Theorizing Modernities article

Introduction to Symposium on Kenyan, Christian, Queer

Adriaan van Klinken’s Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa is a boundary-breaking study of queer life in Kenya. In four chapters and four interludes, van Klinken documents the activism of various queer religious actors in Kenya today. The first chapter analyzes the literary figure Binyavanga Wainaina’s critique of colonial Christianity, the second provides a close reading and theological hermeneutics of the 2016 “Same Love” music video by Kenyan hip-hop group Art Attack, the third examines the Story of Our Lives anthology released by a Kenyan art collective, and the fourth provides an ethnographic account of the queer-affirming Cosmopolitan Affirming Church (CAC), which was founded in 2013 in Nairobi.

While not denying the realities of religiously inspired homophobia in Africa, these case studies challenge the notion that homophobia has led to the disappearance of queer religious life in Africa. Simultaneously, by showing that queer agency in Kenya is expressed in explicitly religious ways, van Klinken also makes the case that liberation need not entail breaking free from religion and into a more secular society, as many queer theorists in the west have claimed. Especially in the last chapter, van Klinken shows the way members of the CAC are reimaging Christianity in ways that challenge the homophobic status quo in Kenyan Christianity. They do this not for pragmatic reasons, on his account, but because their Christian identity is inextricably bound up with their queer identity. To relegate either to the sidelines would be to discount a part of themselves.

Van Klinken’s study is theoretically and methodologically boundary-breaking in at least two interlinked ways: (1) in its crossing of the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology, theology, and religious studies; and (2) in its open acknowledgment that the boundaries between scholar, friend, advocate, and lover are often more malleable than is acknowledged in scholarly works. Breaking these latter boundaries, van Klinken expertly shows, comes with the territory of being an ethnographer who is not sitting at a desk reading about queer religious activists in Kenyan, but is in fact talking with them, learning from them, and getting to know them. The breaking of disciplinary boundaries is linked with this on-the-ground work. For in working with people on the ground, van Klinken shows that the boundaries between theology, religious studies, and ethnography fail to hold. Indeed, these boundaries are the fictions of academic institutions that, while sometimes useful, can quickly become limiting when taken to be rigid boundaries one cannot cross in the field. Van Klinken’s disciplinary boundary breaking here is no doubt also linked to his own identity as a gay man invested in promoting a more just world for queer people in Kenya and beyond. Here again, when working with people on-the-ground, and witnessing their struggles, hopes, and dreams, the boundaries between theologian and disinterested religious studies scholar fail to hold. The result of this boundary breaking is a refreshing analysis that is as erudite as it is honest in its aims.

The contributors to this symposium take van Klinken’s work as jumping off point for further reflections on queer studies, religious studies, Christian theology, and comparison. Ebenezer Obadare reflects on the optimism of van Klinken’s conclusions about a more capacious account of Christianity. He brings his own subjectivity to bear on these conclusions by drawing on his experience of living and working in Nigeria. Sa’ed Atshan engages with van Klinken by comparing and contrasting van Klinken’s work with his own work among queer Palestinian Christians and Paul Mieu’s study of male sex workers in northern Kenya. Through this comparison he shows that scholars have much to gain from de-centering the western white gaze and instead providing a platform for those outside the west to speak for themselves. Ludovic Lado reflects on the challenges of doing work on homosexuality in Africa and the potential for imaging “queer arts of resistance” amongst African Catholics. Mujahid Osman argues for the importance of challenging assumptions about religion in queer theory, and indeed suggests that religion offers a potential emancipatory site for queer people. Finally, Esther Mombo engages with van Klinken’s theology, drawing on her own work to suggest the faultiness of many of the arguments deployed against same-sex relationships in Kenya, and the continued importance of theorizing the body in any account of queer life.

These reflections, like van Klinken’s book, break boundaries between various disciplines. In doing so, they open up new spaces for imagining the emancipatory possibilities that come with attending to queer religious life in Kenya and beyond. By tracing the faultiness of secular opposition to religion in queer studies, and other forms of humanistic inquiry, they remind us again that the secularization thesis that prophesized the end of religion is indeed one that proves untenable. Further, van Klinken’s book and these essays remind us that such a thesis risks not only misunderstanding religion, but the foreclosing of its liberatory horizons.

Joshua Lupo
Joshua Lupo is the editor and writer for the Contending Modernities Blog and the classroom coordinator for the Madrasa Discourses program. He has published articles and reviews in Soundings, Reading Religion, Sophia, and Religious Studies Review. His current book project is titled After Essentialism: A Critical Phenomenology for the Study of Religion.
Theorizing Modernities article

Oppositional Intentionality in Sabr: How the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community “Preaches with Love”

“Tabligh Booth” at the West Coast Jalsa Salana, the Ahmadiyya’s annual meeting taking place in Chino, CA on December 20-21, 2019. In this booth, missionaries would share printed resources and answer visitors’ questions about the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Photo courtesy of the author.

“Today it is the distinction of an Ahmadi that he strives for piety with humility and meekness and does not hesitate to lay down his life for it. They are the people who have been promised mercy and blessings from their Lord. No matter what people say to us, we know that Allah is with us and we are witnessing His blessings being showered upon us on account of our sabr.” This passage is from a letter written to the head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s Pakistani congregation. The Ahmadiyya originated in India during the British colonial period in the 1880s. The community self-identifies as Muslim, but this identity claim has been challenged by many South Asian and global Muslim leaders since its inception. In Pakistan, in particular, Ahmadis are legally designated as non-Muslims and are subjected to draconian blasphemy laws. The passage from the letter above, describing how Ahmadis ought to persevere through hardship, encapsulates how this community opposes its persecution and marginalization.

Sabr is often translated into English as “patience.” However, as Saba Mahmood notes in her discussion the practice of sabr among women in Egypt’s piety movements in Politics of Piety: “sabr communicates a sense not quite captured by [patience]: one of perseverance, endurance of hardship without complaint, and steadfastness” (171, fn. 15). Sabr is an active form of embodied agency, and in this piece, I present: (1) the role of sabr in the Ahmadiyya ethical program, and (2) how Ahmadiyya’s externalized practices of sabr seek a type of transformation not included in Mahmood’s theorization of agency. Her approach misses important opportunities to interrogate how religious actors—especially those who are minoritized and excluded from public religious discourses—may express their agency in “oppositional” ways that hold religious and secular forms of agency as mutually constitutive. I argue that the Ahmadiyya practice of sabr is at the core of an “oppositional” intentionality not captured by “resistance” or “conformity.”

Despite global persecution and marginalization, the Ahmadiyya has grown in size and global influence through its practices of tabligh [missionary and humanitarian work] and “jihad by the pen” [versus “jihad by the sword”]. Unlike other marginalized Muslims groups, such as the Druze, who do not engage in proselytization, the Ahmadis commit themselves to spreading the “True Islam” through preaching and the written word. Unlike the Baha’i, who splintered from their Muslim origins, the Ahmadis claim themselves as not only part of Islam, but as practitioners of the “True Islam.” Ahmadis participate in discourses that construct and negotiate an Islamic ontology—who is and is not a Muslim—in which the community opposes how “Other Muslims” cast Ahmadis as apostates, and elevates its own interpretation of Islam.

“Preaching with love” is the Ahmadiyya embodiment of sabr. The community’s “Ask an Imam” sessions are live-streamed on social media (available on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter) several times a week, and missionaries will answer questions asked by audience members about Ahmadiyya interpretations of Islam. Sometimes, the missionary will dedicate the beginning segment to a message based on frequently asked questions by the audience or general teachings. On June 29, 2021, the missionary dedicated the first ten minutes to the message of “Preaching with Love and Not Hate.” This was in response to hostility that missionaries face when preaching as Ahmadis, especially online. Throughout the segment, this missionary encouraged Ahmadis to “respond in an academic and an appropriate [manner], even in a strong [approach], but never crossing the limits or behaving in a way that is similar to the way the other party is behaving…when we preach, we should preach with love and with concern…”

The inclination to look for moments of resistance is widespread in modern and postmodern discourses on agency, spanning from liberal discourses, rooted in Rawlsian understandings of the autonomous and rational self, to postmodern discourses, from Michel Foucault to Judith Butler’s theorization of agency through subject formation.

The core of Ahmadiyya intentionality, their practice of sabr, exemplifies the tension between “resistance” and “conformity.” The Ahmadiyya embodiment of sabr has an internalized form, which is more akin to a “conformist” conceptualization of agency, in which the individual is persevering through her circumstances. While internalized sabr is an active form of agency, this is distinct from externalized sabr, in which one perseveres through hardship while also seeking a transformation of circumstances. In the “Ask an Imam” session mentioned above, for example, the internalized form of sabr (when practicing tabligh) is to not behave in a way that mirrors the other party’s hostility, while the externalized form of sabr is to continue preaching with love despite hardship. This externalized form in particular, I argue, takes on “oppositional” forms that are also not recognizable within secular and liberal notions of “resistance.” Because of the emphasis on the practice of sabr, the Ahmadiyya’s continued commitment to spreading “True Islam” rests somewhere between resistance and conformity.

It may be tempting for scholars trained in secular approaches to religious ethics to treat Ahmadiyya agency as a form of resistance. Saba Mahmood argues that liberal feminist assumptions about agency often lead scholars to “look for expressions and moments of resistance that may suggest a challenge to male domination” (8, emphasis my own). The inclination to look for moments of resistance is widespread in modern and postmodern discourses on agency, spanning from liberal discourses, rooted in Rawlsian understandings of the autonomous and rational self, to postmodern discourses, from Michel Foucault to Judith Butler’s theorization of agency through subject formation. Furthermore, agency that seeks transformation has often been referred to as “resistance,” especially among decolonial scholars, while postcolonial approaches to resistance are explicitly premised on secularized assumptions about opposition, in which minoritized actors seek to disrupt the power held by superordinate and repressive structures or actors. However, these secularized understandings of “resistance” misrepresent why the Ahmadiyya claim to worship God as Muslims. As an allegedly apostate group, the Ahmadiyya religious ethic evokes a relationship with Allah that “Other Muslims” might claim this community does not possess. When the Ahmadiyya evokes its relationship to Allah, especially in claiming itself as the “True Islam,” the community is engaging in a form of “opposition” through sabr.

“Love for All, Hatred for None” is the official slogan of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. Here it is featured as a bumper sticker. Photo Credit: Duncan C, via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Ahmadiyya practice of sabr cannot be explained through resistance when taking the community’s ethical intentionality into account. Scholars can observe that yes, the community is using a form of “oppositional” language to communicate its self-proclaimed identity as the “True Islam,” but adherents do not interpret this as resistance. The transformation that the Ahmadiyya seek in this world is not to resist mainstream Muslims who delegitimize the Ahmadiyya Muslim identity or liberal colonial powers; instead, it is a divinely-ordained purpose in this life. It is a purpose in which an Ahmadi “preach[es] with love and with concern…” and “strives for piety with humility and meekness and does not hesitate to lay down his life for it.” It is a duty to God that requires the practice of sabr. Reducing this enactment of agency and sabr to resistance or conformity misses the ethical intentionality that holds both as mutually constitutive.

In her account of piety and embodied agency, Mahmood does not include externalized processes of transformation for the women participating in Egypt’s piety movements. Her account of sabr focused on the dichotomous responses by two Egyptian women—one who identifies as “secular Muslim” and another who participates in the piety movements—to the patriarchal pressures put onto single women in Egypt. While the former focused on the “practice of self-esteem” to survive such oppressive social conditions, the latter emphasized sabr. Mahmood cautions her readers from casting sabr as passive. She argues against secular and liberal sensibilities of agency that might see in this virtue a reluctance to actively engage with the situation in which one finds herself. In fact, sabr entails an “individual responsibility that is bounded by both an eschatological structure and a social one” (173). The individual responsibility to persevere and endure is bounded by a duty to God, which will come with eternal blessings, and an acknowledgment that each individual is responsible for her own actions—God is just and everyone will be responsible for their own deeds.

Mahmood’s conceptualization of embodied agency is unable to account for the moments of transformation that religious actors seek in this world, while being committed to a higher eschatological goal. Her conceptualization reinforces binaries of ‘resistance’ or ‘conformity.’

As she is concluding her discussion of sabr as a form of embodied agency, Mahmood argues that “[n]either [woman], for a variety of reasons, could pursue the project of reforming the oppressive situation they were forced to inhabit” (174). Such sociopolitical conditions yielded a form of “conformist” agency—one that is active in nature and has the goal of survival rather than transformation. While she uncovers the “grammar of concepts” within the communities’ own discourses, Mahmood’s commitment to this “positive conception of ethics” narrows the possibilities of ethical action for religious actors, including, possibly, her own interlocutors.

In trying to preserve “a purist interpretation” of conformist religious discourse, as Atalia Omer has argued, Mahmood misses opportunities to consider how religious actors are participating in and shaping modern discourses. Mahmood claims that “[n]either [woman]…could pursue the project of reforming the oppressive situation they were forced to inhabit” (174)—is this necessarily true? Can we think of the women participating in the piety movements as transforming the liberal, colonial, and secular structures within the modern nation-state through sabr? The piety movements exemplified externalized forms of sabr, by advocating to preserve particular values allegedly contradictory to the modern nation-state. The women were participating in and transforming discourses on Islam and modernity through their preservation of piety and acts of sabr. While Mahmood has made substantial contributions to accounts of religious agency in her work, I find that it just falls short due to her own resistance against liberal feminist scholars who “look for expressions and moments of resistance that may suggest a challenge to male domination.” Mahmood’s conceptualization of embodied agency is unable to account for the moments of transformation that religious actors seek in this world, while being committed to a higher eschatological goal. Her conceptualization reinforces binaries of “resistance” or “conformity.” The Ahmadiyya’s ethical program embodies sabr in both the internalized form that Mahmood conceptualizes, but also an externalized one that seeks an “oppositional” transformation.

The claim that the Ahmadiyya embodies the “True Islam,” and that this message must be spread globally, encapsulates what I argue is an “oppositional” form of agency—one that is beyond the binary framework of “resistance” or “conformity.” The recasting of mainstream forms of Muslim identity, or Islamic ontology, is not represented through secular forms of “resistance” when considering the religious ethics undergirding the opposition itself. A duty to God, which calls for Ahmadis to continue advocating for the “True Islam” through “jihad by the pen” and sabr, is the source of Ahmadiyya religious ethics and ethical intentionality. And this practice of sabr is, like Mahmood noted, an active state of perseverance. This practice of sabr is also, unlike Mahmood’s conceptualization, an externalized embodiment to transform this world by continuing to spread the “True Islam.” Therefore, the “oppositional” agency of the Ahmadiyya is more complex than the previous theories of agency—from both Mahmood and those whom she critiques—are able to account for because it simultaneously holds together the ephemeral and temporary nature of this life, while also emphasizing the importance of transforming it. And this work continues for the Ahmadiyya, regardless of worldly consequences. As one Ahmadi leader said to me: we’ve become “oblivious to the fact that someone is trying to harm us…[because] they can only do so much…[the] worst they can do is harm you and send you to Paradise earlier than you would have wanted to go yourself” (interview, March 2021).

Misbah Hyder
Misbah Hyder is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science, specializing in International Relations and Interpretive Methodology, at the University of California, Irvine. She is also a Luce Graduate Fellow for The Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa Blog, She studies how persecuted religious minorities respond to their marginalization from state and religious institutions through their religious practice. Her dissertation, The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: How the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Enacts Peacebuilding, focuses on how the global engagement of a marginalized Muslim minority necessitates a re-evaluation of theories on agency for religious actors.
Theorizing Modernities article

Were There—and Can There Be—Arab Jews? (With Afterthoughts on the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism and Palestinian Jews)

Selection from “The Old Middle East” by Dotan Moreno. Image courtesy of the artist.


A nearly decade-long Vienna seminar gave birth to The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond. Initiators and conveners of the seminar were the Secretary General of the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue, Gertraud Auer Borea d’Olmo, and Bashir Bashir. As I mentioned at the book’s launching event (which led to the present CM symposium), my hope was that Gertraud and Bashir could find the time one day to detail in full the methodology behind the seminar and its political and thematic trajectories. For my purposes here it suffices to highlight that at the seminar’s inception two separate study groups were at work: one gathered Palestinian and non-Palestinian Arabs who discussed “Arab Engagement with the Jewish Question,” while the other brought together Israeli and non-Israeli Jews to discuss “Jewish Engagement with the Arab Question.” Due to the complexities surrounding Palestine/Israel, it took nearly three years before a joint gathering of all could be held.

The invitation to join the “Jewish group” was extended to me in 2013; my contribution to the group grew out of my work in two domains: (1) the modern sociopolitics and thought of Jews in the Ottoman/Arab Middle East, and (2) the comparative study of nationalism, Marxism, and binationalism. Since seminar participants could only include one chapter each in the book, my contribution in the former domain remained unpublished. It was delivered—to members of the “Jewish group” alone—on Friday, April 19, 2013 and is published here for the first time as a contribution to this symposium. This 2013 essay—and its 2021 afterthoughts—include thematic linkages to two of the book’s chapters: Ella Shohat’s “On Orientalist Genealogies: The Split Arab/Jew Figure Revisited” (89–121) and Hakem Al-Rustom’s “Returning to the Question of Europe: From the Standpoint of the Defeated” (122–47).

Were There–and Can There Be–Arab Jews? [April 2013]

This essay addresses two inter-dependent themes. The first is the collective sociopolitical existence of roughly 750,000 Jews who were an integral part of the post-Ottoman/Arab Middle East. This number reflects their presence in the region prior to their en masse dispersal in the 1950s, when two thirds went to Israel and the rest relocated to other places around the globe. The second theme is the possible relevance of this historical trajectory—part and parcel of what is after all modern Arab history—to the future of Palestine/Israel, and the Arab Middle East at large, in the twenty first century. I open with terminological clarification on what I define as “the Arab Question” in relation to this intervention.

Two “Arab Questions”

What is known asThe  Arab Question” in Palestine/Israel studies is understood chiefly as the pre-1914 Zionist realization that the territory comprising Ottoman Palestine/Eretz-Yisrael was not “a land without people,” as some European Zionists have wishfully hoped; the territory was instead the home of an indigenous Arab society, numbering at the time half a million individuals. Understood as such, “The Arab Question” was then transformed terminologically (and otherwise) into the “Palestinian question” and—later still—to “The Question of Palestine” (as popularized by Edward Said’s 1979 book The Question of Palestine).[1]

In the context of these remarks I wish to assign a different meaning to the phrase “The Arab Question.” It will be understood here as a question concerning the following conundrum: how to materialize socio-politically an inclusive Arab identity capable of incorporating into itself members of different religious groups, sects, ethnicities, language groups (etc.) who live inside the territory that comprises the Arab Middle East (Palestine/Israel included). Understood as such, this is a considerably broader “Arab Question” than the one commonly discussed in Palestine/Israel studies. My view is that “The Arab Question” framed as such remains relevant to present and future relationships between Palestinians and Israelis.

It is in this context that it is most productive to pose my guiding question here, namely, were there—and can there be—Arab Jews? The simple answer is a resolute “yes, there were Arab Jews and yes there can be Arab Jews” (in the future that is). Yet a more detailed and critical discussion strikes me as necessary.


The original and daring work of such activist authors as Abraham Serfati, Ilan Halevi, Abbas Shiblak, and Ella Habiba Shohat rendered the signifier “Arab Jews” meaningful and productive for scholarly analysis. As such, their work  enabled the modern critical study of these communities and/or identities. Following these trailblazers, in 1997 (amidst my PhD studies) I too anchored the collective signifier “Arab Jews” via a three-fold justification:

  1. “Arab” is a linguistic and cultural marker rather than a racial or religious one.
  2. Pre-1950s Jews within the Ottoman and Arab Middle East have participated fully in the production and consumption of Arab culture.
  3. Distinctions in the Middle East were commonly drawn internally between “Jews,” “Muslims,” “Christians,” etc., rather than between “Jews” and “Arabs.”

Sixteen years later, I suggest that while this conceptualization is internally consistent and coherent, it still remains weak and insufficiently convincing. This is because the above three-fold justification unwittingly smokescreens what in my present reading is the single most important realm in the constitution of the post-1914 modern Arab identity, namely, the political realm. Put differently, the still most dominant conception behind “Arab Jews” does not acknowledge as lucidly as needed the absolute primacy of the political realm over the cultural, religious, intellectual, lingual and/or ideological realms vis-à-vis modern Arab identity generally and, even more particularly, in relation to the formation and consolidation of modern Arab nationalism since 1917.

The political realm must therefore be tightly woven into every historical and contemporary reflection on Arab Jews considerably more assertively than it has been during the preceding two decades. By saying political I do not have in mind such mundane issues as “party politics.” What I instead have in mind is the broadest substantive meaning of the political, that is, the collective, mass-based undertaking by members of local, national, or regional social groups to put in place a functioning institutional setting capable of facilitating their individual and collective well-being, whether political, economic, or cultural.

In this context, in 1946, the one-year-old League of Arab States stipulated that an Arab is a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, and who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic-speaking peoples. “Aspirations” here have chiefly meant political aspirations linked to the Arab struggle against foreign domination (previously Ottoman, and later colonial-European) to achieve some political form and societal configuration of Arab self-determination and self-rule.

The still most dominant conception behind ‘Arab Jews’ does not acknowledge as lucidly as needed the absolute primacy of the political realm over the cultural, religious, intellectual, lingual and/or ideological realms vis-à-vis modern Arab identity generally and, even more particularly, in relation to the formation and consolidation of modern Arab nationalism since 1917.

Scholars agree that there never was a singular political conception of the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples (irrespective of whether that was for better or worse). As I explained in 2005, across the Arab Middle East—certainly in the pre-1950s era when indigenous (non-European/non-white) Jews were still present—there have always been vigorously competing (sub-national) variants of anti-colonial nationalism at play. Those included, among others, a religiously informed one (think of the Muslim Brotherhood), a liberal one (such as that advanced by the Egyptian Wafd), a communist one, and a pan-Arab one (such as that of the Iraqi Istiqlāl).

If one generally accepts my proposition that the political dimension (or realm) is indeed very central to the constitution of modern Arab identity (including in Palestine), then the best and methodologically most logical step to undertake in order to examine the collective signifier “Arab Jews” meaningfully and non-trivially is this: turn the scholarly spotlight on politicized Jews across the Arab Middle East. Politicized Jews across the region have been affiliated disproportionally with liberal or Marxist sub-national currents. (Note: it is unnecessary to discuss here the minority of politicized Zionists among the Arabized-Jews since they have certainly prioritized Jewishness over Arabness and thus seldom view themselves as “Arab Jews”). Back now to those non/anti-Zionist liberal or Marxist Jews.

While Arab liberalism and Marxism in the pre-1950s era were both anti-colonial, the former placed its emphasis on (1) institutionalization of as strict a separation as possible between the Mosque/Synagogue and state, and (2) a political conception of equal citizenship. The latter meant that Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, etc. would constitute themselves as democratic states of their citizens, members of minority communities included. Liberal Jews in the Arab Middle East did not advocate for Jewish collective rights as a minority group, nor for cultural autonomy (or for that matter any other type of autonomy), nor institutionalization of consociational arrangements, nor did they view themselves as a national minority. Instead, the aim of politically active liberal Jews across the Arab Middle East was a political and civic one, and stood in some contradistinction to a religious or cultural one. Their aim was the constitution of an inclusive civic-democratic state of citizens.

Marxist Jews adhered to the host of modern liberal tenets I just listed, yet additionally emphasized (1) the dynamics and importance of class analysis; (2) the necessity of socialization, land redistribution, and equality within as classless of a society as possible; and (3) the conception of internationalism as one within which anti-colonial nationalism should be situated.

All of the above boils down to this: even politicized liberal and Marxist Jews in the Arab Middle East did not emphasize cultural nationalism, nor did they particularly care for it. They seldom placed the cultural elements of nationalism—be they informed by religion and/or by supra-state lingual and cultural “Arabness”—before the greyer and more mundane pressing political, economic, and institutional factors commonly understood to be pre-requisites for the constitution of functioning—essentially modern/secular—democracies irrespective of geographical area (see also Joel Beinin on this matter). Pre-1950s liberal/Marxist Jews considered the respective Iraqi, Egyptian, Moroccan, etc. civic-democratic national project daunting and complex enough even without the additional Arab (or pan-Arab) cultural, lingual, and supra-state layer. Iraqi-Jews thus tended to self-identify more as Iraqi rather than Arab, Egyptian Jews more as Egyptian rather than Arab (this also prevailed in the other Arab states).

All of this yields my core proposition: reintroducing the political realm more vigorously—while concurrently relaxing somewhat the focus on such realms as culture and language that scholars tend to place at the very fore in dominant conceptions of “Arab Jews” (and/or “Jewish Arabs’)—makes it more complex to speak meaningfully of these signifiers.

“Who is an Arab” [Non-Jew]?  

Perhaps we ought to ponder the question, “Who is an Arab?” In many respects this entire intervention on Arab Jews here is a miniscule segment of its mammoth and more foundational conundrum “Who is an Arab?”

The single most elastic and socially inclusive answer to this question is this: an Arab is simply anyone who speaks (or, for our purposes, perhaps spoke) Arabic as his/her native language; a related conception is that pre-1950s Middle Eastern Jews were Arab in all but the dominant religion. My impression is that these twin conceptions reflect the wishful and ideational thinking of secular Arab nationalists more than the empirical Arab reality on the twentieth-century socio-political ground itself. This is all the more so when one essentially does not have in mind here the post-1952 Nasserist era, a period in which important Jewish communities were no longer present in the Arab world (including in Iraq, Yemen, Algeria, and Egypt).

There were, and remain, members of social groups in the Arab Middle East who spoke Arabic as their native language, yet contest their labeling as “Arab.” This is for a variety of reasons. In Lebanon, some Arabic-speaking Christians identify more as Phoenicians; in Egypt some Copts likewise avoid the signifier Arab; the Arab identity of Druze in Israel is a site of an intense communal wrestling. Iraq, the quintessential Arab country, has always been home to social communities— such as the Assyrians, Turcomans, and Chaldeans—whose native tongue is Arabic, yet who do not necessarily consider themselves Arab. And what sense should scholars make of groups/communities whose native language is Arabic because their ancestral ones have been snuffed out? These may include the Arabic-speaking Amazigh/Berber across North Africa or the Copts in Egypt. Similarly, what sense should scholars make of Kurds who have been gathering in public squares in Iraq or Syria declaring in their native Arabic, “We Are Not Arabs”? Iraq’s quintessential Arab party, the Baa’th, considered Kurds as Arab so long as they themselves refrained from speaking about the question (including in their native Arabic).

I have no pretense of having answers to these puzzles. This lack of an answer, however, has no significant bearing on the argument I attempt to make here: if the quest for “who is an Arab” is found elusive enough, the quest for “who is an Arab Jew” is even more so. The complexities with the signifier “Arab-Jew” springs more from the “Arab side” of the equation and a less from the “Jewish side” (this proposition will require an explanation that far exceeds this essay; please consult my other work on the matter here). For now, it suffices to underscore that the 1936 phrasing by the (obviously Iraqi) Jewish intellectual Ezra Haddād (1900–1972), “we are Arabs before we are Jews,” is invoked in the twenty-first century (Rejwan, 2004, Levy, 2005, 2008; Snir, 2005, 2008) ) somewhat nostalgically and sorrily to lament what was back in 1936 a sociopolitical path that ultimately was not taken. Hopeful as Haddād’s words were—and remain—they are best appreciated in the poetic/symbolic realm more than in the muddier matrix of the region’s post-1917 ethno-national politics (involving colonialism, Arab nationalism, and Euro-Zionism).

If the quest for “who is an Arab” is found elusive enough, the quest for “who is an Arab Jew” is even more so.

Even in the case of pre-1952 Iraq—the single easiest and friendliest case in which to employ “Arab-Jews”—it was primarily a minority of introspective members of the (Baghdadi) Jewish intellectual middle-class who defined themselves firstly as “Arab.” This included twenty-first-century luminaries such as Shimon Ballas, Samir Naqqash, Sami Michael, Nissim Rejwan, and Sasson Somekh. These intellectuals  undoubtedly deserve the (disproportional) scholarly, literary, and cinematic attention that they have received in Israel/Palestine and globally.

Materialist, evidence-based scholars, however, cannot afford the luxury of ignoring the fact that such (Iraqi) Jews were, and alas remain, an exception to the rule across the Arab Middle East and North Africa. Constructing conceptual and ideational bypass roads around the majority of Jews in the Arab world who did not really self-define as Arab [Jews]—while concurrently focusing on (the above mentioned) few over the majority—is scholarly unjustified, and normatively unproductive, vis-à-vis efforts to induce positive dynamics into the Israel/Palestine matrix. In fact, such misrepresentations—coupled with a didactic tone lecturing Mizrahi Jews that they do not understand that they are “really” Arab—nearly always produce the opposite effects to those otherwise intended. That is, they antagonize “ordinary” Mizrahim outside academia and alienate everything “Arab” even more: Israel’s Mizrahim, irrespective of their class position, tend to detect such maneuvers easily and are on the whole hostile to them. This brings me to the very act of defining—or labeling or signifying—human beings.

A work that echoes some of the Mizrahi condition in the twenty first century. Courtesy of Dotan Moreno.

Self-Defined vs. Other-Defined                       

An awareness of the differences between self-defined and other-defined procedures of signifying human collectivities is critical in the context of any “Jewish engagement with the Arab question” (both narrowly and broadly defined). Prevailing self-identifications among members of any worldwide group ought to be taken into account very seriously by scholars who seek to observe these groups as candidly, impartially, and respectfully as possible. Here, the signifier “Arab-Jews” springs more from an other-defined procedure of labeling than from a self-defined one.

As a collective signifier, “Arab-Jews” is super-imposed somewhat paternalistically on a social group that the majority of its members either feel uncomfortable with, or do not subscribe to (in both historical and contemporary terms). Whether or not this self-identifying tendency among Jews across the Arab world  (Israel/Palestine included) is a consequence of ignorance, “false consciousness,” collective amnesia, Zionist manipulation—or of being “colonial compradors”—may well be in-themselves interesting questions to explore. Yet, such questions remain irrelevant in relation to the theme I highlight here, that is, the importance of scholars having the utmost respect for the prevailing self-identification and self-determination within the groups they observe and study. So don’t call 1948 Palestinians in Israel “Israeli Arab”; don’t call Moroccan Amazigh “Arab”; and be more hesitant and sensible when considering lecturing to working class Mizrahi Jews that they are Arab [Jews]. Socio-politics across the post-Ottoman Middle East are simply more complex.

Lastly, the conception “Arab Jews” reflects the identity of Jews in the Arab Middle East ambiguously since it has been nourished disproportionately by an Iraqi-centric outlook. North-African Jews during the first half of the twentieth century were not as “Arab” as were Jews in Iraq. Notwithstanding that Iraqi Jews comprised 14% of all Jews across the Arab Middle East, their experiences have persistently received disproportional attention compared to those of other Jewish communities in the Arab world.

As a collective signifier, ‘Arab-Jews’ is super-imposed somewhat paternalistically on a social group that the majority of its members either feel uncomfortable with, or do not subscribe to (in both historical and contemporary terms).

It is therefore a conceptual imperative to introduce collective signifiers that (1) can be reasonably applicable to as many of the 750,000 Jews who have lived across the whole Arab Middle East, and that (2) can capture comprehensively as many of their multi-lingual, cultural, social, and/or political experiences. I explained in detail elsewhere why the collective signifier “Arabized-Jews” is in my understanding a more capable and explanatory one than both “Arab-Jews” and “Jewish Arabs.” Because of this, it can help form a “bridge” between diverse minority Jews across ten states in the Arab Maghrib and Mashriq, as well as to unite them for the purposes of scholarly analysis, terminological clarity, and for other purposes as well. Such historical and conceptual enquiries and debates continue to maintain important relevance not only for contemporary Palestinian/Israeli affairs but also for broader Arab affairs and dynamics regionally, including in the complex Arab societies and states of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

Afterthoughts, August 2021Were There—and Can There Be—Palestinian Jews?

Eight years after delivering this lecture in Vienna I can attest more emphatically that the twenty-first century has witnessed a great expansion of studies and discussions on Arab Jews. Yet The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond does stand out. For starters, no collection integrated into itself as thoroughly, critically, and comprehensively the probing of non-European Jews and their experiences. I’m similarly unaware of any work whose editors afforded non-Ashkenazi/non-European Mizrahi scholars 45% of the total contributors’ space. Lastly, the book’s eight launching events during 2021—in Europe, the US, and Palestine/Israel—have been characterized by critical public debates of the highest quality on the question of Arab Jews.

This uplift notwithstanding, the discussion of Arab Jews has disappointingly remained imprisoned within the suffocating walls of academia. To date, the signifier “Arab Jews” has failed to migrate and spread into the broader, more crucial, domains of popular politics and civil society. This, alas, means that the hegemonically entrenched dichotomy separating “Arab” and “Jew”—which has been consolidated since the late 1930s as a consequence of dynamics running across Jewish and Arab national formations—has not fractured tangibly.

By way of illustration, recall that the PLO’s 1964 National Covenant stipulated that “Jews of Palestinian origin [and their descendants, such as myself] are considered Palestinians if they are willing to live peacefully and loyally in Palestine.” Following the Covenant’s 1968 revision this modified article read “the Jews who had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion [1917] will be considered Palestinians.” This inclusion notwithstanding, my three decades of scholarship and (non-Zionist) activism confirm that only a handful of Palestinians have considered me a Palestinian even after explaining that I (1) categorically self-define (also) as Palestinian, and (2) am in full sympathy with the democratic aspirations of the Palestinian people. (It has incidentally been a waste of time to attempt and communicate such Mizrahi matters to many pro-Palestinian Whites across Euro-America.)

Let me attempt a second illustration of the meagre materiality of “Arab Jews” and “Palestinian Jews.” The year 2020–21 not only witnessed expanding discussion on Arab Jews but also a Herculean struggle against the International Holocaust Remembrance Allliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. (I took part in this effort here and here for example). The most profound contribution to the global anti-IHRA struggle was a lengthy statement that “Palestinian and Arab academics, journalists and intellectuals” published in Arabic, Hebrew, and English (in The Guardian). Among other important claims, they contended:

Through ‘examples’ that it provides, the IHRA definition conflates Judaism with Zionism in assuming that all Jews are Zionists, and that the state of Israel in its current reality embodies the self-determination of all Jews. We profoundly disagree with this.

While doubtlessly a sensible proposition, as far as I was able to ascertain not a single (Arab or non-Arab) Jew can be found among the statement’s 122 prominent signatories (who reside worldwide). This de-facto omission or exclusion oddly encompasses (non-Israeli) Arab Jews who have been for decades public anti-Zionists (such as Magda Haroun, Sion Assidon, Robert Assaraf, Salim Nassib, etc.). Moreover, I did try—but failed—to find North African or Asian Jews who were approached to endorse this truly crucial statement. It is difficult to fathom why an invitation to add their names to the statement was not extended to such (non/anti-Zionist) Jews as the Israeli Black Panther Reuben Abergel; Professors Ella Shohat, Ammiel Alcalay, Avi Shlaim, Sami Shalom Chetrit, Zvi Ben Dor Benite, Gil Anidjar, Yehuda Shenhav, Smadar Lavie, Yigal S Nizri, or Almog Behar; artists Meir Gal, Rafram Chaddad, or Eliahou Eric Bokobza; filmmakers Osnat Trabelsi and Eyal Sagui Bizawe; author Massoud Hayoun, and many more like them (please do explore the twelve hyperlinks). Would inclusion of North African/Asian/Arab Jews as signatories “dilute” somehow the statement’s Palestinian and Arab “integrity,” “credentials,” or “purity”? Could such inclusion “harm” or “diminish” in some way the uncompromising anti-IHRA message it aimed to convey (to global public opinion mind you)?

Artist Description: In Armpit, the geographical maps of Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories were painted with black ink on my body. The piece concretizes the psychosexual relations between the State and its citizens, the internalization of the state’s memory and priorities over personal history. It illustrates how the State infiltrates, hides and ultimately brands itself using its citizens’ bodies. The second image is of the United States. Image Courtesy of Mizrahi artist, Meir Gal.

I have no answers to such questions, yet I am still of the view that the statement’s anti-IHRA credentials are wanting—possibly even self-defeating—precisely due to the wholesale non-inclusion of (Arab) Jewish signatories. This inevitably plays into the hands of pro-IHRA adversaries and significantly bolsters their dichotomous and separatist case and worldview. Be that as it may, the anti-IHRA statement seems to exemplify paradigmatically that the signifier Arab Jews is plainly absent in the minds of many, and not taken seriously in the slightest. This is a testament to the entrenched logic of European colonialism and modernity that separated “the Jew” and “the Arab” and that underpins the impossibility of the political intelligibility and viability of the “Arab Jew.” After five decades of the (modern) employment of Arab Jews, the signifier appears to remain hollow, discursive, rhetorical, and unwelcome—while also hardly gaining any political purchase. While one would expect this to be the case among Christian and non-Christian Zionists, it bizarrely seems equally so among enough anti-Zionist Palestinian and Arab academics, journalists, and intellectuals.

For the time being, therefore, a Jew cannot really be an Arab or Palestinian in a manner that is non-theoretical or substantive sociopolitically. The Palestinian/Arab anti-colonial/Zionist struggle may well be in some need of broader inclusion and democratic refinement. The pre-1992 approach of the South African National Congress (ANC) seems worth studying.

[1] Consult also Isaiah Friedman,The Question of Palestine: British-Jewish-Arab Relations: 1914–1918.


Further Reading & Works Consulted

Al-Jazeera. Arab Jews – The Unheard Voices, 2006.

Behar, Moshe. “What’s in a Name? Socio-terminological Formations and the Case for Arabized Jews.” Social Identities 15, no. 6 (2009): 747–771.

Behar, Moshe. “Mizrahim, Abstracted: Action, Reflection and the Academization of the Mizrahi Cause.” Journal of Palestine Studies 37, no. 2 (2008): 89–100.

Behar, Moshe. “Palestine, Arabized-Jews and the Elusive Consequences of Jewish and Arab National formations.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 13, no. 4 (2007): 581–612.

Behar, Moshe. “Do Comparative and Regional Studies of Nationalism Intersect?” International Journal of Middle East Studies 37, no. 4 (2005): 587–612.

Behar, Moshe. “Is the Mizrahi Question Relevant to the Future of the Entire Middle East?” News from Within 13, no. 1(1997): 68–85.

Beinin, Joel. “Jews as Native Iraqis: An Introduction.” Foreword to Nissim Rejwan’s The Last Jews in Baghdad, xi-xxii. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

Halevi, Ilan.  A History of the Jews: Ancient and Modern. London: Zed Books, 1986 (1981).

Levy, Lital., ‘From Baghdad to Bialik with Love’: A Reappropriation of Modern Hebrew poetry, 1933.Comparative Literature Studies 42, no. 3 (2005): 12554. 

Levy, Lital. “Historicizing the Concept of Arab Jews in the Mashriq.” Jewish Quarterly Review 98, no. 4 (2008): 452–469.

Palestine Liberation Organization. “The Right of Arab-Jews to Return.” PLO Information Bulletin 1, no. 2 (1975): 8.

Rejwan, Nissim. The Last Jews in Baghdad: Remembering a Lost Homeland. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

Serfati, Abraham.  Lutte anti-sioniste et Révolution Arabe – Essai sur le judaïsme marocain et le sionisme [Anti-Zionist Struggle and Arab Revolution: Essay on Morrocan Judaism and Zionism]. Éditions Quatre-Vents, 1977.

Serfati, Abraham. Écrits de prison sur la Palestine [Prison Writings on Palestine]. Éditions Arcantère, 1992.

Shiblak, Abbas. The Lure of Zion. London: Saqi, 1986.

Shohat, Ella. “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims.” Social Text 19/20 (1988): 1–35.

Shohat, Ella. “Dislocated Identities: Reflections of an Arab-Jew.” Movement Research Performance Journal 5 (1992): 8.

Shohat, Ella. “The Invention of the Mizrahim.” Journal of Palestine Studies 29/1 (1999): 5–20.

Shohat, Ella. “Rupture and Return: Zionist Discourse and the Study of Arab Jews.” Social Text 21/2 (2003): 52–53.

Snir, Reuven. ‘“Mosaic Arabs’ between Total and Conditioned Arabization: The Participation of Jews in Arabic Press and Journalism in Muslim Societies during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 27, no. 2 (2007): 261–95.

Snir, Reuven. “‘We Are Arabs Before We Are Jews’: The Emergence and Demise of Arab-Jewish Culture in Modern Times.” Electronic Journal of Oriental Studies VIII (2005): 1–47.

Tamari, Salim. “Ishaq al-Shami and the Predicament of the Arab Jew in Palestine.” The Jerusalem Quarterly 21 (2004): 46–60.

Moshe Behar
Moshe Behar holds a PhD in Comparative Politics from Columbia University and is Associate Professor and Programme Director, Arabic & Middle Eastern Studies, University of Manchester, UK. His work includes the anthology Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought: Writings on Identity, Politics and Culture, 1893-1958 (Brandeis University Press) and can be further explored here
Theorizing Modernities article

Introducing The Arab and Jewish Questions

The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond interrogates the opposition between the “Arab” and the “Jew” in order to challenge dominant understandings of political identities, nationalism, and citizenship rights. It is a result of a series of workshops organized by the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna that brought a wide range of scholars together who put the Arab and Jewish questions in conversation with one another (rather than treating them as two distinct concerns, as is often the case). This book revisits European modernity by exploring contemporary Arab engagement with “the Jewish question,” which was created by and in Europe, by delving into how Arabs have dealt with the question of Jewish political rights in light of European antisemitism and Zionism. It gives as much attention to Jewish engagement with the “Arab question,” as European colonialism called it, by shedding new light on how Zionist and non-Zionist Jewish voices have dealt with the political rights of Palestinians in historic Palestine. The book’s originality lies in subverting our understanding of these two questions by exposing how they are inextricably intertwined, not only by their histories, but also by their contemporary concern with questioning modernity as well as articulating the meaning of political equality today. The various chapters included in this volume allow us to better understand how European modernity enabled, as much as constrained, geographies of entanglement in Palestine and beyond, as well as offer us new analytical and political perspectives that transcend the confines of ethnic nationalism and the exclusionary understanding of equality.

