personhood” becomes integrated into the emerging bioethics discourse with Paul Ramsey’s Patient as Person in 1970. Initially, “personhood” was protective—seeking to stem research abuses against vulnerable populations (children with mental illnesses, African-Americans), to counter medical paternalism, and to resist the ‘‘depersonalization’’ of modern medicine. From Nuremburg through Paul Ramsey to the Belmont Report, the term “person” was invoked to ensure that autonomous persons were given the right to informed consent—whether for research or medical care—and non-autonomous persons (or “all who share human genetic heritage” in the language of the National Commission’s 1975 Report and Recommendations: Research on the Fetus) were protected, even to the point of excluding them from research that could potentially benefit others.
From Personhood to Homo Economicus
But in 1979, almost before the ink is dry on the Belmont Report, respect for persons transmutes in Beauchamp and Childress’ first edition of Principles of Biomedical Ethics into respect for autonomy. Henceforth, talk of persons becomes largely “permissive”—we now have to determine who counts as a person before we can determine what, if any, responsibilities we owe them. Knowing who counts as a person helps resolve dilemmas around abortion, end of life, organ transplantation, stem cell research, etc. Most interestingly, “persons” for bioethics come to be defined as autonomous subjects who express their agency through the rational act of choosing whichever ends further “their own good,” maximizing their own self-interest. Social determinants of health, social location, social structures, even family members rarely enter this calculus. The “person” of bioethics post-Beauchamp and Childress, post-1980, is homo economicus.
In the gene-editing podcast, Aline Kaliban asked “what is it, exactly, that ethicists bring to the table?” While often the dignity or sanctity of persons is held up as a hedge against the endless encroachment of market forces in medicine, the attitude Pope Francis so aptly names as “the throw-away culture,” it may well be that the principles of bioethics subtly serve not as a corrective but rather as a tool of the market. Lisa Cahill depicts science, economics, theology, and liberal democratic political discourse as “thick worldviews” that compete in our engagement around bioethics and health policy. But it’s not an equal playing field. History suggests that the thick worldview of the neoliberal paradigm underlies them all. It shapes bioethics, medicine, scientific research, and medical technologies. This is why it’s often hard to see what bioethics brings.
Clarifying the neoliberal structure of bioethics and emerging medical technologies not only helps us understand the contours of the CRISPR landscape. It illuminates other disquieting dynamics. For example, certain technologies, once approved, become cast as morally normative. If one could eliminate a defective gene from your children using CRISPR, is one not morally obliged to do so? Belying the rhetoric of individual liberty, as neoliberalism evolves in the late 20thcentury, homo economics becomes subservient to that sovereign master: the economic dogma of rational, utility-maximizing self-interest. In a troubling inversion, what must be free now is not persons but the market.
Or why is it so difficult to advance the notion of the common good? Perhaps the answer lies in one of the first steps in the creation of modern capitalism, that original act of privatization, the literal enclosure of the commons in England from the 16th century forward. Step-by-step, material “commons”—even our genomes—are no longer shared. They are patented, commodified (23andMe!), and used as raw materials to create new products for profit and consumption.
If this is the case—if biotechnologies and bioethics and bioethics’ concept of the person are intrinsically shaped by neoliberalism—where are we left with a technology like CRISPR? Such an angle doesn’t yield a simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or “we must stringently regulate this new and powerful technology.” Perhaps He Jiankui is not so “rogue” after all. Rather, perhaps the CRISPR babies provide a road-to-Damascus jolt to make us analyze not only a particular technological innovation but the way the infrastructure of bioethics may have enabled it. Let me point to three avenues forward.
Towards a Systems Analysis
First, it is time to begin to make these economic dynamics of biotechnology and bioethical issues visible. The Catholic social tradition is one of the main voices that has begun to do so. Beginning with the liberation theologians in the 1970s, through John Paul II who named the structures of sin of money, power, and idolatry especially in relation to globalizing technologies, to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ (following Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate), Catholic social thought critiques the practices and effects of neoliberalism—particularly commodification, consumerism, and the exacerbation of economic inequality.
This lens needs to be brought to bear on bioethics. Few Catholic bioethicists have yet done so. These two “doctrinal” areas have too-long been siloed. A social lens asks about the historical and social contexts of concepts. Why did a particular concept arise when it did? Whose interests did it serve? It uses not only the tools of theology and philosophy, but also carefully attends to history and the social sciences. It presses for analyses that are, in the words of Paul Farmer, “historically deep and geographically broad.” One central tool of this “social-analytic mediation” (as liberation theologians call it) is economics, particularly political economy. My colleague Michael McCarthy and I have begun to address this gap in our recent book Catholic Bioethics and Social Justice: The Praxis of US Healthcare in a Globalized World. Catholic social thought here joins an emerging cadre of secular thinkers. But much more work needs to be done.
Second, we need to move away from “single-issue” analyses that have long shaped bioethics (“Is CRISPR ethical or not?”) to broader systemic analyses. What are the connections between the CRISPR babies in China, the new career path of the “professional guinea pig” in the US, the skyrocketing numbers of human research subjects globally, and the serious toll that neoliberal economics has taken on health outcomes around the world by decimating social programs and local economies, just to name a few? (Rogers-Vaughn, for example, sees neoliberalism as causally responsible for an increase in mental health issues). The list could go on.
These issues are all of a piece, pointing to ways in which human bodies become the raw material for profit-making (or cost-savings), a reality woven into the fabric of bioethics and biotech itself. Coming to see this requires, as Pope Francis notes in Laudato Si’, not only hard intellectual work but also moral and spiritual conversion. Can bioethics be converted? Religious traditions—with their vision of thickly connected persons who develop and flourish integrally in communities—could well provide the lever to begin to shape a bioethics that privileges persons over profits. This would move away from a bioethics dominated by the methodological individualism of autonomy and enamored of the methodological individualism of technologies. It would provide a starting point for a radical conversion of our hyper-individualistic and extractive economic philosophy that inflicts austerity on the poor while licensing the almost unbridled creation of biotech products for consumption by the wealthy few.
But it is not only bioethics that needs to be converted. Conversion calls us to a new way of living. Might we declaim against the neoliberal splinter in the eye of He Jiankui while remaining happily blinded by the log of contemporary economics in every other aspect of our own lives? The lens we turn on him, we must also turn on ourselves. As this conversation among Contending Modernities unfolds, it seems an opportune time to reflect on how not only religious convictions (i.e., about persons) but embodied religious practices, such as silence, simplicity, fasting, almsgiving, prayer, the Eucharist, offer the potential for unshackling us from the subtle but pervasive ways that neoliberalism shapes our lives. Perhaps here is the starting point for beginning to come to see the underlying engine driving ourselves, our culture, our bioethics, and biotechnology, and to thereby begin to unhand these interventions and very selves from neoliberalism’s invisible grip.
 Contending Modernities,“Science and the Human Person Podcasts.”
M. Therese Lysaught, PhD, is Professor at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Care Leadership at Loyola University Chicago, Stritch School of Medicine. Her books include Catholic Bioethics and Social Justice (2019), On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives on Medical Ethics, 3rd edition (2012), and the forthcoming Chasing After Virtue: Neuroscience, Economics, and the Biopolitics of Morality, with Jeffrey P. Bishop and Andrew A. Michel will be published with the University of Notre Dame Press. For more on her work, visit: https://mthereselysaught.com/.