The motivation for this juxtaposition between the Arab and Jewish aspiration for political equality and freedom arises from three deeply interconnected and important developments that have taken place over the past two decades.  First, the Oslo peace process has failed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ongoing colonization of Palestine created irreversible realities that cast serious doubts on the feasibility of partition and the “two-state solution” that this accord offered as the way forward. Zionist colonization has also deepened the intertwinement between Israeli and Palestinian lives, making the equality of Palestinian and Jewish rights in Palestine/Israel central. This issue is still far from resolved. Second, the Arab uprisings that erupted in a number of Middle Eastern countries in 2011 signaled the demise of grand assimilationist ideologies like Arabism, Ba’athism, and Islamism. These uprisings expressed people’s rejection of their authoritarian regimes and the state-sanctioned definition of the collective “we.” They brought to the fore the diverse ethnic and cultural realities that nationalist ideologies sought to repress, as well as a clear demand for democracy and a state that was accountable to all its citizens. Third, Islam and Muslims have become the new internal signifiers of otherness, particularly in the west. This change has posed serious challenges to existing conceptions of democracy in the West. The rise of Eurocentric and Islamophobic notions of citizenship are intimately connected to the globalization of the neoliberal political economy today. They are equally tied to the suppressed memories of Europe’s colonial “past.” These notions reflect an intimate conceptual and historical link between Judeophobia and Islamophobia in Europe, one that continues to impact the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more specifically, in more ways than one.

The Arab and Jewish Questions exposes the intersections between the legacy of European colonialism, the failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the persistent demand for equal citizenship rights in the Arab world and the west. It shows that the question of Palestine/Israel, the Arab/Muslim question, and the Jewish question are not only entangled, but also belong to the same history. The first part of the book focuses on the historical connection between the Arab and Jewish questions, shedding new light on how they are tied to Europe. The three chapters in this section unpack the link between antisemitism and Islamophobia, showing how it is intrinsically tied to Europe’s refusal to confront its colonial legacies and address its racial prejudices today. It is a product of Europe’s fundamental failure to deal with any non-Christian “other” and of its attempt to transport this failure outside its borders.

The rise of Eurocentric and Islamophobic notions of citizenship are intimately connected to the globalization of the neoliberal political economy today. They are equally tied to the suppressed memories of Europe’s colonial ‘past.’

The second part of the book explores the political connections between the Arab and Jewish questions by highlighting their concerns with notions of political rights and equality.  The four chapters in this section go beyond the binary division between the “Jews” and the “Arab” by discussing the figure of the Arab-Jew, which the chapters of Ella Shohat and Hakem Rustom engage more deeply.  They each expose the ways in which Zionism and Arab nationalism negated the Arab dimension of Jewishness and repressed the Jewish dimension of Arab identity as a result of their respective ethnic, and intrinsically chauvinistic, definition of the nation-state. The chapter by Yuval Evri and Hillel Cohen challenges the uniform narrative that the Israeli historical establishment has tried to propagate about Jewish political uniformity by exposing how early Zionist and non-Zionist Jewish voices dealt with Palestinian political rights, affirming their congruency with Jewish political rights.

The third, and last, part of the book puts the Arab and Jewish questions into conversation with one another in order to start imagining a viable political alternative to the present stubborn reality that is marked by the ongoing Palestinian Nakba, continuous Israeli aggressions, and failed peace negotiations. The three chapters in this section stress the need to go beyond partition as a paradigm for resolving political problems.  In this regard, in her chapter, Jacqueline Rose invites us to engage in the important and difficult task of undertaking a deep introspective approach to one’s nationalist discourse in order to transcend entrapments of victimhood that hamper any liberatory politics. The chapters from Behar and Masarwi explain the dialectic of national identities and unpack some of the challenges that face bi-nationalism or any alternative one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These include finding the means to protect both the individual and collective political rights of Palestinians and Israelis, and to rethink nationalism in more inclusive terms. Such rethinking is ever more pressing today, as the Middle East seeks to create new political entities that protect the rights of others—be it Jews, Kurds, Yazidis, or Copts—as equal citizens rather than as protected minorities, and calls on the state to create new structures that guarantee inclusivity, accountability, and equality for all.

Leila Farsakh
Leila Farsakh is Associate Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is the author of Palestinian Labor Migration to Israel: Labour, Land and Occupation, (London: Routledge, second edition, 2012) and of Rethinking Statehood in Palestine: Self-Determination and Decolonization beyond Partition (University of California Press, 2021). She has also published on questions related to the political economy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, alternatives to partition, and international migration in a wide range of academic journals, including the Middle East Journal, the European Journal of Development Research, Ethnopolitics, Journal of Palestine Studies, the International Feminist Journal of Politics, and Le Monde Diplomatique. In 2001, she won the Peace and Justice Award from the Cambridge Peace Commission in Cambridge, Massachusetts and since 2008 has been a senior research fellow at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
Theorizing Modernities article

Islamophobia and Epistemological Ignorance

A sticker from a post in Montreal taken on May 20, 2019 likely in reference to the Quebec ban on religious symbols enacted by Bill 21. Photo Credit: Flickr User Ingrid Cold. CC BY-SA 2.0.

On June 6, 2021, in London, Ontario, the Afzaal family was run down and killed by a White man, leaving an injured young boy as the sole survivor. This is the most recent and high profile Islamophobic killing in Canada, following the January 2017 mosque shooting in Quebec. In both cases, the victims were targeted because they were Muslims.

In a similar manner to the reactions after the Quebec mosque shooting in 2017, many politicians and ordinary citizens have claimed that the attack in Ontario is exceptional. They claim that such things do not normally happen in Canada. To treat it as an exceptionally tragic event makes it possible to condemn the violence and to offer sympathy and support to Muslim communities without having to address the conditions which make the Islamophobia that motivates such attacks possible. The connection between individual actions and the systemic context is erased from view when violence against Muslims is treated as an isolated incident rather than as part of a longstanding political context.

Bill 21 is a flashpoint in this context. Bill 21, which became law in 2019 in Quebec, prohibits people who wear religious symbols from giving and receiving public services in the name of upholding Quebec’s commitment to secularism. In practice, the law disproportionately excludes Muslim women who wear hijabs from working in the public sector, as well as other religious minorities who wear visible religious symbols. A few days after the London attack, Prime Minister Trudeau was asked during a press conference about his views on this provincial law in light of his stated commitment to fighting Islamophobia. Trudeau responded that he had already expressed his disagreement with the law before, but that it was up to Quebecers to take it up as an issue.

The connection between individual actions and the systemic context is erased from view when violence against Muslims is treated as an isolated incident rather than as part of a longstanding political context.

Quebec’s Premier Legault, along with other Quebec politicians and party leaders, were quick to reject the idea that there was any relationship between Bill 21, Islamophobia, and the London attacks. As Bloc Quebecois leader, Yves-François Blanchet, stated, “…there is no relationship, no link between Bill 21 and that kind of gestures of hatred because Bill 21 has no meaning in London, Ontario.” Blanchet’s statement, along with those of the other Quebec party leaders, can be read, superficially, as commenting on the fact that a law that is passed in one province has no applicability in another. Technically, that is correct. More significantly, however, it reflects a refusal to see the discursive meaning that Muslims give to these two events.

I want to consider this alleged lack of connection and meaning in more depth, as I contend that it is indicative of a refusal both to know and to see Islamophobia. What does this refusal show us about the underlying relationship between Islamophobia and Whiteness, between Muslims and the nation in Quebec and in Canada? I suggest that there is an underlying relationship between the epistemological (what Edward Said describes as the production of knowledge about Islam and Muslims through reference to the west) and the political that can help illuminate the logic behind this refusal. How Muslims are known is connected to their political subjectivity. The refusal to know and to see Islamophobia, I claim, is ultimately a refusal to accept the political claim by Muslims to be treated as equal citizens. It is a refusal to see how Islamophobia is sustained through its connection to Whiteness in Quebec.

A Secular Nation

As Saba Mahmood has shown, hijabs and niqabs mark a fault line between the secularity of the western democratic nation on one hand, and the religiosity of Muslims on the other. Muslim women who wear them are defined entirely by their religious identity, and perceived as lacking individual agency. This defining makes it possible for the state to intervene via the law to “save Muslim women” in the name of western democracy that is based on secularism and gender equality. For the past decade in Quebec, various provincial governments have made efforts to legislate a ban on hijabs and niqabs. The current Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government has been the most successful thus far.

The refusal to know and to see Islamophobia, I claim, is ultimately a refusal to accept the political claim by Muslims to be treated as equal citizens. It is a refusal to see how Islamophobia is sustained through its connection to Whiteness in Quebec.

Legault’s government defends Bill 21 by claiming that it reflects Quebec’s “values,” namely, the importance of secularism. Secularism is closely tied to Quebec’s national imaginary following the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. During this period, religion and the Catholic Church were removed from the operations of the state and public sphere. At the same time, a Quebecois national identity based on French as its official language, gender equality, and secularism were cast as the defining characteristics of “modern” Quebec society.

Most Muslims in Quebec are francophones and have been settled in the province for several decades, since the Quiet Revolution. However, despite the fact that many Muslims are linguistically well-integrated in a society that centers French as both a language and national identity, their presence as racialized and religious minorities has come to be politicized in recent years within debates about “reasonable accommodation” and Quebec nationalism. The perceived hypervisibility of Muslim women who wear hijabs and niqabs in public spaces has been central to these debates, because it challenges the self-professed ideals of secularism and gender equality as part of a “modern” and nationalist view of Quebec.

The consolidation of secularism in Quebec is dependent in part upon the erasure of Muslim religiosity from public space, where public space is imagined as constitutive of the nation. This legislated erasure of Muslims from everyday public space normalizes and legitimizes Islamophobic violence, as it seeks to make their visibility and acceptance as Muslims exceptional. It creates the conditions that make it possible for someone to set out to kill Muslims in order to literally remove some of them from the nation. This is the meaning that connects Bill 21 in Quebec to what happened in London, Ontario. It is also invisible to Quebec’s government and Quebecois politicians.

Epistemology of Ignorance

The refusal to see Islamophobia in Quebec is rooted not only in Quebec’s idea of “modern” secularism, but also in the history of its relationship to the Rest of Canada (ROC). Quebec politicians also rejected the idea that Bill 21 could have had an impact on the hate crime in London because of Quebec’s relationship to the ROC. They emphasized Quebec’s power and ability to pass laws applicable to its own population without interference from the ROC. Their response, asserting a version of Quebec nationalism, is a well-established frame through which many Quebecois view relations with the (English) ROC. Many see the ROC as having engaged in historical “oppression” that is now being turned into a kind of bullying and convenient scapegoating.

This response ignores the complexity of Quebec’s own position as a francophone White settler society located within Canada, which is an anglophone White settler society. These are two intersecting political projects. While the standard criticism often claims that English Canada dominates over the linguistic minority of French Quebec, this narrow focus ignores how White francophone Quebecois majorities themselves constitute a dominant group in relation to the racialized (non-White) minorities in the province. In other words, the tension that shapes Quebec national identity is its position both as a White francophone minority in relation to Canada and a White francophone majority in relation to racialized minorities in Quebec. Thus, the refusal to see Islamophobia is also a refusal to see themselves as a “White nation” where White majorities who consider themselves to be the “owners” of the nation hold the power to set the terms of belonging for non-whites.


Memorial to the victims of the January 2017 attack on Muslims praying at Quebec City Central Mosque. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Charles Mills describes this refusal to see as an “epistemology of ignorance” in the context of his theorization about the racial contract. This contract lays out the terms in which White supremacy and its colonial projects structure society. The epistemology of ignorance refers to the non-knowledge of White groups who neither know, nor see, how Whiteness structures the world around them and maintains their position within it. They live in a world that is invented using “white mythologies, invented Orients, invented Africas, invented Americas” (18). These are anchored in the White imagination. This is neither accidental, nor incidental, but a necessary requirement for the structure of White supremacy to exist and to endure. It is constitutive of the racial contract itself, “which requires a certain schedule of structured blindnesses and opacities in order to establish and maintain the white polity” (19).

The comments by Premier Legault towards other racialized minorities, in addition to Muslims, demonstrate the ongoing investment in this epistemology of ignorance. In 2019, close to the two-year anniversary of the mosque shooting and in response to a proposal to mark a day dedicated to fighting against Islamophobia, Legault stated there was no need for it because there’s no Islamophobia in Quebec. More recently, in June 2020, after the murder of George Floyd in the US and protests against police killings of Black people, he said that while there was discrimination in Quebec, there was no systemic racism. A few months later, after the death due to negligence of Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman who filmed two nurses insulting her before she died in a Quebec hospital, he reiterated his position against the existence of systemic racism.

Muslim Political Agency

Since 2017, there has been more public discussion about Islamophobia and advocating for Muslims. This change highlights the emergence of a national conversation shaped by Muslim political consciousness and agency. In the aftermath of this latest attack, many Muslims are not only naming their experiences of Islamophobia and laying out the connections between its various manifestations, but more significantly, seeking accountability and action from political parties and their elected representatives. In response to the initial call from the London Muslim Mosque and later from the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), the federal government held a national summit on Islamophobia on July 22, 2021. It remains to be seen what kind of impact or long-term changes will come out of it.

Earlier, I noted a connection between the epistemological and the political, which sheds light on how Islamophobia and Whiteness are connected. Sayyid describes Islamophobia as “the systematic regulation and disciplining of Muslimness” and a denial of Muslim agency “through reference to a westernizing horizon” (423). Muslimness, as “a process of identification by which a Muslim subjectivity is articulated” (423), can only be imagined through reference to the west, which means that it is defined as antagonistic to it. In the case of Quebec, this “westernizing horizon” includes a future in which its Whiteness is secured as part of its “modern,” western, secular, democratic society. Muslim subjectivity, articulated through expressions of political agency, is seen as a threat to this imagined future and met with attempts to discipline it, and ultimately to erase its visibility.

Thus, the refusal to know Islamophobia is an act of Islamophobia itself because it is a refusal of Muslim political claims. However, it is sustained, not through personal prejudice, but through a systemic refusal to see Quebec’s own Whiteness as integral to its national identity. This commitment to the epistemology of ignorance as constitutive of a racialized hierarchy in society is the only way for a government to pass a law that devalues and discriminates against Muslims as racialized and religious minorities who have equal rights as citizens in the polity—and to deny that it does so at the same time.

Uzma Jamil
Uzma Jamil’s research expertise is in Critical Muslim Studies and examines how Muslims are constructed as racialized and religious minorities in the west, using a decolonial/postcolonial approach. Her research and publications focus on Muslims in Quebec and Canada, Islamophobia and racialization, the construction of knowledge about Muslims, and the securitization of Muslims in the “war on terror.” She has previously published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Ethnicities and the Islamophobia Studies Journal, among other academic publications. Dr. Jamil is a founding member of the Editorial Board of ReOrient: The Journal of Critical Muslim Studies and a contributor to the podcast Network ReOrient.
Theorizing Modernities article

Introduction to Symposium on Wrestling with God

In Wrestling with God: Ethical Precarity in Christianity and International Relations, Cecelia Lynch provides a genealogical account of Christianity’s role in shaping the field of international relations. Throughout the book, Lynch creatively puts a geographically diverse set of thinkers from different moments in history into conversation with one another. She does this so that we might not only understand the past better, but also think with it more constructively in the present. By looking at how Christian theologians confronted the political and social contingencies of their day, Lynch shows how the logic of Christian missionizing and humanitarian activity arose during the colonial era of conquest and continues into the present, albeit now more often in the work of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and FBOs (faith-based organizations). Drawing on Judith Bultler, Lynch contends that we should see these actors in history, and ourselves, as precarious creatures—that is, as persons vulnerable to violence and injustice—perched within traditions not of our own making, but to which we can draw on to further the common good (66). This is what Lynch aims to do in her examination of the Christian tradition in this context.

In her examination, Lynch prioritizes practice over doctrine, i.e. what people do rather than what they profess to believe. In doing so, what comes to the forefront is the process of ethical reasoning rather than its doctrinal precedence or results. Ethical reasoning, on this account, is a form of casuistry, where “religious actors constantly interpret and reinterpret teachings in order to meet their needs for living and acting in specific places and times” (57). In other words, it is a bottom-up process, one where the practical realities of the world shape how we respond to challenges and eventually shape what we call doctrine. It is decidedly not a top-down process, one where we apply previously established principles to new matters without considering the restraint of contingencies. It is these contingencies which make our actions, and our sense of self, precarious.

Lynch treats each of the subjects with whom she engages throughout the book as ethically precarious, practically reasoning actors. It would be impossible to provide a complete overview of the thinkers and arguments that Lynch weaves together throughout this book. Indeed, in each historical era, she makes clear that there is no single interpretive line amongst Christian thinkers, and gives ample attention to a variety of influential philosophers, theologians, and political thinkers. She begins in the colonial era, focusing on the arguments made by theologians like Bartolomé de Las Casas and Eusebio Kino concerning the treatment of indigenous peoples in the newly “discovered” Americas. She shows how the terms of these debates concerning, for example whether it was necessary to convert, kill, or peaceably live alongside indigenous peoples were shaped by the contingencies of exploration and the restraints of doctrine. But in responding to these contingencies, she explains, doctrine itself was changed. Her story continues in her discussion of debates about war amongst Protestant and Catholic theologians in the modern world. Lynch dives deep into the 1932 debate between H. Richard Niebuhr and his brother, Reinhold, on the ethics of intervention in the Sino-Japanese conflict. She does so, however, while situating it within its wider theological and political context. She demonstrates, for example, that H. Richard Niebuhr’s account of non-violence was not the only possible interpretation at the time. She shows how a Catholic thinker like Dorothy Day interpreted the Christian tradition in an even more radically pacifist way than H. Richard Niebuhr as an active mode of non-violent resistance. Before ending the book by exploring the current constellation of neoliberal NGOs and FBOs, Lynch explores how liberation theology took up the same Christian teachings as their elder brethren, and yet saw in them a message more concerned with standing with the poor and marginalized. What one is left with after reading this book is a genealogy of Christianity’s role in international relations that balances a wide-ranging scope with historical depth. This approach makes it possible for the actors that appear in each of her chapters to speak to one another and to readers.

In the responses to the book collected in this symposium, the contributors engage with the theoretical as well as ethical questions that Lynch’s book raises. Diane L. Moore puts Lynch’s account of precarity into conversation with Donna Harraway’s notion of “staying with the trouble” to further reveal what an expansive notion of the common good might entail. Michael Barnett wrestles with the boundaries of how we classify Christianity. Atalia Omer extends Lynch’s discussion of technocratic humanitarianism in our present moment and thinks with her about what it means to center those at the margins of religious traditions so that we can imagine new horizons of ethical possibility. Relatedly, Emma Tomalin reflects on the importance of prioritizing local faith actors in overcoming current neoliberal approaches to humanitarian aid.

In thinking both critically and constructively with Christian thinkers from both the past and present, Lynch’s book shows how we might employ critical genealogical methods without succumbing to a cynical and/or fatalistic view of the world. This creative engagement is key to navigating the challenges of modernity and grappling with contested notions of the secular and the sacred. In significant ways, this forum builds upon themes of our previous symposium on Giuliana Chamedes’s A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican’s Battle to Remake Christian Europe, which also gathered scholars together to think both historically and constructively about religion’s role in shaping geopolitical realities in modernity.

Joshua Lupo
Joshua Lupo is the editor and writer for the Contending Modernities Blog and the classroom coordinator for the Madrasa Discourses program. He has published articles and reviews in Soundings, Reading Religion, Sophia, and Religious Studies Review. His current book project is titled After Essentialism: A Critical Phenomenology for the Study of Religion.
Global Currents article

Eichmann Is Still in Jerusalem


“In the summer of 2014, the police put up a checkpoint at the entrance to the [Bab al-Majles al-Islami] neighborhood. Ever since, all residents have been suffering from severe movement restrictions that interfere with their lives and harm their livelihoods.” Yoav Gross/B’Tselem February 2016, CC 4.0 International.
On May 21, 2021 Hamas and the Israeli government agreed to a delicate ceasefire following Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza, leaving the narrow Strip, which has been under continuous siege for 15 years, to deal with the aftermath of death and destruction. Shortly after the ceasefire went into effect, U.S. officials reverted to framing the situation in Gaza as a “humanitarian” crisis rather than as a site of “nationalist” or anti-colonial struggle. However, this ghettoization of Gaza and its extrapolation from broader Palestinian struggles reinforces a fragmentary colonial logic. This exposes the manifold ways in which European colonial logics and legacies of blood purity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide still underpin the anatomy of Israeli Jewish systematic Palestinian displacement and fragmentation as well as the ever consolidation of the annexationist Jewish supremacist apartheid regime.

Now, in the wake of the assault on Gaza and unrest in Israel, Israel’s Minister of Internal Security and the Police Commissioner Major General have carried out massive arrests as a part of “Operation Law and Order.” The Operation targets Palestinian-Israelis who resisted violence instigated by Jewish vigilante mobs inside the 1948 lines and who expressed solidarity with other Palestinian communities, thereby resisting their own sequestering from the anticolonial Palestinian struggle. The importation of vigilante settler violence from the West Bank, carried out with impunity on Palestinian citizens of Israel in the so-called “mixed cities” (binational cities that are only “mixed” because of the Nakba or the Catastrophe of 1948), exposed that the citizenship status of Palestinian-Israelis is not worth the paper it is written on. This is hardly a surprise considering that, in 2018, the Jewish Nation-State Law legally enshrined what was already the norm. It did so by resolving the internal contradictions between Israel’s identity as both “Jewish” and “democratic” in favor of ethnocracy and as such the Israeli regime no longer seeks to conceal its disregard of democratic norms and international law. This ethnocratic mode denotes convergences between territorial maximalist settler theology and ultranationalist racist ideologies such as the Kahanism of the Religious Zionist Party. The latter has gained six mandates in the recent election cycle, due to Benjamin Netanyahu’s maneuvering but is just one explicit expression of a broader normalization of Jewish supremacist outlooks. In collusion with the state and underwritten by settlers’ organizations, Kahanists are inciting and provoking violence in binational cities and in occupied East Jerusalem. Kahanism is fixated on connecting ideas of Jewish blood purity to ethnoreligious land hegemony, and it seeks to enact those ideas by implementing policies that Judaize space within Israel. This blood- and land-centric Judaism is rooted in the experience of Jewish modernity in Europe.

In this instance, it is worth recalling the German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the public trial of Adolf Eichmann, the executioner of the “Final Solution” against the Jews during World War II. Herself a stateless refugee during the war, she had two insights that can aid in analyzing this moment. First, Eichmann was not an evil mastermind, but rather an obedient bureaucrat totally immersed in an antisemitic ideology concerned with de-Judaizing Europe. To this degree, his evil actions were banal. Second, the Nazi machinery intent on dividing people marked for elimination according to an arbitrary scale of valuation enabled the ghettoization and eventual liquidation process implemented in the Nazi death factories. Not only that, the Nazi regime employed Jews in their own execution, whether through populating lists for the next shipments out of the ghettos or loading bodies into the ovens. In the end, while the Nazis stratified Jews into different categories, it did not really matter what your status was; all Jews were affected by the logic of genocide.

The dispossession of the Palestinian residents from Sheikh Jarrah and the violation of al-Aqsa by Israeli police that triggered the escalation into rocket exchanges between Hamas and Israel exposed how the eliminative specter of Eichmann, in an inverse, is haunting Jerusalem and Palestinian lives. A bureaucratic permit regime that permeates the entire space constitutes a fragmentation mechanism not unlike the Nazi’s taxonomy of different Jews. It is indeed an “ongoing Nakba” or a Nakba by other means, which occasionally explodes into massive aerial assaults and other military operations. The Nakba, a project of ethnic cleansing, was an event in time that involved the massive dispossession and displacement of Palestinians. Yet the Nakba is also ongoing through multiple mechanisms, including the bureaucracy of dispossession and of fragmentation. Indeed, Israeli government employees, police, and construction workers routinely carry out legal orders to destroy Palestinian homes inside and outside the 1948 borders and to dispossess Palestinian citizens of Israel to make room for Jews. And using an arbitrary scale of valuation, Israel has assigned different statuses and identification cards to Palestinians. In the end, fragmentation policies enable the trajectory of Judaification of the land through the construction and maintenance of “reservations” or Bantustans for Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority, itself a series of mostly non-contiguous Palestinian islands interrupted by checkpoints and other military barriers, is deeply discredited as a “subcontractor” of the occupation, exemplifying Arendt’s analysis of fragmentation and cooptation of the victims themselves in their erasure.

The truth is that it does not really matter what identity card status Palestinians hold. The recent escalation exposed the links between Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, Gaza, and Israel “proper” and clarified how all Palestinians are subject to the same logic of apartheid. That Israel is an apartheid state was recently determined by the evidence-based reports of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem as well as by Human Rights Watch. They show that the Israeli state is worthy of this label because Jewish supremacy underpins the entire geopolitical space from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea and informs the ever-aggressive Judaizing policies that have expanded from the West Bank to the hearts of “mixed cities.” Some analysts call this the Hebronization of Israel, referring especially to al-Shuhada Street in the Palestinian city of Hebron, in which it is now only permissible for Jews to live. Over decades, Israeli government policies fragmented Palestinians, dividing them into an intricate pyramid of categories of identification. The current moment revealed with clarity the anatomy of this colonial logic. Disrupting this logic, we saw on May 18th a general strike across all of Mandatory Palestine, the first since 1936.

What the grassroots organizing in Sheikh Jarrah continues to evoke, in the aftermath of the 2021 assault on Gaza, is how a dispossession from this neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem constitutes a collective Palestinian experience of an ongoing Nakba, regardless of the illusions of autonomy created by the Oslo Accords and the discourse of a (Jewish) democracy within the 1948 lines. The Nakba is ongoing and is manifest in the expansion of the Judaization policies underwritten by settler organizations. The residents of Sheikh Jarrah showed the world the banality of evil operating in every day instances of bureaucratic decision-making, framed by all-encompassing Jewish supremacist ideology. “Operation Law and Order” offers an official show of force that intends to terrorize Palestinian-Israelis back into their apparent domesticity, back into their ghetto, fragmented from other Palestinian experiences in the West Bank and Gaza. It is as if Eichmann’s own tactics and exclusionary and eliminative ideology are alive and well, only now being used against Palestinians. The purist logics of European Christian modernity live on in the land- and blood-centric Jewish supremacist regime which, along with its Palestinian victims, has also imprisoned Judaism and Jews in a militaristic ghetto.

Atalia Omer
Atalia Omer, Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame is also the Co-Director of Contending Modernities. She earned her Ph.D. from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. Her research has focused primarily on a systematic study of religion, violence, and the practices of peace, the dynamics of ethno-national conflicts, political and social theory, the theoretical study of religion and society, and the theoretical study of the interrelation between religion, nationalism, and questions of justice, peace, and conflict.
Her recent book Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians  (University of Chicago Press, 2019) examines American Jewish ethical and political transformations as part of their Palestine solidarity activism. The book examines Jews politically inspired by social justice campaigns and how these experiences are generative of innovations within Jewish tradition, including its re-conceptualization as prophetic, multiracial, and intersectional. Her first book, When Peace is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice  (University of Chicago Press, 2013) highlights how hybrid identities may provide creative resources for peacebuilding, especially in ethno-religious national conflicts where political agendas are informed by particularistic and often purist conceptions of identity. She is also co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding (2015). Omer also received in 2017 an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship to pursue research for a book tentatively titled  Global Religion, Peacebuilding and the Perils of Development: Beyond Neoliberalism and Orientalism
Theorizing Modernities article

QAnon, Conspiracy, and White Evangelical Apocalypse

Zombies as portrayed in the movie Night of the Living Dead (1968). Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1919

Rather than an aberration, the fascination with conspiracies at the heart of Trump-era White evangelical Christian nationalism is symptomatic of a distinctively modern manifestation of evangelicalism’s obsession with end-time prophecies. These form a surging and resurging current throughout late twentieth and twenty-first century evangelicalism. Confronted by an ever more rapidly changing socio-political context, and now inextricably intertwined with Republican Party politics, end-time apocalypticism and messianism have come to infuse evangelical approaches to contemporary politics and culture. Caught in the siren-song of Trump and QAnon conspiracy ideology, this fixation has leapt from the folk theology pages of popular Christian fiction and populism-inflected evangelical church pews, into voting booths, political rallies and activism, and onto the lawn of the U.S. Capitol at the January 6th, 2021 insurrection. Together, apocalypticism and messianism form a recurring dynamic, pattern, and logic that drives the latest resurrection of White evangelical nationalism—a dynamic, pattern, and logic I describe as “zombie nationalism.”

The Zombification of White Christian Nationalism

Studies of the American religious landscape produced in the second decade of the twenty first century claim that White, Christian America is rapidly ageing and diminishing in population, its institutions receding, its influence waning. If demography is destiny, the argument runs, the relevant demographic trends indicate that White Christian America is dying.

Amid these projected realities, Robert Jones warns of the emergence of a white evangelical Christian “Frankenstein’s monster” (231)—an entity stitched together from the remnant fragments of formerly hegemonic, gradually declining, cultural and institutional bodies. Though long decaying, they become reanimated and propelled by the surging currents and organizing shocks of mobilizing for political power and specific culture war causes. Frankenstein’s monster stands in as a metaphor for the kind of aggressive, concentrated culture war resurrection that White evangelicalism opted for in its political resurgence under Trump and in successive waves of Trumpism (which has outlasted the Trump presidency itself).

And yet, in contrast to Jones’s analogy of a White evangelical “Frankenstein’s monster,” the ethno-religious nationalism that animates contemporary U.S. White evangelicalism is fashioned much more in the image of the zombies of George Romero’s film, Dawn of the Dead (1978), the follow up to the his first zombie film, Night of the Living Dead (1968). Like George Romero’s zombies (and in diametric contrast to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), the latest mutation of this ethno-religious nationalism demonstrates little capacity for the kind of self-discovery, hyper-self-reflexivity, critical-reflectiveness, and desire for nurturing relationships that Harold Bloom describes as the tragic vulnerability of Victor Frankenstein’s creation.

In the Romero original, the zombies emerge slowly. They traverse the terrain with seemingly infinitesimal motions. Their power inheres in the ways they pursue their objectives in mindless, lock-step conformity, and with undeterrable resolve. So it is for the social and ideological patterns that inspirit the latest resurrection of White, evangelical Christian political resurgence. These patterns are reflected in dynamics of reanimation born of motivating commitments and beliefs that are not amenable to contrary evidence. Such recurring dynamics are fueled, moreover, by U.S. White evangelical Christians conceptualizing themselves as an increasingly marginalized remnant in a society that (putatively) originally did, and (allegedly) should still, reflect their central identity and values. It entails the self-perception of being perennially marginalized—and progressively more endangered— victims of an aggressively anti-Christian “secular” society. For White evangelicals, these grievances infuse (and further propagate themselves through) pop-culture genres in evangelical Christian culture that amplify accounts of spiritual warfare, end time apocalypticism, and messianism. As Edward G. Simmons, David C. Ludden, and J. Colin Harris show, these forms of “pop-theology” (or folk theology) prime White evangelicals for forms of cognitive dissonance. Such dissonance is fertile soil for conspiracy fascination that graduates into—sometimes subtle, sometimes flagrant—radicalization. Many Trump-era evangelicals embrace “end-time” and messianism-inflected conspiracy theories that permeate Trump-driven Republican politics and policy-making. From this ensues a proclivity to position their political and cultural opponents on the far side of a Manichean divide and to imbue contemporary politics with cosmic urgency.

During the Trump presidency, for example, White, evangelical Christians were absorbed in ever-expanding numbers into QAnon conspiracy ideology. Some evangelical scholars sounded the alarm about this trend. They declared the active evangelical embrace of—or impassive acquiescence to— QAnon as a departure from true evangelicalism, into an altogether different, heretical religious movement. And yet, this response by evangelical elites makes denial of White evangelicalism’s relation to QAnon all too convenient and un-self-critical. Much like the basic principle of addiction recovery, denying that one even has a problem is a primary indicator that the problem is not only present, but has become, in fact, quite fundamental.

Clearly, not all evangelicals became QAnon followers—though startlingly large numbers have. Evangelical and non-evangelical analysts alike document that captivation with QAnon conspiracies has spread through the ranks of White evangelicalism like wildfire. Careful inspection through the lens of ethno-religious nationalism illuminates that many White evangelicals are primed to embrace QAnon ideology for reasons intrinsic to 20th and 21st century White evangelical culture. Indeed, ethno-religious nationalism—and the distinctive logic and dynamics of zombie nationalism— forms the connective tissue creating a symbiosis between much White evangelicalism and QAnon conspiracy ideology.

QAnon and White Evangelical Nationalism

QAnon theories, and the internet “drops” wherein “Q” would leak putative secret information about government officials and the media, emerged in the second year of Trump’s presidency. They quickly evolved into an increasingly mainstream religio-political movement promoted by Trump (via Twitter). “Q” portrays Trump as a messianic figure who is a bulwark for U.S. White evangelicals and other putatively “patriotic” populations against assaults upon American Christian culture. “Q” is a clandestine (that is, “anonymous,” hence, “QAnon”) internet presence whose viral posts and YouTube videos—frequently sprinkled with quotations from Christian scripture (e.g. 2 Chronicles 7:14) and soliciting prayer from his/her followers—purport to expose the insidious inner workings of the so-called “deep state,” and the intrinsic deceptiveness of “mainstream media.”[1] “Q” purports to reveal how Trump’s alleged struggles against these are infused with apocalyptic significance and spiritual warfare, cohere with end time biblical prophecy, and require the retrieval and defense of America’s “true” identity as a Christian nation.

QAnon flag at Virginia 2nd Amendment Rally in January 2020. Photo Credit: Anthony Crider. Via Flickr.

At its most acute, the QAnon conspiracy ideology asserts that the Democratic party is controlled by a cabal of global elite (“globalist”) and “deep state” anti-Christian and anti-Trump actors (specifically naming the Rothchilds, George Soros, Bill and Hilary Clinton, Bill Gates, and “Hollywood” figures, among others). This cabal allegedly engages in pedophilia, child sex-trafficking, ritual cannibalism of children, and worships Satan. Further, this ideology amplifies the “big lie” or Trump’s baseless claims that he won the 2020 presidential election “in a landslide,” and that the election was stolen from him and his followers. Though seemingly so extreme as to be dismissed out of hand, in fact, White evangelicals in the U.S. embrace these claims at rates far higher than their non-evangelical, Republican counterparts.

Examined in terms of their religio-cultural structures, these conspiracy-fueled patterns of scapegoating and demonization of opponents are neither novel, nor especially unusual. They reanimate distinct features of widely circulated antisemitic conspiracy theories, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—an early 20th century Russian Czarist fabricated account of a Jewish economic and political elite allegedly controlling global politics and economics. QAnon crosses various “Protocols” tropes with the recurrent “blood libel” accusations that inspired numerous Christian pogroms against European Jews, namely, claiming that Jews kidnapped Christian children and used their blood in ritual observance. QAnon demonizes and scapegoats its targets in similar ways, and similarly inspires violence. The antisemitic contours of QAnon ideology make it especially attractive to self-avowed White supremacists and White nationalists (for example, the Proud Boys). These antisemitic contours are “plausibly deniable” for many White evangelicals in virtue of the self-averred, seemingly philosemitic, pro-Zionist policies of the Trump administration. QAnon’s ethno-nationalist elements, intermingling with its religious dimensions, create an intoxicating elixir for White evangelicals who may think of themselves as sharing nothing in common with avowed White nationalists or card-carrying White supremacists. Yet, QAnon brings the elective affinities between these groups into clear and distinct focus. Those affinities form the warp and woof of the ethno-religious nationalism that is the (sometimes camouflaged, often denied) connective tissue between them.

Trump-era White evangelicals have widely adopted various messianic interpretations of Donald Trump. Many of these feed directly into QAnon claims that Trump is an “end time” defender of U.S. Christian culture. This is the same culture previously captivated and emboldened by Franke Peretti’s best-selling spiritual warfare Christian fiction, which generated warnings from some evangelical elites against a looming obsession with “spiritual warfare.” The U.S. White evangelical culture-industrial complex amplifies these claims and dynamics exponentially. QAnon is, in effect, one part Frank Peretti spiritual warfare, one part Left Behind series apocalypticism, and one part Elders of Zion antisemitic conspiracy theory, packaged together in a tantalizing, self-involving variation on Celebrity Apprentice reality television and social media.

Apocalypse Again

End-time, apocalyptic, messianic drivers of White, evangelical Christian nationalism are not new. They form a recurrent dynamic in contemporary White U.S. evangelicalism. The best-selling, end-time prophecy publishing industry emerged in the 1970s and 80s. It was launched by Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which the New York Times identified as the best-selling non-fiction book of the 1970s. This, along with other phenomena of Christian rapture culture (for example, the A Thief in the Night film series of 1972–83), influenced the upsurge of evangelical political engagement in the 1980s. Evangelical apocalypticism surged forward again with the release of the bestselling Left Behind book and film series, and ensuing multimedia franchise, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. All of these are prior examples of the various apocalyptical entanglements that re-emerge in evangelical Christian enmeshment in QAnon conspiracy ideology.

These examples are not merely benign instances of “Christian fiction,” niche Christian nonfiction, or “Christian entertainment.” They have recurring real world implications. For example, 1970s and 80s end-time prophecy and apocaplypticism shaped White, evangelical attitudes toward U.S. national politics in the Cold War. It informed evangelicals’ views regarding the prospects of nuclear war—which many viewed as the form that biblically prophesied apocalypse might take. Hal Lindsey claimed it was the Anti-Christ that would “delude the world with promises of peace” (144). As Matthew Sutton shows (see chap. 11), throughout the 1980s Ronald Reagan catered to his White evangelical base by occasionally entertaining their apocalypticism at various points throughout his presidency. Selling upwards around 80 million copies altogether, the Left Behind series of the 90s and early aughts shaped evangelical views about the State of Israel’s end-time significance in the present, and fueled Christian Zionism. Indeed, the dispensational theology modeled in the Left Behind series spurred Trump to move the U.S Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018.

QAnon conspiracy ideology symbiotically feeds upon populist White evangelical impulses toward apocalypticism and messianism. It captures them through their fusion with Republican political ideology. It retrieves and synergistically reanimates—even as it mutates— earlier religious nationalist patterns. These occur, for example, in re-emergent concepts of the White Christian nation (peoplehood) as a victimized-yet-faithful and long-suffering remnant, that conception’s inter-wovenness with embattled, originally Christian identity and culture (a myth of origin), and the exceptional role of the U.S. as a “chosen nation” (or “new Israel”) in God’s providential plan within world history (exceptionalism). The cyclical resurgence of these dynamics exemplifies “zombie nationalism.”

Hence, the capture of White evangelicals by the siren-song of Trump-amplified ethno-religious nationalism through QAnon conspiracy ideology is no momentary deviation from true evangelicalism. It is the culmination of more than a half-century of evangelicalism’s surging and resurging fixation upon end-times apocalypticism, and its concurrent progressive enmeshment in, and symbiosis with, Republican Party ideology. It is intrinsic—not extraneous or incidental—to White evangelical religion.

Rather than the demise prognosticated by social scientists, the case of “the end of White Christian America” is an example by which to examine how forms of religious authority and identity navigate conflicts precipitated by rapid change and relativized significance in a diversifying context, and how they vie for retrenchment through radicalization in the shifting contexts of modernity. Any hope for evangelical resistance to these trends, much less constructive transformation, will entail grappling with the very changes that appear to them to be the sources of their precarity. This entails working in registers that have emerged in U.S. society more broadly—registers of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality. Responding intelligently and intentionally requires that White Christians, in a spirit of teachability, come to terms with past—and recurring—patterns of racism, ethnocentrism, heteronormativity, and patriarchy, in which they are implicated. I examine how race energizes the ethno-religious nationalist impulses of zombie nationalism in Part 2 of this series.

[1] A 2018 poll conducted by the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Research Institute found that 46% of self-identified evangelicals and 52% of those whose beliefs tag them as evangelical “strongly believes the mainstream media produces fake news”—a central tenet of QAnon. Indeed, the more active respondents were in their church, the more mistrusting of news media they were. This is one trend, along with their widespread embrace of Donald Trump, that has rendered White evangelicals especially susceptible to the central claims of QAnon theories. See Stetzer “Evangelicals need to address the QAnoners in our midst,” USA Today, Sept 4, 2020.

Jason Springs
Jason Springs is Professor of Religion, Ethics, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.  Springs’ latest book, Healthy Conflict in Contemporary American Society: From Enemy to Adversary (Cambridge University Press, 2018), develops conceptions of healthy conflict and strenuous pluralism that are realistic about the challenges and limitations of religious tolerance in a society that is both deeply religiously plural and politically volatile. Springs is also the author of Toward a Generous Orthodoxy: Prospects for Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology (Oxford University Press, 2010), and co-author (with Atalia Omer) of Religious Nationalism: A Reference Handbook (ABC-CLIO, 2013).
Global Currents article

The Apocalypse is Human-Made: Playing with Fire from Al-Aqsa to Gaza

A grab from an AFPTV video shows a tree on fire near the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque complex on May 10, 2021, following renewed clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at the scene. (Photo by CLAIRE GOUNON/AFPTV/AFP via Getty Images)

Religion is Both Gasoline and Fire

The apocalypse does not just happen. Sure, the case of Palestine/Israel often triggers the use of end-time script metaphors, but their deployment only obscures the anatomy of power, ideology, and oppression. The Palestinians are not the only prisoners of this oppression. Jews and Judaism too are imprisoned within the cages of a nationalistic supremacist ideology, one that needs to be distinguished from Zion as the subject of Jewish longing and messianic anticipation that is hardwired into the tradition. The apocalypse does not just happen. The illusion of cosmic catastrophe serves a political agenda and ideology.

We witness now, in 2021, yet another escalation in Jerusalem, Gaza, and across the “mixed cities” of Israel where belligerent Jewish products of religious Zionism and pre-military religious academies, along with religious Zionists bused from settlements in the West Bank and other Jewish-Israeli bystanders, target Palestinian-Israelis (their neighbors). These Palestinians trace their roots to cities like Lod, Jaffa, and Haifa going back centuries prior to the Catastrophe of 1948 (the Nakba) and the establishment of Israel. These cities are “mixed,” sometimes even celebrated as models of “coexistence,” because the events of the Nakba stopped short of a total ethnic cleansing. The sight of kippa-wearing youth roaming streets with the intentions of a murderous mob to eliminate the Palestinian presence in the cities exposes how religion, when not properly contextualized, becomes both gasoline and fire, a weapon of distraction away from ongoing realities of dispossession and elimination.

An All-Consuming Fire

In May of 2021, during the final days of the sacred month of Ramadan, images of flames billowing up from the Haram al-Sharif as a frenzied crowd of Jewish Israeli religious (mostly) youth sings Biblical revenge songs in Hebrew were spread across social media. These images may come across as an expression or anticipation of an apocalyptic drama. But what they truly expose is why playing with religion could literally be like playing with an all-consuming fire. Unlike the fire burning through the biblical image of the “burning bush,” the miraculous illumination to Moses that called him to pave a path for his people’s liberation from slavery and oppression, this metaphorical ethnoreligious nationalist fire literally threatens total erasure by consolidating a Jewish supremacist regime. Now, it is clear that this all-consuming fire does not only take the shape of “bombing Gaza back to the stone age” as Benny Ganz, the current Defense Minister, boasted about his “accomplishment” (then as the Army Chief) in 2014. The fire now “spreads” to the “mixed cities” inside Israel. This offers a moment of clarity. Respectable human rights organizations have recently confirmed with ample evidence the current Israeli regime as supremacist in its ideology by  labelling it an apartheid regime. Certainly, it is hard to look at the display of Jewish ultranationalist youth singing violent Jewish songs on the plaza in front of the Western Wall where once, before 1967, the Palestinian Mughrabi Quarter had stood—that is, before it was abruptly demolished in the aftermath of the Six-Day War–and not reach the same conclusion.

Twitter post by Joint List Knesset Member Ayman Odeh, of Jewish youth celebrating Jerusalem Day and singing “Yimach shemam” (may their names be erased).

National Idolatry

Of course it is hard to escape an apocalyptic foreshadowing when the hateful chants loudly invade the soundscapes and flames from the Haram al-Sharif reach the night sky. Ominous are the images of the flames emerging from this sacred site for Muslims when they are combined with the soundtrack of genocidal Hebrew words sung in front of the Wailing Wall. This wall, it must be remembered, is the last standing remnant of the Herodian Temple. The late Jewish-Israeli sage Yeshayahu Leibowitz condemned it as a site of national idolatry. Another wall, the so-called apartheid or separation wall that has walled off the territories occupied in 1967 (but swallowed further lands in pursuit of its “security” function), has reconfigured the Western Wall as not only a locus of religious piety, but also a locus of nationalist piety. The meanings behind these walls converge when the idolatry of the nation is confused with Jewish piety. Leibowitz saw this happening long before the settler lobby and the so-called “hilltop settlers” began to explicitly dictate the tone of Israeli annexationist policies.

The image of the fire and the sounds of those singing are chilling. Conversations on social media seemed to focus on who started the fire and why. This focus on the minutiae of who started the fire, and why it was started, can seem extraneous in light of the horrific nature of these videos. Still, the details are important. In reality, the fire was likely caused by Palestinian protesters at the al-Aqsa compound, who, prior to and during the month of Ramadan have been engaging in grassroots protests against the looming dispossession of families from the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and resisting police brutality that has come in the wake of the protests. The Israeli government further escalated the situation when, on Laylat al Qadr, one of the holiest nights in the Muslim calendar, its security forces raided the mosque—which is a sacred space and a symbol of Palestinian sovereignty and resistance. Under the guise of security, road blocks were also set up to prevent Palestinian citizens of Israel access to al-Aqsa. The confluence of sacred times and spaces (national and religious) is explosive, and those pulling triggers and making decisions targeting religious celebrations may well be lighting the fuse.

Deadly Religion

As noted above, the literal flames were probably caused by a firework lit by protesters that misfired into a tree and were shortly extinguished. The Hebrew chants, like the daily and escalating violence of religious students of pre-military (supposedly Torah-centric) academies in the “mixed cities,” however, were caused by decades of ideologically driven policies of land grabbing, impunity, the manipulation of marginalized (mostly Mizrahi) communities, and the instrumentalization of religion to promote power and ideology. The flames were accidental, and their confluence with the hateful chants was coincidental, or so apologists say. The ultranationalist religious youth seen chanting were redirected to the Western Wall to avoid having their usual “flag parade,” which is the annual marking of the “liberation” or “reunification” of Jerusalem in 1967, proceed through the Muslim Quarter. This notorious annual display of violence in occupied East Jerusalem is met with routine impunity and as such reflects a cementing collusion between settlers and the institutions of the Israeli military and state. This collusion, like the marriage of convenience between secular “security” arguments and messianic settler aspirations to reconnect to the biblical landscape of “Judea and Samaria,” is ubiquitous across the “settlement project” in the West Bank and within the “mixed cities” of 1948 where settler organizations take over Palestinian homes through a variety of methods. These include legal and bureaucratic forms of torture which they have carried out in East Jerusalem or in other places where housing is constructed exclusively for Jews at the heart of Palestinian urban spaces.

The youth did not “come out of nowhere.” Instead, they are the product of an ideology, institutions, cynical power mongering, and the manipulation of, and selective retrieval from, religious traditions.

Messianic settler ideology, anti-Palestinian racism, and the logics of modern nationalism and settler colonialism converged at the Western Wall on this evening in an all-consuming fire sung to a religious tune. This did not “just happen.” The youth did not “come out of nowhere.” Instead, they are the product of an ideology, institutions, cynical power mongering, and the manipulation of, and selective retrieval from, religious traditions. For example, the Torah is often read even within the secular education system as a land title. This amounts to “playing with religion” to advance the settler-colonial business of land seizure and the reshaping of the landscape through ethnic cleansing and the Judaizing of spaces. This is carried out in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem one house at a time, as the residents who will soon be dispossessed from Sheikh Jarrah can attest. The flames by the Haram al-Sharif caused by the Palestinian firework are the kind of accident that happens when one plays with fire. The display of ultranationalist Jewish hate and violence is the kind of religion one gets when religion, both a potential gasoline and fire, is turned into a deadly weapon.

Sacred Times, Sacred Spaces: A Predictable Script for Escalation

The seeming speed and ease of the escalation is also indicative of a cynical awareness of the explosive potential of arbitrary violations of an otherwise delicate status quo in Jerusalem around the management of sacred spaces and sacred times. The question is whose political expediency is served by the current escalation? The answer very likely points us back to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s precarious political situation. Under indictment for corruption and unable to form a coalition after a fourth round of elections in two years, despite bringing explicit anti-Palestinian racism to the Knesset in the form of coalition bargaining with political actors who openly advocate for ethnic cleansing, Netanyahu stands to benefit from a war. This is a familiar script to enhance “national unity” in the face of Hamas’ rockets. As Gaza is bombarded by massive artillery and whole families are buried under the rubble of their own homes, the Kahanists roam the streets and direct their murderous supremacist ideology against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. These are lynch mobs that operate with impunity. Yes, al-Aqsa, Jaffa, Haifa, and Akka (centers of Palestinians within the Green Line) are all interconnected in their experience of anti-Palestinian racism. This recent escalation clarifies the consistency between settler violence within and beyond the 1948 demarcations. How to trigger this escalation? When millions are under constant control and oppression, as is the case for 1967 and 1948 Palestinians, igniting a fire usually follows predictable patterns. The violation of sacred time and space, more often than not, serves as the gasoline.

Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem, 8 June 2020. The Jerusalem Municipality offers Palestinian residents of Jerusalem two options: to demolish their own homes or wait for the municipality’s heavy machinery to do it. The latter will force them to pay huge fines. Photo: ‘Amer ‘Aruri, B’Tselem. CC 4.0.

To highlight the anatomy of power is not the same as saying that “real” religion or theology have nothing to do with the eruption of overt violence in May 2021. It is rather to say that religion is inextricably bound up with these forms of power, and needs to be engaged as such. An analysis of “religion” separated from power conveniently extracts it from the story of modernity and colonialism, exonerating it from the ways in which it is implicated in supremacist structures and ideologies. Violent raids of the Haram al-Sharif during Ramadan primed Hamas to fire rockets, using its unsophisticated military weapons to express an outrage against this provocation. The result is an Israeli fallback on its script of Jewish self-defense. With Israeli families now sleeping in bomb shelters (not available in Gaza), religion has operated as planned to distract from the ongoing processes of land grabbing and disregard for Palestinian lives. It remains to be seen if it will also serve to shore up a failing political career.

An Apocalyptic Optic Versus a Deadly Reality

What is the relation between al-Aqsa and Gaza? Some reacted to the viral clips of fire and chanting with self-righteous anger, claiming that it was all coincidental and simply bad optics. Absurdly, they underscore that the ultranationalist youth were at the site because they were rerouted there by the authorities. They were supposed to be in the Muslim Quarter as they are each year during the supremacist “flag parade,” not dancing in front of the Wailing Wall at the time of the accidental fire. This misses the point: this bad and viral apocalyptic “optic” has been an ongoing Palestinian reality. Just a few weeks prior, and as part of the malignant facilitation of the escalation in Jerusalem, a similar display of Jewish supremacist hate and violence likewise provoked and bullied Palestinians. The latter were already on edge due to the pending dispossession of Palestinian refugee families from their properties in Sheikh Jarrah and the arbitrary Ramadan-related restrictions (decreed by the Netanyahu regime in the form of the Jerusalem police) placed on gathering on the wide steps of the Damascus Gate as is common on the festive nights of Ramadan after the iftar meal. These explicit displays of Jewish supremacy at the heart of Palestinian spaces is not new. Nor is the overt racism of one of the groups associated with it, Lehava. The latter is notorious for its long-standing “policing” of potential or apparent miscegenation in West Jerusalem’s Zion Square. There its “troops’” patrol on a regular basis and especially after Shabbat on Saturday nights. This obsession with purity is, on the one hand, an inheritance of Meir Kahane, the Rabbi agitator from Brooklyn, and cofounder of the Jewish Defense League, who imported internalized racial antisemitism and American racial categories to the Israeli scene. Kahane was assassinated and his party outlawed, but Kahanism has endured and thanks to Netanyahu is now fully emboldened in the Knesset. It has endured because Jewish supremacy has always been, if perhaps occasionally articulated more nicely, a part of Zionism as a Jewish nationalist project. To be Jewish (and democratic) otherwise in the context of Palestine/Israel will require relinquishing this supremacist logic that privileges Jews over non-Jews. The obsession with purity of blood and with the related “ethnic cleansing” of Palestine/Israel are all inheritances of modernity and Christian Europe.

The violent raids in al-Aqsa resulted not only in a small accidental fire. It triggered an escalation into another round of assaults on Gaza and rocket fire from Hamas, refocusing attention on Jewish security and self-defense. This shift from al-Aqsa and the showdown against nonviolent protestors to Gaza and the easy deployment of orientalist rhetoric (e.g. “these barbarians use civilians as human shields”) shows how triggering apocalyptic images in sacred spaces and during sacred times distracts from the concrete analysis of the relation between al-Aqsa and Gaza: the ongoing and historical occupation and patterns of dispossession. Like most Gazans, the Palestinians of Sheikh Jarrah are refugees from the time of the Nakba. Israel’s effort to control the narrative prefers apocalyptic explanations that tread on (modernist) orientalist tropes. Such paradigms prevent us from connecting these dots in relation to political and historical time and space.

Al Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem. Photo Credit: MissyKel, 2006. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Hence, what appears to be an intentional escalation of tensions and explicit displays of violence during the month of Ramadan predictably provoked Hamas to fire rockets. Why? The Haram al-Sharif has been a national as well as a religious pivot for Palestinian nationalism and resistance. Its violation constitutes an assault to which Hamas was provoked to respond by firing rockets from Gaza. This move helped Israeli decision-makers revert to their familiar script of brutally “mowing the lawn” in Gaza using the claim of “self-defense.” This predictable script refocuses attention away from the international support Palestinian activists in the occupied neighborhoods of East Jerusalem garnered in advance of their looming dispossession from their homes. This settler colonial logic and the experiences of land seizure constitute the thread that links the Judaization of Jerusalem with the enduring imprisonment of Gazans in their open-air prison. These experiences cannot be reduced to vague apocalyptic optics, or mirages.

The Apocalypse Does Not Just Happen

The powerful images of an end-time Armageddon, brought about by a religious war, are blurred when other images come into focus, like the hunger for power of political opportunists such as Netanyahu. The apocalypse does not just happen. The assault on Gaza under the pretext of defending Israel against the besieged strip and its armed movement’s violent expression of resistance to the Israeli security forces’ desecration of the al-Aqsa mosque exposes the delicacy of the so called “status quo” of the religious sites in Jerusalem. These sites come loaded with symbolism and layers of histories and messianic aspirations, and are indeed deeply related to the prolonged history of the occupation of Palestinians. Playing with fire and religion in al-Aqsa exposes how religion operates within the ideology that structures the occupation that links the refugees of Sheikh Jarrah and their resistance against looming dispossession to the refugees of Gaza. This link exists despite decades of an Israeli policy of fragmentation has sought to disconnect Gaza from the West Bank and the rest of the Palestinian communities.

The “eruptions” of violent Palestinian expressions of overt resistance which also results in Jewish Israeli loss of life and suffering may also offer glimpses into the routine forms of violence represented by decades of an entrenched occupation and an apartheid regime. Religion intersects with and animates the routine violence just as much as it triggers apocalyptic fears and aspirations. Such escalations, if we are willing to look, illuminate the ongoing architecture of a supremacist ideology and reveal what happens when you play with combustible religion. The apocalypse does not just happen because of one misdirected firework. It’s up to us to look beneath to how the pyre and tinder were built.

Atalia Omer
Atalia Omer, Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame is also the Co-Director of Contending Modernities. She earned her Ph.D. from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. Her research has focused primarily on a systematic study of religion, violence, and the practices of peace, the dynamics of ethno-national conflicts, political and social theory, the theoretical study of religion and society, and the theoretical study of the interrelation between religion, nationalism, and questions of justice, peace, and conflict.
Her recent book Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians  (University of Chicago Press, 2019) examines American Jewish ethical and political transformations as part of their Palestine solidarity activism. The book examines Jews politically inspired by social justice campaigns and how these experiences are generative of innovations within Jewish tradition, including its re-conceptualization as prophetic, multiracial, and intersectional. Her first book, When Peace is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice  (University of Chicago Press, 2013) highlights how hybrid identities may provide creative resources for peacebuilding, especially in ethno-religious national conflicts where political agendas are informed by particularistic and often purist conceptions of identity. She is also co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding (2015). Omer also received in 2017 an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship to pursue research for a book tentatively titled  Global Religion, Peacebuilding and the Perils of Development: Beyond Neoliberalism and Orientalism
Global Currents article

Uyghur Religious Heritage under China’s “Anti-Religious Extremism” Campaigns

Sultanim (Shrine on Horizon), 2014. This marker is from a holy site known locally as Sultanim Mazar located in the Yarkand prefecture. At this site there was a Qabristanliq or cemetery for local burials and family members regularly come to pray for and visit their loved ones who have passed. There was also a Khaniqah, which is an enclosed shelter for ritual activity and prayer, and there were multiple markers for important historic persons and Muslim saints. Image and description courtesy of Lisa Ross.

Over the past few years, government authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China have destroyed large swathes of the religious heritage of the Turkic Muslim Uyghurs. This campaign of demolition has proceeded in tandem with the heavy securitization of the region, mass incarcerations, and attacks on the Uyghur language and other aspects of their cultural identity. Although China has justified these moves as necessary to counter terrorism, its actions arguably amount to what UNESCO calls “strategic cultural cleansing”: the deliberate targeting of individuals and groups on the basis of their cultural, ethnic, or religious affiliation, combined with the intentional and systematic destruction of cultural heritage. This attempt to remodel the region’s cultural landscape is impelled by the strategic and economic objectives of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi Jinping’s keystone policy introduced in 2013, which aims to secure access to the region’s natural resources and transform Xinjiang into a platform to expand China’s influence and trade across Asia.

Over the past two decades, China has become a key player in the international heritage sphere, and has developed its own unique approach to heritage management. Cultural heritage is linked to political goals. It serves as a resource for political legitimacy and soft power and is used as an asset to boost local economic development. China’s leading role in inscribing the Silk Road on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 2014 demonstrates how it positions itself as an international heritage leader and how closely its heritage strategy is aligned with its economic and political goals.

In Xinjiang, the management of Uyghur cultural heritage has been tightly tied to government attempts to deepen control over the region. The Xinjiang government has used Uyghur heritage as a cultural resource to develop the tourism industry. Tourism initiatives are typically led by Chinese companies, and benefits to Uyghurs have been uneven. The growth of tourism facilitates the movement of Han Chinese into the region, both as short-term visitors and permanent settlers, and provides additional justification for the repressive securitization policies which are deemed necessary to stabilize the region.

Uyghur culture, in the form of the Muqam musical repertoire and Meshrep community gatherings, is strongly represented on UNESCO’s lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and numerous items of Uyghur religious heritage—mosques and shrines—are included on China’s own national and regional heritage lists. Although recognized heritage sites should be protected under national laws, over the past few years thousands of mosques and shrines, including protected sites, have been fully or partly demolished. China argues that government management of Uyghur culture is necessary to protect it from religious extremism. In fact—as evidenced by the large-scale destruction of sacred sites, prohibitions on Uyghur language and literature, and disruption of Uyghur communities since 2017—the biggest threats to Uyghur heritage and culture are the policies of the Chinese government itself.

Mosques, Shrines, and the Transmission of Uyghur History

Up until the 1950s, when the Xinjiang region was incorporated into the Peoples’ Republic of China, religious institutions were central to social and economic life. In the early 1950s, Kashgar region alone had 12,918 mosques. The major festival mosques were the site of mass celebrations at the festivals of Eid and Qurban. Madrasahs (religious schools) provided the main source of formal education for Uyghur boys. The most distinctive and significant aspect of religious life centered around the shrines—tombs of martyrs and saints—which were popular pilgrimage destinations and held their own festivals celebrating the saints.

The spread of Islam into this region started in the tenth century with the conversion of the rulers of the Turkic Qarakhanid dynasty and their conquest of neighboring Buddhist kingdoms. Sufi orders played an important role in the introduction of Islam. Sufi sheykhs were respected as community leaders, and venerated for their spiritual powers. Revered in life as well as in death, the shrines of these historical leaders and saints became important sites of pilgrimage. These saints and their shrines have played a crucial role in the culture and history of the region.

Most of these shrines are not major architectural monuments. Some of the most important shrines are simple mud brick constructions, distinguished visually by the huge temporary structures made up of “spirit flags” which are brought by pilgrims and attached to the shrine or tied together in tall flag mountains.

Religious Revival and “Strike Hard” Campaigns

In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, and with the relaxing of controls on religious life, Uyghurs began to return to their faith, and new forms of piety began to permeate Uyghur society. These trends mirrored revival movements across post-Soviet Central Asia and Hui Muslim Chinese communities. During my visits to the region over the past twenty years, I saw many people returning to family traditions of prayer, fasting, and modest dress; sending their children to Qur’an school, saving money to go on the hajj. An important aspect of the revival was the building or reconstruction of community mosques. Local communities and individual donors raised money to build impressive structures that reflected a renewed pride in the faith, and new community confidence and prosperity.

The Keriya Grand Mosque, 2014, seen here with many visitors. The building no longer exists. Photo Courtesy of Ruth Ingram and Bitter Winter.

Already by the 1990s, the Xinjiang authorities were viewing these developments with deep suspicion. A series of “strike hard” campaigns began to target religious life. Everyday practices, such as daily prayer and fasting, veiling or growing beards, were criticized as antisocial. Activities central to Uyghur culture, including shrine pilgrimage and religious instruction of children, were designated “illegal religious activities.”

Soon after the US announcement of a “Global War on Terror,” China began to adopt the rhetoric of religious extremism and terrorism, drawing on internationally circulating tropes of Islamophobia to justify its actions against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities: actions which were increasingly taking the form of cultural cleansing. Activities previously designated “illegal religious activities” were now dubbed “religious extremism.” State media began to designate local incidences of violence as “terrorist incidents” although the specific reasons underlying local violence were more often to do with local power struggles, official corruption, and police brutality.

In May 2014, the recently appointed President Xi Jinping called for the construction of “walls made of copper and steel” to defend Xinjiang against terrorism. Uyghurs’ passports were confiscated, ties with the outside world were cut off, a tight net of surveillance tracked their every movement, and construction began on the system of mass internment camps.

The “Mosque Rectification” Campaign

Rather than targeting the small number of people who might reasonably be judged vulnerable to radicalization and violent action, the anti-religious extremism campaign in Xinjiang targeted all expressions of Islamic faith, and it removed swathes of Islamic architecture from Uyghur towns. Beginning in 2015, and greatly accelerating in 2017, the Xinjiang authorities demolished thousands of mosques under a “mosque rectification” campaign. Many were condemned on the grounds that they were unsafe structures that posed a safety threat for worshippers. Others had their distinctive architectural features, such as domes and minarets, removed. All of this formed a part of the national campaign to “Sinicize” religion, introduced under Xi Jinping to implement his vision of Chineseness as narrowly centred on Han Chinese culture, with “foreign” religious influences increasingly regarded as a threat to stability.

Recent investigations have provided extensive evidence of the demolition or modification of thousands of Uyghur mosques and several shrines (using satellite imagery to verify each site). Not only was the built heritage destroyed. Rahile Dawut, a Uyghur academic who had dedicated her life to documenting the shrines, was detained shortly before the demolitions in November 2017, one among hundreds of disappeared intellectuals and cultural leaders. She remains in an internment camp at the time of writing.

Many Uyghur cemeteries were also destroyed or relocated during this period. The extremely rapid program of removing human remains and bulldozing structures left local people (even if they were not incarcerated in the camps) scant time to reclaim the bones of their family members. Important historical shrines have been destroyed along with the cemeteries. Khotan’s Sultanim Cemetery, for example, has a history of over 1,000 years. It contained the shrine of the Four Sultans, an important pilgrimage site, and many other significant figures in Khotan’s history were buried in this cemetery. In March 2019, disinterment notices appeared around the city of Khotan, warning that the cemetery would be demolished within three days. According to satellite images, the site was completely flattened by April 2019, and part of the cemetery appeared to be in use as a parking lot.

Although the authorities have tried to justify the destruction or relocation of cemeteries by the demands of urban development, it is clear that these moves form part of the wider effort to disrupt communities and break the transmission of Uyghur culture. Such projects of development and securitization attempt to remodel the cultural landscape and to re-engineer the desires and actions of its inhabitants. In Xinjiang, this campaign of demolition came hand in hand with the heavy securitization of the region, mass incarcerations, and physical violence inflicted by state forces on Uyghur bodies in the form of enforced sterilization, and documented instances of rape and torture in the camps. Increasing numbers of independent observers and national governments have argued that China’s policies in Xinjiang amount to a deliberate act of genocide. It is important to note that the systematic destruction of cultural and religious heritage—as we have seen with the mosques, cemeteries, and shrines of the Uyghurs—has historically been deployed as a way to weaken the culture and identity of a people, part of a wider strategy of dehumanization which typically paves the way for the physical atrocities which lie at the heart of our understandings of genocide.

Rachel Harris
Rachel Harris is Professor of Ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London. Her research focuses on religious and expressive culture among the Uyghurs. Her latest book Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam (2020) was published by Indiana University Press in November 2020, and an edited volume, Ethnographies of Islam in China, came out with Hawaii University Press in January 2021. She is currently working on a Sustainable Development Project on revitalizing Uyghur cultural heritage in Kazakhstan.
Theorizing Modernities article

Law and Politics under the Abbasids: A Symposium

In her formidable study of the intellectual project and life of Abū l-Maʿālī al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085), Law and Politics under the Abbasids: An Intellectual Portrait of al-Juwayni, Sohaira Siddiqui makes a number of significant interventions. Among these contributions, she urges historians to read across genres—not to disregard the conventions governing premodern scholarly production, but to throw underlying coherence into greater relief. The coherence in the Juwaynian project is by no means assumed in this book. Rather, it is demonstrated through a painstaking reading of a number of his most influential texts in the domains of legal theory and theology. The relationship of al-Juwaynī’s central concerns of certainty and continuity to his historical and social context is carefully argued. In fact, the fundaments of religion and society themselves, Siddiqui indicates, were perceived to be under threat during this period. As Omid Safi has highlighted in his Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, the early Saljuq regime considered doing away with the Abbasid Caliph altogether (39). Sectarianism had riven the legal and theological communities, fracturing them into mutually hostile Ḥanafī-Shāfiʿī and Muʿtazilī-Ashʿarī camps. Most spectacularly, this rivalry led to al-Juwaynī’s surreptitious flight from Nishapur in 446/1054, following which orders were issued for his arrest (47). This is the backdrop against which al-Juwaynī labored to guarantee a basic minimum of certainty and continuity to religious life. It is worth pausing to unpack these two themes of the Juwaynian corpus and to explore how they relate to Siddiqui’s broader argument. I offer this summary by way of preface to my own engagement with the book’s arguments in my own post. My colleagues, Mohammad Fadel, Joshua Ralston, Walid Saleh and Mariam Sheibani will each contribute pieces on their reactions to the book and its implications for the field. The author will offer a response following the publication of all the pieces.

While jurists had come to recognize and even valorize a measure of uncertainty in their discipline, theology required absolute certainty (qaṭʿ). Al-Juwaynī introduced foundational changes to Ashʿarī epistemology, extending the domain of certainty to include forms of knowledge acquired through habitual or customary practice: this is “practical certainty,” and is equivalent to the kind of certainty acquired through exhaustive ratiocination. Siddiqui helpfully gives the example of learning how to drive: with experience, the process becomes second nature, and our knowledge of how to carry it out practically certain (126). While different forms of knowledge are distinct in terms of the paths to their acquisition or the cognitive capacity of individual reasoners, once acquired as certain, they are functionally equivalent (127–28). Thus, the conclusions of individual jurists can possess certainty, without infringing on the validity of legal pluralism. The second major pole of al-Juwaynī’s thought, continuity, enjoys a dialectical relationship with certainty, and the two can never be invoked singly. In certain areas of his thought, such as aspects of legal theory, al-Juwaynī prioritizes continuity where certainty proves unattainable. For example, he accepts the need for qiyās al-shabah, the more dubious form of juristic analogy from resemblances between two legal cases, based on his commitment to continuity and universality in the law. Though uncertain, this technique allows the jurist to extend Divine writ to embrace all conceivable human acts, thus ensuring the law’s completeness, and the continuity of the juristic enterprise (216). But the certainty-continuity dialectic is never a zero-sum game. Even in the case of qiyās al-shabah, al-Juwaynī circumscribes the possibilities for divergence by limiting its exercise to competent legal authorities (muftīmujtahids, 227–28). The full contours of the certainty-continuity relationship appear most clearly in al-Juwaynī’s political thought, a point I shall revisit in my own essay for this symposium.

Though al-Juwaynī made seminal contributions to a number of fields, his arguments were not always widely accepted, or have not always received the recognition they deserve in modern scholarship. For example, al-Juwaynī seems to have played an important role in preparing the ground for a comprehensive Ashʿarī response to Muslim Neoplatonism (Falsafa, 14–15), a point that still remains largely unacknowledged. This likely owes something to his most outstanding student, al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111), whose own innovations are typically accepted to have outshone those of his master. In the domain of legal theory, al-Juwaynī held that the usual juristic proofs offered for the principle of ijmāʿ (consensus) were insufficient, based as they were either on ambiguous Qurʾānic verses or insufficiently attested ḥadīths (163), a view that was not popular among later generations (179–81). There was somewhat less hostility towards his position on tawātur (concurrence) in ḥadīths (156–58). Al-Juwaynī eschewed the formalist stipulation of a minimum number of transmitters for tawātur, which could only ever be arbitrary. Instead, he stressed the circumstances accompanying transmission (i.e. qarāʾin al-ṣidq), which could elevate the contents of the report to the level of certainty even in the absence of broader attestation. The sight of a baby on the lap of his or her wet-nurse accompanied by the sounds of suckling are sufficient proof of feeding, even if the witness does not observe milk flowing into the infant’s mouth (151).

The key themes of al-Juwaynī’s corpus continue to resonate today: believers of all stripes remain interested in the sources of ethical reasoning, and how clearly particular norms can be attributed to their respective traditions. Continuity raises issues of religious authority, likewise a subject of perennial importance.
Omar Anchassi
Omar Anchassi is an Early Career Fellow in Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on Islamic law, theology, and Qurʾānic Studies.
Theorizing Modernities article

Introduction to Symposium on A Twentieth-Century Crusade

In A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican’s Battle to Remake Christian Europe, Giuliana Chamedes presents the heretofore understudied history of Catholic international diplomacy in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Training her attention especially on the periods around the two world wars, Chamedes shows how the Vatican sought to shape the political and social life of Europe by signing concordats—“bilateral treat[ies] that would bind the Church and nation-state together under international law” (3)—with various European nations. These concordats lent legitimacy to both the status of the Vatican as the spiritual and political center of Europe and to the burgeoning nation states that came into being following the first world war and were eager for international recognition. The Vatican’s goal through the signing of these concordats was indeed to “remake Christian Europe” into something that mirrored a medieval past where the Vatican stood at the center of Europe. For these concordats often stipulated that the state would implement laws that reflected Catholic contemporary Catholic doctrine (concerning marriage and divorce, for example) and maintain Catholic educational systems.

During this time period, the Vatican perceived that communism was the primary threat to implementing this goal. During World War I, while the Vatican also expressed anxiety around the rise of political and economic liberalism, as well as socialism, communism was its primary concern. As Chamedes also demonstrates, quite often this anti-communism was imbued with older forms of antisemitism that had been given new life in the myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism” during this time period. In its bid to combat the rise of communism, Chamedes shows, the Vatican played an active role in shaping the nation-state, defining the boundaries between public and private religion, and demarcating the meanings of the religious and secular.

As the book demonstrates in careful detail, the Vatican’s obsession with communism was in fact what led it to sometimes aid, and at other times remain silent on, the rise of fascism in the lead up to World War II. Indeed, while there were internal debates surrounding how the Vatican should respond to Mussolini and Hitler’s rise, more often than not in its public facing documents the Vatican ignored the atrocities being committed by these leaders, and instead returned to communism as the primary evil that the Church should focus on eliminating. The Vatican’s complicity in the rise of these brutal regimes, and the Holocaust, remains a ghost that haunts the Church to this day.

As Chamedes notes, even if the center of institutional power of the Church did not address the rise of fascism, lay Catholics and theologians did at times speak out, condemning fascism and seeking points of dialogue with communists and socialists. There was indeed during these times “A War for the Soul of Catholicism” as the title of chapter 7 of the book reflects. It is the tension between how one might have wanted the Church to act, and how it did in fact act, that drives two of the responses to this symposium.

Scott Appleby, drawing on Atalia Omer’s concept of the critical caretaker, reflects on how the theologian or scholar of Catholicism might confront and indeed offer alternatives to the authoritarian vision of Catholicism that animated the views of the Vatican during the early- and mid-twentieth century. In his essay, Toussaint Kafahire, himself a priest and theologian, also grapples with these questions and confronts the fact that the Vatican’s political maneuvering led it to make alliances with fascist governments that betrayed what he sees as the true mission of the Church.

Approaching Chamedes’s book as a fellow historian, Paul Hanebrink reflects on the dynamic relationship between political and religious rhetoric. More specifically he contends that it is important to not only attend to the way political rhetoric is often influenced by religious convictions, but also the reverse, that is, how political convictions influence the way one understands religion. He also suggests that even though the official days of concordat diplomacy are now past, the idea of “remaking Christian Europe” survives to this day in figures like Viktor Orbán, the current Prime Minister of Hungary. Cara Burnidge likewise approaches the book as an historian, contending that Chamedes’s book can be of aid to religious studies scholars seeking to understand how religious institutions have changed in the modern world in light of novel political and social situations. Bringing her own research on Woodrow Wilson into conversation with Chamedes, she also suggests that different notions of “Christianizing” were contending with one another at this time.

Finally, in her response, Chamedes reflects on the notion of the critical caretaker, as well as Burnidge’s concern with competing notions of Christianity and Hanebrink’s attention to the dynamic ways that political and religious language have influenced one another.

In his first blog post for the Contending Modernities project, Scott Appleby wrote, “Neither Catholics, Muslims, or Seculars have been passive recipients of the developments and processes associated with modernity. Rather, each has shaped, resisted, accommodated and adapted to the growing explanatory powers of science; the encompassing reach of the modern nation-state; the differentiation between religion and state, public and private realms; the dynamics of global markets and mass media communication; and other constituent elements of ‘the modern world.’” By uncovering key dynamics of how powerful representatives of the Catholic tradition “shaped, resisted, and accommodated” the modern nation state, and indeed continues to do so, Chamedes’s work, and this symposium, continue the work of unpacking the forces of secularism, religion, and modernity.

Joshua Lupo
Joshua Lupo is the editor and writer for the Contending Modernities Blog and the classroom coordinator for the Madrasa Discourses program. He has published articles and reviews in Soundings, Reading Religion, Sophia, and Religious Studies Review. His current book project is titled After Essentialism: A Critical Phenomenology for the Study of Religion.
Global Currents article

Notes on the Coup in Myanmar: Karmic Kingship, Legitimacy, and Sovereignty

Protester holds signs featuring images of Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing during February 14, 2021 protest in Myanmar. Via Wikimedia Commons. Photo Credit: MgHla (aka) Htin Linn Aye.

For more than half a century, Myanmar’s military generals have based their political legitimacy on the claim that they were protectors of the realm, caretakers of Buddhism, and defenders of the people’s sovereignty in the evolution toward self-governance. In Burmese Buddhism, power is thought to be activated through moral acts and prior karmic inheritance that transforms the self and reality. Political authority is thus a sign of personal karmic election. Pre-colonial ideas of classical Buddhist kingship have endured throughout post-Independence political arrangements, as every ruler has sought to demonstrate their standing as a spiritually potent (hpoun) sovereign. From this principle emerges the notion of karmic kingship, a concept that can help us interpret current events in Myanmar.

An Unstable Diarchy

Myanmar’s fragile ten-year experiment with democracy appeared to draw to a shocking close in the pre-dawn hours of February 1, 2021. Following an electoral repudiation of the military’s (Tatmadaw’s) proxy Union Solidarity Development Party in the November 2020 elections, commander-in-chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, on the back of the claim of a “stolen election,” invoked Article 417 of the Constitution and imposed martial law. Although Article 417 states that only the President can declare a state of emergency, the military appropriated this right for itself in the name of protecting the people’s sovereignty. Min Aung Hlaing contends that Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party have been insufficiently committed to democracy. If necessary, he announced, the Constitution itself could be revoked.

Myanmar’s democratic Constitution was drafted by the military government in 2008 subsequent to the Saffron Revolution, in which the military violently suppressed monks’ protests. These events were followed soon after by the devastating Cyclone Nargis.

Cyclone Nargis resulted in more than 140,000 deaths. The event was made by interpreters to conform to folk beliefs that natural disasters are a consequence of the actions of evil kings who disrupt the moral order and law (Dhamma). Sovereign and state are held to be in alignment; karmic effects of a king’s actions are visited upon the people. The storm was interpreted as a cosmic repudiation of General Than Shwe in particular, who had earned the nickname “Monk-killer Than Shwe.” Rumor had it that at any moment he might be swallowed up by the ground and dragged down to the hell realms.

The General did not take these prophesies lightly. On the advice of his personal astrologer,[1] a constitutional referendum was rammed through with a hasty election before the “waxing of the next moon”—even while the dead remained unburied and hundreds of thousands more were displaced and starving. Rumor and gossip, which had become the media for vox populi during half a century of repression, averred that the karmic stores sustaining Than Shwe’s power had “dried up,” and with it his legitimacy to rule. Than Shwe countered these claims with merit-making activities, pagoda construction, and offertories to the Sangha (monks). He had these efforts reported upon ceaselessly in the national news media. Rumors also circulated that the General was resorting to black magic rites and “reversal of karma” rituals (yadaya) in the attempt to rejuvenate and sustain his power stores.

It is in the context of these events that the 2008 Constitution needs to be understood, i.e., as a desperate attempt by the military to stabilize its power at the very moment they had lost their mandate as legitimate representatives of the moral karmic order. The claim, in 2008 as today, that they alone can grant or revoke democratic civilian power-sharing is as much a statement about the de facto truth of ongoing military might as an assertion of the karmic legitimacy of its leaders.

The Constitution, which was to enshrine the people’s sovereignty, therefore unsurprisingly contained the caveat of mandatory power-sharing with the military. It gave the appearance of a transition away from military rule, while in reality it was a re-entrenchment of power by alternate means. In result, after 2008, rulership of the country could be described as an unstable diarchy: not one government, but two, each with its own portfolios, registers of authority, and claims to legitimacy.

Competing Sources of Legitimacy

Ostensibly, shared civilian-military rule after 2008 meant a stepwise lessening of authoritarian rule. Western observers tended to regard the post-2008 period as an almost inexorable transition to democracy. The country was now “open for business,” as President Obama declared; the long-frustrated hopes of a subjugated people would be realized at last. In practice, politics proceeded as usual in conformity with Burmese Buddhist principles concerning the sources of power and conditions for political legitimacy. Through these means, and by periodic threat of force, the military managed to maintain its grip on the leash of fledgling democracy. Today as well, the country’s political future remains subject to the politics of legitimacy defined by the attempt of those vying for power to demonstrate karmic election to worldly authority.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s political worldview has, because of this unobvious context, often been misinterpreted by outside observers. By now it should be more evident that she has been negotiating between two divergent models for political legitimacy and sovereignty. On the one hand are western principles of human rights and democracy, on the other is karmic kingship.

During her house arrest between 1989 and 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was extolled as a symbol for human rights and democracy and as a witness to their ongoing violation under authoritarian rule. For the Burmese Buddhist majority, the desire for freedom from military rule has not always been identical to the desire for democracy, however, as western journalists have assumed. Generations had grown up isolated from the world under authoritarian rule; their imaginations of freedom drew more proximally from Buddhist sources than from western ones. Exposed as a student at Oxford to western democratic ideals, as a politician Aung San Suu Kyi sought to translate and align these to domestic Burmese Buddhist political culture. Attempting to thread that needle while remaining subject to the military’s de facto minority rule required skills of statecraft that apparently exceeded her capabilities.

Upon ascent to political power, Aung San Suu Kyi undertook a pragmatic approach to instituting a shared framework of the rule of law and establishing its procedures in Myanmar’s Constitution. Her aim to change the Tatmadaw-scripted Constitution, and indeed to “send the military back to the barracks,” put her in direct competition with the Tatmadaw’s design to retain power. Her efforts to solidify her personal power and that of her NLD Party proceeded on the one hand through the ballot box. On the other, she had to vie in the accustomed Burmese Buddhist pattern of elite rivalry among political contenders for the right to rule through demonstrations of their karmic accord with moral Buddhist order.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s effort to carve out more space for civilian representation in government with the eventual goal of reforming the 2008 Constitution and subordinating the military required broad public support from the majority Burmese Buddhist public whose devotion was not primarily to democratic ideals but to the universalistic ethic of Dhamma, the moral law. This split goal or orientation resulted in the compromise the world witnessed as Aung San Suu Kyi’s tacit endorsement of ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state. Apparently, Aung San Suu Kyi compromised democratic principles of human rights in the belief that only once the Bamar majority became free of military power could ethnic minority freedoms be addressed.

Protestor holds up three-finger salute during a protest against the military coup in Myanmar. The three-finger salute originates in book and film series The Hunger Games as a signal of rebellion against tyrannical rule. It was also widely used during protests in Thailand in 2014 and has been a popular symbol throughout Southeast Asia. Via Wikimedia Commons. Photo Credit: VOA Burmese.

The power struggle between the Tatmadaw (military) and NLD (civilian) governments evolved into an elite struggle with its own political dynamics that locked them in an arrangement of preserving the existential status of the other in order to preserve themselves. This is because it was the military that ultimately afforded civilian governance the space to operate, while the civilian government gave democratic and political legitimacy to the military in the international sphere. This would explain why Aung San Suu Kyi has been willing to speak in support of the military, even going so far as to shield them at the International Court of Justice on charges of genocide.

On the populist side, Aung San Suu Kyi abjured human rights in favor of espousing illiberal popular beliefs about the priority of protecting the religion against imagined enemies such as the Muslims and Rohingya—a classic obligation of a Burmese Buddhist king. (Although, it should be noted, that this particular nationalist and xenophobic version of Buddhist “caretaking” was not a necessary condition of Buddhist statecraft. Rather, it was a strain promoted and enflamed by the military who sought to present themselves as Buddhist defenders and to divide support for Aung San Suu Kyi either by exposing her as insufficiently Buddhist in her desire to promote Democracy or to expose her to the International community as insufficiently democratic in her desire to promote Buddhist nationalism.) To this extent, Aung San Suu Kyi participated in the logic and practice of karmic kingship. In order to maintain her political power, she prioritized protection of the Buddhist realm in order to sustain support of the majority she required to rule by democratic criteria of the sovereignty of the people.

The rivalry with military leader Min Aung Hlaing was also personal. Voters in the 2020 elections sought to shift the balance of power decisively toward civilian rule, and for a time Aung San Suu Kyi looked poised to succeed at shifting the balance of power to the favor of her ruling party. Min Aung Hlaing, who in July faces mandatory retirement from his position as head of the military, reportedly approached Aung San Suu Kyi requesting that she offer him the presidency in the new Parliament (a role decided upon by Parliamentarians and not by popular vote). She reportedly rejected his request, effectively blocking him from achieving any path to political power either within the military or the government. The move humiliated the General. Moreover, with his name specifically targeted in the ICJ Report as responsible for crimes against humanity, the status of his family’s vast (ill gotten) businesses was likewise threatened. He was politically, personally, and financially cornered. The only path forward was to revoke democracy and presume the path of a world conquering king.

Where Does Karmic Kingship Come from?

Pre-colonial political culture saw the rise and fall of kings as directly related to the store of their hpon, a karmic source of spiritual potency accumulated through meritorious deeds supporting the religion and the monkhood, sangha. The sovereign was mimetically equated with the Buddhist state such that Myanmar’s 800-year history of kingship was simultaneously a history of the preservation and expansion of the Buddha’s teachings and sacred realm, the sasana.[2]

Monk posing with a former Myanmar king and a wizard statue.