“Teddy, how can one obtain a fair maiden?” asks a white supremacist playfully to a toy teddy bear in a YouTube video. He then reports the teddy bear’s answer to his viewers: “in order to truly understand the nature of women, one must first retake Constantinople from the Ottoman Empire.” The connection between the sexism expressed in “obtaining” a “fair maiden” and the vanquishing of a “civilizational” enemy is a recurrent theme in contemporary white supremacy that flourishes online. This quest for civilizational/racial purity combines an interest in white women’s reproductive and sexual availability with concerns about demographic “replacement.” Consider one of Republican Rep. Steve King’s many controversial tweets: “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Consider the anger the Tree of Life synagogue terrorist felt towards the Jewish congregation, not simply because they were Jews, but also because they were progressive Jews, helping refugees to safety in the United States. Consider the title of the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto: “The Great Replacement.” In the contemporary United States, such statements, openly identified as extremist, operate alongside state-sanctioned racial policies with similar demographic targets, including attacks on women’s reproductive rights, endless wars on terror, the racialized criminal justice system, and immigration policing, all of which are all taken to be politics as usual.
Building on the presentations and discussions that took place during the April 16 flash panel organized by Atalia Omer, “Interrogating the Christchurch Shootings,” this blog post connects the gendered/sexualized nature of white supremacist theorizing to its mobilization of civilizational discourses. I argue that at this intersection of civilization talk and obsession with reproductive purity, one finds a toxic passion for an imagined Medieval past and an obsession with the Ottoman Empire/Turkey that echoes the “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric promoted by earlier civilizational theorists such as political scientist Samuel Huntington. This conjunction raises important questions about how respectable forms of scholarship and white supremacist ideologies may bolster each other. In fact, this discursive continuum parallels the continuum operating between racist state policies and “lonewolf” racist violence considered beyond the pale of the law and requires inquiry alongside it.
The Will to Clash of Civilizations
In one of the (generally positive) reader responses to my book manuscript, an anonymous reader noted I had made rather too much of an outdated concept that had already been criticized to bits:
“I do think discussing Huntington is fine (though it is a bit well-worn), though I was surprised when I came across phrases such as ‘the current popularity of Huntington’s thesis,’ which felt a bit dated.”
The reader was referencing my conclusion, where I emphasized how Turkey’s history of transculturation and prevailing debates about “westernization” in the country defied Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which claimed that the world consisted of “seven or eight major civilizations” whose culture-driven conflicts could be traced throughout history and would determine post-Cold War era politics. Huntington’s broad “cultural” categories mimicked prevailing ideas of race and, where they differed, were reducible to religion. In revising for publication, I changed the conclusion to acknowledge that academia had both thrown the book at, and closed the book on, Huntington. I noted that almost immediately after his thesis appeared, experts rallied to demonstrate how Huntington had underplayed “intracivilizational” conflicts as well as cultural hybridity, and had done so at a time considered the high age of globalization. Countering Huntington’s thesis with data was indeed low-hanging fruit for anyone who had studied any “civilization” in any depth. Moreover, scholars such as Mahmood Mamdani had come to question whether “culture” could ever be an explanatory factor for political conflicts. In revising, I acknowledged the strength of these critiques, but hinted that the scholarly reports of the death of “Clash of Civilizations” may have been premature:
“The sharp divide between the West and the rest distorts reality, but rhetorical attempts to locate such a divide are real enough. Culture Talk influences politics.”
The afterlives of Clash of Civilizations have indeed been robust, with extremism, the security state, the military industrial complex, and knowledge-production boosting each other at a dizzying rate. Polemics around the civilizational status of Turkey vis-à-vis Europe have transitioned well into the new century, flourishing in peer-reviewed scholarship as well as in white-supremacist YouTube comments.
Istanbul, not Constantinople?
Turkey appears as a recurrent headache in Huntington’s work. In his 1993 Foreign Affairs article, Huntington called Turkey of the 1990s—a laicist, Muslim-majority NATO ally and a candidate for European Union membership—“the most obvious and prototypical torn country,” which could not decide whether it belonged within “Islamic” or “Western” civilization. Despite claims to objectivity and descriptiveness, his 1996 book turned prescriptive when it suggested that Turkish leaders might soon be ready to stop their “frustrating and humiliating” attempts to join “Western civilization.” Instead of acting like “beggars,” he predicted, the country would do well to “resume its much more impressive and elevated historical role as the principal Islamic interlocutor and antagonist of the West” (178). This piece of unsolicited advice did make Huntington some strong “civilizational” enemies in Turkey, although perhaps not of the kind that he had imagined. Instead, Huntington’s words got incorporated into Kemalist and leftist conspiracy theories, which claimed that the United States was overseeing a plot to “Islamicize” Turkey through the leadership of the “moderate” Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in order to weaken the country.
And voila, Turkey was Islamicized and became more antagonistic towards the West, right? Although the current AKP regime might have pleased Huntington in many ways with its “neo-Ottomanist” policies, it does not fulfill his thesis either. After all, it was under AKP’s early rule that major human rights packages were passed in order to make Turkish law comply with the Copenhagen criteria for membership in the European Union. Similarly, the regime takes as many pages out of the Western playbook—referencing the U.S. presidential system to justify the latest turn to an executive presidency, for example—as it does from age-old Ottoman legends. Moreover, the vision of the Ottoman Empire as somehow the antithesis of Western civilization itself would be contested by any serious historian who has passing familiarity with the cultural exchange and military alliances forged between European countries and the final Muslim Caliphate.
Yet, in Huntington’s suggestion that Turkey give up its “westernization” policies lies a reality more powerful than all our footnotes and primary documents can suppress: over the course of the twentieth century, “Western civilization” has become both a substitute and an alibi for “whiteness” and “Christianity” and Turkey constitutes a problem for all of these categories.
“UNTIL THE HAGIA SOPHIA IS FREE OF THE MINARETS, THE MEN OF EUROPE ARE MEN IN NAME ONLY,” wrote the Christchurch terrorist in all caps in his manifesto, referencing a Byzantine cathedral that had been converted to a mosque under the Ottoman Empire and is now a museum. The phallus, the cross, and the sword: A mythic civilizational formula based on an an intersection of racism, sexism, and Islamophobia and, like the vision of a pure white Europe of the past, exists more in the minds of white supremacists than in historical reality.
In fact, the terrorist’s manifesto contains an entire section titled “To Turks.” Here the terrorist orders all Turks currently living in Istanbul (my city of birth and where my close relatives live) to retreat to the Asian side of the city, or face violence: “FLEE TO YOUR OWN LANDS, WHILE YOU STILL HAVE THE CHANCE.” He calls Erdoğan “the leader of one of the oldest enemies of our people, and the leader of the largest Islamic group within Europe,” in language recalling Huntington’s insult/praise for the Ottoman Empire as “the principal Islamic interlocutor and antagonist of the West.” References to Turks (and to massacred Bosniaks, whom he considered Turks) also decorated his assault weapon.
Why would an Australian terrorist living in New Zealand, a world away, be so obsessed with enforcing the boundaries between “Europe” and the Republic of Turkey? Because in our contemporary era, “Western civilization” operates as a code for whiteness and Christianity articulated in geographic and world-historic terms. As Alastair Bonnett notes in The Idea of the West, the concept of Western civilization has particular purchase in white supremacist theories about racial replacement because, in pointing to great achievements, it offers a fig leaf of loftiness to the insipid category of whiteness. Thus, a simplified history of Ottoman clashes with nations mythologized as European ex post facto, with symbolic focus on Vienna and Istanbul, has gained new charge. In this construction, Turkey’s ambivalent status vis-à-vis the geographic subcontinent of Europe appears as an irritant.
In contemporary white supremacist theorizing, what does not belong in “Europe” must be excised at the altar of this construction that was never pure but must somehow be made pure. What Huntington once called “the bloody borders of Islam” turn out to be non-existent borders to be drawn in Muslims’ blood.