Following the rupture of Buddhist kingship under British colonialism, Burma’s (later Myanmar’s) governments all sought political legitimacy in Buddhist monarchical terms, continuing the moral order and causative criteria that had governed Burmese Buddhist ideas of power and authority for centuries prior. In modern times, too, the association of royal symbols with modern statecraft is not just a pairing in the metaphorical sense. Each of Myanmar’s post-Independence military rulers have laid claim to being reincarnations of previous Myanmar kings or bodhisattva kings prophesized to come; in other words, they have acted as pretenders to the throne.

The first post-Independence prime minister U Nu’s vision of a Buddhist welfare society, for instance, drew on ideas of bodhisattva kings whose future Buddhahood certified their worthiness to rule. Drawing on cultural myths and symbolism of the Ashokan Buddhist kingship model in which the state was expanded through conquest, pacification, and Buddhist conversion, U Nu’s military successors drew on a kingship model as well; the state saw its role in terms of unifying and protecting those seen as belonging to the greater Burmese Buddhist order. Dissemination of Buddhism is a virtuous, legitimate undertaking for a king, and the unification (and subordination) of peoples to a national idea of Burmese Buddhist identity was iterated in this model.


Myanmar has a long way to go before it can complete the unfinished business of nation-state building that will entail integrating the various ethnic minorities in a federal democracy, defining who is a citizen, establishing the conditions of authority, and affirming the rule of law. At stake in the current confrontation are the rules of the political game itself, about what kind of political system Myanmar is to have. What we are seeing is not just a contest between authoritarianism and democracy, which it also is, but a contest between two distinct ideas of sovereignty, one based on the will of the people and the other based on the idea of karmic kingship.

[1] See also Andrew Selth, Interpreting Myanmar: A Decade of Analysis.

[2] For more background information on this topic, see Aung- Michael Thwin, Pagan: The Origins of Modern Burma,  and Ingrid Jordt, Burma’s Mass Lay Meditation Movement: Buddhism and the Cultural Construction of Power.

Ingrid Jordt
Ingrid Jordt is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Program for Global Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her past and current research has concerned processes of political legitimation, lay/monastic relations in Buddhist Myanmar and Buddhist meditation movements in Mainland Southeast Asia. Her principal field site is Burma/Myanmar, where she has been working since 1988, but she has conducted research concerning the export of Burmese Vipassana meditation in Thailand, Malaysia and Laos. She is the author of Burma’s Mass Lay Meditation Movement: Buddhism and the Cultural Construction of Power (Ohio University Press, 2007).
In addition to her academic research, Ingrid has been engaged in humanitarian projects and has served in an advisory role to US government agencies. In 2007-2008, she formed Burma Rescue, an effort coordinated with civil society groups in Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta region to bring resources to victims of Cyclone Nargis when the military government was blocking aid from entering the country.  
Theorizing Modernities article

An Afro-Jewish Critique of Jews Against Liberation

Map of Moses’ and the Jews’ journey into exile recorded in Exodus. From John Speed’s The Genealogies Recorded in the Sacred Scriptures (1628). Via Wikimedia Commons.

For years, Marc Ellis has been arguing for the importance of a Jewish theology of liberation. His efforts fall for the most part on deaf ears, except, for example, Atalia Omer’s Days of Awe and Santiago Slabodsky’s Decolonial Judaism. Those interlocutors fall, for the most part, within a paradigm of Jews who are, as Judith Butler would say, “intelligible,” to those who dominate Jewish identity today—namely, Ashkenazi Jews, especially those living in countries such as Australia, Canada, France, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Intelligibility in this context refers to forms of appearance, given the rules of legitimate performance, behavior, or embodiment, that makes sense to those perceiving them.

Despite the historical influence of Latin American Liberation Theology, Sephardic Jews, historically the most prominent in the Americas, seem to lack a voice and visibility. To make matters worse, the various rifts across the views of Jews worldwide—or at least Ashkenazi Jews—range not only from the ultra-orthodox to secular, but also from far right to radical left. This is despite earlier tendencies among critics from the right and the left to associate such Jews primarily with liberalism. What, however, if we were to consider other Jewish voices, Jews among Jews who are genuinely “others”?

Afro-Jews and White Jews Reflecting on Pesach

Consider Afro-Jews. What do such Jews reflect on at Seders during the evenings of Pesach (Passover)? The Seder is a ritual meal involving reflection on Shemoth (Names), popularly known through Christianity as the Exodus story of the Israelites’ liberation from enslavement in Kmt (the ancient indigenous people’s name for the country that eventually became, through Greek conquest, Egypt). It is among the binding narratives of Jews, when even secular Jews often take time for such reflection. During this time of the year, regardless of ideological perspectives, Jews today in and outside of the State of Israel simultaneously reflect on the value of liberation. That is, however, also where many Jews divide. It is much easier to reflect on liberation from enslavement in a story reputed to have taken place in Northeast Africa approximately 3,400 years ago, and one in which Moses—the greatest hero and prophet of the Jewish people—and his biological siblings rose to the occasion in actions reverberating over the ages.

Most white Jews (and many white Christians) overlook the story’s philosophical and political significance, however, in favor of the redemptive elements it offers. Moreover, the closing line at the conclusion of all Seders for Jews outside of Israel—“Next year, in Jerusalem . . .”—poses a challenge for Afro-Jews, Arab Jews, and Jews located among Dalits in South Asia. It makes them think of the plight of non-white Jews living in Israel. For some white Jews, the declaration poses challenges of ambivalence and for others it requires summoning the strongest resources of self-evasion or bad faith because they may support struggles for liberation for oppressed peoples in every country except Israel.

Why do I say this?

First, reflection on enslavement doesn’t require a huge leap for Afro-Jews. Though much of Jewish history has been whitewashed as Euromodernity offered European Jews possibilities of assimilation in the former colonies through promises of racial transformation, the fact of the matter is that the ancient, technically pre-Jewish people of the Exodus narrative (“Hebrews,” “Israelites,” and “Jews” are not identical), were clearly East African and West Asian. This is the case even accounting for, in today’s parlance, “racial mixture.” That combination makes these people unequivocally, in today’s understanding, people of color. Today’s hegemonic white Jewish populations connect with such ancient peoples, then, in the way Germanic peoples imagine themselves the descendants of ancient Mediterranean peoples from whom they claim to inherit a classical past. Some may be their biological descendants, but not all and probably not most.

White Jewish connection with ancient Israelites is mostly symbolic, and when they attempt to make it otherwise, they do so by eliding history and basic facts. This is made easier by simply rewriting the past as white. This whitening emerges from a failure to learn not only the ancient history of East Africa and West Asia, but also crucial moments in Jewish history, such as the events of the first few hundred years after the fall of the Second Temple of Jerusalem and the unfortunate prohibitions against exogamy enacted in the 4th century CE by the Roman Emperor Constantine. The Judeans who became citizens of the Ancient Roman Empire were a proselytizing people, initially ranging from 150,000 (some critics say 4 million), whose efforts produced about 8,000,000 Jews among the Romans in little more than a century.

Such a large influx of people across the Roman Empire pushed to the wayside the earlier Afro-Asiatic peoples and inaugurated a story of hegemony among members who during different periods were at the center of whichever empire displaced others. A line stretching from Rome to Mecca to Andalusia to Spain to Portugal to the Netherlands to Britain to the United States in “the west” reveals one of shifting representations of who “authentically” exemplifies Jewish people. Different lines pushed into Asia, and others through Africa and South America. In all, closeness to enslavement shifted here and there, but for the Afro-Jew from the fifteenth century onward, it is more near than far. In the words of the famed reggae artist Bob Marley, who was also of Jewish ancestry, “Every time I hear the crack of a whip / My blood runs cold” (1973).

If “the slave” is symbolic and to be liberated, then the relationship of the white Jew to the story of liberation is remote. Bear in mind that white Jews aren’t the only Jews for whom identification with enslavement is remote. The history of Arab racism and enslavement of non-Muslim African peoples raises questions for Mizrahi or Arab Jews as well. I’m not focusing on that group here because, frankly, they are not hegemonic.

If “the slave” is symbolic and to be liberated, then the relationship of the white Jew to the story of liberation is remote.

Identification with whiteness leaves no recourse from being identified with the enslaver and master. White Jewish evocation of Exodus thus reeks of hypocrisy so long as such a Jew insists on being white. A different basis of connection must supervene, and for such Jews, nothing affords such a connection more than antisemitism and the historical significance of Shoah (the Holocaust). Thus, “long ago” tends to be the Exodus where liberation is less significant, while “near” becomes hatred of Jews, Jewphobia, the importance of twentieth-century atrocity, and the achievement of the State of Israel. Looking at non-Jewish blacks reflecting on slavery, such Jews quickly speak of antisemitism. When confronting Afro-Jews, however, white Jews prioritizing antisemitism face several problems. Where such Jews relate to Afro-Jews as among Jews, there shouldn’t be an issue, that is except for Afro-Jews bringing along both the realities of recent enslavement and antisemitism. That the overwhelming population of Jews massacred in Shoah were Ashkenazi creates a peculiar Jewish problem. White Jews may question Afro-Jews’ identification of shared loss, but for many white Jews who did not lose family members in that effort at genocide, the question is: Why do they have a more legitimate connection to those victims of antisemitism than their counterparts of color?

Black Dream, White Dread

The situation of such ambivalence and dispute has added difficulty. The “nearness” or “closeness” of injustice and oppression for Afro-Jews is not only about enslavement, racism, and antisemitism. It is also about colonialism.

Why does colonialism pose a problem? A clue rests in the distancing of antisemitism from racism. Jews were, after all, not historically white. It was the need to create distance from the colonized populations in the Euromodern world that raised the demand for growing populations of whites in the colonies. The result was that many groups who were not white in Europe were offered a ticket to become white in its outposts. Difficulty emerged from Christianity being the dominant religion of European colonies because of the transformation of Christendom into a European identity. New identities were born through the protection of religious freedoms, where a group’s religion could be separated from its “race,” a term that emerged from Andalusia in the Middle Ages through a transformation of the word “raza,” which, ironically, referred to Jews and Moors. If Jewishness could be made exclusively religious, then the bearer of the religion could be racially otherwise. Thus, those light-skinned enough to be accepted as white received membership into whiteness by appealing to their religious identity as separate. This was not a good development for Jews who could not “pass” as white, however, and its impact on Jewish history is palatable as a once majority population of color quickly disappeared in proverbial plain sight.

“Travesia del Judio’ street sign in Spain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

There are many negative consequences of Jewish whiteness. The first is that it led to a rewriting of Jewish history to match the expectations of Euromodernity. I define “modernity” here as the value of belonging to the future. As such, it legitimates a people’s present and rewrites their past. Thus, if the future of Jewishness is whiteness, then authentic Jews of the present become white, which makes the Jewish story a retroactively affected one of whiteness as a condition of appearance. This was catastrophic for other Jews, because since they supposedly did not legitimately belong to the future, their present was delegitimated and their past erased. This led to an additional false thesis—namely, that non-white Jews must have somehow come to Judaism. Since whiteness afforded Euromodern Judaism’s legitimacy, this meant that those other people could only enter Euromodernity and then become Jews by other means. The standard position is Christianity. If Africans enter Euromodernity through colonization and enslavement, the presumption is that happens through their having first become Christian. Thus, to stand as an Afro-Jew is, by many white Jews, presumed erroneously to do so as a prior Christian. The Afro-Jew thus faces delegitimation of her or his Jewish history since even when embodying a line of Jewish ancestry older than many white Jews, they are presumed to be “converts” in the presence of a population whose presumed original authenticity is not premised on conversion. Actual Jewish history disputes that.

“Antisemitism” is thus, for many white Jews, an attractive formulation of hatred of Jews since it disassociates Jews from the dreaded designation of being a race, because, as nearly anyone who has experienced racism would admit—like “gender” with regard to “feminine”—“race” is a term that for the most part signifies being of color. As this discussion is short, I won’t get into the details of why “antisemitism” is a concept saturated with bad faith. I will just state this: Most people who hate Jews are not thinking about religion. They see Jews, even if white, as never white enough. They ascribe, in what existentialists call the spirit of seriousness—the materialization of values—that Jewishness is in the flesh and soul of Jews. There is thus the error of avowedly white Jews rallying for religious freedom in the face of a foe that sees them as a racial threat. They want to defend “us Jews” in the practice of our religion while imagining “us whites” in their daily social lives.

If we concede antisemitism as a form of racism, the story is different. As mixed-race people could be hated for both sides of their mixture (think of an Afro-Asian receiving anti-black racism and anti-Asian racism, or Arabs who could be hated as an ethnicity or “race” despite their morphological diversity), the Afro-Jew may ask if both are at work if she or he focuses on racial oppression.

These reflections become complicated when we reflect on the passage into whiteness of many Euro-Jews. The story is, after all, a colonial one, and that precious whiteness is indebted to colonialism, enslavement, and racism. Thus, Euro-Jewish investment in whiteness ensnares them in a defense of colonialism, enslavement, and racism. As liberation discourses are patently anti-colonial, anti-enslavement, and anti-racist, this places Jewish whiteness in a logical collision with liberation and struggles for freedom.

The Afro-Jew thus faces delegitimation of her or his Jewish history since even when embodying a line of Jewish ancestry older than many white Jews, they are presumed to be ‘converts’ in the presence of a population whose presumed original authenticity is not premised on conversion. Actual Jewish history disputes that.

This reactionary position is not, of course, the only historical Jewish story. On the one hand, Jews were so associated with the formation of liberalism that even Karl Marx, a grandson of a Rabbi, saw it fitting to address European Jewish values as ideologically linked to Euromodern liberal capitalism in “On the Jewish Question.” In recent times, the lure of whiteness produced politically neoconservative Jews who moved to the right of liberalism in a desperate embrace of whiteness to the point of, unfortunately, allying in recent times with White supremacist Christians and even, as we see in the United States, politicians supported by neo-Nazi and other fascist groups.

Rejecting Idols, Embracing Ethical Life

To the left of all this are many secular Jews, and among Jews who practice Judaism, the complicated matter of religion offers a unique convergence of their Jewish political identity among those in and out of the white umbrella. I cannot here, because of limited space, spell out the many kinds of Jews who live their faith, ethnic, and racial identities outside of whiteness. As I do that elsewhere, I would here simply like to state this: Many Jews of color who are also Jews of faith do not live their lives worried about what white Jews think of them. They are simply people of faith practicing the varieties of Judaism they know. There is, however, a common question posed to all Jews that come to the fore on the question of liberation, and that is its relation, specifically, to Jewish ethics.

To illustrate my point, consider the famed early Frankfurt School of Critical Theorists. They are often misunderstood today because of how they are studied by Christian theorists who presume the grammar of a secularized Christian framework. The idea of a critical philosophy, originally formulated by Immanuel Kant as transcendental idealism, was a formal, secularized Protestantism. The transcendental movement through Arthur Schopenhauer and G. W. F. Hegel kept the Protestant eschatological elements. In Marx, however, the problem of idolatry was posed as a problem of ideological critique and a rejection of fetishism. Sigmund Freud took these concerns to the inner reaches of consciousness and even the unconscious elements of mind. Adding Edmund Husserl’s effort to explore the critical conditions of consciousness without ontological reductionism, we have three Jewish thinkers (although the first was from a family who converted to Christianity and the third did so on his own) posing what to some seemed the irreconcilable objectives of the material world, unconscious forces, and the social world in which reality becomes meaningfully conscious. Yet the early group of Frankfurt School thinkers—for example, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, Leo Löwenthal, Herbert Marcuse, all Jewish and committed secularists—took on the task of not only bringing these thinkers together (especially Marx and Freud), but also to do so without collapsing into idolatry, that is, making their intellectual heroes, societal norms, and economic systems into gods. (I regard the post-WWII Frankfurt School, whose main exemplar is Jürgen Habermas, to be a reclamation of secularized Protestant Christian thought.) Adorno expressed this Jewish anti-idolatry position well in the concept of negative dialectics and negative theology.

This rejection of idolatry is also the basis of a uniquely Jewish position on theodicy. Christian theology poses a deity who must be cleansed of contradictions. Judaism, alternatively, poses a deity who must not be named, constrained, reduced—in short, offered as an image. This is a crucial element for Jewish ethics, since it in effect explains “election” (in Hebrew, bhira) and the significance of striving for kashrut (kosher living) according to Halakhah (“the way,” or Jewish law). Many Christians are surprised, even shocked, when they learn that Jews do not need to embrace G-d as an ontological being or entity. An activist philosopher and social worker friend of mine once put it this way: “I don’t go to shul [synagogue] because I believe in G-d.”

This mysterious explanation makes sense for Jews who understand that election or to be chosen does not mean to be better than others. It means to face the fear and trembling of radical ethical responsibility. I add “radical” because the responsibility is for more than specific commandments (mitzvoth). Its radicality rests on taking responsibility for responsibility. In Judaism, this means responsibility for the image of G-d on earth, which, as the argument goes, is not an “image” proper, since that would be idolatrous. It is a responsibility, and it is so often in the form of a terrible, burdensome calling. Through the act of carrying the Torah (direction, instruction, teachings) when becoming a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah (daughter or son of the commandments), the honored is also taking on the weight or burden in one reading of ethical life. The seeming conundrum of non-ontological Jewishness is resolved thus. There are Jews who regard G-d as a just being. No Jew, however, should accept the idea of G-d solely as a being. Justice, broadly conceived (because the Hebrew word Tzedek includes but is not reduced exclusively to justice), is the crucial element. Thus, since neither the religious nor the secular Jew would reject the importance of taking responsibility for the ethical face of the universe, my friend’s remark on believing in G-d makes sense. She refuses to be idolatrous, and she insists on the importance of ethical life marked also by righteous action. That friend’s remark was to offer a critique of synagogues that have subordinated Jewish ethical responsibility for responsibility through subordinating it to the fetish of such things as a Jewish state.

Fetishizing antisemitism at the expense of fighting against oppression endangers Jewish ethical life. This leads to a form of idolatrous relationship to Jewish people read through Judaism and, as a consequence, places Jews in an antagonistic relationship to liberation struggles against colonization, enslavement, and racism. Where Jewish people become the enemy of liberation, Judaism, from this point of view, is lost.

Though I have posed these reflections in terms of white Jews versus Afro-Jews and other Jews of color, there is the reality of ideological critique where beneath white Jews is the paradoxical darkness offering ethical life. There are designated white Jews who make decisions to shed the unethical garbs of white investments in anti-liberation. This reflection from an Ashkenazi mother on her son from her union with an Afro-Sephardic-Mizrahi father concludes these reflections:

… there is a general lesson that more fully entering a black world through marriage and parenting has taught me: one must live as if values and virtues and excelling and being a person of integrity matter, for that is what it is to live a human life.


*This revised, English version of the author’s “Pourquoi les juifs ne doivent pas redouter la libération,” Tumultes numéro 50 (2018): 97–108, appears here with the permission of Tumultes.

Lewis R. Gordon
Lewis R. Gordon is Professor and Head of the Philosophy Department at UCONN-Storrs, where he is also a member of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. He is the author of many books, including Freedom, Justice, and Decolonization. He co-edits, with Jane Anna Gordon, the journal Philosophy and Global Affairs. He is Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies and a former president of the Caribbean Philosophical Association, for which he now serves as its chairperson of awards and global collaborations.
Global Currents article

Fraternity is More Durable than Fratricide : Pope Francis Visits Iraq

Pope Francis delivering remarks during his visit to Mosul, Iraq on March 7, 2021. Photo Courtesy of Omar Mohammed, Mosul Eye.

Fraternity is more durable than fratricide,” the pope remarked in his address to a group of Mosulis of different faiths in his recent visit to Iraq. The pope, who experienced conflict and violence in Argentina earlier in his life, can easily understand to where political and religious violence leads. Yet, the Archbishop of Mosul, Najeeb M. Michael, who was standing next to him during the visit to Mosul on March 7, 2021, relayed that “[Pope Francis] shed tears, while taking moments of silence.”

The Christian population of Iraq, as well as Iraq’s other ethnic and religious minorities, have been dreaming of these words being uttered by the pope on Iraqi soil since the fall of Mosul in June 2014. In honoring his promise to visit Iraq at the earliest opportunity despite the pandemic, Pope Francis has sought not only to respond to the calls for help from Iraqi minorities, including those that have suffered from genocide, but also to emphasize the importance of interfaith dialogue and to show that actions mean more than empty words, political promises, and shallow human rights invocations. In June 2014, the pope’s presence in Iraq would have been beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

Despite the “never again” mantra that has circulated since the Holocaust, other genocides continue to further frustrate anyone’s faith in humanity, from Rwanda to Myanmar, and to the rule of the Islamic State on Iraqi soil in 2014, one of the disasters-that-were-waiting-to-happen following the illegal US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Pope Francis made the “never again” mantra concrete through his actions when he visited Iraq. In carefully unmasking, in all his activities, the very root of the destruction of the Iraqi social fabric that led to the destruction of Mosul, he aimed to provide not only hope to Iraqi civilian worshippers, but most importantly to minorities across the world.

In the series of meetings and gatherings, and in the symbolism of the places that he chose to call upon during his short three-day visit, Pope Francis laid out a diplomatic message that could become the most significant Holy See policy since Vatican II, a message of the concrete connection of the Catholic Church to other faiths at a time of religious divisions worldwide, a message emphasizing the importance of interfaith dialogue for achieving peace nationally and regionally.

In his meeting in Najaf with Shi’ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one simple picture of both religious leaders seated side-by-side provided visual counterevidence to not only the idea that the politicization of religion is inevitable, but also to the intransigency of the politicization of the ethnic and social divisions that have plagued Iraq since 2003. These divisions contributed to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq during the rule of Obama administration-backed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in the early 2010s. Under Al-Maliki’s rule, Sunnis were pitted against Shi’ites in a perceived government-sponsored brutality that echoed to many that of former President Saddam Hussein.

Iraqis in Mosul celebrating the visit of Pope Francis on March 7, 2021. Photo Courtesy of Omar Mohammed, Mosul Eye.

The Bush administration’s original sin of dividing Iraq along de facto religious lines through its infamous de-Baathification process led to civil war and the subsequent fall of Mosul in 2014. Years after this divisive colonial policy, the pope’s visit gestures to pathways to recover from this legacy. During the Najaf portion of his visit, the pope sought to place fraternity back into the limelight, and to encourage a move away from political Islam. In this groundbreaking meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani, who is the second highest Shi’ite authority after Iranian leader Ali Khameini, and the most high profile advocate for the separation of religion from government, Iranian-style, Pope Francis might have performed a diplomatic miracle: that of beginning to help bridge the religious fault lines in Iraq by encouraging, for the first time, Ayatollah al-Sistani to appear in public, alongside the pope, in a show of support for interfaith dialogue and fraternity.

In the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, Pope Francis also met at length with Abdullah Kurdi, the father of the little Aylan, whose lifeless body was pictured on a Turkish beach in September 2015. Through this meeting, Pope Francis widened the scope of his diplomatic message to the rest of the world. His action subtly connected the dots between the invasion of a country, the division of its population, and the enduring alterations in the genetics of its social fabric, the result of which has often been more destruction.

In the same manner that depleted uranium weapons, Western-made and sold, durably altered the genetic fabric of civilian life, the partial annihilation of the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, is a physical symbol of a far-reaching human tragedy. In Erbil, Pope Francis placed the onus of responsibility for the dreadful consequences of Western realpolitik on the shoulders of the many governments that sponsor international arms trade, only to close their borders to the collateral victims of conflict. He exposed the price that civilian populations pay for political decisions made elsewhere. Although seeking only to flee from economic hardships caused by war and destruction, many of these civilians have been condemned to suffer the dreadful fate of becoming “migrants,” the euphemistic term used to deny the collective responsibility of European nations for creating the very conditions that drive populations like those in Iraq out of their cherished homes.

His action subtly connected the dots between the invasion of a country, the division of its population, and the enduring alterations in the genetics of its social fabric, the result of which has often been more destruction.

The visit is not just a wake-up call to Iraq and the rest of the world, it is a demonstration of the faith, courage, and integrity of two religious leaders, and many more in their wake, whose coming together will restore not just our faith in humanity, but also our collective and individual responsibility to call on our leaders to start practicing another form of international relations, one more systemic, more humane, and more compassionate. Actions speak louder than words. Not all tears are crocodile tears. Never again is only possible if we all mean it.

Pope Francis included in his speeches in Mosul, Ur, Baghdad, and Erbil, many messages that called the government of Iraq to account. But on his way back to Rome he asked a question that the Iraqi government should take seriously: “Who sold the weapons to the destroyers and who is still selling them”? Answering this question requires a full review of the political and social structure of Iraq and its government’s position up until the post-ISIS period. Such a question is indeed one that should have been asked for a decade. Can anyone answer the pope?

Omar Mohammed
Omar Mohammed is a native Mosuli historian and the founder of Mosul Eye. He is currently teaching Middle East History at Sciences Po University
Victoria Fontan
Victoria Fontan is Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and Vice President of Academic affairs at the American University of Afghanistan. She is the author of Voices from Post-Saddam Iraq (Praeger) and Decolonizing Peace (Dignity Press).
Theorizing Modernities article

Sovereignty and its Afterlives in Muslim South Asia: A Response

SherAli Tareen, Defending Muhammad in Modernity (2020)

I want to begin by profusely thanking Josh Lupo and his team at the Contending Modernities program for their time and efforts in organizing this forum, Ebrahim Moosa for penning an incredibly thoughtful and productive introduction, and all discussants—Jonathan Brown, Faisal Devji, Zunaira Komal, Waris Mazhari, Ammar Nasir, and Sohaira Siddiqui—for their extensive intellectual generosity in engaging my book with such depth, brilliance, and insight. Their commentaries are not only a great gift and source of honor; they have also helped me think anew about the book in generative ways. Among the central aspirations of Defending Muḥammad in Modernity is to forge conversations between scholars in Islamic studies, South Asian history, religious studies, and anthropology in addition to generating interest (including critical and normative evaluations) among Muslim traditionalist scholars or the ‘ulamā’, especially in South Asia. Therefore, it is particularly heartening to see that collectively, contributors to this forum encompass all these intellectual profiles. Before I address the excellent points and critiques raised by the contributors, let me very briefly situate and contextualize the book in Western academic studies on Islam and South Asia, and add a word on how that context connects with its main argument. The beginnings of this project lie in my years as a graduate student at Duke University from 2005 to 2012. I entered graduate school during a moment when the field of religious studies was feverishly grappling with the recently published and hugely influential critiques and genealogies of secular power offered by Talal Asad and his students and interlocutors (it still is though perhaps with a more settled view of competing takes and readings). In addition, Muhammad Qasim Zaman’s pioneering work on Deoband, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change, that for the first time brought into view South Asian ‘ulamā’ discourses and debates from a perspective that combined intellectual history and religious studies, had also recently emerged. Fifteen years later, in Defending Muḥammad in Modernity I have sought to further and bring into more deliberate dialogue these two streams of scholarship in a manner that might disrupt secular claims about religious traditions. I do this through close readings of a particular tradition of intra-Muslim contest that highlight alternate logics of life unavailable for secular moderation and disciplinary canonization. More specifically, through a close reading of the Barelvī-Deobandī polemic, most often approached with a lens saturated with liberal secular binaries like legal/mystical, inclusive/exclusive, reformist/non-reformist etc., I try to present an alternate conceptual framing that instead sees this polemic as a reflection of what I call “competing political theologies.” With the loss of Muslim political sovereignty in nineteenth-century South Asia, the pioneers of the Barelvī and Deobandī orientations and their predecessors articulated and avidly fought for two rival visions of the relationship between divine sovereignty, prophetic authority, and the practice of everyday life. This in a nutshell is the argument of the book.

Logics of Sovereignty

The contributors to this forum have engaged varied aspects of this argument, while extending its scope and application in variously dazzling ways. Paucity of allotted space will not allow me to address all the points raised by each commentator; I will choose one or two from each and try clubbing them together when appropriate. In her theoretically electric reading of the book, Zunaira Komal asks the difficult question of how the notion of divine sovereignty in modern Muslim reformist discourses might “be understood alongside the sovereignty of the colonial state as well as the declining sovereignty of nineteenth-century Muslims in the subcontinent? Is the understanding of power within Islam similar or different than what the colonial encounter brought?” During the course of researching and writing this book, I wrestled with this question rather avidly. I cannot propose a resolution to this problem except to point out that traditionalist Muslim conceptions of divine sovereignty, its encounter with prophetic authority, and the implications of that encounter for the practice of everyday life cannot be collapsed or reduced to colonial power and conditions. This, of course, is not a gesture, as I stress repeatedly in the book, to retrieve “native agency” from the rubbles of colonial power. And yet, the competing logics of moral argument—centered on the status of divine sovereignty in a world enveloped by the crisis of political sovereignty—that animated the Barelvī-Deobandī polemic entailed a vision of the political that exceeded and provincialized the modern colonial and postcolonial privileging of the state as the centerpiece of politics. In this regard, I appreciate as well as concur with Komal’s astute suggestion that intra-‘ulamā’ debates on matters like the Prophet’s knowledge of the unknown (‘ilm al-ghayb) showcase a vision of the political that while contending with “the temporality of the world” remain “aspirationally open to the temporality of the Elsewhere.” Thus, though indebted to the technological and institutional conditions of colonial power, modern ‘ulamā’ discourses and debates on divine sovereignty point to horizons of politics that also disrupt the alleged universality of that power. This in turn marks their decolonial potential, as Sohaira Siddiqui has wonderfully elaborated in her remarks on this forum.

Paradoxes of Sovereignty

But as much as I am invested in detailing the distinctive logics of sovereignty at work in ‘ulamā’ discourses, capturing the vexing tensions and paradoxes of sovereignty haunting their discursive programs is also central to my concerns, as Faisal Devji has probingly observed in his signature quizzical style. He has also summed up the central paradox of sovereignty, as reflected in competing modern Muslim reformist discourses, rather pointedly: “On the one hand, a sovereignty unavailable to colonized peoples might have been displaced onto God as a kind of compensation. On the other hand, its expulsion from the world of mortals may indicate a deep suspicion of sovereignty and the modern state it represents. Having been stripped of its own political tradition, in other words, new forms of Islamic thought were magnetized by the idea of sovereignty in a way not so very different from anti-colonial nationalism.” Yes, indeed! Extending Devji’s helpful extension and elaboration of my argument here, I should add that it is precisely this tense interplay between the urgency to retrieve divine sovereignty in a world beset by moral corruption and to deny mortal humans responsible for that corruption any hint of popular sovereignty that renders ‘ulamā’ actors discussed in my book at once thoroughly modern and yet defiantly anti-modernist. In other words, even when critiquing spiritual hierarchies (such as in the Prophet’s capacity for intercession or access to knowledge of the unknown), their worldview remains wedded to a strictly hierarchical spiritual economy whereby the ability of the masses to access the vatic capital of God’s sovereign power and the Prophet’s normative guidance hinges on the mediating authority of the ‘ulamā’. At stake in defending Muḥammad in modernity—whether as an exceptional beloved of God endowed with extraordinary powers (the Barelvī view) or as an agent whose perfection depended on the perfection of his humanity (the Deobandī position)—is precisely the regulation of the encounter between divine sovereignty and prophetic charisma in a manner that ultimately amplifies the sovereign authority of the scholarly class. Devji’s intriguing suggestion that “controversies about the Prophet’s status rehearse a political as much as theological paradox, since the very effort to expel sovereignty from human society while preserving it elsewhere sets the stage for its spectacular return” provides a helpful frame with which one might begin to address a question that both Sohaira Siddiqui and Ammar Nasir raise in different ways: What is one to make of the postcolonial afterlives of these intra-Muslim polemics over prophetic memory and honor that trace their beginnings to the colonial moment? As Siddiqui asks: “[H]ow has the conceptual-ideological problem-space of the Deobandī-Barelvī polemic changed [in more recent times]?” Nasir asks a similar question while also advancing the suggestion that perhaps the stability and order provided by the juggernaut of the nineteenth-century colonial state is precisely the reason that many such intra-Muslim and inter-sectarian polemics did not descend to the sort of rabid violence that has often accompanied them in postcolonial contexts like Pakistan.

Postcolonial Ruptures

Let me offer three brief propositions addressing this line of inquiry: (1) The metastasis of violence associated with intra-Muslim doctrinal contestations in settings like Pakistan has perhaps less to do with the weakness of the state (as compared to say the colonial state) than the further intensification of the crisis of sovereignty in popular consciousness and everyday life. The instability of sovereign agency over the contingencies of life is increasingly compensated by the fantastical figure of a Prophet at once incorruptible and yet always vulnerable to injury. The pathological patrolling of prophetic love not only borrows liberally (pun intended) from a distinctly Christian political theology of blasphemy, as Devji in his comments points out; it also signals a rather fascinating interplay of masculine certainty and endemic fragility mapped onto the body of the Prophet. (2) While it is easy to get caught up in the proliferation of intra-Muslim divisions in the postcolonial context, we have also seen the emergence of some curious alliances between otherwise arch rivals. So, for instance, the recent movement and protests over blasphemy in Pakistan have often brought together Barelvī, Deobandī, and Ahl-i Ḥadīth actors in a common program of defying the state and non-state modernist elite. The lines of activity between ‘ulamā’ and more popular preachers and activists have also been often blurred, as seen most dramatically in the rise of the popular outfit Tehrik-i Labayk Ya Rasul Allah (TLYR) that has frequently sucked in ‘ulamā’ actors in their drive to protect prophetic honor even as it cuts into the latter’s’ religious authority in the marketplace of moral persuasion. (3) The space for intra-Muslim disagreement on sensitive theological questions has certainly shrunk; a century and couple decades later, it is almost unthinkable that questions like, “Can God produce another Muhammad?” or “What’s the difference between Muhammad’s and Satan’s knowledge?,” could be discussed and debated as transparently and with the sort of intellectual depth and nuance as they were by nineteenth-century Barelvī and Deobandī pioneers and their predecessors. Indeed, as I elaborate in the book’s postscript, if nothing else, the Barelvī-Deobandī polemic showcases the potential for intellectual fecundity associated with a fierce yet layered and complex polemical encounter. This is not to suggest some sort of a rise and fall model of history that valorizes the ‘ulamā’ of colonial India as occupants of a “golden era” of intellectual valor and sophistication supplanted by the mediocrity of the present. What I am gesturing at rather is an observable constriction in the parameters of doctrinal debate, especially on questions concerning the Prophet.

The Middle Eastern Shadow

Jonathan Brown wonderfully highlights a theme that, while discussed at numerous points in the book, certainly merits much further inquiry and exposition: the relationship between intra- ‘ulamā’ rivalries in modern South Asia and the Muslim intellectual landscape and debates of the Ottoman Middle East. As I detail in the book, the Hanafi assault on Wahhabi thought in Arabia not only colored the polemical ink of South Asian scholars like Aḥmad Razā Khān (d. 1921). Moreover, seeking the endorsement of prominent Arab scholars was also seen as a coveted pursuit by Barelvī and Deobandī pioneers alike (see esp. chapter 9). Brown has also highlighted an instructive irony: “[Aḥmad Razā] Khān’s writings seem to have had little impact on scholarship in the Arab world, certainly not in comparison to Deobandīs like Anwar Shāh Kashmīrī [d.1933]. Ironically, if asked about the Prophet’s knowledge of the unseen or the mawlid, scholars like [Zāhid] al-Kawtharī [d.1952] and [‘Abdallāh] al-Ghumārī [d.1993] would no doubt take the Barelvī side. But they could read and appreciate the books of Deobandī scholars in blissful removal from the controversies in South Asia.” This observation is pertinent not only to the interaction of Arab and South Asian traditionalism, but in a sense also to the popular reception of these rival groups within South Asia as well. On the one hand, the dominant mode of everyday ritual practice among South Asian Muslims most certainly aligns much greater with the Barelvī worldview. For instance, the Prophet’s birthday celebration today is not only deeply entrenched in the ritual life of the community; establishing it as a heretical innovation seems a task much more socially and doctrinally daunting than it was a century ago. However, despite the ritual entrenchment of the Barelvī orientation, the Deoband school continues to dominate the intellectual and popular terrain of religious knowledge in terms of institutional structures and depth, publishing capacity and output, and outreach to global scholarly audiences, as Brown’s analysis also confirms.

The Work Continues

Brown’s point also connects nicely with a useful and valid critique raised by Waris Mazhari that for all my claims to complicate Deobandī thought, I at times perhaps generalize its intellectual project without having considered prominent Deobandī ‘ulamā’ voices that run contrary to those generalizations. More specifically, Mazhari astutely argues that while I present the early nineteenth-century reformer Shāh Muḥammad Ismāʿīl (d. 1831) and the Deoband school as part of a common reformist program and genealogy, Deobandī heavyweights like Anwar Shāh Kashmīrī were in fact deeply critical of what they saw as Ismāʿīl’s acerbic discursive style. Mazhari’s critique not only provides me the opportunity to offer the clarification that my juxtaposition of Ismāʿīl and some of the Deoband pioneers was specific to some among the latter—most notably Rashīd Aḥmad Gangohī (d. 1906), Ashraf ‘Alī Thānvī (d. 1943), and Khalīl Aḥmad Sāharanpūrī (d. 1927)—and to specific theological and normative problems. More importantly, it also serves as a useful reminder of the dizzying variety and the unpredictable scholarly trajectories that populate Deobandī and indeed Barelvī discursive universes. On that note, I hope Defending Muḥammad in Modernity and other kindred works that have appeared in the last couple years will inspire and attract more than a few graduate students to dive into the often-perplexing yet hugely rewarding waters of South Asian ‘ulamā’ traditions of knowledge and debate. Our work, indeed, has just begun.


SherAli Tareen
SherAli Tareen is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College, and author of Defending Muhammad in Modernity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020) that was awarded the 2020 American Institute of Pakistan Studies Book Prize. His work centers on Muslim intellectual thought in modern South Asia with a focus on intra-Muslim debates and polemics on crucial questions of law, ethics, and theology. Tareen is also interested in the intersection of secularism and Muslim intellectual thought, Muslim political thought, and Muslim revolutionary politics in the inter-war period. His various articles have appeared in the Journal of Law and Religion, Muslim World, Political Theology, Islamic Studies, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, ReOrient, among many others.
Theorizing Modernities article

Theology and the Ironies of History

Reading SherAli Tareen’s magnificent Defending Muḥammad in Modernity (Winner of the 2020 American Institute of Pakistan Studies Book Prizeone is left contemplating how the ideas of visionary figures can set the complex agenda of future trends and institutions. Take the well-known scholar and political activist Shāh Muḥammad Ismāʿīl (d. 1831), a scion of the influential Walīyullāh family, and a key figure in Tareen’s work. His rigorist theological vision was adopted by some of the founders of the Deoband school, and they outlawed the widely practiced ritual and ceremony of commemorating the Prophet. Paradoxically, the spiritual mentor of the founders of Deoband, Hājī Imdadullāh (d.1899), much to the chagrin of some of his disciples, approved of this ritual, known as the mīlād, as Tareen explains, albeit with some stipulations. Ismāʿīl and Imdādullāh subtly and deliberately re-shaped the discursive practices of Muslims in South Asia, especially those that directly impinged on the relations between institutions, namely, what became known as the Deobandī school and their rivals the Barelvī school of thought. These schools argued over the ritual of mīlād and other doctrinal issues that Tareen discusses in detail. “Once a vision becomes an institution,” the influential German writer Siegfried Kracauer writes, “clouds of dust gather about it, blurring its contours and contents. The history of ideas is a history of misunderstandings” (7).

The jury is still out as to how one should name and frame the nature of these theological shifts which left long shadows on Islam as practiced on the subcontinent. But few doubts arise that their ideas were impacted by the changing political and cultural landscape of colonial India, a phenomenon that multiple participants in this symposium have noted. This harvest of reflections, with each contributor’s unique appreciation, is possibly the best gift to Tareen, who explores, describes, and analyzes the micro-histories of discrete theological debates in colonial India so that his readers can get a sense of what was at stake in these debates in the past and what ramifications they continue to have in the present. Most theological disputes have an afterlife, and some of these intricate and subtle debates about the authority of Islam’s messenger and prophet still percolate in the hearts and minds of the faithful to this very day.

Political Theology

As Tareen himself explains, political theology forms the golden thread in his book. In his contribution, Waris Mazhari acknowledges that religion and politics in Muslim history were intimately connected but he rejects what he labels as the “Western” category of “political theology” as less useful. In my view, the deep roots of “political theology” in Islamic thought can be found in the work of medieval Muslim scholars, which is often unacknowledged in critical scholarship. For instance, Muḥammad Aʿlā al-Tahānawī (died approximately 1707), the outstanding encyclopedist in Mughal India, writes that governance or politics (siyāsa) is “the cultivation of the good in humanity by guiding them to the path of salvation in this life and the next” (1:993–94). The nexus between humans, the world, and attaining God’s salvation is evident in this definition which today enjoys the moniker of political theology. In Tahānawī’s all-inclusive and comprehensive notion of the political, prophets exercise governance over the souls and the bodies of all people. As to the learned, who are fondly remembered in the tradition as “the true heirs of the prophets,” per the premodern prescription their jurisdiction is limited to the nurturing of the souls of the elites. As to the multitude, the discipline and governance of all people in this schema takes place via a regime of regulation by the show of power and of force for the maintenance of order. Even more interesting is that medieval Muslim political philosophy conceptualized the discipline of the self as the “governance of the souls” (siyāsa nafsīya) and the regulation of the realms of subsistence or economics, communal existence, and welfare as the “governance of the corporeal body” (siyāsa badanīya). Disciplining the subjectivities of the people was the task of the scholars, while regulating the public sphere was the task of the political rulers. All of this was part of this Islamic tradition centuries before Michel Foucault made us aware of the technologies of the self.

Most theological disputes have an afterlife, and some of these intricate and subtle debates about the authority of Islam’s messenger and prophet still percolate in the hearts and minds of the faithful to this very day.