This is not to defend the now-excised phrase about “the current popularity of Huntington’s thesis” in that earlier draft of my book. The reader was right at the time. However, the so-called “Trump era” has clarified more than ever just how popular (in all senses of the term) calls to man the barricades of Western civilization have become in the present. In the age of social media, Huntington’s argument, itself a rehashing of older civilization talk, has found its viral legs and assault weapons.
Why did the solid scholarship that closed the book on Huntington’s thesis not work for so many? Is it because globalization turned out not to be the panacea it was promised to be? Or because our white supremacist political and socioeconomic structures necessitate the continuous redesigning and dissemination of white supremacist discourse? If historical and geographic reality are not enough to crush the Clash of Civilizations thesis, what is?
New Zealand has banned the circulation of the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto, and Erdoğan has rightly been criticized for showing video footage of the massacre at campaign events to whip his supporters into a nationalist fervor. Yet censorship is not a safe option either. These texts travel, and so do their proponents. The Christchurch terrorist himself traveled around Europe and visited Istanbul several times. Whereas I see a complex racial and civilizational merging that can never be reversed in my city of birth, he saw a mistake to be turned into a battle cry. How do we deal with the convergence between Huntington’s subtle advice to Turkey and this terrorist’s threat “to Turks”?
Make Istanbul White Again
I end with a couple of memes and on a note of irony, as befits our terrifying hyperreal era: the racial/civilizational language that animated the Christchurch terrorist flourishes among Turks as well. In the lead-up to the recent municipal elections that led to AKP losing its hold over Istanbul for the first time in the party’s history, supporters of the opposition party CHP began circulating memes that praised the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoğlu, and his family for the way they look.
One meme contrasted a daytime image of Imamoğlu and his slim, youthful, blonde wife with a nighttime photo of the stout, mustachioed AKP candidate and his headscarf-wearing wife. “The candidates for Istanbul mayor and their partners,” it read, “On the one side, light; on the other side, darkness” (Figure 1). The light/dark metaphors did multiple duty here much in the same way they do in Western politics, referring to the timing of the two photos, mobilizing connections to modernity and backwardness, and dogwhistling colorism.
A post-election meme celebrating Imamoğlu’s victory depicted his fair-skinned and light-haired family wearing “modern” clothing and exclaimed, “Bro, look at the family! In one instance, we progressed 100 years. We became like Finland, Sweden and Norway!” (Figure 2).
Expressing a half-earnest yearning to be finally become “like Finland, Sweden, and Norway,” such texts of digital folklore demonstrate that Turks themselves will not be left behind when it comes pushing back against Turkey’s well-earned racial and civilizational ambiguity. However, while Western white supremacists insist Turks can never belong within whiteness and must be pushed out of Europe, Turkish white-supremacists see uncontested whiteness as within grasp, pending the election of political representatives with the right/white look. In both cases, women’s bodies are made to bear the burden of racial/civilizational proof.
Perin E. 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 Turkish debates over “westernization” have intersected with U.S.-Turkish relations in the twentieth century. Her work has appeared in American Quarterly, American Literary History, Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, the Journal of Transnational American Studies, Journal of Turkish Literature, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a second book project on the impact of U.S. political discourses on Turkey-Iran relations from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Gürel is also faculty fellow for the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at Notre Dame.
One of the most curious aspects of the Christchurch mosque shootings is that Brenton Tarrant, the twenty-nine-year-old accused of murdering fifty-one worshippers, was so obsessed with medieval Crusades, as well as early modern clashes between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Yet Tarrant’s infatuation with these histories, coupled with his unstinting allegiance to far-right extremism, is by no stretch unique. Indeed, Tarrant’s embrace of “ethno-nationalism” echoes the re-emergence in the 1910s of the U.S.-based Ku Klux Klan, which modeled its uniform on the confraternity robes worn by members of Christian religious orders hundreds of years earlier. White supremacists reasserted this dubious connection to the Catholic Church in the 1960s when the murderous White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan named its Mississippi chapter after religious military orders such as the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitallers.
Despite Tarrant’s seeming awareness of these and other futile attempts to rationalize racial violence via Christianity, his overall comprehension of the particulars and nuances of European social history is utterly lacking. A telling excerpt suggesting as much from Tarrant’s seventy-four-page manifesto posted online prior to the Christchurch massacre stated: “The origins of my language is European, my culture is European, my political beliefs are European, my philosophical beliefs are European, my identity is European and, most importantly, my blood is European.” As these distorted ascriptions illustrate, Tarrant’s identification with the continent posits that the essence of European heritage is effectively synonymous with his own mythic “whiteness.”
This worldview, and its intersections with a global uptick in racial terrorism, underscores how deadly the resurgence of white supremacy and separatism in recent years has become. And in the case of Europe, various manifestations of these patterns suggest the risk of failing to acknowledge the continent’s history of social, cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity.
Despite marked progress since the 1960s in dismantling colonial frameworks as the predominant mode for interpreting European history—including Europe in the world—“clashes” rather than pluralism remains a standard trope across popular discourse. Referring to the “early success of multiculturalism in Britain,” and that nation’s attempt to “integrate, not separate” in a 2006 essay published by the Financial Times, Harvard University economist Amartya Sen lamented the abandonment of what he summarized as greater Europe’s “championing of every form of cultural inheritance.” Sen also warned: “The current focus on separatism is not a contribution to multicultural freedoms, but just the opposite.”
Fifteen years later, on the eve of Britain’s disorganized separation from the E.U., transmitting Europe’s complex, deeply interconnected multiracial heritage has never been more pressing. Because a small but growing cohort of scholars are already doing this work, there are several groundbreaking, positive, and multi-faceted studies from which to draw in pushing back against the spread of xenophobia. Moreover, despite a vague undercurrent of cynicism in the academy—e.g. political scientist John T. Scott’s review of historian Catherine Fletcher’s masterful study, The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici—recovering and amplifying non-white voices, experiences, and representations in European Studies remains popular both in and well beyond the ivory tower.
Although Fletcher’s study—of the first black head of state in the modern Western World—does not make this connection, Alessandro de’ Medici’s African mother, Simonetta da Collevecchio, was likely named after Simonetta Vespucci (1453–1476), the Florentine model who was famously the muse of Giuliano de’ Medici. By the end of the fifteenth century, as the flourishing of black artistic representations of St. Maurice (like the two handsome images below), and an array of other cultural ephemera indicate, “whiteness” was far from the only standard of beauty in Europe on the eve of the so-called “High Renaissance” (1500–1530).
While the Renaissance was indeed more racially pluralist and sophisticated than is commonly assumed, the cosmopolitan habits and perspectives associated with this period were not new. In fact, both the medieval and early modern periods are especially powerful time periods through which to understand Europe’s heterogeneity—not least due to the continent’s burgeoning fascination with African wealth, characteristics, and civilization from the late thirteenth century onward. Centuries before the ascendance of scientifically-based racism that followed the onset of the Atlantic slave trade, blacks were welcomed, if not cherished, at royal courts throughout Europe. And as the story of Alessandro de’ Medici’s marriage to Margaret of Austria (1522–1586), the daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V affirms, “blackness” was clearly compatible with divine rule and princely virtue across greater Europe.
As Ivana Čapeta Rakić, Yona Pinson, and other scholars have pointed out, the Roman Catholic Church encouraged the positive incorporation of Africans and especially those who were Muslim—arguably the best evidence researchers have of uneven commitments to this ideal is iconography from the late medieval and early modern periods. Not only did a wide range of these artifacts mythologize the epic reach of the Catholic order, their promotions of a religious imaginary often stretched across three continents (e.g. the Biblical Magi, or Three Wise Men or Kings featured in the image below). However imperfect these gestures were, they symbolized the potential power of a global, egalitarian Catholic future, and a broader European interest in commemorating people of African descent that deserves more attention.