Tahānawī explains that two common forms of theological and philosophical politics prevailed among Muslims. One was a politics of justice, also named “a regime of Norms/Sharīʿa” (al-siyāsa al-sharʿīya), which was drawn from the teachings of the prophets, as also articulated by the work of the philosopher Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī (d. 950). The other was a regime regulated by political philosophy and wisdom (al-siyāsa al-madanīya or al-ḥikma al-siyāsīya) where the rule of the monarch, Sulṭān, or other similar kind of ruler prevailed. Politics as a regime of governance is central to order, justice, and the protection of the realm against all enemies. Early Muslim political theorists viewed the regime of law and political philosophy as part of a mutually reinforcing continuum.

A feature of the composite political theology described above has as its desideratum the need to sustain an empire in harmony with early and premodern Islamic predecessors. Key features of these predecessors were hierarchy and a variety of distinctions, for example, between those who are free vs slave, male vs female, and between different forms of political subject positions and professions. In modern times, the heirs to this vocabulary of Muslim political theology often adopt it uncritically without due attention to the conditions of a different time and altered aspirations. In other words, not frequently practiced is a critical engagement with histories and concepts for their more effective use in the present.

Contextual Theology

It appears that someone like Shāh Muḥammad Ismāʿīl, whose thought Tareen’s documents in detail, partially sought a more egalitarian promise in the God of the Qurʾān. While undoubtedly portrayed as a monarch (malik), the God of the Qurʾān is nonetheless also one who does not act in an aristocratic fashion in the same way as earthly monarchs. Shāh Ismāʿīl’s God hears the prayers of the lowly leather-worker as well as the rich landowner without any need for any human intercession and intermediary. Thus, he leveraged the image of God as the fountain of mercy and sovereign authority who is available at the request of all creatures. His desire to reduce the aristocratic elements of political theology to one more in line with the impulse of the pre-imperial Muslim caliphate, which was more egalitarian in its impulses, is unmistakable.

A postage stamp commemorating Aḥmad Razā Khān Barelvī in India. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Alert to the context and the work of Shāh Ismāʿīl, Zunaira Komal provides a reading of Tareen via Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, and Jacques Derrida. For the latter, tradition can also be viewed as an “encounter” and a “gift” even though it might be a mysterious one in its origins. If Tareen’s reading is centered around the contestation over tradition in one sense, then Komal reminds us that the past has multiple echoes as “the unpastness of the past, the unsettled question of tradition.” Drawing on Walter Benjamin, she pushes us to grapple with traditions in such a way that we might “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (128).

We will recall that it was the sect called the Khārijites who seized onto a memory of the nascent (primitive) political impulse at the founding of Islam, roughly three decades after the Prophet died. The Khārijites invoked God’s sovereignty above human claims at a moment when they sensed the danger of internecine conflict. Political legitimacy for the Khārijites was centered on the preservation of divine sovereignty as framed in their clarion call that “only God’s command shall prevail” (lā ḥukm illā lillāh) in all disputes and circumstances. But over time Islamdom’s political theology shifted, grew, and adopted greater complexity as multiple empires rose, evolved, and fragmented. Sunnī juridical theologians paraphrased a Qurʾānic verse that “obedience (dīn) was only due to God” and insisted on the regime of law as a sign of legitimacy of the political order.

Hermeneutical Shifts

Tareen’s nineteenth-century Muslim reformers in South Asia, and those elsewhere in the Muslim world began to rework the regime of norms or laws into their projects of reform, but often neglected rich medieval political philosophy and the lush conceptual vocabularies that were coupled with it. Instead, these reformers energized their discursive tradition and practice by pairing it strictly to scriptural sources—the Qurʾān and the Sunna (prophetic norms drawn from a copious archive of ḥadīth). In the process, the historical memory of the tradition was substituted by a surfeit of confidence and reliance on the norms of scriptural authenticity. With the emphasis on pristine origins, this reformist tradition was bound to clash with existing interpretative frameworks that were embedded in historical experiences that privileged the will of the community and the authority of tradition equally.

Divine sovereignty in this redesigned or reformed tradition was weaponized as a means to alter the hearts, minds, and the worlds of the believers. The stand-off between Fazl-ī Ḥaqq Khayrābādī (d. 1861) and Shāh Ismāʿīl in the nineteenth century, and Aḥmad Razā Khān (d. 1921) and the Deobandīs in the twentieth, are both instances of an internal clash within the Sunni Muslim community. Unfortunately, because of the heat of polemics, no mechanism for discursive reconciliation or brokering was possible.

These scorching debates prevailed in the post-colonial periods, as Sohaira Siddiqui points out in her response. She rightly observes that the “problem space” of the Barelvī-Deobandī polemics also have a contemporary manifestation not only in South Asia but even in regions where these Muslim sub-traditions have traveled.

Like Siddiqui, Faisal Devji also reflects on how Tareen’s argument helps us in addressing issues in different contexts. He notes that in the twentieth century the refurbished concept of divine sovereignty became an instrument of ideological state-formation. Such a notion, he claims, has been institutionalized via constitutions and legislative processes. Pakistan and Egypt are two examples of how the concept of divine sovereignty gets embedded into nation-state political orders. Baptized by revised politico-theological concepts, one observes how the legislatures, courts, politicians, and political activists all deploy God’s sovereignty as a war cry to contest, topple, and challenge governments; restrain or ban speech about religion; and mount campaigns against alleged offenses denoted as blasphemy. By purging vast sections of the archive of historical Muslim political theology, Devji suggests the result is “new Islamic actors accepting a European notion of sovereignty which, however, they reserved only for God.” I agree with Devji as to how European notions of sovereignty are patched on to modern Islamic practices. My readings of the premodern literature suggest that notions of sovereignty were meshed into authoritative discourses and symbolic imaginaries. And sovereign-authority was often fragmented and distributed, and perhaps functioned more like rhizomes—sometimes you saw it and at other times it was concealed.

Jonathan Brown is curious as to why these intra-Muslim theological contestations reached such fury in South Asia. Perhaps a comparative study which looked to the slightly earlier period in West Africa could help illuminate the developments in South Asia. Developments in the Sokoto Caliphate under Osman dan Fodio and his heirs might provide one entry point here. In his essay, Brown notes some of the uncanny resemblances in the theological developments in South Asia in the nineteenth century and Arabia in the eighteenth century, but then himself correctly discounts the comparison because he claims that there were crucial differences between the two contexts. Even if it is hazardous to speculate, I would proffer that Shāh Ismāʿīl and his colleagues were a minority in a diminished Mughal empire, where the anxiety of loss and dissolution of Muslim fortunes weighed heavily on their conscience, a point that Mazhari confirms. This might have led them to assess their situation as dire, and thus in need of an exceptional response at multiple levels. The reaction to some of their proposals too was unusually intense.

Afterlife of Theological Polemics

But as Ammar Khan Nasir points out, even amongst those Deobandīs who were devoted and supportive of the reformist cause of Shāh Ismaʿīl there were reservations and discomfort at the latter’s rhetoric of reform. This is a sentiment voiced by a later Deobandī, Anwar Shāh Kashmīrī (d. 1933), who considered himself a supporter of this reform. Curiously, it seems that the judicious among the Deobandīs were unable to reduce the polemical heat in the twentieth century between themselves and their rivals, the Barelvī sect. This would have required them to both voice critical dissent in some matters that they found objectionable in the writings of the reformers, while nonetheless still support the overall reform project. Perhaps the heat and din of polemical exchanges and vested political interests rendered such potential stillborn. For when the stakes are high even the most constructive critique can be viewed as outright rejection.

Darul Uloom Deoband. Deoband, India. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The larger question Nasir poses is whether or not knowledge of the multitude of Muslim sectarian struggles on the subcontinent which date back to the seventeenth century can be edificatory. Historical awareness, he implies, might help imagine new possibilities in the present. He points out that theologians prescribed theologies that caused rifts and divisions that persist to this day among the Muslims of South Asia. He wonders if South Asian Islam can find a formula whereby different religious identities can coexist in ways that disallow the state to own the monopoly over religion. This remains a relevant question. Countless experiences around the world show that the defenders of God’s sanctity and Muḥammad’s dignity often wrap their own personas in the mantle of infallibility and privilege their opinions and thus raise the stakes. Proclamations of sovereignty quickly unravel into pithy slogans and the theological tinder emitted can turn into a conversation-stopper which makes it difficult to pursue any meaningful discussion on myriads of issues concerning law and theology.

We are grateful to SherAli Tareen for providing us with an opportunity to think through a multitude of questions involving God, humans, and the world in South Asia. He has raised many issues for us to continuously ponder. Since many of the ideas Tareen raised are still alive and kicking among the faithful, so to speak, we can therefore be content that over time there might be different permutations of this debate in uncharted waters. Defending Muḥammad in Modernity can also be framed as “contesting” deeply held theological concepts centered on the Prophet of Islam. Central issues debated in this book and their history show that there are conceptual caesuras or interruptions that have allowed the controversy to go on after it reached its peak. Doctrines of a tradition—and Islam is no exception—continue to undergo adjustment and reframing to ever-changing conditions. Reinterpreting a doctrine might at times lead away from a tradition. History has repeatedly shown that no dogma is immune to innovation and new possibilities.

Ebrahim Moosa
Ebrahim Moosa is Mirza Family Professor of Islamic Thought and Muslim Societies in Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs and Department of History. He co-directs Contending Modernities with Atalia Omer and Scott Appleby. Moosa’s interests span both classical and modern Islamic thought with a special focus on Islamic law, history, ethics and theology. He is the author of Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination, winner of the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book in the History of Religions (2006), and What is a Madrasa? (2015).
Decoloniality article

Empire and Race in Comparative Religious Ethics

José Clemente Orozco. The Epic of American Civilization: The Coming of Quetzalcoatl (Panel 5). 1932–1934. Fresco. Overall: 125 ½ x 205 in. (318.8 x 520.7 cm). Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: Commissioned by the Trustees of Dartmouth College. Used with permission.

Comparative Religious Ethics and Decolonial Thought

As a subfield of philosophy of religion, comparative religious ethics is concerned with the study of various peoples’ ethical dispositions and their production of ethical knowledge that might reasonably be called “religious.” At its best, work in the subfield is marked by a commitment to denaturalizing the normative status of Christian and/or European philosophic concepts, vocabularies, and traditions in religious ethics. Sometimes this commitment takes the form of extensive methodological and metaethical reflection. Other times, it appears in the formation of self-consciously provisional categories for comparison. Whatever shape it takes, this commitment might be regarded as stemming from comparativists’ desire to challenge the longstanding cultural imperialisms of philosophy of religion and religious ethics—or what decolonial theorists would call their coloniality—and what the founding editors of the Journal of Religious Ethics in 1973 called “the parochialism and Western bias that tends to characterize the present state of our discipline.” Even though most comparativists have not adopted avowedly radical or anticolonial perspectives, they have generally maintained that neither Christianity nor European philosophy should set the standard for ethical inquiry.

Viewed from this vantage, comparative religious ethics might appear to be one of the subfields of philosophy of religion most readily amenable to a decolonial turn. For more than four decades, many comparativists have aspired to create a field of inquiry that not only includes ethical perspectives and knowledges once marginalized in religious studies but that also is transformed by them. It is a subfield in which many purport to be skeptical of the universality and explanatory power of Christian and European philosophic concepts for analyzing religiously ethical phenomena generally. Yet, for all their awareness of the limits of western traditions and Christian concepts in the production of ethical knowledge, comparativists have not significantly inquired into them as ethical problems in their own right—particularly in view of their historic roles as imperial classificatory technologies both productive and preservative of racial distinctions. Instead, they have been relatively satisfied to assert that the historicity of these concepts as colonial sorting techniques, as a means of propagating differences between peoples that have justified the subjugation of some by others, is rather inconsequential for present analysis, provided, of course, one is sufficiently self-conscious about their use. In other words, despite their recognition of the provincial character of European and Christian moral vocabularies, comparativists have not yet seen fit to delve into the darker side of their historicity—that is, their active involvement with coloniality, and so to embark upon anything that might be called a decolonial turn.

Prompted by the work of Nelson Maldonado-Torres, I’d like to propose one possible set of foci for comparison which might inspire comparative ethicists to begin taking this metacritical turn, or at least incline them to begin thinking with decolonial theorists. What I suggest is that empire and race ought to become central focal points for ethical analysis. Comparativists ought to ask how imperial and racial formations have shaped the settings within which peoples have acted and thought, regarding them not as wholly determinative but as nevertheless integral components of peoples’ ethical lives. Such inquiry might proceed from the decolonial observation that empires, and modern European colonial empires in particular, have generated longstanding racialized and gendered patterns of power and domination that perdure into our purportedly postcolonial present, and that these patterns are some of the most pressing ethical problems of our times. It would then regard as axiomatic the idea that religiously ethical scholarship is incomplete at best, and fundamentally ideological or distortive at worst, when it fails to interrogate the ways imperial and racial formations influence ethical subjectivation and moral discourse.

Empire and Race in History

If empires are provisionally understood as macropolities that rule different peoples differently, and if race is provisionally understood to name a structural relationship for the production and preservation of these differences, then it would appear possible to use these concepts as foci for comparative work in religious ethics without lapsing into theoretical heavy-handedness or presentist anachronism. As concepts, they are sufficiently delimited without also being so content-laden that they predetermine analysis. They are also able, as Geraldine Heng and Sylvester Johnson have recently demonstrated, to provide rich frames for theorizing almost a millennia of race-making, even before the category of race was explicitly fashioned during the colonial period. More importantly, however, the ability to comparatively explore the historic entanglement of religious varieties of ethical discourse with imperial and racial formations may expand our understanding of how these discourses came to be what they are in the present, as well as produce new perspectives on how processes of moral formation unfold. If comparativists were to begin studying how religious persons and communities have negotiated the tensions of empire, then it would seem we may likely come to a better understanding both of the darker side of religious varieties of ethical discourse and of their contestation.

Marcus Garvey during a parade on the opening day of the annual Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World at Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York City. Garvey helped spark movements from African nationalist independence to American civil rights to self-sufficiency in black commerce  (AP Photo/File). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Of course, not every empire has governed its subjects in the same way. Neither have they all engaged in explicit processes of racialization or racial formation as scholars now use these terms. Nor, as Sylvia Wynter argues, are the patterns of differentiation and domination that various empires have installed equally pressing ethical problems. One would not want to suggest that ancient Chinese, medieval Islamic, or early modern West African imperialisms were qualitatively the same as, for instance, contemporary Anglo-American settler colonialisms. Here as elsewhere in ethical analysis, then, historical specificity and normative clarity are needed. Defined thusly, however, taking empire and race as broad focal themes for comparison appears promising for enriching our understanding of the role that religious actors, communities, and their ethical discourses have historically played in the organization of political power, the production of ideas about and representations of human difference, and the shaping of the present. In particular, for those conversant with decolonial theory, it represents an opportunity to gain better understanding of the long-term historical processes that underwrote the transformation of the category of religion in the sixteenth century, as well as the explicit conceptualization of race. Indeed, deploying these terms as comparative foci in conversation with decolonial thought has significant potential for transforming inquiry in comparative religious ethics. How? I offer three concluding propositions.

Critical Prospects

First, it would require that ethicists finally confront the ways that imperial and racial formations have in many cases been constitutive components of ethical subjectivity itself. As David Scott reminds us, imperial techniques of rule have often functioned such that race “becomes inserted into subject-constituting social practices, into the formation, that is to say, of certain ‘raced’ subjectivities” (196–97). Not only interested in establishing political relations of insider and outsider, citizen and alien, imperial statecraft and colonial governance have also sought to shape the interior landscapes of the peoples whom they have ruled. They have used, as Ann Laura Stoler notes, various techniques of subjectivation, or what Ian Hacking refers to as “making up people,” as chief strategies of rule. Consider the ways, for example, that imperial nineteenth-century U.S. discourses of citizenship articulated racial distinctions together with the ideals of liberal egalitarianism, thereby generating citizen-subjects whose universality was made possible by their racial particularity. That is, the ways that the abstract equality shared by U.S. citizens was made possible precisely through the exclusion of non-national, racialized persons from citizenship. Addressing such strategies and techniques of rule may therefore require a substantial rethinking of central ethical categories and the role they have played in instantiating the very divisions of humanity that are constitutive of what W. E. B. Du Bois once called “the color line [that] belts the world.” Dominant conceptions of citizenship, humanity, personhood, reason, affect, action, responsibility, and even ethics, for example, are not simply neutral descriptors of ethical life with respect to empire. They are, in fact, some of the many tools imperial polities have used to subjugate and subjectivate peoples around the world.

Second, as Irene Oh, Danube Johnson, and others have observed on this blog, such foci would likely also call into question both the category of religion itself as a longstanding imperial sorting technique for establishing artificial criteria and scales of comparison between peoples, as well as any comparative endeavor which uses religious designations to naturalize racial distinctions. In other words, it would likely cause comparativists to have to further confront the ways that their very tools of analysis, i.e., the category of religion and the comparative method, are glossed with imperial residues. I will not here rehearse the well-known stories of the colonial origins of religion or the complicity of comparison in colonial domination, but suffice it to say that a focus on race and empire would not, therefore, be simply a matter of incorporating these topics as further specializations in comparative ethical analysis. It would also involve subjecting many of our dominant methods and assumptions to critical scrutiny as ethical problems in their own right and, perhaps, abandoning them when necessary.

Dominant conceptions of citizenship, humanity, personhood, reason, affect, action, responsibility, and even ethics, for example, are not simply neutral descriptors of ethical life with respect to empire. They are, in fact, some of the many tools imperial polities have used to subjugate and subjectivate peoples around the world.

On this note, and finally, a focus on empire and race would demonstrate, I believe, that a mere commitment to provincializing the normative status of Christian and European philosophic concepts, vocabularies, and traditions in religious ethics is not be enough to qualify work in the subfield as decolonial, or even decolonial-adjacent. It would demonstrate, in other words, that becoming an active participant in decolonial projects, both scholarly and political, necessitates a further commitment: that of generating new modes of ethical inquiry delinked from the patterns of power and knowlege installed by imperial and racial formations, modes likely emerging from sources and/or practices that many comparativists have not heretofore considered “religious” or “ethical.” If comparative religious ethicists want to live up to our aspirational self-descriptions as transformative public intellectuals, whose work contributes both to ethical understanding and modes of ethical living, then we will need to significantly rework our own analytical conventions and ethical commitments. Foregrounding race and empire in conversation with decolonial thought can provide the metaethical spur to instigate this transformation.

Nicholas Andersen
Nicholas Andersen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies and a 2020-2021 Interdisciplinary Opportunities Fellow at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University. He works primarily in the fields of modern religious thought and ethics, with particular interests in Black religious thought, theories of empire and colonialism, and religion in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americas. His dissertation, provisionally entitled "Ethiopia Shall Stretch Forth Her Hands unto God," offers a novel theorization of nineteenth-century Ethiopianism.
Global Currents article

Weaponizing Antisemitism is Bad for Jews, Israel, and Peace

If Not Now protest during President Trump’s appearance at American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, March 21, 2016. Image Credit: Flickr User Miki Jourdan.

The flag of Israel has been spotted in white nationalist displays of violence such as the insurgency of January 6, 2021. The Star of David was there. There were also white men wearing shirts that read “Camp Auschwitz,” “Arbeit macht frei,” and “6MWE” (a neo-Nazi slogan meaning “6 million wasn’t enough”). These are obvious expressions of antisemitism that reveal a strange and explosive interweaving with Zionism, or rather Israelism. Years of Israeli hasbara (or propaganda) and its elective affinities with the Christian Zionism that has permeated white American evangelicals brought us this moment of “love of Israel” that wants to kill Jews. The absurdities are in plain sight. This constitutes the tragic upshot of Israel’s weaponization of antisemitism to muzzle legitimate criticisms of its continuous occupation of Palestinians, now labeled “apartheid” by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights’ organization. On the global scene the Israeli efforts have been amplified by the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) which has gained traction globally as a mechanism designed to delegitimize criticism of Israeli policies, diminish the Palestinian struggle for dignity and human and political rights, and enhance militant ethnoreligious nationalism in Israel. Framing itself as an intergovernmental effort to combat antisemitism, the IHRA thus has consolidated a definition of antisemitism to better determine what it looks like in political and social life, with the intention to uproot and criminalize criticisms of Israeli policies. One of the IHRA’s list of examples of antisemitism includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” The ramifications of the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism reverberate loudly. To begin with, in so far as the insurgency on Capitol Hill in January 2021 displayed its support of Zionism through use of the flag, this support is not inconsistent with the explicit antisemitism captured in the shirts and other neo-Nazi paraphernalia. White nationalists take from Euro-Zionism’s textbook aspirations for ethnoreligious supremacist political hegemony. There is no room for Jews in “White nationalism” as articulated by the likes of Richard Spencer who has expressed admiration of Zionism’s ethnocracy. The ramifications of the IHRA’s nationalist discourse also reverberate, for example, in the U.S. State Department’s labeling as “antisemitic” the long-established practice of nonviolent actions of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) campaigns. Antisemitism, like other forms of racism and bigotry, should be rejected by appeals to human rights and justice, not through the closure of critical thinking and blind acceptance of official Israeli state policies.

The IHRA’s promotion of its understanding of antisemitism is the latest attempt to instrumentalize antisemitism to control how people are allowed or not allowed to talk about Israel. This account of antisemitism, however, is only possible through the flawed equation of Israel with all Jewish people, forcing all Jews the world over to accept and endorse a military occupation and a country that is increasingly more aligned with the wave of neo-fascism sweeping the world than with international law, democratic values, human rights, pluralism, and racial justice. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be much more comfortable with the likes of Victor Orbán, whose consolidation of power has thrived on antisemitic tropes (along with homophobic, anti-LGBTQI, and anti-feminist rhetoric), than with the American Jews whose social justice activism I trace in my recent work and who channel Jewish values of solidarity with the marginalized and powerless “because Jews were slaves in Egypt.” For this reason, the Jewish people I engaged in my ethnographic work recite the lesson of the Passover story. For them, the lesson of the Holocaust ought not be the maintenance of an ethno-nationalist ghetto via a massive security and surveillance infrastructure. While the Israeli government renders such young Jewish activists pursuing anti-occupation outlook as a “threat”—as is evident in the elaborate surveillance of campus activism—the same government engaged in pomp and circumstance for antisemitic and Islamophobic white Christian evangelicals when they relocated the American embassy, which was formerly in Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem. This is an expression of the marriage of convenience between Christian Zionists, the U.S. Republican Party, and the right-wing Israeli agenda. This marriage is bad for the prospect of a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis, as well as for Jewish safety. The IHRA, the Israeli government, and its “friends” all tell Jews that they can only be safe as long as they are Zionists. President Trump chillingly told representatives of the American Jewish community on the occasion of Rosh Hashanna 2020, “we love your country,” suggesting they are not Americans. Ironically, one of the IHRA’s examples of antisemitism also includes: “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.”

Jews who resist their equation with the occupation assume as their mantra the ancient Rabbi Hillel’s three interrelated questions: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when? For them the weaponization of the legacy of antisemitism and the memories of the Holocaust, which many of them carry within their own families, is threatening and wrong both because it manipulates such memories and because it makes them less safe in the face of real and accelerating antisemitism in the U.S. and elsewhere. Many young activists increasingly recognize that their safety depends on linking the fight against antisemitism to other social justice struggles. Many Israelis have taken to the streets to protest Netanyahu’s regime and many others such as B’Tselem for years have decried the weaponization of antisemitism. Their critical voices are silenced within the entrenched ideological regime that the IHRA represents as it coalesces with white nationalist and Christian Zionist antisemitism. Most importantly, this regime renders invisible and inaudible the Palestinian struggle for human rights and dignity that is pivotal for a real peace. A real peace is not the “peace” or normalization of Israel’s relations with Bahrain, the Emirates, Morocco, Sudan and other political entities that were in no direct war with Israel. This push for “normalization” (in the form of arm deals and economic incentives orchestrated by the U.S.) in conjunction with the chilling effect of IHRA on free speech is therefore bad for Jews, Israelis, and peace with justice.

Atalia Omer
Atalia Omer, Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame is also the Co-Director of Contending Modernities. She earned her Ph.D. from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. Her research has focused primarily on a systematic study of religion, violence, and the practices of peace, the dynamics of ethno-national conflicts, political and social theory, the theoretical study of religion and society, and the theoretical study of the interrelation between religion, nationalism, and questions of justice, peace, and conflict.
Her recent book Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians  (University of Chicago Press, 2019) examines American Jewish ethical and political transformations as part of their Palestine solidarity activism. The book examines Jews politically inspired by social justice campaigns and how these experiences are generative of innovations within Jewish tradition, including its re-conceptualization as prophetic, multiracial, and intersectional. Her first book, When Peace is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice  (University of Chicago Press, 2013) highlights how hybrid identities may provide creative resources for peacebuilding, especially in ethno-religious national conflicts where political agendas are informed by particularistic and often purist conceptions of identity. She is also co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding (2015). Omer also received in 2017 an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship to pursue research for a book tentatively titled  Global Religion, Peacebuilding and the Perils of Development: Beyond Neoliberalism and Orientalism
Global Currents article

Secularism’s Prisoners

Departure from Saint Louis for the Eighth Crusade. Illumination of the Grandes Chroniques de France, 14th century. Paris, BnF, Manuscripts department, French 2813, folio 298 verso.
Čeština: Ludvík IX. Via Wikimedia Commons.


They’ve taken us prisoner,

they’ve locked us up:

me inside the walls

you outside

But that’s nothing.

The worst

is when people—knowingly or not—

carry prison inside themselves . . .

Most people have been forced to do this,

honest, hard-working, good people

who deserve to be loved much as I love you

–Excerpt from Nazim Hikmet, 9-10pm. Poems.[1]

In his signature analysis of European society, the late Tony Judt wrote about how the burden of history weighed heavily on the continent in the twenty-first century. Judt reflected on Europe’s self-image, memories, and culture at a time of great change.  At this time, globalization was increasing the exchange of goods across a variety of cultural and political boundaries. As such the people exchanging these goods were also experiencing the world in new ways.  Judt’s insight, in a nutshell, was that “the problem was not so much education . . . [but] the public uses to which the past was now put. . . . Governments no longer exercised a monopoly over knowledge and history could not be altered for political convenience” (768).

As a historian Judt was not wrong about Europe’s burden of history. But no one in Paris seems to have heard him when he said that the government cannot control knowledge and history. Currently, ultra-secular French politicians vainly insist on pursuing forms of secularism that do not resonate with all its citizens. Provocatively one might ask: Which history and knowledge of Europe are we talking about? Today’s Europeans also include Muslims and their experiences ought to be part of the moral and political conversation.

The public use of France’s history was most recently put on display in an episode that injured and wounded the sentiments of the country’s estimated 5 million Muslim citizens. How? Sadistically laser projected onto Paris’ government buildings were highly inflammatory and demeaning caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, a figure cherished by Muslims around the world. In doing so, a sector of the French public and its government took delight in abuse under the guise of the right to free speech, a cherished value with deep historical roots in French political society. This episode followed on the heels of a terrorist beheading of Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher who displayed satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his classroom to cement the doctrine of free speech in his students.

Colluding in this outrage was president Emmanuel Macron, who, in an act of collective psychic punishment, abetted the public display of the caricatures. This collective punishment recalls colonial modes of governance which the French used with abandon in its North African and Sub-Saharan colonies (126–27). To Macron’s mind such retaliatory measures were a corrective to the conduct of the “barbarians” in the heart of the Republic, namely the Muslims, ironically described by Houria Bouteldja as the “wretched of the interior” (121).

Playing the role of secular theologian-at-large, but more accurately as a trainee exorcist, Macron deigned to teach French Muslims how to become assimilated French citizens. He repeatedly signaled his expertise to exorcise the supposedly non-French Islam out of the bodies of his Muslim wards. Actually, Macron was merely rephrasing the infamous words of the dreadful Belgian king Leopold, the founder of the International Congo Society, who on September 12, 1876 told the Geographical Society in Brussels how to civilize Africa: “Civilization opens up the only part of the globe it has not yet reached, piercing the darkness, enveloping the entire population. That is, I wager to say, a crusade worth of this century of progress” (216). The theater of Macron’s crusade is his own backyard, the banlieues—from where the uncivilized darkness will lift when floodlit by the vaunted French version of secularism, laïcité.

Judt’s 2005 sprawling Postwar ironically spoke of French anxieties of the loss of civilization and memory. France’s remedy was to construct the Muslim as the “other.”  Two decades into the twenty-first century France finds itself in the midst of a crisis over knowledge and history. While the issue ought to be more complex given decades of immigration by the “unassimilable” Muslims and Arabs, the difference in perception between France’s Muslims and apologists for a xenophobic vision of France is stark. History and knowledge, namely the experiences of those inhabiting France’s economically deprived banlieues, stands in glaring contrast with the Republic’s account of knowledge and history, the latter of which is symbolized by the Arc de Triomphe at the western end of Paris’ Champs-Élysées.

The theater of Macron’s crusade is his own backyard, the banlieues—from where the uncivilized darkness will lift when floodlit by the vaunted French version of secularism, laïcité.

For decades citizens of Europe who are of non-European descent—or as one analyst put it, immigrants who are “extra-European”—were frustrated to the point of despair in their bid to ensure that the rules of governance also reflect their sensibilities (157). Anthropologist Talal Asad long ago noted how Europe’s new immigrants and citizens in the context of Britain were denied a say in “the construction of a domain within which legitimate politics can be practiced—a politics to defend, develop, modify, or redefine given traditions and identities” (305). The continuous formation of the European state ought to include the views, emotions, and feelings in laws, norms, and values of those who are excluded, albeit in constructive contestations, as Asad implies.

In ways not unlike resurgent white power in North America, the Germans, the British, the French, and other European nations have resorted to nostalgia to recover lost memories. The presence of persons of “extra-European” origins have displaced the memories of white Europeans. Now Europeans, and more so the French, feel they are not heirs to history but are cast as its orphans and victims. The creative re-imagining of the national past in France, wrote Judt, was of another order altogether, where history was now replaced by nostalgia (769).

Stripped of territory and resources by war and decolonization, France’s confidence and the security of its global empire were in the latter half of the twentieth century replaced by a search for the nation’s le patrimoine in initiatives led by Presidents Francois Mitterand and Jacques Chirac. They supported efforts to recover selected memorabilia of the French past. Overtaken by demographic transformation and the anxiety of loss, they inflated France’s cultural patrimony by physically enlarging heirlooms. During the Mitterand era this included enlarging the Port du Gard near Nîmes and Philip the Bold’s ramparts at Aigues-Mortes. During the same period, the prominent Parisian historian Pierre Nora was commissioned to edit a monumental three-part, seven volume, Les lieux de mémoire, translated as Realms of Memory. The French took care to preserve their historical, political, and cultural memories to the exclusion of the memories and symbols of its newer citizens, whose culture only deserved to be ignored.

French Jews were lucky: they received one entry in Realms of Memory. In a few paragraphs Claude Langlois wrote about Muslims and Arabs on the coattails of the following thought, namely, that between 1950 and 1970 some 250,000 to 300,000 Jews emigrated to France, many of whom were Sephardic Jews from North Africa whose ethnic presence went largely unnoticed. More worried was “a public much more keenly aware of the new presence of Islam on French soil” (115). Nothing captures the awareness of the presence and “problem” of Islam and Muslims better than the words of Archbishop, and later Cardinal Lustiger of Paris. Addressing a parent-teacher school event in 1982, he hailed Napoleon I’s recognition of Catholicism, the Protestant Church, and Judaism as a great milestone. “But what difficult problem we face now,” a traumatized Lustiger wondered, “with the unforeseen arrival of large numbers of French-speaking children of Islamic background!” (115).

The exclusion of Islam, France’s second largest religion, from the detailed analysis as an aspect of French culture “was not an oversight” but was deliberate, for there was “no assigned corner for Islam in the French memory palace,” observed Judt (774). On the face of it, this might appear to be an instance of mutual entrapment between the dominant French establishment and the Muslim subalterns in France. But on closer scrutiny, there is greater reluctance on the side of the establishment to provide Muslims any corner. France might profit from an exercise in remaking its national “knowledge economy” (121). Secularism as a modality of life has become, as social scientists would say, too “path dependent” to assume the exclusive right to the production of knowledge and is insufficient as a knowledge economy to deal with the range of experiences of people (238). In the words of Talal Asad, one will have to come to terms with the fact that for some Muslims being Muslim “is first and foremost a way of life and death oriented by a religious tradition in which moral freedom is not conceived of as the identity of the self with itself” (24). Collective flourishing and peace might only be possible when immigrant experiences are more fully integrated into the national life. This requires going beyond the integration of celebrity Franco-Arab football players and rap music artists, who are nonetheless pioneers in this new effort.

April 26, 2018 – President Emmanuel Macron at the OECD. The president attended the No Money for Terror global conference which was organized by the French Government. OECD, Paris, France. Photo Credit: OECD/Victor Tonelli.

Terrorist acts by Muslim actors who avenge their political outrage in the theological rhetoric of blasphemy of a bygone era and those secularists engaging in the collective punishment of Muslims both contribute to a setback in human relations on the global stage.  Human solidarity and global interdependence are indispensable for our collective survival as the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change dramatically make plain.

If France and Europe value their symbols then they will have to learn to respect the symbols of multiple cultures and civilizations. Deliberately mocking the sensibilities and religious symbols of religious minorities amount to psychic pain, as Elaine Scarry points out in the Body in Pain. Similar to sensory pain experienced by the body is the pain experienced in the working of the imagination. Why? “While pain is a state remarkable for being wholly without objects,” writes Scarry, “the imagination is remarkable for being the only state that is wholly its objects” (162). Imaginary pain, Scarry suggests, is more immediate, causing deeper and more lasting pain. As architectural historian Samir Younés writes, “Intellectual meanness procures satisfaction to the minds of those who enjoy inflicting emotional pain with the intention of causing feelings of inadequacy in a victim.” This amounts to the artistic elimination of the “other” (101). Commodifying Muslim religious symbols and turning these into weapons of torture, bullying, and offense are deplorable acts of violence clothed as free speech, especially when other acts of free speech such as Holocaust-denial and the denigration of people based on their race and/or gender are rightly deemed as hate speech and crimes.

Denigrating and dehumanizing Muslim subjects by turning their religious symbols into weapons of psychic torture allies the Western secular with revanchist Christian culture in a bid to redraw crusader-like boundaries of civilization once more. Muslims inside the West are the unthinkable “difficult problem,” in Cardinal Lustiger’s words. Actually, Macron and his allies at Charlie Hebdo and at Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten are icons of a new secular crusade masquerading as free speech.

Talal Asad described Britain in the 1980s in haunting commentary equally applicable to France today. Asad observed, in remarks soaked in satire, that European states are suffering a post-imperial identity crisis “as an unhappy instance of some immigrants with difficulties in adjusting to a new and more civilized world” (241). Proponents of the European Enlightenment once lectured the rest of the world about the need to embrace complexity. But many Europeans continue to think in straight lines, binaries, and reductionist models. Therefore, Asad’s analysis deserves repetition: “If Europe cannot be articulated in terms of complex space and time, which allow for multiple ways of life and not merely multiple identities to flourish, it may be fated to be no more than the common market of an imperial civilization, always anxious about (Muslim) exiles within its gates and (Muslim) barbarians beyond.” His question was: “In such an embattled modern space—a space of abundant consumer choices and optional lifestyles—is it possible for Muslims to be represented as Muslims?” (24–25). Things have since worsened. French police continue to round up scores of 10 year-old Muslim kids at dozens of schools and terrorize them for hours at police stations for allegedly supporting terrorism. In this case secularism, like terrorism, makes “people carry prison inside themselves” in the poet Nazim Hikmet’s compelling words.


[1] John Berger, Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance,  36. Translated by Randy Blasing and Muten Konuk.

Ebrahim Moosa
Ebrahim Moosa is Mirza Family Professor of Islamic Thought and Muslim Societies in Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs and Department of History. He co-directs Contending Modernities with Atalia Omer and Scott Appleby. Moosa’s interests span both classical and modern Islamic thought with a special focus on Islamic law, history, ethics and theology. He is the author of Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination, winner of the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book in the History of Religions (2006), and What is a Madrasa? (2015).
Theorizing Modernities article

Beyond Analogy

Grid formed by criss-crossing suspender cables on a bridge. Photo Credit: Flickr User Dennis Church.

Diaspora is distance plus practice, entangled in mediated scenes, messy, lived.

*   *   *   *

We’re on the far side of Yom Kippur. My mother sends me and my brother a photo of the Zoom service hosted by her synagogue up in Portland. The image is a bit blurred, a bit pixelated. The rabbi, speaker-view large, appears in mid-strum on his guitar, with a 1×6 column of participants stretching mid-song on the right-hand side of the screen. The sonic resonance can’t quite break through the photo, but it’s the noise in the signal that brings me closer to her and this fleeting moment, its low-fi intimacy, its traces of an imperfect digital translation like the smudge of ink on a handwritten letter.

Later, on our weekly family call—a standing date which began about a year ago and has only become more regularized during the pandemic—she tells me about the song. It’s an updated version of the liturgical poem Unetaneh Tokef, which was allegedly composed during the Byzantine period. The original poem is a litany for judgment. Stark poles define the parameters for the futures of the living, including “who shall have rest and who shall wander, who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued . . . who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low.” For those who perish prematurely, Unetaneh Tokef shows death coming in many dramatic forms: swords and beasts, famines and earthquakes, strangulations and stonings. I remember being chilled as a child by its square-eyed view on mortality, the coarse language of spectacular forms of premature death stripped bare of metaphor.

The update to the poem, caught in that visual, sonic, digital blur, is everything. Fire. Searing. Written by the Black Jewish educator and organizer Imani Romney-Rosa Chapman, Unetaneh Tokef for Black Lives was posted to the Lilith Blog in June 2020. Also stripped of metaphor, this update cuts into the starkly mundane ways in which Black people have been killed in recent years. It is a haunting autopsy of four centuries of white supremacy. The mournful repetition, “who shall die while,” addresses a litany of present participles—“jogging, relaxing, holding, decorating, enjoying, sleeping, playing, shopping, reading, running.” The continuous present, fatally interrupted. Chapman’s song includes thirty names, personalizing premature death through the proper nouns of their being and their loss. Names are prefaced with hashtags. In doing so, they become inscribed not only as the traces of individuals to be contained within white supremacy’s Book of Judgement, but also as indexes for a network—an expansive and expanding set of material traces that cuts across time, space, and medium—that reaches out to connect, and in those desires for connection, signals communities composed of mournful and righteous rage. Distance plus practice.

The song is sung in the first-person plural. Black lives are a clarion “we” that unifies a people across more than four centuries, now numbering, as the song tells us, 47.8 million—an approximation of those who identify as Black in the United States, and in an uncanny coincidence, the number of times #BlackLivesMatter appeared on Twitter in the two weeks following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. Unetaneh Tokef for Black Lives closes by addressing a “you,” the “white world” named in the song’s opening lines. You are both something far less precise, and far more challenging. The song figures Yom Kippur as a crucial moment not only for personal reflection on, but for collective reckoning with, the fatal consequences of white supremacy. Quoting from Mishnah Yomah, the song nears its close:

The Day of Atonement brings no forgiveness

Till he has become reconciled with the fellowman he wronged.

From the distance of scripture’s third-person singular, Chapman moves immediately to address directly a second-person plural, which is also the intimacy of a second person singular:

When will you atone? How will you atone?

For you, like us, will be judged.

You, like us, will return to dust.

The “white world” was made through conquest and slavery, a worldmaking that created whiteness as a self-authorizing and auto-legitimating regime. Reckoning with that world, the changeful complexity of what it has wrought, along with the worlds that live alongside, beneath, and beyond its ken, strikes me as part of what Unetaneh Tokef for Black Lives calls on us to consider.

*  *  *

What, then, are the tensions between the you that is plural—a world composed in the calculus of white supremacy—and a you that is singular—an individual and the identity possessed therein?

Part of those tensions, it seems to me, can be grasped through a critical reckoning with the nation-state as such, a political structure that is only naturalized as the commonsensical way to organize political communities in the twentieth-century refashioning of a white world emergent from the ashes of European empires. Is the nation-state, that pharmakon of political modernity, the only means by which to advance a project of minoritarian self-determination? Does it allow us the necessary space to script the value of difference otherwise? Those noisy diasporic traditions of study—Jewish, Black, and Palestinian alike—suggest caution in a hastily affirmative response. As critical race scholars have long argued, whiteness is, among other things, a legal and political construction. It is mutable and shifting, and is materialized through a relation to property and profit, freedom and mobility. It is lived in the affective and somatic tenor of national belonging. Whiteness is a signifier of freedom and territorial acquisition for a national project whose historical predicates were the theft of land and labor rationalized and legitimated through the heuristics of race. Responses to the post-World War II interruption of white supremacy have sought to incorporate into the body politic non-white difference—both legally and culturally—through institutionalized practices of recognition and representation. The frictions of multicultural difference and recognition, slipping into and out of national belonging, and rubbing against the coarse violence of lives hierarchically valued, continues to generate much of the heat in our racial politics.

Is the nation-state, that pharmakon of political modernity, the only means by which to advance a project of minoritarian self-determination? Does it allow us the necessary space to script the value of difference otherwise? Those noisy diasporic traditions of study—Jewish, Black, and Palestinian alike—suggest caution in a hastily affirmative response.

In the churn of our pandemic times, identity keeps calling. Identity’s promise of a “good night’s rest,” in Stuart Hall’s pithy phrase, provides reassurance when living through what Gramsci once termed “morbid symptoms” that arise between the no longer and the not yet (43). And yet, might holding fast to identity, defensively, reactively, also be a morbid symptom in its own right? Whether and how one’s own identity might animate solidarity has likewise resurfaced as a question in recent months. What these questions remind us of is that solidarity is no synonym for identity, equivalence, or similitude. Solidarity is a practice, an action, whose condition of possibility is the messy materiality of social difference, not its flattening. The vitality of solidarity is that it presumes difference. It requires difference, it is vitalized by difference. To predicate solidarity either on embracing identity or rejecting it is to foreshorten the capacity to think across difference. We refuse such resources for thought, which are, indeed, the conditions of possibility for thought, at our peril.

Entangled filaments of Mycelium. Photo Credit: Flickr User Kirill Ignatyev.

How, then, to enable difference to surface in our language and our ways of being?