Such initiatives were not extrinsic to the European Renaissance that Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt famously rediscovered in the nineteenth century. As Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Alessandro de’ Medici’s uncle, Pope Clement VII were certainly aware, evidence of steadfast, interethnic bonds stretched back to Greco-Roman civilization. Yet even more so than the early modern period, twenty-first century misconceptions that these ancient civilizations were both “white” and “European” are even stronger. Modern societies need more scholars, educators and popular commentators challenging this outmoded paradigm. When the Roman Empire comes up in my undergraduate courses, the overwhelming majority of my students have never been taught that the post-Roman Republic stretched well into Africa. (Here too it is worth remembering that Alessandro de’ Medici was the second head of state in Italy with African heritage—Roman Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus [145–211 AD] was the first.) I also make it a point to explain that, one thousand years later, the Ottomans saw themselves as the inheritors of the Roman emperors, and perceived the Hapsburg Empire as infringing on this claim, especially after the seizure of Constantinople in 1453. Moreover, I qualify that in border communities, cultural practices between the Ottoman and Christian empires were rarely as divergent as dramatized histories of their geopolitical skirmishes in films and other forms of popular culture suggest.
Given the tendency of scholars and commentators alike to emphasize the enslavement, oppression, and defeat of people of color by—“white”—Europeans, it is easy to see how Tarrant fell for the overwrought cliché of the totemic clash between the Ottoman Empire and Europe. We can safely assume that Tarrant remains completely unaware that the Dutch Republic—led by the highly-commercialized County of Zeeland, which New Zealand is named after—began trading directly with Asia in the seventeenth century to ensure its own religious freedom.
In addition to the internally displaced Dutch populations who escaped religious persecution by moving from the southern to northern Netherlands at the end of the sixteenth century, Jewish communities expelled from the Iberian Peninsula were also beneficiaries of this haven. And the sheer abundance of this nation’s striking late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century paintings of black Africans and other populations of color suggests that appreciating cultural pluralism was a standard rather than an exception in the early Dutch Republic.
Recalling these progressive intentions is not an apologia for the ineffable destruction Europeans caused in the early modern period. While Portugal’s seizure of major centers of the Asian spice trade between 1507 and 1515—most notably in the Malaysian city of Malacca, the Iranian island Hormuz, and the Indian city of “Old Goa”—was devastating, Dutch rule was even more brutal. And the commercial trade in black bodies beginning in the fifteenth century is a chilling reminder of why visual culture could never challenge large-scale human degradation.
Inspiring and downright horrific legacies of the first era of globalization should not be presented in zero-sum terms—especially given how interconnected civics, economics, politics, religion, and culture were in this period. More so than any other purpose, the brief reflections above suggesting a roadmap for “deprovincializing” early modern social and cultural history are driven by my own commitments not to echo a standard trope: that the history of Europe is synonymous with a history of “whiteness.” Not only has this tenacious, yet incorrect, understanding skewed the public’s intellectual development, it continues to support exclusionary social norms that neglect the histories, presence, representations, and experiences of non-white persons altogether.
Korey Garibaldi is Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently working on a book project, tentatively entitled, Before Black Power: The Rise and Fall of Interracial Literary Culture, 1908–1968. The study traces six decades of fitful yet dynamic cross-racial literary collaborations, with a particular focus on projects authored and produced by black and white Americans. Most recently, Korey has co-authored an op-ed on access to Level-1 trauma care published by The Chicago Tribune, and an article reconnecting Henry James and Gertrude Stein in the Fall 2018 issue of The Henry James Review. His book chapter, “Sketching in an Age of Anxiety: Henry James’s Morganatic Baroness in The Europeans” in Reading Henry James in the 21st Century: Heritage and Transmission (Cambridge, 2019) will appear in July.