Analogy continually proves to be one entry point. Analogy mediates. Analogy emphasizes resonance and similitude, without collapsing into identity. It provides a figure in the traditional rhetorical sense, to make sense differently. But the grammar of analogy is a rhetorically thin structure for meaning-making. To arrive at a moment analytically when one can compellingly state a social phenomenon is like another often requires holding at bay the confounding variables—the noise in the signal—of lives lived deeply and in relation to their own histories. Analogy is no more than an analytical tool with which to think. But it is also no less than that, for figures are powerful, and heuristics have truth effects.

For me, several questions arise when faced with the grammar of analogy: What are the historical conditions that have given rise to these particular ways of seeing relationally? How did they come to be infused with meaning? What do they make legible, visible, sensible? And then, what are the constellation of truth effects, the ripples across common sense, that such formulations incite? Questions like these are meant to contextualize analogy’s rhetorical force, even as they pry open space for critique.

Solidarity is a practice, an action, whose condition of possibility is the messy materiality of social difference, not its flattening. The vitality of solidarity is that it presumes difference. It requires difference, it is vitalized by difference.

As I have argued elsewhere, one ought to cast a critical lens on the romance/tragedy narrative of the Black-Jewish civil rights coalition. This coalition wielded analogies as part of its rhetorical arsenal. All too often those who employ this narrative retrospectively impose pat liberal nationalist frames onto a complex history that is wrought with contradictions and critical commitments that exceed this narrative’s terms of reference. Visions of national inclusion, monumental public action, and charismatic leadership are easy highlights in this tale, which are thought by some to then become quickly degraded by Black internationalist solidarity politics, robust critiques of capitalism and imperialism, and the question of Palestine. At the same time, one must consider carefully how Black-Palestinian solidarities have been forged and practiced, how they’ve been suffused with content that has changed over time, that likewise draw on analogical grammars that belie the noise of lives lived across difference.

Beyond analogy lies entanglement. Returning to the reckoning that Unetaneh Tokef for Black Lives prompts, nation-state sovereignty’s plural you reflects the racializing systems of value that give it meaning, and, crucially the entangled forms of sociality that trouble their terms of reference. Certainly solidarity as a practice of relation across difference is one such form. So too are more mundane entanglements. Jewish and Black are hardly mutually exclusive categories, in the United States or anywhere else. Debates persist about racial classification on the U.S. census among Arab, Iranian, and North African American communities who are counted as white. And the historical entanglement of Black and Palestinian freedom struggles, and Jewish involvement in these struggles, have offered political imaginaries beyond the exclusionary visions of Zionism and the cruel calculus of white supremacy. To flatten these histories into particular identitarian narratives unfolding in parallel cannot but seek to regulate who belongs where, forgetting again the noisy insights of our diasporic traditions. These entanglements have resonances, translations and touchpoints, iconographies and ideologies, that have brought these streams of thought and practice into a lived relation, reminding us that distinct communities with differentiated histories draw inspiration from one another, breathing together, apart, in relation across difference.

Keith Feldman
Keith P. Feldman is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also affiliated with the Program in Critical Theory, the Berkeley Center for New Media, and the Center for Middle East Studies. An interdisciplinary cultural studies scholar, Feldman’s work examines the interface between race, knowledge, and imperial cultures, with a focus on the U.S., the so-called “Middle East,” and North Africa. Feldman is the author of A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America (2015). He is also the co-editor of #identity: Hashtagging Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Nation (2019); co-editor of a special issue of Social Text on “Race/Religion/War;” and the editor of a forum for Comparative Literature on “Blackness and Relationality.”
Theorizing Modernities article

Response to Gendered Morality Symposium

Osman Hamdi Bey, “Girl Citing Qur’an” (1880). Via Wikimedia Commons.

I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to Kecia Ali, Kathryn Kueny, Bob Tappan, Saadia Yacoob, and Travis Zadeh for engaging so deeply with the arguments I make in Gendered Morality and offering their reflections in this forum.

When I was writing Gendered Morality, I was very tempted to say in the conclusion that it is impossible to redeem an ethical system which necessitates the exploitation of women and non-elites and in which the good life is only available to elite men. Such a system should be thrown out completely. Then I remembered how and why these texts have endured. It is not simply because they are classical texts of Islam, written by venerated scholars; it is also because their contents—their insights and advice—have continued to resonate and hold truth for new readers, especially in their observations of a society that was shaped by the ideas in the texts themselves. People want to be cosmically connected; they want to know what part they can play in creating an ethically ordered world; they want to know how to behave in order to live their best lives. Many people believe that the world is, or ought to be, structured hierarchically, the way that these texts say it is. Unfortunately, what these texts offer up is hierarchy and an ethical path that is available only to elite men, or at its widest scope, to those with the privilege to utilize others. Also, quite separately, I do not want to throw out the akhlaq texts because I think they do help us think about what it means to live a good life. I just think that we may be better off taking their questions as important ones to be answered, without adopting their answers.

We might, then, start with the crucial question of how to read ethics of the past in the present. Travis Zadeh reminds us that today’s ubiquitous concept of liberty (thanks to imperialism and colonialism) makes it hard for us to understand the past—how power worked, how society was ordered—and that concepts of hierarchy, while troubling to our present sensibilities, make it easier to understand the ethical order of past societies. I agree about the presentism that makes historical akhlaq texts unsettling, but I would add that not all contemporary sensibilities are repulsed by hierarchies in the texts. Many people on individual and institutional levels continue to believe that exploitative social hierarchy is natural law, or God’s law.

I do believe, as Kecia Ali states, that democratization of ethics is possible, and that self-cultivation remains necessary for broad social justice. Because as Saadia Yacoob points out, self-cultivation is reliant upon social relations, the question that Kathryn Kueny raises is crucial—whether ethical systems based on hierarchy can ever be fully replaced. However, I do think that regardless of their historical significance, asking whether the recovery of pre-modern akhlaq texts is possible—and how such recovery should be attempted—is not where we should focus our energies. Rather, I think that identifying the problematics that critical feminist analyses of them brings up can help to create a more inclusive and just ethics. As my interlocutors in this forum have identified, the major problem is how to think about interdependence in ethics without the exploitative aspects of hierarchy. I think it is possible to address (but not solve!) this problem by breaking it down further into specific issues that the akhlaq texts raise.

Problems I have articulated are: (1) reliance on rationality and its possession in defining the human being, thus excluding women and non-elites because of their lack of access to higher learning; (2) defining moral responsibility using patriarchal concepts of khilafa; (3) expanding access to the moral enterprise has often led to piecemeal inclusion because our paradigms of inclusivity still rely on the exploitation of those not included; (4) the goals of akhlaq, or ethics, necessitate exploitation because of the interconnectedness of human relations that are folded into discipline and practice of akhlaq and how refinement is achieved. I discuss these interrelated topics, sometimes using different language, in the conclusion of Gendered Morality, but here I am going to add a little more texture to that discussion, specifically in response to the generous participation of my colleagues in this forum.

How can we create an ethics which is not incremental or piecemeal in opening the circle of inclusion? As Ali alluded to, one example of this is the case for the United States Constitution. In some accounts, it reflects incremental inclusion; it first granted emancipation to the enslaved, then granted full citizenship to women, then outlawed discrimination against Black people, and later was interpreted to protect other minorities and LGBTQ folks from discrimination. This kind of incremental inclusion into planes of rationality, equality, and justice, as Kueny points out (echoing Audre Lorde and Helen Longino), “only promotes competition among the marginalized for what bits and scraps of the good life or happiness might be cast aside by those with all the power.” Just because the circle of inclusion may be bigger, it is not less exclusionary, and maintains oppressive hierarchies. Bob Tappan’s remarks on redeeming women though the marginalization of animals, similarly, but more broadly, eschews the incremental approach because it is an extension of patriarchy that elevates one kind of subjectivity over and against others.

Historically, the gendered criteria for inclusion has been rationality. Even though the ethicists argued that higher cognitive function is the hallmark of humanity, they didn’t believe all humans possessed it. And even if we walk away from rationality as a criterion for defining the human being, doing so requires some care and philosophical reflection on humans’ relationship to non-human animals since rationality is classically thought to mark the difference between human and non-human animals.

Relatedly, the concept of khilafa in ethics discourses requires several layers of analysis in order to break down its paternalism. On the first layer, khilafa is historically understood as the male mantle of leadership that feigns care for all—paternalism at its finest. On the positive side, built into this definition is the concept of care, which for many is a call to human beings to enact Divine law and justice. As Kueny mentions, khilafa as care has tremendous potential to transform paternalism into empathetic responsibility. But I would caution, as Marcia Homiak reminds us, that care ethics, with its focus on empathy and feeling, is often set up dichotomously against rationality—care defines feminine ethics and rationality while virtue remains within the realm of masculine ethics. Such a construction concedes that women are unable to participate in the taming of the rational faculty that is the hallmark of nafs training in the Ibn Sinan tradition of akhlaq—as if women are irrational empaths. As it stands in that tradition, khilafa is a false care that is bound up with male authority, one that is justified through male rationality and male perfection, and excludes others. Ironically, khilafa requires the care of the elite men who are playing khilifa, which, as Yacoob points out, is dependent upon women’s labor that is done to nurture and sustain the family—including the men—to the detriment of their own refinement.

Patriarchy is an environmentally destructive enterprise just as it is exploitative of non-elite human beings.

Tappan brings up the question of reading khilafa as understood in the akhlaq world and contemporary exegesis alongside Sarra Tlili’s argument that early Qur’anic exegetes did not view khilafa in the same paternalistic light that later scholars did. In this way Tlili recovers khilafa by predating definitions of the term to a time before it came to mean that certain men know best. Tappan questions what happens to the edifice of akhlaq then? Akhlaq certainly comes crashing down because the genre assumes khilafa is a feature of male existential concern (universalized and normalized as human concern). Women and non-human animals serve the same purpose for elite men in that they both act as rational foils and as moral instruments that men utilize. Both are described as less capable and born at a lower station in life (despite descriptions of equality of God’s atoms and matter).

Because religious and philosophical justifications (paternalistic khilafa and male rationality) have been used in a similar way to subdue women as well as non-human animals, and indeed the entire natural environment, for elite men’s purposes, we can see —echoing Carol Adams’s arguments in Sexual Politics of Meat and that of eco-feminism in general—that patriarchy is an environmentally destructive enterprise just as it is exploitative of non-elite human beings.

Perhaps the goal should not be to elevate animals to the level of human beings as much as possible, but to demote human beings to the level of animals.

However, I worry about the emphasis placed on animals’ cognitive abilities and on recognizing religion in animals—as much as that data is incredible—to serve as evidence that human beings need to be kinder to them (we should, anyway). Indeed, non-human animal rationality and religiosity are important to study so that we can flesh out our relationship to them in the cosmic scheme. But as we have learned from disability studies, the mere presence of rationality is not specifically what defines humanity or affords someone ethical deserts or dignity. Disabled human beings who may possess lower cognitive capacity are still considered human. Non-human animals, regardless of their place in the hierarchy of cognitive ability or religiosity, still deserve not to be abused, mistreated, or exploited. Perhaps the goal should not be to elevate animals to the level of human beings as much as possible, but to demote human beings to the level of animals. I read Sarra Tlili’s work as evidence that in the Qur’anic tradition, humans are not so special in the scheme of following God’s natural law because non-human animals also obey God’s commands; thus, the very basis of khilafa in the tradition—that as the best of creation, humans have the responsibility to discipline or order the world—is moot even if it is a post-Qur’anic understanding of khilafa.

However, to “demote” humans is a difficult proposition in light of the great emphasis placed on rationality as the defining feature of human beings in Islamic philosophical and ethical discourse. The tradition is self-congratulatory, naming humans as al ashraf al makhluqat (the noblest of creation) because of their ability to reason. The superlative construction of the term, ashraf (noblest), as opposed to sharif (noble) implies a hierarchy of nobility and a hierarchy of reason. As I argued in Gendered Morality, far from thinking of it as a universal (if an able-bodied) feature of humanity, rationality is used to describe only elite men and dehumanize all others. This leads me to ask how we can dismantle rationality, because of its exclusivist application, as the standard that makes someone sharif (noble).

We need new practices for reading these texts—to ask the questions they ask, but to critique the ways they go about answering them in order to arrive at our own answers. As Zadeh puts it, in the akhlaq tradition, the goal is to tame the body and social relations to serve “the cosmic force of the divine soul as it emanates throughout all existence.” The usefulness of akhlaq’s epistemology for building an inclusive ethics, however, lies in the details. These include: challenging the various criteria used for exclusion in akhlaq such as rationality, understanding interconnectedness outside of exploitative care and paternalistic khilafa, and breaking up incremental approaches to justice and inclusion. In addition to serving as major contributions of Islamic ethics to moral discourses, these concerns are at once practical and philosophical and they require critical feminist reflection.

Zahra Ayubi
Zahra Ayubi is a scholar of women and gender in premodern and modern Islamic ethics. She specializes in feminist philosophy of Islam and has published on gendered concepts of ethics, justice, and religious authority, and on Muslim feminist thought and American Muslim women’s experiences. Her first book, Gendered Morality: Classical Islamic Ethics of the Self, Family, and Society (Columbia, 2019) rethinks the tradition of Islamic philosophical ethics from a feminist critical perspective. Developing a lens for a feminist philosophy of Islam, Ayubi analyzes constructions of masculinity, femininity, and gender relations in classic works of philosophical ethics by Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, Nasir-ad Din Tusi, and Jalal ad-Din Davani. She interrogates how these thinkers conceive of the ethical human being as an elite male within a hierarchical cosmology built on the exclusion of women and nonelites. She calls for a philosophical turn in the study of gender in Islam based on resources for gender equality that are unlocked by feminist engagement with the Islamic ethical tradition.

Her next book project, Women as Humans: Authority and Gendered Ontology in Islamic Medical Ethics, is being supported by a three-year grant from the Greenwall Foundation Faculty Scholars Program. The project is a textual and ethnographic study of gender and gendered experiences in Muslim biomedical ethics. In addition to a focus on practical ethics, in this project she examines what are Muslim ontological, metaphysical, and existential conceptions of women.
Decoloniality article

Heretical Histories of Liberation: Black Liberation Theology, Historical Materialism, and the Making of Black Freedom

Monument to 1795 Slave Revolt, Landhuis Kenepa, Curaçao. Photo Credit: Flickr User CP Hoffman.

The Limits of Black Theology

Black theology has often been made equivalent to black liberation theology. It is perhaps this overdetermination by a sense of liberation that is characterized by a Christian redemptionist account of freedom that can create both a sense of disjointedness between black theology and black studies, and a critical point of engagement. In a recent essay, I noted how Cedric Robinson identifies a homology between a Christian redemptionist paradigm and the political paradigm of the West. While the modern political order aims to repress its mythical foundations, equating the mythic with the primitive as a way of obfuscating its origins, Robinson shows how the combination of the mythic and the scientific provides the foundation for Western assumptions of order. What is so crucial about Robinson’s recognition for developing a decolonial account of black liberation theology is that it makes explicit how the theological paradigm of redemption coincides with the political illegitimacy of black people in the West.

It is an open question as to what can be done with black liberation theology, but taking Robinson’s work seriously requires a close engagement with the question of redemption in black theology. While black liberation theology maintains a steady influence, particularly in providing a critical announcement of God’s siding with black people against white oppression, it also remains the site of critique for its masculinism, its overdetermination by Christianity, and its seeming support of redemptive suffering. Developing theological approaches in conversation with black studies requires a refusal of orthodox Christian theological assumptions of confession at the outset, which, too often, can impose a narrative order on an existential and epistemological situation that is precisely a rupture within Christian order. At the same time, such inquiry must also demand a refusal of secularism’s orthodoxies and the cordoning of the theological to the private sphere. What I consider here are the possibilities of understanding black theology in terms of a black tradition of historical materialism set out by scholars like Cedric Robinson and Sylvia Wynter. Such an approach requires an embrace of the heretical and the heterodox as a means of liberating the black theological imagination from Christian order.

Historical Materialism and the Black Radical Tradition

A recent essay by Matthew Harris and Tyler Davis on James Cone and the Third World is a helpful example of the usefulness of a historical materialist framework for an engagement with black theology. Refusing to cast James Cone in terms that cohere with Christian orthodoxy or subject him to a pragmatic critique of black nationalism which is beholden to the American democratic project, the two provide a view of Cone’s relationship to Third World theologians and critiques that enable a resituation of his work. Here, coming to terms with the limits of black liberation theology doesn’t require it’s supersession so much as its rereading in otherwise terms. It also encourages dehiscence–the immanent splitting or rupturing of its thought and spreading of contents in unforeseen and disordered ways.

Similarly, refusing to excise the theological from black radical thought would go a long way toward resolving the anxiety around religion, spirituality, and the mythic in historical materialist circles. For instance, there is sometimes a Marxist-Leninist critique of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism that posits a “cultural-metaphysical Black Radical tradition” as inadequate to contending with racial capitalism as opposed to “antiracist socialism.” Because Robinson never shies away from mystical elements of the black radical tradition, critiques of him sometimes rest on the desire to expel these elements from his analysis. But it is precisely his understanding of these mystical and mythic elements of the tradition, not as signs of a primitivism, but as key elements of the historical material mode of refusal and resistance to racial capitalism that makes it so insightful. Rather than seeing black religiosity and black theological production as at odds with historical materialism, we, following Robinson, might see them as ways into the historical struggle over the matters of authority and order. As Avery Gordon’s preface to Robinson’s Anthropology of Marxism notes:

The socialist tradition that Robinson uncovers and which finds its exemplar in medieval heretical radicalism was indeed more than an opposition to capitalist exploitation. It issued a morally authoritative analysis of the corrosive abuse of power, the indignities of unrelieved poverty, and the sacrificial value of private property ownership. It had a ‘consciousness of female liberation,’ of popular democracy, and of the inhumanity of slavery and ‘imperialist excess.’ (xxii-xxiii)

Here, Robinson’s historical materialism leads him to the heretical histories that are repressed in the Christian and secular production of knowledge and governance. Taking seriously the material of these histories, a key element of Robinson’s analysis is grounded on the heretical political theological material that provides the foundations for socialist struggle. Thus, Robinson’s attention to this material provides both a recognition of the mixed paradigm of the mythic and the scientific that undergirds Western claims of order, while it also sheds light on the theological as part of the historical material of heretical resistance to hierarchical and racializing authority. For instance, he notes “the religious or pious women” who lived “on the margins between dualistic heresies and the mendicant orders.” “Sometimes as nuns . . . , sometimes as lay mystics . . . , and sometimes as heretics . . . , they appropriated the vita apostolica with a vengeance: experiencing and declaring a special relationship with Christ through Eucharist-inspired visions; preaching the gospel; living lives of poverty; and organizing communes” (47). As Gordon notes, Robinson’s attention to these heretical claims illuminates how social and historical claims regarding divinity and authority make the matter of revelation central to socialist traditions.

Refusing to excise the theological from black radical thought would go a long way toward resolving the anxiety around religion, spirituality, and the mythic in historical materialist circles.

At the same time, refusing orthodoxies requires taking seriously heretical approaches to reading Cone and Robinson. What would it mean to take seriously those readings of Robinson and Cone that do not simply bolster a claim to the black radical tradition as already worked out in advance? Such readings can undercut the making of the black radical tradition, positioning it as supernaturally always already the fulfillment of a promise rather than the work of the people. In some sense, resisting such comforting readings would embrace the demand of these authors to be attentive to the immanent irruptions that produce heretical knowledge and challenge the sedimentation of authority. Reading Robinson and Cone as writing against a white Western imposition of order, then, is important for how one displaces the prioritization of claims of origins or legitimation through a Christian model of redemption, which can naturalize a divine’s sanction of the oppressed. But such a view makes it appear as though God has always sided with the oppressed in history or makes the black radical tradition an ontological totality whose preservation requires a pure reproduction of itself. Such assumptions are inadequate to the reality of black existence and epistemology.

The Historical Material of Black Liberation Theology

While there are limits to the Christian model of redemption that provides the model for Cone’s work, to simply reduce his theology to an anti-black production of Christian order is to miss the extent to which he models black knowledge production, regardless of the field one is in. We are able to read Cone both in terms that take seriously his theology and his critique of redemption history as the production of an anti-black salvation history. If all Western fields of knowledge have served to constitute an antiblack world, there is no other site from which to produce a counter-insurgent form of knowledge. Instead, the heretical appropriation of materials is necessary.

Pier Francesco Mola, The Angel Appearing to Hagar in the Desert (recto). Wikimedia Commons.

But this heretical appropriation is not solely a matter of making claims, but a matter of employing a method and procedure by which existence and knowledge are produced and reproduced. We can turn to writers like Delores Williams and William R. Jones as those who work immanently within the black theological tradition to provide readings of the Christian theological tradition that refuse the assumption of God’s goodness or the preferential option for the poor and the oppressed. Obviously, this claim has been taken as fundamental to the announcement of liberation and to question it is sometimes seen as heretical to black liberation theology. But perhaps we can understand the announcement of liberation as an announcement of the freedom to suspend those assumptions of divine order and to understand divinity in terms that are more adequate to the diversity of black religious experience. Indeed, both Jones and Williams have such staying critiques precisely because they subject black liberation to the demand of the historical material of black existence, epistemology, and culture without seeing this demand as extrinsic to the production of theological terms. That is, they take seriously the theological production of knowledge as structured by this historical material, even as their creative and heretical appropriations of black knowledge production go forth as a theological act against the order of the anti-black world.

If all Western fields of knowledge have served to constitute an antiblack world, there is no other site from which to produce a counter-insurgent form of knowledge. Instead, the heretical appropriation of materials is necessary.

Williams, for instance recovers a Hagaritic tradition as one that has been evaded because of the dominance of the liberationist tradition of reading. This critique requires a displacement of a Christian model of redemption as the terms of liberation because of its inadequacy for attending to black suffering. While Jones turns to a black humanism and Williams posits a womanist revision of redemption in light of Jesus’s life and ministry rather than the cross, both provide ways of thinking with Cone in terms that take the historical material of blackness and theology as demanding a displacement of Christian order. Embracing the heretical proclamation of black liberation from Christian order even as it takes up Christian theological materials might draw attention to the creative re-imagination and re-use of the theological in black culture as critical, existential, and materialist practices of transformation throughout black history.

Amaryah Armstrong
Amaryah Shaye Armstrong is an Assistant Professor of Race in American Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. Her research takes up black studies, social and cultural theory, and political theology to examine issues of black reproduction. She is also a co-host of Assembly, a podcast on the political theology network.
Decoloniality article

Taking a Critical Indigenous and Ethnic Studies Approach to Decolonizing Religious Studies

An Indigenous sovereignty protest in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2017. Photo Credit: Flickr user Mobilus In Mobili.

As religious studies scholars, it is critical for us to explore the racialized perceptions of non-western religious traditions and peoples as well as to trace how these peoples continue to be structurally dispossessed as a result of those perceptions. Decolonizing religious studies means making the hierarchies that exist materially among peoples and their knowledge systems legible. It also means reclaiming and re-centering Indigenous epistemologies, given their historically violent subjugation. While the field has acknowledged its complicity with primitivist and Orientalist discourses, it continues to ignore how structural racism may be operating within it, namely by dismissing the use of decolonial and Indigenous methodologies.

Native American and Indigenous religious traditions were, until fairly recently, perceived by anthropologists and scholars of religion as failed epistemologies, the “primitive” knowledge systems of less complex societies. Categorized as “animism,” their views were framed as childish, superstitious, and cited as clear evidence that they lacked the rationality to govern themselves or lay legitimate claims to their own lands. Indigenous peoples in the Americas were understood to be not only without reason, but also without true religion, making their full humanity suspect. Settler colonial projects relied upon these ideologies to justify Indigenous enslavement, genocide, and dispossession. These ideologies produced legal structures like the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of papal bulls that declared lands not inhabited by Christians open to seizure by right of “discovery” (theft), becoming one of the most enduring tools of Indigenous dispossession. Indigenous peoples in the Americas continue to live with both the material and ontological legacies of this dispossession. The two are intimately tethered. Scholars of religion must take seriously the real material effects of their contributing to constructions of Indigenous peoples as anything less than fully cogent, agentive, and as having rights to their lands.

While liberation operates as a critical theme in religious studies, the field does not necessarily center projects of liberation—whether from social, spiritual, or even existential constraints. I entered the field of religious studies to research the links between social and religious/spiritual liberation among Native American and Tibetan peoples, given the violent inequities created by settler colonialism. Discourses of liberation in theory and praxis are often left to philosophy of religion or theology. Religious studies sought to differentiate itself from theology by taking historical, sociological, and even anthropological approaches to the study of religion. Liberation theologians recognized material inequities and sought to ameliorate them through a preferential treatment of the poor as an expression of faith. Liberation theology as a praxis is directed at both religious and material liberation and has since been taken up by Black, Indigenous, and other theologians of color to explore the roles of race, gender, and sexuality to these ends, for instance through the exploration of Black, Womanist, and Queer theology. Although resonant with these approaches, a decolonial framework articulates clear critiques of colonial power at the level of epistemology, visibilizing the need for Indigenous knowledge reclamations. As a Chicana scholar of Apache descent, a decolonial approach was ultimately more resonant with the aims of my project in general and Indigenous sovereignty in particular.

While decolonial discourses have been present in activist circles since the nationalist movements of the middle 20th century, they have begun to enter mainstream academia in the last few years. Decolonial thought in the U.S. has overlapping but distinct genealogies. One, referred to as decolonial theory, is situated among Latin American theorists, represented in the work of Aníbal Quijano and Walter Mignolo, and is in conversation with post-colonial, critical, and anti-colonial theorists like Frantz Fanon. The other, focused on decolonial praxis, emerged from the work of U.S.-based women of color feminists, such as Emma Perez and Chela Sandoval, in conversation with postmodern and post-colonial thinkers like Homi Bhaba.

Like settler colonial theory, decolonial theory makes the superstructures of colonial inequities in places like Latin America and the Caribbean visible. Decolonial theorists argue that western imperialism operates at the level of epistemology and that modernity could be better understood as coloniality, since modern social structures were determined and continue to operate through colonial projects and their mechanisms, such as racialization. Decolonial theory challenges coloniality’s hierarchies of power/knowledge by denaturalizing the white western world’s monopoly on legitimate knowledge production, who is considered an authoritative voice, and importantly for the field, the ways religious and racial discourses operated together to redefine personhood in the new world.

The latter work on decolonial praxis emerged from the intersectional discourses of women of color working in feminist and ethnic studies activist/scholar spaces. Like liberation theology, ethnic studies is an insurgent body of scholarship forged in the late 1960s that aimed to achieve philosophical and material liberation by enacting a “radical agency against empire, conquest, criminalization, and enslavement” (2) that operates on the global stage. Ethnic studies became the academic space where African-American, Asian-American, Pacific, Latinx, and Native American epistemologies and histories were researched, reclaimed, and re-centered. More recently critical ethnic studies has articulated overlapping links among the multiple intellectual traditions represented in ethnic studies to colonial logics such as heteronormativity, racial capitalism, and white supremacy. The aim of making such links is to distinguish itself from the domesticating discourse of liberal multiculturalism within academia. Like decolonial theory, critical ethnic studies discourses visiblize the structural legacies of colonialism but in settler colonial contexts. Settler colonial theory is mostly applied in white settler contexts, such as the U.S., Canada, and Australia; however, its application in other regions of the worlds, such as Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean is now being explored.

Native American studies co-emerged with ethnic studies and eventually joined with Indigenous studies in order to mobilize towards philosophical and material liberation, which meant explicitly advocating for Native American and Indigenous sovereignty. Here, decolonization is explored as both an end goal in the form of “land back”—the reallocation of Indigenous lands to Indigenous peoples—and the radical praxis that supports this end. Native American and Indigenous studies (NAIS) challenged the colonial legacy of knowledge production on Indigenous peoples by developing Indigenous methodologies, which take an endogenous approach to Indigenous life, essentially deferring to Native peoples as the foremost experts of their own experience and knowledge systems. As a result, new ethical protocols for research have been articulated, given the ways Indigenous peoples and their epistemologies have been delegitimized, misappropriated, and pathologized in the service of white supremacy/racial capitalism. Critical Indigenous studies takes an internationalist approaches to Indigeneity as a global discipline that includes, for example, both Native and Māori studies. In addition, this critical intervention can be understood as an intersectional approach that privileges gender, sexuality, and feminist studies perspectives in its emancipatory project of Indigenous sovereignty, since gender and sexuality are “core constitutive elements of imperialist-colonialist state formations” (6). Theories of decolonial praxis rooted in Indigenous and critical Indigenous studies frameworks help us understand how we, Indigenous peoples and those of Indigenous descent, get free from coloniality—how we break the ontological spells we have internalized and become liberated, how we assert and step into our full humanity.

I take a critical ethnic/Indigenous studies approach to understanding Indigenous religious life by using critical readings from Native scholars or those that center the voices and views of Indigenous peoples. In essence, I center Indigenous epistemologies and assert them as epistemologies in their own right, as opposed to theologies. This not only challenges the assumption that theology is a universal category but also that Indigenous religious worlds are just “beliefs,” subservient to western knowledges. I do this to think beyond the normative assumptions embedded in religious studies, such as history of religion approaches, that may seek to universalize or reimagine these complex worlds through wholly western categories.The work of Charles LongTomoko Masuzawa and more recently, critiques by Mallory Nye, remind us that the field was built upon colonial misreadings of the Other. It has done so, as Nye points out, through its “text-focused orientalist scholarship associated with philology, the thematic (and speculative) approaches of Edward Tylor, the functionalism of sociology, the ethnographic and particularist approaches of anthropology, or the contemporary phenomenology that was popularized by Ninian Smart in the 1960s and 70s” (43). These theories are not only mired in primitivism (and Orientalism), but in a western Christian materialist framework that is generally perceived as neutral and even “objective.”

Theories of decolonial praxis rooted in Indigenous and critical Indigenous studies frameworks help us understand how we, Indigenous peoples and those of Indigenous descent, get free from coloniality—how we break the ontological spells we have internalized and become liberated, how we assert and step into our full humanity.

While on the job market, I received critiques that my work was “too theological,” which is a field-specific dog whistle suggesting that an endogenous approach is uncritical, biased, and illegitimate scholarship—”isn’t considering Indigenous perspectives and voices just sharing narratives from an insider’s perspective?” In addition, the normative claims I make in my work in support of Native sovereignty (liberation) may be perceived as taking an “insider’s” stance. Another critique was that my research is more representative of “ethnic studies than religious studies,” as if exploring the intersections of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and religious praxis as decolonial praxis are beyond the appropriate purview of the field. These critiques are directed at my own racialized body, the evaluation of my competence as a scholar of Native descent, and my work as an inherent critique of western-centered knowledge. They are additionally linked to the ways Indigenous knowledges have been framed as a foil to European superiority in the academy.

While there is a general awareness that the field contributed discursively to colonial projects, few scholars consider how their training colors their own perceptions of how research with non-western/non-Christian religious traditions should be done, much less with the non-white scholars that study them. In other words, they don’t recognize how structural racism is operating in the field or within themselves. There is a struggle around the role of “objectivity” in the field of religious studies, an assumption that one can and must teach and publish about religions from an objective and neutral perspective. Travis Warren Cooper argues that this struggle is rooted in the Protestant secular, or the ways in which Protestantism divides the world into two domains, the public (secular) and private (religious). These divisions remain and continue to structure the way that religious studies as a field operates, particularly disciplining non-Christian work that falls outside of what the Protestant secular defines as objective.

Given the field’s colonial history, we need to interrogate the colonialist assumptions that determine who can make truth claims about non-western/non-Christian religions and how, as well as who has the right to determine what constitutes legitimate scholarship. A critical step in this direction is to recognize that there is no neutral position. As scholars, we are always speaking from a particular place, laden with varying degrees of power and interest. One of the problems of labeling the endogenous study of non-Christian/western traditions as theological is that it assumes, a.) that a secular/religious binary is universal, b.) that an endogenous study is uncritical, emic, and ultimately subjective, and c.) that there is only one epistemological position from which one can properly pursue the study of religion. When we dehumanize Indigenous peoples at the level of epistemology, the endogenous study of Indigenous knowledge is rendered illegible. Even impossible. When we ignore the role of colonial/Christian theological logics still operating in the field, we marginalize and silence the work of the most vulnerable among us. Decolonizing the field means religious studies scholars can no longer make ahistorical assessments of nonwestern/non-Christian scholarship and ignore their political histories, as if those political histories do not directly correlate to how knowledge is produced, and power is waged.

Natalie Avalos
Natalie Avalos is an Assistant Professor in the Ethnic Studies department at University of Colorado Boulder. She is an ethnographer of religion whose research and teaching focus on Native American and Indigenous religions in diaspora, healing historical trauma, and decolonization. She received her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara with a special focus on Native American and Indigenous Religious Traditions and Tibetan Buddhism and is currently working on her manuscript titled The Metaphysics of Decoloniality: Transnational Indigeneities and Religious Refusal, which explores urban Indian and Tibetan refugee religious life as decolonial praxis. She is a Chicana of Apache descent, born and raised in the Bay Area.
Theorizing Modernities article

The Price of (non) Whiteness

American Jewish Congress member holding sign at Montgomery March, 1965. Photo Credit: Center for Jewish History. Via Flickr.

In the Civil Rights era, Jews were disproportionately involved in fighting for the rights of African Americans, or so the story goes. While this is true to a large extent, what is often overlooked is that many Jews, particularly in the south, were far more ambivalent about civil rights than we think. Many southern Jews were quite critical of “northern” Jews coming south to instigate what John Lewis famously called “good trouble,” and then returning home. What bothered many southern Jews was that the presence of Jews from the north would destabilize a very fragile balance Jews had with white southerners. They understandably feared that when the northern Jews went back home, they would be the recipients of white southern wrath. And in many cases, they were right (see P. Allen Krause, “Rabbis and Civil Rights in the South). There were notable exceptions, for example, Rabbi Seymour Atlas whose civil rights sermons in his synagogue in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s almost cost him his pulpit. His synagogue board demanded that they vet his sermons before they were delivered.

The complex position of southern Jews during the civil rights movement is an apt frame to revisit the question of Jewish whiteness in these days when renewed race consciousness in Black Lives Matter (BLM) meets an upsurge in antisemitic incidents and the troubling new definition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The latter claims critique of Israel may be included as an antisemitic act. Internal Jewish debate about whether or not to support BLM can be seen as representing a broader unspoken anxiety about Jewish whiteness in a world where critical race theory about both Blackness and whiteness is far more developed than it was in the 1960s.

As Eric Goldstein has shown in his book The Price of Whiteness, in America Jews worked hard to achieve the status of whiteness. Doing so allowed them to climb the economic ladder to success in ways that non-white minorities such as African Americans could not. This is in part the thesis of James Baldwin’s 1967 essay “Blacks are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White,” which argued that it is precisely the social positioning that enabled Jews to succeed in what Baldwin called a “white supremacist” nation that served as at least in part the basis for the animus against them among African Americans. Whether Baldwin’s thesis was correct then, or still holds now, namely that it is largely the “becoming white” of the Jew that African Americans find so distasteful, the success of Jews in America cannot be viewed apart from their “whiteness” in the American Jewish imaginary. When the Tri-Faith America project in the 1930s was underway— this project viewed America as a country of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—the assumption was that all three religions were white. As Tisa Wenger shows in her book Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal, Black Christians were not part of that movement. An important caveat to all this is that there also exists the non-white Jew, a category that often suffers from double exclusion within the American imaginary. This imaginary views Jews as white which, by definition, has no room for Jews of color. The complex status of Jews of color is a topic for another analysis.

Whether Baldwin’s thesis was correct then, or still holds now, namely that it is largely the “becoming white” of the Jew that African Americans find so distasteful, the success of Jews in America cannot be viewed apart from their “whiteness” in the American Jewish imaginary.

What made the Jewish whiteness project so successful in America was that Jews were able to enter whiteness and absorb all its privileges without erasing their Jewishness, thus succeeding as Jews in part because of their whiteness. Aptly labeled successful integration, this also had a darker side as David Schraub shows in his recent essay, “White Jews: An Intersectional Approach.” Schraub makes an incisive argument about the intersectionality of Jewish whiteness and antisemitism. In fact, Schraub argues, the coming together of Jews and whiteness feeds too easily into existing antisemitic tropes rather than diminishing them.

In America, whiteness is largely viewed as a neutral, or unmarked, category. Schraub puts it this way, “Whiteness is a facilitator of social power and status, yet it is typically rendered unmarked. Consequently, the privileges and opportunities afforded to persons racialized as White are often not recognized as such—they are woven into the basic operating assumptions of society, such that their beneficiaries do not even perceive of their existence” (384).

Jews have a different social valence. The classic antisemitism we find, for example, in Houston Stuart Chamberlin’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century first published in 1899, or the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” claim that Jews are dangerous because they are a “superior race.” It is Jews’ power that makes Jews a threat to any society in which they live. Chamberlin claims this is in part due to their low exogamy rates throughout history that have produced a pure race that can easily dominate mixed races. The problem arises when these latent notions are then evoked in response to Jews achieving power in society. Thus modern antisemitism arguably emerges, as David Engel argues, in response to the excesses of power Jews achieved after emancipation in nineteenth-century Germany. Emancipation confirmed what Christians feared about Jews all along. In America, Schraub argues, this results in claims like “I always thought that Jews had all this power and privilege—and see how right I was.” Schraub puts it this way: “The Whiteness frame looks at its subjects and asks that we see their power, their privilege, their enhanced societal standing. So far so good. But stereotypes of Jewishness sound many of the same notes: they look at Jews and point out their putative power, privilege, and domination of social space” (401).

The irony in all this is that Jews in America were able to achieve their power in part because of their whiteness and yet such power is viewed, by whites and non-whites alike, as a result of their Jewishness. George Soros and Sheldon Adelson are two examples from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Soros’s Jewishness is “marked” critically by those on the right, and Adelson’s Jewishness is equally “marked” critically by those of the left. Yet each one attained their wealth in large part because both were beneficiaries of whiteness. Jews, by choosing to retain their Jewishness as they enter whiteness, are not unmarked as “whites” but marked as “Jews” who also have the privilege of whites. And this is arguably what Jews want; they want to take advantage of the opportunities whiteness offers while retaining a sense of difference as Jews. But it may be precisely this dual-identity that is a source of negativity against them. This is not to say that Jews have not been marked simply as Jews and become victims of antisemitic acts. Rather, it is to say that the social tolerance for Jews in America is quite high. In today’s America, a Jew will not likely be shot by a police officer because he is a Jew (although a Jew of color may be shot because h/she is Black). That was not true of Jews in other historical periods, and that is not true today of Blacks in America.

The irony in all this is that Jews in America were able to achieve their power in part because of their whiteness and yet such power is viewed, by whites and non-whites alike, as a result of their Jewishness.

An additional component that speaks to the contemporary situation has to do with the complex relationship of Jewish identity to religion and race/ethnicity. As can be seen through the Tri-Faith American project, Jewishness was defined by religion. For example, Father John Elliot Ross, part of the “Tolerance Trio” that toured America in the 1930s (also including Everett Clinchy and Rabbi Morris Lazaron) as part of the Tri Faith America project made a speech that read, “In all things religious we Protestants, Catholics, and Jews can be as separate as the fingers of a man’s outstretched hand; in all things civic and American we can be as united as a man’s clenched fist” (39). This attitude morphs into the concept of the Judeo-Christian tradition, “Judeo” being a Latinized form of Judaism and not Jews. Jews become part of white America in large part because they are viewed as carrying a tradition that is integral to Christianity.

But as this “Judeo” was being concretized, serving as an entry point for Jews into whiteness, something else was happening to Jews in America: the rise of Zionism. One of the early interventions of Zionism in the American Jewish landscape was to question the religious identification of Jews by arguing that Jewishness was rooted in one’s membership in an ethnic nation or “racial” group. Thus the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the premier statement of Reform Judaism at the time, expressed that Jews were not a “nation” but a “religious community.” To provide one example within Zionism: Louis Brandeis, one of the early proponents of Zionism in America, made the case in a famous 1915 speech that Zionism and Americanism were compatible because they shared with one another the same values of democracy and humanism. Other American Zionists were highly critical of Brandeis’s unwillingness to shift the focus of Jewish identity from religion (Brandeis was raised in the Reform tradition of “ethnical monotheism”) to nationalism, which was in part a “re-racialization” of Jews. Louis Lipsky (1876-1963), president of the Zionist Organization of America, editor of The American Hebrew and The Maccabean, and later secretary of the Federation of American Zionists, spoke out strongly against Brandeis’s Zionism/Americanism symbiosis. In Lipsky’s words, the old Zionists (referring to Brandeis) refused “to become part of the race and associate themselves with our problems” (71).

The move to re-racialize the Jews, making them primarily an ethnic group as opposed to carriers of a religious tradition, continued through the twentieth century. This complicated the religious dimension of Jewish inclusion in white America (the Judeo of Judeo-Christian), thereby attenuating Jewish whiteness but not erasing it. In fact, in some white Christian circles, Israel actually strengthened the resolve for Jewish inclusion, albeit in a way that also comes with the price of Israel being a part of Christian dispensationalist theology that does not, in the end, affirm Jewish difference but subsumes it into Christianity. For Jews, Zionism is an exercise in political sovereignty. For many Christian supporters of Israel, it makes Jews a part of the Second Coming when they will have one more chance to accept Christ.

Boston-area Jews gather in Coolidge Corner to protest police brutality and systemic racism. Photo Credit: Flickr User JaccobWakeUp.

In any event, all this reaches our day in a complex way. Jews are still white in America in the sense that they still have access to opportunities open to whites and closed to people of color. Yet Jews are not neutral, and thus not fully white or “unmarked white.” Rather, they carry with them their Jewishness, which has adapted through everything from the Tri Faith Movement to Christian Zionism. Many Jews are also devoted to the fight against anti-Blackness through BLM and to other movements. They have also emerged as critics of Israel’s policies. Yet their participation in BLM and opposition to systemic racism also poses a problem for some within the Black community because Jews participate in them as products of white privilege and all the protections that entails. “Blacks are antisemitic because they are anti-white” may not apply now as it did in 1967, but the whiteness of the Jew has not diminished since that time. How much can Jews as recipients of white privilege truly be a part of a movement against the systemic racism that in part has enabled them to rise to power in white America? Are American Jews willing to forfeit some of that privilege, whatever that might mean, as a gesture to those whose who cannot “pass” into the space of whiteness?

Understandably, Jews want to have both; they want to have the privilege that whiteness offers, and they want to retain the difference that Jewishness requires. Yet it may precisely be this mix that, as Schraub argues, evokes negative reactions against them, both from whites and from Blacks. Their power emerges in part because of their whiteness, yet is invariably “marked” because of their Jewishness. So when Jews support an Israeli regime that is oppressing Palestinians, for many blacks they are simply exercising uber-whiteness as an expression of their Jewishness, showing that they have become so white that they are exporting it as a justification of Jewish power in another country. And when Jews are critical of the Israeli state but still maintain an allegiance to Zionism, some progressives view that as tacit acquiescence to a political structure that systematizes inequality.

Today the fight is not about civil rights, or about equal access to the law. Today the fight is against the white supremacist character of America, it is not about inequality, it is about what Afropessimists call a political-ontology of anti-Blackness. For Jews, as whites, and as Jews, to fully be a part of that fight means to attenuate their whiteness, something we saw was a vexed compromise for southern Jews during civil rights. Jews can certainly fight anti-Blackness as Jews, but that may come at a price; both in terms of their whiteness and in terms of their Jewishness (as many Jews are still aligned with Zionism).

One of the big differences between the Black Power Movement in the 1960s and BLM today is that the former was, as Stokley Carmichael said in his famous Black Power speech in Greenwood, Mississippi in June, 1966 “By Blacks, for Blacks,” while BLM is a multi-racial progressive movement intent on dismantling systemic white supremacy in America. Those who carry whiteness, including Jews, thus have a role in that project. Jews cannot erase their whiteness (they too easily “pass” as white) nor do they want to erase their Jewishness. But Jews can enter this multi-racial movement acknowledging both the benefits of their whiteness and the complexity of their Jewishness that often, although not always, aligns them with a political ideology, Zionism, that today openly engages in racial/ethnic discrimination. Some may disavow Zionism altogether and others may not. But in my view, those who do not must at least recognize the complexity of such an allegiance, and the exceptionalism implied therein, in light of their commitment to fight against the systemic racism on American shores. Jewishness and whiteness in America have always been precarious, and remain so today. Fully acknowledging the knottiness of that equation and closely examining its consequences may be a first step toward more open and honest alliances and partnerships.

Shaul Magid
Shaul Magid is professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are The Bible, the Talmud and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospel (UPenn Press, 2019) and Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism (Academic Studies, 2019). His forthcoming book Meir Kahane: An American Jewish Radical will appear in 2021 with Princeton University Press.
Theorizing Modernities article

Black Jews Matter: Solidarity Begins Beyond the Limits of Whiteness


Jews for Racial and Economic Justice marching in support of Black Lives Matter, New York City, August 11, 2016. Photo Credit: Gili Getz. Used with permission.

Analogy is all I’ve ever really known. The only child of an Ashkenazi Jew and an African American, I’ve always experienced identification as coupled with recognition of difference. I have no experience of homogeneity to fall back on; even those closest to me are also unlike me in significant ways.

I am used to people thinking of me as a problem. My parents married less than five years after Loving v. Virginia guaranteed the legality of their union throughout the United States. As recently as when I was in college, I’ve been in discussions where the creation of “mixed” children was cited as a reason to avoid interracial relationships—because, the argument went, mixed children suffered a confusion so debilitating that it made their lives not worth living.

But I am not confused. What I am is confusing. In other words, the problem is not my sense of self or belonging, but the way that my very existence unsettles the carefully circumscribed categories that for so many people pass for reality. Even sophisticated treatments of identity fail to account for the possibility of people like me. For example, Aaron Hahn Tapper’s Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities centers the diversity of Jews and Judaisms, but assigns Ashkenazi Jews and African Americans to non-overlapping categories. He remarks, “Ashkenazi Jews exist in terms of what they are not; they are not Jews of color” (21). But I am the descendant of “those Jews who trace their lineage back to Eastern European and Russian, Christian majority places” (19), and I am also the descendant of enslaved Africans. I do not shuttle between those identities like a child in a shared custody arrangement. I am always both of those things, at the same time.

A focus on the purported confusion of the interracial person serves to maintain a problematic system for assigning identity by distracting from its failures. In a similar way, fixating on the problem of analogy can obscure the larger structural dynamics that govern the way that analogies function in the realm of identity. Because of the way in which acting literalizes the issues of representation and identification in play here, film can provide a helpful way to approach this subject. Consider the case of a controversy about a film’s casting of a White actor in a role that the original source material had identified as Asian. Framing the matter as a question of whether actors should only portray characters whose identity characteristics they share ignores the broader context that gives the matter its urgency. Whitewashing roles does not reflect a philosophical position about identity and acting. It reflects the strength of Hollywood’s preference for White actors. Because of this preference, a White actor can expect to play almost any character, while an Asian actor can’t even count on full consideration for a role originally imagined as Asian.

In a similar way, when it comes to racial justice, the problem of analogy is not so much a problem with analogy per se, as it is the problem of the preference for Whiteness. Whiteness is so deeply ingrained in US American culture as the baseline human experience that it functions as a kind of skeleton key that opens all doors. In that context, analogy stops being a way of making a connection between two experiences by highlighting their commonalities while acknowledging their differences. Instead, it becomes a kind of whitewashing, a way of overwriting one experience with another one that has more social capital.

Better analogies between Black and Jewish experience begin with decoupling Jewishness from Whiteness and acknowledging the Blackness within Jewishness. The reduction of Judaism to White Ashkenazic Judaism not only erases large numbers of Jewish people, but also neutralizes certain tendencies within Jewish tradition. As Lin-Manuel Miranda reclaimed Alexander Hamilton’s immigrant identity and its continuities with the experiences of contemporary immigrants to the USA, so a similar recognition is needed that white people are not the only legitimate heirs to and representatives of Jewish history and tradition. Many Jews became (sort of) White, but that doesn’t mean that the trajectory to Whiteness is the only arc though which Jewish history should be understood and invoked. When Jews move beyond American racial logic and view their tradition with a greater flexibility not constrained by the limits of Whiteness, the foundation has been laid for truly fruitful partnerships with all manner of groups.

Since the pandemic began I’ve spent more time with Birkot HaShachar (a Conservative version), and I’ve been struck by the depth of their correspondence to central themes in African American religion. African Americans have long turned to religion to counteract the experience of racism and cultivate another basis for identity, to be reminded, in the words of Beyoncé, “If you feel insignificant, you better think again…you’re part of something way bigger.” Through the blessings I acknowledge my interconnectedness with all creation, affirm the fullness of my humanity (or in contemporary terms, that my Black life matters), and embrace my God given freedom in the face of experiences that make me feel powerless.

The blessing that identifies God as the one who made me a Jew speaks to my experience of having my Jewishness called into question by people who don’t think I look the part. African Americans have historically gravitated toward modes of religious expression that emphasize a connection with God not mediated through Eurocentric authority, and to me, this blessing expresses such spiritual immediacy.

The blessing that invokes God as the one who clothes the naked employs imagery that has long captivated the African American religious imagination. In the Black Church, prayers frequently reference the gospel description of a man formerly possessed by a demon by offering thanks that one is “clothed and in [one’s] right mind” (Mark 5:15 KJV). Within the spontaneous prayer tradition of the Black Church, this language functions as part of a preliminary to prayers created in the moment, a regularized way of taking stock of the self and expressing gratitude to God. For me, the image of nakedness captures the vulnerability of being Black in the US and living under a constant threat of sanctioned violence.

In the blessing that invokes God as the one who releases those imprisoned, I hear the dismantling of mass incarceration. I also hear the possibility for metaphorical forms of release, such as from ideologies that imprison the mind, like the assumptions about race, gender, and work to which I all too easily succumb.

Then, when the once-crooked self stands upright, the blessings invite me to contemplate the cosmic power of God, a power that far exceeds those social structures that feel so all-encompassing, and that works toward a different end. In When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele observe, “…the only plan for us, for Black people living in the United States—en masse, if not individually—is all tied up to the architecture of punishment and containment” (203–4). In contrast, the blessings affirm that mighty God with loving attention makes a way for us. Beyond the miracle of survival, the blessings remind me of my connection to powerful heritage and hope of overcoming and invite me to draw strength. The closing prayer to be seen, by God and people, through a gaze marked by grace, loyal lovingkindness, and compassion powerfully expresses my desire as a mother sending Black children out into a world in which their ordinary behavior might be coded as criminal and used to justify violence against them.

The prayer to be seen is also a prayer to be recognized and not defined out of existence or bracketed out of relevance. An important step in dismantling the unique form of oppression that is racism in the US is to transform the perception of the color line as an impenetrable barrier stretching across all of human existence. Race as we know it emerged in history. Neither God nor nature assigned each person a place in a discrete, homogenous group. The limitations of making analogies between groups are just as relevant to the process of designating groups as such. Even those who share Blackness or Jewishness, for example, share them differently, including by sharing both at the same time. In the end, it is all analogy.

Amanda Mbuvi
Amanda Mbuvi is Assistant Professor of Religion at High Point University. She was drawn to her specialization in Hebrew Bible because of the vivid stories and rich language, and because of the way it connects the various streams of her identity. She approaches biblical studies from an interdisciplinary perspective, engaging questions of identity and community that are prominent in both the biblical texts and current conversations about how we live with those texts and with each other. In addition to her biblical scholarship, her work also examines the relationships between Jewish and Christian identity and racial identity as they play out in contemporary literature and film. Her first book, Belonging in Genesis: Biblical Israel and the Politics of Identity Formation, was published by Baylor University Press.
Theorizing Modernities article

Introduction to Policing Analogies

“Jews for Black Lives.” Photo Courtesy of Gili Getz and JFREJ—Jews For Racial and Economic Justice. Used with permission.

The 2020 uprising for Black Lives following the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota shook the public debate in the US around white supremacist systems and anti-Black racism. Floyd’s killing was just the latest in a long list of murders of African-American women, men, and trans-people. This uprising occurred at the same time that the COVID-19 pandemic was growing in locations across the country, which cruelly and disproportionately inflicted pain upon communities of color. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mainstream options for responding have been reduced to choosing either the liberal narrative of promoting the common good, or a reactionary identitarian individualism—options which usually share elective affinities with one another. Black Lives Matter (BLM) presented another option: the dismantling of a system of white supremacy that was responsible for police brutality, economic inequality, and for the sacrificing of the frontline black and brown bodies of workers for the sake of capitalistic consumption during the pandemic. In a matter of days almost three-quarters of the adult population in the US seemingly supported the movement. This sudden and overwhelming support for a tireless movement, which until recently was largely vilified, led to a quick re-alignment of discourses around a critical engagement with the enduring legacies of white supremacy.

The concern that has been raised for many in Jewish intellectual and activist spaces is how “white American Jews” can draw on the history of Jewish oppression in solidarity with the current anti-racism movement led by BLM without glossing over their own implication in white supremacy and relatedly, in the occupation of Palestinians. Some mainstream Jewish institutions, organizations, and individuals showed their solidarity by creating or alluding to analogies between Jewish experiences of discrimination and oppression and the experience of Black Americans. At the same time, a growing number of intellectuals took an alternative route. By presenting this issue as a problem of “analogies” these intellectuals usually overlook pre-existent historical relations between the events. Departing from their “white Jewishness,” they objected to the relationalities of histories, explaining that analogizing between different experiences of oppression does not necessarily lead people to develop empathy and, as such, is a failed strategy for practicing anti-racism. At worst, analogies between the suffering of Jewish people and African Americans erases and literally “whitewashes” Jewish participation in white supremacy and, by extension, the colonization of Palestinians. While this critical intervention and self-reflexive interrogation of Jewish whiteness could be a corrective to some mainstream institutional excesses, it also seems out of touch with current developments in anti-racism work in Jewish activist spaces and the attendant reimagining of Jewishness as multi-racial, multi-gender, and oriented towards solidarity with others. The interrogation of normative representation and the creation of multi-racial and multi-gendered spaces are inadvertently rendered invisible and inaudible within the anti-analogizing stance. This deflates the validity of this stance as a challenge to simplistic claims to “Jewish [white] innocence.” Ironically, some of the very same scholars harshly objected a year ago when the Holocaust Museum rejected making analogies between the camps in the Holocaust and near the US/Mexico border because doing so did not take into account the complex and entangled global histories of violence and racism.

The question animating this series is as follows: Does the rejection of Jewish histories, experiences, meanings, memories, and texts as foundations for the cultivation of cross-communal solidarity (because of normative Jewish assimilation into whiteness) itself participate in detrimental erasures of openings for multi-racial and solidarity-focused forms of Jewishness and social justice praxis? Relatedly, can there be Jewish solidarity that is indeed substantially “Jewish” if any appeals to Jewishness are suspect of being false equivalencies? The authors will explore whether speaking from the enclosed positionality of “white Jewishness” ends up, perhaps inadvertently, erasing relational histories, reifying the notion of pure identities, narrowing the conversation of racism to self-identified “white voices,” and policing the emergence of a much more diverse American Jewish landscape as well as multi-racial coalitional spaces. Furthermore, some will explore the incongruence between support for Israel and Israeli policies and commitments to Black lives, Palestinian lives, and anti-racism.

The path forward is clear: to disengage from the whiteness into which the above-mentioned Jews became assimilated. To do so, scholars of Judaism in activist spaces must learn from current international coalitions led by non-white communities such as BLM, and they must take an anti-Zionist stance. But because this position can become incongruent if it leads some to internalize their supposed whiteness not as an outcome of a specific history, but as an all-encompassing identity, caution is needed. Acknowledging their whiteness requires that they reject any appeals to Jewish experiences as points of connection between anti-racist struggles. Others author in this series will survey if this enclosure suggests a tacit acceptance by mainstream Jews of their assimilation into European whiteness and the curious geopolitical construct of the “Judeo-Christian.” For example, this is a good time to interrogate privilege and romanticized accounts of Jewish solidarity with African-American struggles such as the participation of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Nonetheless, in a historical moment in which support for racist immigration policies is wedded with white nationalism and the promotion of the entrenchment of the Israeli occupation is led by Jewish figures at the highest levels of the White House—where explicit antisemitism is also telegraphed and condoned—it is equally important to de-center white Jewishness. Furthermore, it is also critical to analyze the complex ways in which anti-Jewishness relates to anti-Blackness and where and how creating a marked differentiation between Jewish and non-Jewish experiences itself participates in a logic of internalized Jewish oppression. Most critically, it is important to explore if the reification of Jewish whiteness invisibalizes “non-white” Jewish experiences and knowledges and makes building intersectional coalitions that denounce the interlocking axes of racism, classism, and sexism by multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and “non-white” Jewish communities more challenging. Knowing the importance BLM places in building coalitions, the possibility of creating connections between invisibilized peoples seems to be a task that is challenged by the current intellectual resistance to relationalities and analogies.

The Contending Modernities blog will publish essays by Amanda Mbuvi, Lewis Gordon, Shaul Magid, Susannah Heschel, Walter Isaac, Shahar Zach, Jesse Benjamin, Keith Feldman, and others in this series over the next several weeks.



Atalia Omer
Atalia Omer, Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame is also the Co-Director of Contending Modernities. She earned her Ph.D. from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. Her research has focused primarily on a systematic study of religion, violence, and the practices of peace, the dynamics of ethno-national conflicts, political and social theory, the theoretical study of religion and society, and the theoretical study of the interrelation between religion, nationalism, and questions of justice, peace, and conflict.
Her recent book Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians  (University of Chicago Press, 2019) examines American Jewish ethical and political transformations as part of their Palestine solidarity activism. The book examines Jews politically inspired by social justice campaigns and how these experiences are generative of innovations within Jewish tradition, including its re-conceptualization as prophetic, multiracial, and intersectional. Her first book, When Peace is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice  (University of Chicago Press, 2013) highlights how hybrid identities may provide creative resources for peacebuilding, especially in ethno-religious national conflicts where political agendas are informed by particularistic and often purist conceptions of identity. She is also co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding (2015). Omer also received in 2017 an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship to pursue research for a book tentatively titled  Global Religion, Peacebuilding and the Perils of Development: Beyond Neoliberalism and Orientalism
Santiago Slabodsky
Santiago Slabodsky is the Florence and Robert Kaufman Chair in Jewish Studies at Hofstra University in New York. He is co-director of the journal Decolonial Horizons/Horizontes Decoloniales at the GEMRIP institute in Latin America and convener of the summer program of Liberation Theologies and Decolonial Thought at the Global Dialogue Center in Spain. In the past he was co-chair of the Liberation Theologies unit at AAR, convener of the PhD Program in Religion, Ethics and Society at Claremont School of Theology and associate director of the center for Race, Culture and Social Justice in his current institution. Concurrently to his permanent posts in the US, he has served as visiting professor at institutions in the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, Costa Rica, Macedonia, and Argentina and has lectured throughout Europe, the Americas, Africa, South East Asia, and the Middle East. His book Decolonial Judaism: Triumphal Failures of Barbaric Thinking received the 2017 Frantz Fanon Outstanding Book Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association.
Global Currents article

The Hagia Sophia Debate: A Muslim-Christian Liberation Theology Approach


Hagia Sophia at sunrise. Photo Credit: Flickr User Matthew and Heather, 2013.

Hagia Sophia is not the symbol of any religion, but a symbol of class. It is the temple of kings and sultans. This has always been the nature of it. It was demolished twice following massive popular revolts. There is sweat, blood and tears of slaves in its foundation. No Prophet would ever set foot in there.

– Ihsan Eliacik[1]

The recent decision by the Turkish Council of State and the President to revert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque has garnered much debate across the Muslim world. On the one hand, there are many, both in and outside of Turkey, who support the decision. Some who support the decision argue that the issue is one primarily concerning Turkish national sovereignty. Others may additionally frame it as a popular Islamist correction to the historical wrong committed by secular Kemalists, who changed the Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum. On the other hand, there are those who argue that what motivates the decision is President Erdogan’s narrow populist party political agenda, which is fundamentally opposed to the modern liberal secular notions of religious and ethnic pluralism. The Hagia Sophia has been a contested site for over a millennium, and plays an important symbolic role in how the histories of imperial Byzantine and Ottoman civilizations are remembered in the present.

While these two groups have played important roles in the debate, there is a more fundamental tension at play, particularly for Christians and Muslims who are dedicated to radical understandings of their faiths based on a shared tradition of a liberatory, prophetic critique of materialism and power. Given both the damage and supremacy of modern liberalism and secularism in the Islamicate world, we should fundamentally affirm Muslims’ and Christians’ right and responsibility to build power through religiously inspired lenses and frameworks. That being said, we must always ask: Which religious lenses  and whose frameworks? Is this the Christianity of Emperor Constantine or that of Jesus and his flock of radicals? In the words of `Ali Shari`ati (1958–1977), “It is not sufficient to say that we must return to Islam. We must specify which Islam: That of Abu Zarr or that of Marwan, the ruler […] One is the Islam of Caliphate, of the palace, and of rulers. The other is the Islam of the people, of the exploited, and of the poor.”

As Turkish Muslim political dissident Ihsan Eliacik suggests above, the Hagia Sophia is currently neither a symbol nor a sign of prophetic ethos and power for Christians or Muslims. Why do we need to pray in a building as grandiose as the Hagia Sophia (whether as Christians or Muslims or otherwise)? Eliacik suggests we listen to the blood, sweat, and tears in those walls before thinking that Prophets would even set foot in such a place to worship God. The massive and excessive frescos and calligraphy, columns and domes, and marble and minarets say far more about the place as an aristocratic symbol—as a symbol of the accumulation of wealth and religio-ethnic imperialism—than anything about a God of Justice and Mercy. Jesus’s church was the dirt roads and streets of Palestine, and Muhammad’s mosque was made of clay and palm trees. Can we seriously imagine Jesus or Muhammad being enamored by their followers fighting over a bombastic display of material power and wealth? Muslims and Christians continue to play the same game that our Prophets and Creator taught us to be more critical of and urged us to undermine—even to destroy. In this drama around Hagia Sophia, we worship a religion that is against religion, in the name of religion!

Both Islam and Christianity become further unmoored from their radical origins and potential when their sultans, caliphs, popes, and monarchs become obsessed with constructing palaces, monuments, and symbols of unethical power in the name of their religion—ostensibly to the Glory of God, but actually to the god of the nafs (lower self) of these glorified and glory-seeking leaders.

Historically, this large-scale hijacking first occurred in the 4th century of Christianity in Constantinople and in the first century of Islam in Damascus. (Some Muslims would argue that it started much earlier when some among the Companions of the Prophet already had enriched themselves with war booty and begun to practice nepotism, both leading to the bitter remonstrations against the accumulation of wealth and displays of ostentation by the Companion Abu Dharr al-Ghiffari [d. 652]).

The radical message of Prophets is primarily two-fold:

(A) Contrary to the “Islam is peace” discourse of the “moderate Muslims,” to relentlessly attack tyranny and to destabilize—or “render ungovernable,” as we said during the years of the struggle against South African Apartheid—unjust orders, and

(B) to seek justice for all on the margins of society and strive to establish just socio-political orders inspired by our sacred sources.

Rulers should not live extravagant lifestyles, nor should their symbols of sovereignty represent the gross accumulation of wealth and power. They should always do their best to stick to the earthly (not to mention ecologically friendly) and humble homes of those who follow the eternal path of righteous guidance.

Thus, we constantly have to return to asking ourselves: Are we following Jesus, or Emperor Constantine? Are we following Muhammad, or the murderers of his family and prophetic tradition?

Would we rather have a palace in Damascus and Constantinople? Or a humble abode in this life which causes less damage, and benefits us multifold in the Hereafter when our palaces and palatial temples—as all earthly constructions—lie in ruins and the Transcendent weighs our righteousness on the scales?

Interior photo of Hagia Sophia where symbols of both Christianity and Islam can be found. Photo Credit: Flickr User Schezar.

These are the questions we must honestly and critically ask ourselves when the names and symbols of our religions start to get hijacked by “non-idolatrous” idolaters. Outward displays of piety and ethno-religious supremacy have been critiqued as hidden forms of idolatry by the Holy Books and Prophets for a long time. Many of us worship an Islam or Christianity that is cloaked in much more than the otherwise sincere commitment to grappling with existence and attempting to understand what we should be doing while on earth as sojourners returning to the Transcendent.

In Islam, a place of worship of is called a ‘masjid, a place of prostration. Here we are expected to tremble in the presence of the Transcendent, not exult in the glory of a narrow ethnic national chauvinism masquerading as Islam, nor to pay homage to the sultan of the day. Neither the fact that others—the Greeks, the Armenians, the Spanish or whoever else—may have done this to us, nor that those crimes continue against former symbols of the Islamicate, provide us with a license to do this to others.

The suggestion by Sahak Maşalyan, the Patriarch of the Armenian Church of Turkey, that the Hagia Sophia be opened to all religions is an interesting one which moves beyond the pathetically bigoted “God is really a soccer or basketball mascot for the nation” discourse. “Why not keep it as a museum for part of the week and open it for an Alevi semah ritual Thursday nights, for Sunni prayers on Fridays, for the Jewish community on Saturdays, and for Christian congregations on Sundays?” he asked. “Such a transformation,” says Baki Tezcan, in another essay, “would keep the Hagia Sophia alive and better serve its long-term preservation as a cultural heritage site, offer an alternative to Islamist political hegemony, recognize Turkey’s diversity, and set an exemplary international precedent for other similar sites globally.”

The games played by the powerful and the willingness of the masses to cheer them on is not going to get humankind through the critical challenges facing all of us as inhabitants of the earth—our only home which we until recently have been destroying one brick at a time, but have now moved on to one wall at a time. Perhaps we need to go beyond Patriarch Maşalyan’s seemingly noble suggestion, which is aimed at appeasing different tribes, all of them which, again, seemingly, but only seemingly, are obsessed with their tribal deities whom they have created in their images.

I have a far-fetched proposal.

In the context of massive socio-economic inequities, ongoing ecological destruction, and rising tides of religio-ethnic supremacist ideologies in Turkey and around the world, the theological and social response of clerical or governmental leadership should not be guided by the false consciousness of narrow-minded symbolism. Why not convert the Hagia Sofia into something like a shelter for the homeless, a hospital for the sick and needy, a radical education or arts center to raise consciousness, or an indoor garden?

Regardless of how far-fetched this proposal may appear, I am convinced that Muhammad and Jesus would then be far more comfortable stepping into it than they would be if it were to be a cathedral, a museum, a temple, or a mosque.

[1] Eliacik is a Muslim theologian and activist with the Anti-Capitalist Muslims Collective in Turkey


Farid Esack
Farid Esack is a South African Muslim Theologian who cut his teeth in the South African struggle for liberation. Professor Esack teaches at the University of Johannesburg where he is Professor in the Study of Islam. In 2018 he was presented with the Order of Luthuli (Silver), South Africa’s highest national award, for “his brilliant contribution to academic research and to the fight against race, gender, class and religious oppression.”
Decoloniality article

Theorizing Bodies in Religious Studies

Engraving of Spaniards enslaving Native Americans by Theodor de Bry (1528–1598), published in America, Part 6. Frankfurt, 1596.

The body is central to religious life. Religious practices and teachings include insights about food, cleanliness, ritual, sex, and death. But scholarship in the study of religion has at times been oddly forgetful of the embodied grounds of religious traditions and of knowledge. This occlusion of the constitutive role of bodies and materiality is recognized as part of the legacy of modernity. Modern thought construed abstract reason as more reliable than sensibility and imagined rationality as exercising control over one’s body and non-human materiality. But these well-known elements of modern thought are intricately related to colonialism and its organization of the world.

Decolonial scholarship on the body entails not just adding a new category of analysis; it requires a shift in approach. Rather than treating religion, coloniality, and the body as self-contained or self-evident categories, we analyze their imbrication in particular contexts and the ways such terms evoke each other, even where their relationship is forgotten or hidden. In this very short essay, I point to two temporally distant, but paradigmatic examples of the intertwining of religion, bodies, and coloniality. I travel imaginatively to a point of entanglement, as Édouard Glissant suggests, in order to surface connections.

Postcolonial studies in the US academy has tended to start in the eighteenth century, while decolonial studies attends to the earlier period of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. As a consequence, decolonial studies make visible connections between coloniality and religion that are less explicit in scholarship of the later empires. Religious identities were a defining element in the formation of the Spanish empire. Walter Mignolo observes, for instance, “Christianity established itself as intolerant to Judaism and Islam as well as to the ‘idolatry’ of the Amerindians, whose extirpation became a major goal of the church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (21). The relationship to Jews and Moors shapes later Spanish discursive and material practices toward the Amerindians.

The distinctions between Christians, Jews, and Moors were based on well-established categories of religious identity, and they were represented as corporeal and inherited differences. As David Nirenberg has argued, categories of religion “were replaced by the genealogical notion that Christians descended from Jewish converts (Cristianos nuevos, confessos, conversos, marranos) who were essentially different from Christians by nature” (242, italics mine). Indeed, according to the doctrine of “limpieza de raza,” “Jewish and Muslim blood was inferior to Christian; the possession of any amount of such blood made one liable to heresy and moral corruption; and therefore any descendent of Jews and Muslims, no matter how distant, should be barred from churches and secular office, from any guilds and professions, and especially from marrying Old Christians” (242). (“Old Christians” referred to those born of Christian parents.) Predicting moral character based on inheritance and managing the risk of contamination through the control of sexual relationships are today associated with “biological race.” But in 14th to 15th century Spain, religious identity was similarly woven through the body to naturalize socio-political hierarchy. This mobilization of bodily discourse in describing religious difference was transposed to the Americas, though not unchanged.

In the Americas, the term “Moor” was used for anyone of dark skin, making skin color a metonymy for a myriad of markers of religious difference. The subordination of Amerindians was asserted through arguments about their religion, practices, and embodiment. The tensions between the bodily and cultural frames for perceived inferiority are evident in the well-known debates of Valladolid between Juan Ginés Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de Las Casas (1550-51). The issue at stake was the right of the king of Castile to subjugate the Amerindians. But the significance of the debate is that the arguments revolved around the status of Indians as human beings, which was treated as an inquiry into their rationality. Sepúlveda, a humanist and translator of Aristotle, based his defense of the conquest on Aristotle’s theory of “natural slavery” as well as on Augustine’s argument that slavery is a punishment for sin (112f). [1] His position was that the Indians were slaves by nature, displaying “an innate weakness of mind and inhuman and barbarous customs” (115). They are as different to the Spaniards as “monkeys are to men,” he claimed (117). In contrast, Las Casas challenged the applicability of the category of “natural slave” to the peoples of the Americas. He explained his position by appealing to cultural evolution. Turning to classical writers like Aristotle and Cicero, in addition to Thomas Aquinas, Las Casas argued: “All the races of the world are men, and the definition of all men and of each of them, is only one and that is reason” (140). If their behavior was starkly different, even seemingly abhorrent, it was not because of an inherent flaw in their capacity for rationality. The differences in the behavior of Amerindians, he argued, was the effect of their primitive culture and religion. The behavior in question included quotidian embodied practices concerning food, the use of the land, and sex. Christianity was deemed necessary to transform these barbarians into civilized men. The Spaniards had the duty to teach the Amerindians as children until they achieved the level of civility of European Christians.

Attributed to José Vivar y Valderrama, Baptism Scene, 18th century, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional de Historia, CONACULTA–INAH, Mexico City. Wikimedia Commons.

Bodily practices were mined for evidence of humanity or lack thereof. Bodies were also the site of religious/colonial intervention, the entry-point for the transformations of those subjected to colonial/religious power. Souls would be conquered through the imposition of specific forms of labor, diet, ritual, sexuality, and family. María Lugones highlights the implications of coloniality for gender by showing that colonialism entailed imposition of distinct gender systems for colonizer and colonized. Native gender identities and familiar arrangements were regarded as “unnatural.” Colonialism broke the links between communities, the land, and their ancestors. Colonialism dismissed and destroyed forms of embodied existence to impose others forms of being that it represented as “natural” and thus universal.

The problematic role of the body in these formative moments of coloniality might tempt us to veer away from theorizations of the body altogether. Indeed, I wonder if the attention to the scrutiny and debasement of colonialized bodies bolsters the appeal of the fantasy of disembodied subjectivity. After all, Christianity defined its universalism against the Jews, represented as too corporeal. The more racialized others are associated with corporeality, the more normalized an ideal disembodied subject becomes. A decolonial philosophy of religion includes the critical insights from other scholarly critiques concerning the occlusion of bodies and materiality, while also tracing the relationship between disembodied universalisms and the projection of debased materiality onto colonized and racialized others.

I have found Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theorization of flesh productive in its attention to the ways in which bodies, all bodies, are shaped by the materiality of the world. He attempts to think beyond the Cartesian suspicion of the senses and beyond the separation of the subject from the body. Neither bodies nor materiality are static; both shape and are shaped by human action, including ideas and imagination. Inasmuch as ideas and imagination orient human action they transform the world. And the world in turn shapes our bodies. But even as Merleau-Ponty imagined a world in which all human beings belong to the world, where we all reach toward the world and are received by the world, he lost sight of the ways in which coloniality has transformed the world. He lost sight of how encountering the world meant something starkly different for Hernán Cortez and for the Amerindian subjected to the Spanish crown and its mission. We are all constituted by our relations to the materiality of the world, as Merleau-Ponty beautifully describes, but we inhabit it differently.

Frantz Fanon articulates this critique by focusing on inter-human encounters. He dramatizes how his move toward the world is met with the violent gaze of those whose perception has been distorted by coloniality. Their reactions to Fanon’s body interrupted his approach and impeded the constitution of his body in relation to the world. His body was thus shattered. Sylvia Wynter builds on Fanon’s insights to propose a reconceptualization of the human as a nexus of bios and logos, that is, as constituted by culture and religion as much as by biology. This allows us to analyze how representations of religious differences appeal to embodied differences, or how bodily differences shape the representations of the religious practices of a particular group. It can also help us track how those representations in turn shape the lives of those affected by them—where we can live or work, what we can eat, who we can embrace—and through all of these patterns shape our bodies. A decolonial approach to religious studies might also help us imagine differently toward the transformations of our bodies and the world.

[1] Citations here and in remainder of paragraph to Anthony Pagden, The Fall of the Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).




Mayra Rivera
Mayra Rivera is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Religion and Latinx Studies at Harvard University. Rivera’s works at the intersections between philosophy of religion, literature, and theories of coloniality, race and gender—with particular attention to Caribbean thought. Her most recent book, Poetics of the Flesh (2015), analyzes theological, philosophical, and political descriptions of “flesh” as metaphors for understanding how social discourses materialize in human bodies. She is also author of The Touch of Transcendence (2007) and co-editor of Planetary Loves: Spivak, Postcoloniality, and Theology (2010) and Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire (2004). Rivera is currently working on a project that explores narratives of catastrophe in Caribbean thought.
Decoloniality article

Not Every Radical Philosophy is Decolonial

Screen shot from The Battle of Algiers (1966). Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.


One  of the most iconic films of political decolonization, Pontecorvo’s 1966 Battle of Algiers, has a memorable scene I would like to recall with my reader. Colonel Mathieu, the commander of the colonial forces, discusses with journalists the power of discourse in the midst of the uprising. For Mathieu, the role of activist-intellectuals in the public sphere is diminishing his possibilities of military success. Dismayed by their role and clearly containing his anger, he exclaims: “Why are the Sartres always born on the other side?” After expressing exasperation at how dangerous the existentialist philosopher is as his foe, Mathieu abruptly exits the scene.

In a film full of nuances, the scene leaves very little space for doubt. From the gaze of the colonizer, the radical continental philosopher is seen not only as a contributor to the task of political decolonization, but also runs the risk of becoming naturalized as a born-barbarian (from the colonizer’s perspective a betrayal of civilization seems inconceivable). This naturalization, however, is not innocent. “The Sartres” are made, more times than not, into the representatives of the struggle and emerge as the rational alternative to the colonial status quo. The colonizer’s gaze assumes a battlefield where there are clean, all-encompassing sides: the rightful civilizational project and the subversive radical continental philosophy, the latter appointed as the epistemological representative of political decolonization.

Yet, when we reflect on the radical continental philosopher’s role from what Enrique Dussel calls the “underside of modernity,” doubts undoubtedly emerge. When the tables are turned, the positionality of even the most radical among continental philosophers, Sartre being one example, is questioned. In recounting his personal encounter with Sartre, Edward Said reflects on the silences and paradoxes in Sartre’s political thought. He reads Sartre’s solidarity as “flat,” “innocuous,” “unrewarding” and ultimately “a bitter disappointment to every (non-Algerian) Arab who admired him.” More recently, Algerian Houria Bouteldja completes Said’s reflections. She argues that the limitations that Said rightly recognized were a consequence of Sartre’s reified framework that was unable to leave behind a Eurocentric conception of selfhood. Heir to a continental philosophy that has obscured its situatedness since Descartes, “Sartre did not know how to radically betray his race” (23).

Sartre’s “other side” is definitively a contribution from a specific European location, but may not be the “underside” of decolonial theory. In a stage set by the Mathieus of the world, Europe contains the proposal and its dissent while the underside is invisibilized. In the socially-committed film, the native Arab/Berber resisters are powerfully represented in countless scenes with dark, intense eyes full of rage, portraying the thirst for revolution. But in the few opportunities they have to intervene in the public debate, they are rapidly silenced by legitimized voices. Following the famous postcolonial dictum, they cannot speak and remain largely voiceless.


The attempt to erase the underside is not a problem of the past. In a series of essays published by Al-Jazeera in 2013, Hamid Dabashi and Walter Mignolo interrogated the celebration of another radical continental philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. Confronting the Euro-Marxist oblivion of the universalized claims of his framework, Dabashi asked a pungent question: “Can the non-European Think?” When Mignolo responded in the affirmative, confronting the idea that Europe has the universal monopoly of dissent, he went beyond frameworks of political colonization and entered into the realm of epistemological decoloniality. To understand the reasons for the erasure of the underside it is necessary to explore the patterns of domination that emerged during colonization but nonetheless transcended the context to develop global hierarchies that continue to exist to this day. From the perspective of those on the underside, the “universal radicality” of continental philosophy, represented by Žižek in this case, is premised on the silence and erasure of non-European thinking.


I invite my reader, therefore, to think of the revolutionary representation of radical continental philosophy as a colonially sanctioned dissent that universalizes a provincial difference while invisibilizing the underside of modernity. Coloniality not only monopolizes the only sanctioned path to universal redemption—in what Anibal Quijano calls evolutionism—but also selects its legitimate form of dissent. This is perhaps one of the most perdurable modern strategies of coloniality. In the now famous debate of Valladolid (1550–1551), conceived by critics as one of the most influential legitimizations of early modern racism, the imperial state appointed Euro-Christian theologian-philosophers to discuss “the nature” of Natives. In this discussion, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, retrieving Aristotle, offers one of the first modern formulations of biological racism and proposes to forcefully convert Natives into subservient Christians. Bartolomé de las Casas, enthroned as the radical and later liberationist alternative, develops one of the first formulations of cultural racism, insisting on Natives’ adaptability through conversion without physical force. If for the continental philosopher there is no possibility of thinking outside Europe, for the colonially appointed philosopher of religion there is no possibility of existence outside a totalizing Christian framework.

This is one of the legacies of the multiple “1492s.” As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam have shown in their work, and I have also explored, this starts a process in which a diversity of communities were negated, rejected, or invisibilized. Ultimately, most had their humanity put in question and were intertwined as victims of Christian evolutionist genocides. One could think, therefore, that the first step toward decolonizing “philosophy of religion” would be to contest the Christian frameworks that provide the hegemonic sources of its ontology and epistemology. Some pioneers writing before the current explosion of decolonial philosophy of religion (such as Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Marc Ellis, Salman Sayyid, Tomoko Masuzawa, Gil Anidjar, and Abdulkader Tayob) have called for leaving behind disciplinary frameworks. From distinct standpoints, they challenged the hegemony of Christian schemes, the coloniality of the concept of religion, and/or its secular reiterations. For several of these authors, deeply knowledgeable of religious studies as a discipline, decoloniality delinks from evolutionism because it opens paths toward pluriversality, not toward a new Christian universality with multiple local paths.

While some trends in the field follow this early insight, in many others this impetus is missed. It is not surprising that philosophers of religion continue to privilege Christian frameworks. After all, one of the privileges of coloniality has been universalizing its provincial framework. What we need to interrogate, however, is why several works in decolonial philosophy and theology are repeating some of the same patterns. These works are valuable in other important aspects. Some, for example, offer persuasive challenges to ontological dualism. Yet, they employ frames that more often than not make discourses intelligible insofar as they are expressed within a Christian framework, or its secular reiterations. Either reproducing overt coloniality or its sanctioned dissent, often these proposals inadvertently reproduce the same evolutionism they are formally contesting.

Luis Fernando Camacho, a Bolivian civic leader, in a Cabildo calling on the people to regain democracy. Photo Credit: Ayrton. Wikimedia Commons.

This does not mean we should rule out some forms of Christianity as sources for decolonial knowledges. It is true that Frantz Fanon called Christianity the Church of “the white man” before critiquing the evolutionism of its “calling” to the colonized “not to the ways of God” but “to the ways of the master, the ways of the oppressor” (7). And Mignolo argued that previous radical liberationist projects, that may have called Fanon’s wretched of the earth to other ways, changed “the content but not the terms” of the conversation (92). Yet, current readers of either author may not object to the idea that, as part of a pluriversal project, some self-identified Christian communities in some contexts can depart from systemic fractures, engage critically with the encounter of cosmovisions in their own midst, and ultimately contest evolutionist coloniality. Today, however, philosophers of religion in the American academy often employ Christian frameworks that may not fully address Fanon’s and Mignolo’s concerns.

“Hernan Cortés fights with two Indians.” Image credit: Biblioteca Museu Víctor Balaguer. Wikimedia Commons

The problem is not necessarily Christianity, but the omnipresence of Christian normativity in discourses of dominance, rebellion, and re-existence. This creates a very narrow setting that reproduces the allure of totalization. In the field, there are some incipient tendencies we may want to interrogate. A first tendency is to follow the critique that the secular is not a neutral space in order to intervene in public debates with normative Christian resources instead of delinking from them. A second tendency is to reify a world religions model, presenting other alternatives as foreign (this time) latecomers to coloniality, thereby making Christian resources the most natural fit for a decolonial project.  A final tendency is to universalize an American interpretation of “Christian hybridization,” overlooking the suspicion communities around the world have of hybridity as a strategy that ignores power differentials, sublates knowledges, and enshrines European Christianity as the normative locus of existence. I am not arguing that we should universally question the potential of some forms of Christianity as decolonial resources. Unmasking secular neutrality, establishing conversations from cosmovisions one inhabits, and exploring groundbreaking accounts of “popular Christianities” can be truly useful resources for decolonial projects. The task is to confront the role that Christian normativity plays when it is predicated in evolutionism, one of the primary strategies of coloniality.


Today a decolonial philosophy of religion in the American academy may be at risk of becoming  a sanctioned space of dissent within an omnipresent Christian normativity permeated by evolutionism. It is then necessary to find alternatives. Dussel, no stranger to evaluating Christian forms of dissent, challenges evolutionist models by appealing to another methodological resource: barbaric philosophies’ analectics. Confronting those models that attempt to create universal consciousness by sublating all other possibilities, he uses this resource to challenge totalizing frameworks. Objecting to narrow epistemological alternatives to internal contradictions of a hermetic framework, he elaborates decoloniality from a positive reaffirmation of cosmovisions that live under the pressure of coloniality, but have not been swallowed up by modernity. As such, they resist demands of hegemonic universality and work toward a world where, as the Zapatista movement has proclaimed, “many worlds can fit.”

While the abrasiveness of totalitarian evolutionism spread throughout the whole world, the knowledges that were rejected, negated, and/or invisibilized were not ingested. In many cases they not only resisted colonially imposed frameworks of dissent, but also took distance from essentialist, apolitical, romantic claims to return to utopian pasts. These barbaric lenses provide a framework to learn from the work of dynamic, heterogenous, and transversal communities that, suffering from the wound of coloniality, have found ways to transform, translate, and create knowledges to resist centuries of evolutionist epistemological genocide. Christianized and not, within and between these communities we find social movements, political coalitions, and intellectuals who are practicing a dual critique against both coloniality and power structures within their own collectives, opening spaces for intersectional and pluricultural conversations. They provide other frameworks the philosopher of religion can draw upon for decolonial critical theories, practices, and horizons.

Philosophers of religion in the American academy, then, have options in front of them. They can opt to develop a radical critique from already legitimized sources in the field, but may need to question how they became legitimized (and sacralized) as colonially sanctioned dissent. They can opt to creatively subsume coloniality and resistances into a hybrid third space creating a new superseding option, but should consider the unequal weight of a Euro-Christian framework that may inadvertently result in the fulfilment of the work of colonial evolutionism. Or they can unmask the systemic allure of totality by acknowledging colonial difference and think from, and with, critical thought emerging from barbaric (rejected, negated, or invisibilized) cosmovisions. These can all be radical options, but not all of them will be decolonial proposals.

Santiago Slabodsky
Santiago Slabodsky is the Florence and Robert Kaufman Chair in Jewish Studies at Hofstra University in New York. He is co-director of the journal Decolonial Horizons/Horizontes Decoloniales at the GEMRIP institute in Latin America and convener of the summer program of Liberation Theologies and Decolonial Thought at the Global Dialogue Center in Spain. In the past he was co-chair of the Liberation Theologies unit at AAR, convener of the PhD Program in Religion, Ethics and Society at Claremont School of Theology and associate director of the center for Race, Culture and Social Justice in his current institution. Concurrently to his permanent posts in the US, he has served as visiting professor at institutions in the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, Costa Rica, Macedonia, and Argentina and has lectured throughout Europe, the Americas, Africa, South East Asia, and the Middle East. His book Decolonial Judaism: Triumphal Failures of Barbaric Thinking received the 2017 Frantz Fanon Outstanding Book Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association.
Global Currents article

Remaking Indian Secularism: The Fearless Grannies (Dadis) of Shaheen Bagh

Wooden model of a house explaining the Constitution created by activists in Ahmedabad, India. Photo courtesy of RAJEEV KHANNA/ Used with permission.

Beginning on December 14, 2019, and lasting until they were forcibly removed when India went into lockdown to address COVID-19 on March 24, 2020, protesters occupied a major road in the neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh in the southern part of Delhi in order to demonstrate against the combined effects of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC)—a 24/7 protest that has lasted over 100 days. Susan Ostermann’s post explains these new laws in greater detail. At the heart of this peaceful protest were women from the middle-class neighborhood itself who were often identified in the press as “housewives.” Many of them were middle-aged or older and many were wearing hijab. Around them sprung up street art, a revolutionary library, children’s activities, and more. The protest inspired solidarity protests around the country. Protesters faced threats from far-right Hindu groups to forcibly clear the area. These threats materialized into actual violence when vigilantes fired guns into crowds of nearby protesters. On social media and in the press, protesters at Shaheen Bagh describe protesting not just against the CAA and NRC (and the Bharatya Janata Party [BJP], the ruling party in government that passed these laws) but on behalf of India’s constitution and the secularism it enshrines, offering an argument about how to define Indian democracy, and who best represents that democracy. They do so by deploying precisely the identity markers that supposedly mark them as oppressed and other: their status as women, female family members, and Muslims.

The Shaheen Bagh protests deploy representations of kinship and home to underscore the vision of a secular, inclusive democracy enshrined in the constitution. Rather than understanding the home as a passive space to which persons retreat from the “real” world, the protesters at Shaheen Bagh demonstrated the enormously generative potential of home and kinship for rewriting democratic values. The Shaheen Bagh protests are innovative not because of the gendered identity of the protesters, but because of how protesters have mobilized that identity to contest powerful scripts of citizenship, religion, family, and nation. Shaheen Bagh’s protesters offer lessons for how to reconceptualize links between public and private, providing new terms for inhabiting domesticity and democracy. Such reconceptualizations are especially valuable as  the COVID-19 crisis underscores connections between private labor and public value which are typically hidden from view.

The protesters at Shaheen Bagh address and invert the representations of Islam, gender, and family that the BJP has deployed to defend the CAA and other legislation that many see as Islamophobic. In passing the CAA, India’s ruling party has suggested that some people belong in the Indian nation-state while others do not, depending on religious affiliation. This notion builds on longstanding efforts to portray Muslims in India as outsiders, “invaders,” or, more recently, “guests” of a Hindu nation who ought to follow the norms of their hosts. The supposed negative treatment of women at the hands of Muslim men plays a central role in these representations (while conveniently distracting from the many ways the Indian state has failed to support women from all backgrounds). Since the late twentieth century, the Hindu right has targeted Muslim family laws, and their supposed ill-treatment of Muslim women, to argue for universal (read: Hindu) family and inheritance laws. Some on the Hindu right have even suggested that gender inequality in contemporary India stems from the arrival of the Mughal empire. These strategies allow right-wing Hindu nationalists to co-opt critiques of gender inequality in contemporary India for the sake of undermining the status of Muslims in India more broadly. Narratives of oppressed Muslim women draw on a long-established, globally circulating Islamophobic discourse that treats the status of women as an index of how “civilized” a social group is. Such anxieties about the status of women were a trope in civilizing missions going back to India’s colonization by the British, and continue to justify Western imperial missions in the Middle East and Central/South Asia (as numerous historians and anthropologists have demonstrated, including Lata Mani, Antoinette Burton, Mrinalini Sinha and Lila Abu-Lughod).

As the contemporary life of these narratives shows, binary distinctions such as civilized/uncivilized, oppressed/liberated, and public/private are highly portable, easily translated from one scale of comparison to another (what anthropologists call “recursion”). For example, longstanding distinctions between the “West” as “civilized” in comparison with “uncivilized” colonized societies (or, today, the “developing world”) can, in turn, be used by powerful groups within so-called “developing” countries like India to distinguish between more or less “civilized” citizens based on religious identity. The cruel irony of these recursive translations is that they enlist people in reproducing the very distinctions that, at other scales of comparison, are used to marginalize them. On the other hand, such interpretive practices can allow people to remake those categories by applying them to new contexts. In Shaheen Bagh, for example, a group of “housewives” domesticates the public space of a major road, and in so doing emphasizes that such public spaces were home all along.

Image courtesy of Anirban Ghosh ( Used with permission.

The Shaheen Bagh protests invert representations of Muslim women as oppressed by the men of their community by centering a leaderless group of Muslim women who emphasize their status as women and as family members. Instead of being trapped at homes run by men who are not themselves full, “real” citizens of the nation, they present themselves as representatives of the nation by invoking their status as female kin. They draw on the language of family to describe their relations with fellow protestors. The older protesters are frequently described as “dadis,” grandmas, and visitors describe being addressed as betis, daughters. To those who paint Muslims as guests overstaying their welcome, these invocations of female kinship provide a different language of belonging in the nation state: grandmothers always ready to welcome you home. In claiming ties of intergenerational kinship, protesters draw on shared understandings of female familial solidarity. Such claims of kinship push back against the NRC, which requires citizens to prove citizenship via documentary evidence of property ownership and descent from male kin—documentation less readily available to women than to men.

At the same time, such invocations invert assumptions that female kin are subordinate or passive, shared across communities in India (and beyond). These aren’t just dadis—they’re described in the press as dabaang dadis, bold or fearless grannies. In invoking female ties of kinship, these dabaang dadis respond to the aggressive, austere models of masculinity that inform the Hindu right, where leaders emphasize a virility that derives from ascetic discipline. These are best encapsulated in representations of Prime Minister Modi, who lives alone, or in representations of the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Ajay Mohan Bisht, known as Yogi Adityanath, who dresses in the saffron robes of a mendicant. For these leaders, such discipline must also be applied to the nation itself, which must be defended via borders and bullets. Against this model, the women of Shaheen Bagh draw on longstanding ideas about home and family to experiment with other modes of belonging, one where citizens are strengthened rather than weakened through their relations with diverse others, where open-ended relations of pyaar, love and affection, draw citizens to the nation. When vigilantes chanting right-wing slogans fired at protesters, protesters responded with a nara, a protest slogan of their own, while holding signs that said “not bullets but flowers:” Desh ke in pyaaron pe phool barsao saaron pe (Let flowers rain on the heads of those beloved of the country).

In reframing the links between gender, kinship, and citizenship, Shaheen Bagh’s protesters are remaking the definition of secularism in India. Against those who seek to use religion to define who can call India home, offering, at best, a space of tenuous tolerance for “guests,” protesters at Shaheen Bagh and others are reimagining constitutional secularism as a kind of home, a space of belonging. This approach is beautifully encapsulated in images that circulated in the wake of the CAA’s passage, documenting efforts to create educational “constitution houses” that embody India’s constitution as a literal house, with key tenets providing the foundation, windows, and roof. Along the roofline, above the door, reads the words: “this home belongs to people of all religions.”

Julia Kowalski
Julia Kowalski is Assistant Professor of Global Affairs and a concurrent faculty member in the Gender Studies Program and in the Department of Anthropology. A cultural anthropologist by training, she has been conducting fieldwork in north India since 2007, focusing on issues of gender, kinship, women’s rights, personhood, gendered violence, and institutional practices.

Kowalski’s research draws upon methods and theories from cultural, medical, and linguistic anthropology to understand how people work together across differences of culture, social status, and political commitments to create social change. Her current project examines how elite activists, middle-class female staff, and clients facing household violence debate the meaning of women's rights, via an ethnographic study of family counseling centers run by women’s rights NGOs in Rajasthan.
Global Currents article

Painted into a Corner by the Blood of the Lord

“The name of Jesus is above COVID-19.” Message on a sign at Joy Christian Center in St Cloud, Minnesota. Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull.

The woman leans confidently out of her car window, her right hand at high noon on the steering wheel. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” she tells the reporter for CNN, who has just asked about her decision to attend a crowded late afternoon evangelical church service in the middle of a deadly global pandemic. “Aren’t you concerned you could infect other people inside?” the reporter presses. The woman swings her head defiantly, her straight black hair catching the overhead lights. “No, no, I’m covered in Jesus’s blood,” she says. People who don’t go to her church “could get me sick,” she says, when she goes to Walmart or Home Depot, “but I’m not, because I’m covered in Jesus’s blood.” Then she drives off.

It may protect this woman against infection, but Jesus’s blood paints me into an epistemological corner. I have argued for an approach to religion I’ve been calling plural ontological realism, which in this case means I take this woman at her word: her experience of Jesus being really present to her in the community of other Christians (she was clear in her brief comments how important the church was to her) protects her from infection (and perhaps from infecting others, although she seemed to care less about this). I am committed to resisting the impulse, deep in the theoretical inheritances of the modern study of religion, to lift this woman out of the ontology in which she became (or remade herself as) a subject and through which she lives her subjectivity in relation to others, among whom are, in this instance, the people she meets in Walmart and Home Depot. Any theoretical work about the role of religion must begin (although it does not end) with the reality of this woman’s claim of immunity, within her world, without translating it, and relocating her, into alien ontologies. This is not to suggest that her world is singular: it is adjacent to and cross-cut by other ontologies (such as the reporter’s). Amid this ontological diversity, evangelical Christianity of a particular sort is determinative for this woman, at this moment in history and in her life.

Every sentence of the preceding paragraph requires discussion, but this is not why I am here right now. Rather, I want to think outwards from the corner. I begin by wondering why, ever since I heard this woman’s comment on the night’s news, I have been feeling I needed to do something about it. What is this imperative and where does it come from? Is it the disciplinary impulse to speak for others (she seems to be doing ok on this front); or, is it the drive to translate her to others? If it’s the latter, then to what end? The way the question insisted on itself to me was specifically in the form: what is to be done about this woman? Eventually, I came to see this as an articulation of the drive to power that moves through the study of “religion” in modernity. We scholars of religion are more aware of this drive now, but, still, the temptation exists to offer our services as deputies of law and order. Resisting this is the first thing to do in response to this woman’s statement about being washed in Jesus’s blood. I accept the ontology of facts as given: she continues to shop at Walmart in a pandemic because she is protected by the blood of the Lord in which she has been washed.

Ontology is not a structural or structuring given; it is the living environment of experience, imagination, relationship, and understanding. This woman leaning out of the car on an Ohio evening lives amid “a plurality of actual worlds,” in philosopher Markus Gabriel’s words, and so do we who do not share her vision (16).[1] This plurality calls for, in response, a disciplined agility in moving among worlds, a sort of ontological multilingualism. Sometimes, in certain circumstances, such agility is possessed by religious practitioners themselves (and not just in the modern or contemporary eras). This woman might have thought to herself, well, when I’m in Walmart, I will be among people who do not live in my world and I must act accordingly. Why she apparently does not is itself a question for religious, historical, psychological, and sociological analysis. To accept the plurality of actual worlds is to recognize discrepancies of power among them, as well as within them. This woman’s world appears to be underwritten by the privileges of whiteness, social class, and a certain kind of Protestantism that has been aligned—as much by scholars of evangelicalism as by politicians—with US nationalism in its most exclusivist iterations.

Leaning out of her window, the evangelical Christian woman in Ohio was speaking a world that was as much political as religious, as racially white as Christian (although African American and Latinx evangelical Christians have been heard to say similar things, which raises some interesting questions too), and as nationalist as evangelical. It is neoliberal in its qualified individualism (qualified by the allusion to the fellowship of others like her, in the context of which her supernatural immunity is given). It is exclusionary. Christ’s blood is circulating through all of this. And it is circulating through the insistence of Georgia’s governor on opening bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, hair salons, and fitness clubs well before knowledgeable health experts think it is safe to do so, even though he makes no reference to Christ or his blood. In this way, plural ontological realism renders the old sacred/secular dualism otiose.

If I am not thinking about what I might do about this woman, what’s on my mind in the corner? I am curious about how this woman’s neighbors are responding to her confidence in Jesus’s blood, if they do not share it, or her non-evangelical family members, and how she will deal with their concerns in turn. Why is she (seemingly) unable to extend Jesus’s protective ablution to all people or to align it with the self-sacrifices of health care professionals in this time, to see the holy in the work of doctors, nurses, and orderlies? I am aware that her most strident construction of her ontology comes in response to a question posed by a representative of what has been framed in her world as “fake news.” Would she be as strident were her voice not amplified at the highest levels of political and economic power? I wonder if this woman is ever drawn to realities that are alien to the ones she knows and, if so, where she may encounter them. I also acknowledge—as a citizen of this democracy—that I find her position on the pandemic absolutely terrifying. I have been intrigued by an idea circulating among my solidly left-wing Twitter friends that asks people who refuse social distancing on ontological grounds to accept responsibility for their health care if they are infected with Covid-19 and to be taxed accordingly for the health of others. Ontology creates responsibility, for this woman—and for those of us who live alongside her.

I cannot reassure anyone that what this woman says is “not religion,” “not Christianity,” that she is crazy, that hers is an example of bad Christian evangelicalism versus some putatively good version of it, or that her claim of supernatural immunity is alien to the world that “we” moderns ostensibly inhabit. That is modern religion on display in the Ohio parking lot. The attempt to cauterize it with any prefix—anti/pre/alternative—is self-delusion. Religion(s) have rarely been “modern” in the normative sense of the word. The other-than-modern quality of modern religion empowers the challenge particular religious actors pose to contemporary political conventions, for instance. It also makes religion(s) exceedingly dangerous. We need new ways of thinking about how to live with, and against, ontologies as threatening to our common life as this woman’s is, before she kills us all.

[1] Gabriel defines “ontology” as “the systematic investigation into the meaning of ‘existence,’ or rather the investigation of existence itself aided by insight into the meaning of ‘existence’” (5). There is a new interest in ontology and in what might be called lived metaphysics across the disciplines. A helpful overview may be found in Greg Anderson, The Realness of Things Past: Ancient Greece and Ontological History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Robert Orsi
Robert Orsi is Grace Craddock Nagle Chair of Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, where he is also Professor of Religious Studies, History, and American Studies. His most recent book is History and Presence, which was published in 2016 under the Belknap Imprint of Harvard University Press. Orsi is currently at work on a book called Give Us Boys about the formation of young men at a Jesuit high school in New York City in 1967–1971 as an episode in the broader history of modern Catholic sexuality, class, and urbanism.  
Global Currents article

The Sound of Solidarity? The Adhan and the Possibility of a New Civic Body in Europe

The exterior of the Sehitlik Mosque, Berlin. Photo courtesy of author.

This week, the adhan (Muslim call to prayer) can be heard throughout Germany and the Netherlands. Sometimes, it joins with the sound of church bells, an unfamiliar and evocative symphony, as religious institutions offer support not only to their constituents, but to whole, shaken societies. For the first time in history, both countries have allowed the adhan to regularly penetrate public space. This is unquestionably a response to the COVID-19 crisis, a desperate grappling for social unity and godly protection. Calling out, with the knowledge that no one can come together, over a hundred mosques seek to soothe collective wounds. These wounds, of course, cut deeper in particular communities, as we have seen in African American communities in the United States—those already marginalized are affected at far more devastating levels than the economically and socially sheltered.

Still, this public call to prayer is remarkable not only in sound but even more so in its social meaning. Just months ago, such a move would have appeared nearly impossible. In my forthcoming book, Mosques in the Metropolis, I critique the European project of modernity by unsettling assumptions about “progress” and “civility” through two mosque communities in London and Berlin. Exposing the deep and unrelenting inequality faced by diverse Muslim populaces, as well as their capacities to exert agency, the mosque rises as both a threshold space and an interstitial opportunity for building solidarity. Such solidarity may center on fomenting deep mutual support within, and yet extending beyond, Muslim communities into the cities and states in which they live. This includes focusing on shared concerns, from the natural environment’s decay to supporting vulnerable populaces, and building knowledge that can transcend taken-for-granted assumptions about Islam. In Berlin, such solidarity emerged at the Sehitlik Mosque under the leadership of Ender Cetin, who invited the whole city into the mosque through daily tours, and yet also encouraged mosque community members to deeply engage in the city, through participation in civic activism, educating on pluralism in schools, and running for political office.

Today, as the world comes to a grinding halt, the mosque rises as such again, offering an opportunity for deepened solidarity through a medium that can touch us even in isolation, uniting us through sound.

My book project, and my personal surprise in the public adhan, are both rooted in the reality that Europe has long resisted the inclusion of its Muslim populaces, who largely migrated as post-colonial migrants and guestworkers, called to rebuild fractured European countries after World War II. It has since delimited their rights, resisting the bestowal of citizenship for decades (for instance, Germany only changed its citizenship laws from blood-based to birth-based in 2000). Even with legal equality, politicians and media outlets long continued to suggest that Muslims and/or Islam cannot fully belong to European nation-states. Over the last few years, Dutch and German politicians like German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer have continued to debate whether Islam belongs to their respective nation-state.

Muslim bodies, and institutions like mosques, have been regulated, even demonized in European public life. We have seen the Muslim body as site of conflict emerge in the so-called headscarf debates, which limit Islamic garb in public life, across countries like France, Germany, Spain, and Denmark. We have witnessed the securitization of Muslim bodies in xenophobic and violent government anti-radicalization agendas. And we have watched the form of the nation-scape shaped by fear, such as through the banning of minarets by popular referendum in Switzerland in 2006. Until recently, the far-right wing has been on the rise, building its base specifically on anti-immigrant and anti-Islam platforms. In Germany, for example, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) Party, capitalizing on discontent with the massive refugee migration in 2015, received enough votes to enter parliament in 2017.

In such contexts of resistance to plurality, discourses of tolerance have emerged. As Wendy Brown critiques in her book Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, “tolerance” is at once a “discourse of power and practice of governmentality” (8) achieved through a practice of toleration, a making do with that which makes the dominant group in society uncomfortable. Tolerance, often attached to rhetoric about Muslims in Europe, is a bitter civilizing discourse disguised by a saccharine rhetorical wrapper of the enlightened, liberal sensitivity—a contronym, perfectly synonymous with its own antonym: intolerance.

Instead of tolerance, late sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman argued in “Postmodernity, or Living with Ambivalence,” that we must move to solidarity; in the words of Bauman scholar Shaun Best, true solidarity emerges when “the ‘I am responsible for the Other’ and ‘I am responsible for myself’ come to mean the same thing” (317). As another Bauman scholar Keither Tester asserts, this shifts the goal away from being “with” the other to being “for” the other. Solidarity in this sense does not equalize but rather locates value in each person and each community on its own grounds. A public adhan is arguably an expression of such solidarity, rather than tolerance, as it transcends the usual attempts to reshape Islam vis-à-vis mainstream secular norms.

COVID-19 has changed everything, turning our worlds upside down. It is as if we have all tumbled down Alice’s well to Wonderland, where big is small and small is big, and nothing looms larger than our new, collective fear. This new normal has, in many ways, lifted us out of ourselves. And it holds pain and lessons for us all. In Flesh and Stone, social theorist Richard Sennett eloquently argues that solidarity can emerge through a recognition of pain—of the self and of the other—creating a civic body anew. Today, support for the AfD is suddenly waning, as many of the same refugees once demonized serve as frontline medical workers, responding to a call to save lives.

From our new vantage point, former fears seem small, our former, open lives filled with the lives of others not just big but beautiful. This evokes Freud’s conceptualization of “the narcissism of minor differences”: focusing on what we do not share in order to construct distinct, and superior, selves—occurring on the cultural, as much as individual, level. Through such “narcissism of minor differences,” Europe has long defined itself against and above its religious minorities, both Muslims and Jews. And this has, over a thousand years, eroded opportunities for deep and lasting solidarity time and again.

Has COVID-19 shaken Europe, and the so-called “Western” world writ large, awake from their dreams of superiority? Does it have the power to invoke a reckoning with the deep and lasting inequalities and violence faced by Muslim communities across the continent?

These questions remain unanswered, if not unanswerable in this still-acute moment. Yet in this crisis, we are revealed together and apart as equally fragile and equally human. And our shared humanity nests within our shared fragility. Within this metaphorical set of nesting dolls, we can see solidarity emerge: in individuals devoting their days to making medical supplies and neighborhood supports for the vulnerable. And we can hear the rumblings of solidarity in the adhan, answering the so-called “question of Islam” in Europe with a prayer, perhaps once and for all laying it to rest.

Of course this has not erased a deep colonial and imperial history that led to the migration of Muslim populaces to Europe in the first place; nor the violence perpetrated against their bodies then, and their bodies now, in the form of formidable security states. But it does make visible, or rather audible, Islamic forms so long excluded from the public sphere. As Jeanette Jouili and Annelies Moors show in their special issue on Islamic soundscapes, Islam is deeply rooted in auditory practices and histories; public forms of “sonic” Islam contribute to what they term “a politics of listening.” The sound of the adhan permeating German and Dutch publics today shows the sociopolitical power of a soundscape transformed and through it, the nationscape is transformed as well. Here we are confronted with the opportunity of not only seeing or hearing, but really listening.

The interior of the Sehitlik Mosque, Berlin. Photo courtesy of author.

I visited the mosque that began this new tradition in 2014, located in Duisburg-Marxloh, a neo-Ottoman form facing a church, where tour guides stressed that their community belongs not only to the global Muslim ummah, but to Germany. I remember the face of an old man sitting on a stone bench outside of the mosque, hands folded on his lap, who greeted me with warmth, and an old woman who patted my hand when I first entered the mosque. The mosque community’s openness, its vulnerability, and its willingness to push back against the so-called Islam/Europe divide, moved me then. The soothing sound of its adhan moves me now.

Today, from Duisburg-Marxloh to Amsterdam, mosques are singing a prayer across Europe. In this prayer made out of song, a newfound togetherness rises, and with it an invigoration of a solidarity I never imagined possible (but who among us imagined the current state of the world to be possible?). Who knows if and whether it will deepen and last; that is a conscious choice to be made when the world moves to its familiar rhythm again. Yet this is a moment of reckoning not to be overlooked, where boundaries—so deeply etched in our geographies, and deeper in our imaginaries—can be overcome. Let us not forget this lesson when the dust settles, and we, of all religions, ethnicities, races, nationalities, mourn our dead. Let this serve as a reminder that so much more unites us than that which divides us, and that we can—and should—be for one another, when we begin again. And until then, let us find comfort in this harmony found in crisis, in a new civic body constructed from the pain, and the hope, that we share.

Elisabeth Becker
Elisabeth Becker is a cultural sociologist and postdoctoral fellow with the Religion & Its Publics Project and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Her research explores Muslim communities in urban contexts across Europe and the United States. She is currently completing her book (Mosques in the Metropolis), a comparative ethnographic work on European mosques, contracted with University of Chicago Press, and has published with the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Ethnic & Racial Studies, Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion, International Journal for Islamic Architecture, and Annals of Tourism Research.
Decoloniality article

The Promise of Decolonization for the Study of Religions


Stockholm public library. Photo courtesy of the author.

Since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978, scholars of religion and other disciplines in the humanities have been looking for alternative methods and theories to represent the Other. But finding this alternative has been elusive. In a recent reflection, Birgit Meyer lamented the fact that the humanities remain Eurocentric. One of the challenges of decolonization is to address this desire for an alternative method and theory against the reality of a distorted field. Whilst scholarship has become steadily global, the field continues to be dominated by what V. Y. Mudimbe called a Colonial Library.

The study of Islam in the modern world offers an opportunity to address this dilemma in a concrete way. From the US to Pakistan, there has been a renewed interest in applying theories of religion to Islam. In doing so, scholars turn to the comparative study of religions that emerged in nineteenth-century Europe during the highpoint of colonialism. While a postmodernist skepticism of the discipline of comparative religion is readily embraced in the field, there is no equivalent skepticism of the colonial condition. Thus, J. Z. Smith’s critical reflections on the study of religions are easily remembered against theologians who work in the field. In contrast, the colonial imbrication of the discipline is ignored or only briefly acknowledged. For example, Russell McCutcheon’s critical review of phenomenology is directed against Eliade and most scholars of religion who betray a hint of theological or sui generis thinking, but is virtually silent on the colonial condition of the discipline. Scholarship monitors the intrusion of theology into the discipline, while allowing colonialist assumptions to go unchecked and unthought. Colonialism is often euphemistically represented as modernization or a benign intervention that changed the world.

For Islamic and religious studies, critical voices within Islam offer a decolonial perspective that challenges these assumptions. These critical voices emerged in response to colonialism in different parts of the world, at the very time that the study of religions was taking off in the colonial centers of power. The contrast between the scholarship of the colonizers and colonized has, to my mind, never been seriously discussed. Critical voices in Islam have certainly not been ignored, but they have been evaluated against the backdrop of social processes or political alliances created by colonialism. For example, modernization, traditionalization, and postmodernism are first found in the West, and then adjusted and hyphenated for the rest of the world. Political alliances are similarly measured against new political realities created in the colonial and post-colonial centers of global power.

The author with the bust of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan. Photo courtesy of author.

Paying close attention to the intellectual labour of critical voices from colonized contexts leads us to new insights on how to think about religion. In a book published in 2009, I focussed on how intellectuals like Muhammad Abduh and Sayyid Ahmad Khan grappled with new definitions for thinking about religion and Islam. I argued that a new intellectual discourse was developed on Islam for Muslim societies. This discourse was entangled with colonialism, but its intellectual labor on religion as a concept was unmistakable. My work was inspired by Talal Asad and David Chidester’s critical reflections on the construction of a discourse of religion in the Western tradition, in which Asad provincialized the discourse of religion in the history of the West, while Chidester showed its colonial roots. In a twist of irony, Asad and Chidester have been followed by many other reflections on Western scholars; their critical reflection has accentuated Western scholarship. As in similar navel-gazing exercises of critical scholarship, the Colonial Library became even more dominant than before.

In my book, I took a different approach. Following Asad and Chidester diligently, I could have paid attention to how the category of religion was used implicitly and explicitly by Western scholars of Islam. But taking a different course of action in this book, I paid attention to the intellectual labor of Muslim critical voices instead. In a decolonial gesture, I turned my gaze away from Western scholars on religion, and paid attention to how religion was theorized in different political and social contexts.

I have since realized that taking these critical voices seriously as intellectual labor goes against a dominant view of the study of religion. Since the nineteenth century, religion has been conceptualized in a number of diverse ways. But one dominant thread running through the discourse is captured in Peter Berger’s metaphor of a sacred canopy. Functionalist theories from Durkheim onwards emphasized that religion totally and completely envelops its members. Adherents to religious traditions can only see the world through its rituals, narratives, and beliefs. In a famous phrase by Clifford Geertz, religious symbols clothe the social world “with … an aura of factuality” (4). Notwithstanding critical reflections of religion, this perception of the power of religion remains dominant. Critique is not expected from religious discourse.

Alongside the totalizing effect of religions, the study of religion generally argues or assumes that only the modern scholar can see the truth of reality. Unlike the religious subject, the scholar is not enveloped in an “aura” of factuality, but sees things as they are really are. Self-criticism is not entirely missing in the study of religions, but it is believed that eventually secular critique is the only critique worthy of its name. In contrast, I would like to suggest that critical voices within Islam and other religious traditions should be counted within the tradition, and recognized for the work they do against such totalizing accounts of religious experience. These critical voices shatter the vision of religion as a sacred canopy, and call for a more complex and differentiated model of thinking about religion.

In conclusion, critical studies of religion have accepted the fragility of the concept of religion, but they have problematically focused entirely on the Western tradition. In response to Asad, Chidester, and others, the Western tradition is sometimes provincialized and exceptionalized in one move. In this latter practice, no other theorizing of religion is said to be possible. Religion belongs to the West and its academy. A decolonial approach such as I have offered pursues a comparative exercise in which the Western tradition is neither universal nor exceptional. It must enter into dialogue and conversation with other ways of thinking of religion and the religious.

A decolonial gesture in the study of religion must address the challenge laid down by Said. Since his significant publication, scholars have searched relentlessly for an alternative. But over this period of time, the Colonial/Western Library has become even more dominant and hegemonic. One way of addressing this anomaly is to seriously look at the critical intellectual labor that is found within religious traditions. Such a gesture may unseat a deep-seated assumption about religion, shared by nineteenth- and early twenty-first-century scholars, that religious worlds are totalizing.


Cited References

Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Chidester, David. 1996. Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa. Charlottesville; London: University Press of Virginia.

Geertz, Clifford. 1966. “Religion as a Cultural System.” In Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, edited by Michael Banton, 1–45. London: Tavistock Publications.

McCutcheon, R. T. (1995). Review: The Category “Religion” in Recent Publications: A Critical Survey. Numen, 42(3), 284-309.

McCutcheon, R. T. (1997). Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Meyer, Birgit. 2019. “Sozial-Und Geistenwissenchaften Und Die Welt.” Accessed 15 April, 2019.

Mudimbe, V.Y. 1997. Tales of Faith: Religion as Political Performance in Central Africa. New Jersey: The Athlone Press.

Tayob, Abdulkader. 2009. Religion in Modern Islamic Discourse. London: C. Hurst & Co.

Abdulkader Tayob
Prof. Abdulkader Tayob holds the chair in Islam, African Publics and Religious Values at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He has published on Islam in South Africa, modern Islamic Thought, and Islam and the History of Religions.
Decoloniality article

Religious Studies and/in the Decolonial Turn

The Waldseemüller map from 1507 is the first map to include the name “America” and the first to depict the Americas as separate from Asia. There is only one surviving copy of the map, which was purchased by the Library of Congress in 2001 for $10 million. Credit: Martin Waldseemüller / Public domain.

The history and study of the anthropological category of religion is deeply entangled with the formation of modernity/coloniality. In this context, whoever defines, identifies, and explains religion wields much power. Modernity/coloniality is not meant to describe the experience of modernity in the colonial territories, as opposed to modernity in the metropolitan European empires or the “developed” world. Rather, modernity/coloniality refers to the logic of colonial differences and hierarchies that are constitutive of the idea and project of Western modernity since at least the sixteenth century.

It was in the context of the early formation of Western modernity as an idea and a project that the category of religion emerged as an indispensable term for making sense of the difference between the colonizers and the colonized. Since then, “religion” as a category of classification and analysis has served as a dispositive of the coloniality of power, knowledge, and being in the formation and solidification of “modern Western civilization.” It has been crucial in the constitution of the “secular line” and the “color-line,” understood broadly, that are at the center of how the globalized Western human sciences and the modern state understand and forcibly construct a “world.”

Religious Studies and the various sub-fields that constitute it can participate in the collective struggle for ideas, practices, and institutions that aim to overcome the limit of the “modern world order” by engaging in a decolonial turn. This turn involves enriching, complicating, and sometimes moving away from a focus on the classical debates in the field of Religious Studies and Theology to an embrace of fields and epistemic practices grounded in decolonial transdisciplinarity, such as Ethnic Studies and related bodies of thought and practice.

Religion and the Colonial Project

An initial question that scholars during the sixteenth century pursued in the context of conquest and colonization was whether the indigenous peoples of the Americas had religion or not. The question indicated a break with the general presumption that the Orbis Christianus (Christian world) was populated by people with religion and that the main difference between them resided in the degree of truth or falsity in their beliefs. It was a dangerous question to explore: having no religion could indicate the lack of a soul, which pointed to an ontological difference, and not merely to an epistemological difference, between the beliefs of conquistadors and those they colonized. In short, if religion was a universal characteristic of humans, then not having religion indicated a lack of humanity.

In the Christian theocentric paradigm, a religious other was someone whose beliefs can be questioned, and the main goal was conversion. In the emerging paradigm, on the contrary, the non-religious other is someone whose very humanity is put into question, which opens up a horizon of unexpected possibilities in terms of practices of engagement and behavior. Determining who has religion and who doesn’t, as well as what kind of religion they have, then, became crucial not only for social organization, but also for making sense of the globe. This was not a small matter given that European Christian kingdoms and the emerging nation-states became the largest empires that the world has ever seen, and that European travel narratives, racial thinking, as well as economic and geo-political ambitions, informed the creation of maps and narratives that were used to navigate, order, and make sense of space and time in the world.

The differentiation between people with religion and those without it had important precedents in the “Old World,” which is why Columbus was able to deploy the concept in his first contact with Taino peoples on the island of Guanahani in 1492. It is necessary to continue studying these uses prior to 1492, just like it is important to consider the Middle Passage, after 1492, to understand the full scope of how the differentiation between people with religion and people without it came to define Western attitudes toward colonized peoples in the unparalleled planetary expansion of the system of presuppositions, symbols, and institutions that is called Western modernity. It is also important to consider that more crucial than the specific categorical distinction between people with religion and people without it is what it creates: an environment where, no matter how well a racialized group performs, demonstrates, or is simply assumed to have “religion” or any features reserved for humans, their full humanity is still continually put into question.

Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. Credit: Bain News Service, publisher / Public domain.

Looking back from the vantage point of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the formidable social scientist and thinker W. E. B. Du Bois recognized the problem well when he wrote, “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question”: “How does it feel to be a problem?”[1] This perpetual question is a manifestation of the Manichean misanthropic skeptical attitude toward Black people, indigenous people, and people of color that entered Western modernity perhaps most clearly through the distinctions between having religion (and a soul) and not having religion.[2] This skeptical attitude is like a dangerous poison that turns a desire for progress and civilization into genocidal acts.

Du Bois confirms the ever-present character and reach of this modern/colonial attitude when he writes that “above [the] actual words and obligato of tune and tone” of “even the sweeter souls of the dominant world” continually plays the following recommendation:

‘My poor, un-white thing! Weep not nor rage. I know too well, that the curse of God lies heavy on you. Why? That is not for me to say, but be brave! Do your work in your lowly sphere, praying the good Lord that into heaven above, where all is love, you may, one day, be born—white!’”[3]

Du Bois describes a social reality where Manichean misanthropic skepticism is no longer a doubt or a question, and not merely a matter of science and fact that can be refuted with evidence, but a belief and a tenet of faith. The audacity of such a religion, a “religion of whiteness” or “white religion,” to use Du Bois’s terms, is such that the recommendation of a prayer for whiteness turns the racist question about the humanity of someone into the expectation of self-annihilation—to kill the Black in oneself so that the white can be born.

Misanthropic skepticism thus generates its own colonial and racist spirituality as well as a prayer that serves as a constant reminder about the meaning and value of whiteness: “whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”[4] The identification and critical analyses of questions, attitudes, prayers, religions, and spiritualities that harbor and reproduce coloniality is as important as the analysis of “religious” formations that counter the prayers and spirituality of whiteness. These are all important areas for decolonial religious studies, decolonial philosophy of religion, and decolonial theologies.

In short, the anthropological discourse about religion was from the outset deeply implicated in the discourse of race and in projects of global expansion and socio-political control. It is thus not possible to understand the genesis and power of the anthropological category of religion without understanding race and modern colonialism, and it is not possible to understand the formation and workings of race without understanding the various uses and functions of “religion” in the modern/colonial world. Determining who has religion and what kind of religion they have is clearly then, not merely a disinterested scholarly affair, but a crucial endeavor in the design of an increasingly globalized modern/colonial order.

The Spread of Colonial Logics

Surely, with time, Western societies conceded (or were made to concede) that basically all peoples around the globe had one religion or another, just as they had culture. But it is important to recognize that this only happened in a context where the West found other markers by which to distinguish itself and maintain its sense of superiority over non-Western others. This was the case especially in relation to “Black” people, whom they regarded as natural slaves. The new terms used to discriminate were philosophy and science, which opened up the possibility of formally conceiving the study of religion as a scientific affair or as an extension of philosophical reflections on religion or religious ethics.

The entanglement of science and philosophy in the reproduction of modernity/coloniality is clear in the reproduction of racist taxonomies, craniometry, and presuppositions about the intellectual capacities and autonomy of non-Western peoples through the 19th century, for example. In the United States, these found a home, probably less in religious seminaries than in the emerging universities of the time, which in turn became homes for Religious Studies. There were also notions of high culture and low culture, as well as of rational religions and primitive religions that came to inform work in the field. The classification of the religions of the colonized as primitive or irrational was instrumental to sustain the dehumanizing logic that justified colonialism and slavery.

The conception of religion as truly universal, including collectives that had been considered as lacking religion before—although not so clearly including people who were considered to be natural slaves—did not challenge the racist differentiation between the colonizers and the colonized. It rather became another form of colonization via inclusion. That is, Christian categories for understanding Christianity—as well as modern/colonial distinctions between the religious and the secular—became the optics through which other “religions” would be observed and analyzed. The religious would be distinguished from the secular, and Christianity would often be conceived as the religious formation most attuned with modernity and the secular organization of society.

In this framework, non-Western religions could only aspire to be represented as “world religions.” However, achieving this status would still keep them at odds with modernity because the number of followers and geographical extension of a religion does not endow it with the capacity to offer a ground for or to complement a rationally organized society. For regardless of geographical reach and size, in relation to Christianity any “world religion” could be represented as irrational. The political repercussions of this should be clear since the more irrational any “religion” is represented the more threatening it appears—take the discourse on Islam and Islamophobia today, for instance. Coloniality, therefore, takes place not only when certain practices are excluded from the category of religion, but also when they are included in it. A decolonial turn in the study of religion takes a critical engagement with this logic of categorization as a necessary step in the production of any new knowledge about religion or the religious.

Religious Studies and Decoloniality

Religious Studies has certain advantages over traditional disciplinary formations when it comes to engaging in a decolonial turn. To start, its interdisciplinary character can make the religious studies scholar less attached to the methods and organizing principles of any discipline than mono-disciplinary scholars. Interdisciplinarity can lead to a healthy skepticism of the powers of any given discipline in light of the way the categories it employs are bound up with categories central to other disciplines. And yet, interdisciplinarity falls short of introducing a decolonial turn because the modern Western disciplines are themselves typically built on the epistemological edifice of coloniality.

“La presión” by Giovani Diaz Morales. Mural in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of the author.

Combining Western-centric disciplines does not make the combination any less Western-centric or colonial. For example, religious studies scholars could employ linguistics and geography to study the Middle East and still reproduce Orientalism. Studying Judaism through the lenses of archaeology and hermeneutics could remain confined within and reproduce an anti-Semitic framework. Cultural anthropologists could add area studies to their scholarly tool set and also remain limited by explicitly or implicitly approaching indigenous populations as if they are passive or largely ignorant. In short, the proliferation of inter-disciplinarity by itself does not challenge the color-line. The same is true of reassertions of mono-disciplinary formations and of defenses of science, the humanities, and the liberal arts. More creative and audacious thinking is needed to turn academic disciplines and inter-disciplines, including Religious Studies, into consistent engines of decoloniality.

Given how instrumental the identification and study of religion has been for the conceptualization and legitimization of the modern/colonial order, Religious Studies has to engage in self-critique along with a wider critique of the modern European sciences to help dispel the limitations and dangerous effects of modernity/coloniality. For this, a positive relation with emancipatory and decolonial transdisciplinary spaces such as Ethnic Studies and related fields becomes necessary. These fields not only have a long history of critical engagement with the traditional disciplines, but they have also formulated questions and produced approaches that are crucial in uncovering coloniality. They generate knowledge that contributes to decolonization, and seek to create border zones of decolonial activity in between the university and a wide array of knowledges that are found outside it. A decolonial turn in Religious Studies through a generative interaction with Ethnic Studies and related fields, and with other decolonial projects inside and outside the university as well as in different parts of the world, is crucial to produce a twenty-first century Religious Studies. Likewise, as I hope that the analysis of white religion and prayer above demonstrates, fields such as Ethnic Studies and decolonial projects outside the academy could gain much from the analyses and insights of decolonial Religious Studies, decolonial philosophy of religion, and decolonial forms of religious thought and theology.


[1] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk. Authoritative Text. Contexts. Criticisms, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Terri Hume Oliver (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999), p. 9.

[2] For an exploration of misanthropy, white supremacy, and an analysis of a white God in an anti-black world see Lewis R. Gordon, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1995).

[3] W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (New York: Humanity Books, 2002 [1920]), p. 56.

[4] ibid., 56. A picture of “religious leaders” praying in the Oval Office with Donald Trump after he signed the proclamation for a national day of prayer on Sept. 1, 2017 lends itself to further analysis of the prayer of whiteness, white religion, and white Christianity. J. Kameron Carter uses the picture in his column entitled “Behind Christianity Today’s Editorial is a Deeper Crisis of America’s Religion of Whiteness,” Religion News Service, Dec. 24, 2019.

Nelson Maldonado-Torres
Nelson Maldonado-Torres (BA, Philosophy, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras; PhD, Religious Studies, Brown University) is Professor of Latino and Caribbean Studies and of the Program in Comparative Literature, faculty affiliate of the Graduate Program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Director of the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Before joining Rutgers, he taught in the Department of Religion at Duke University and in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. A former President of the Caribbean Philosophical Association (2008-2013) and Distinguished Visiting Scholar of the Academy of Science of South Africa (2018-2019), he is the author of Against War: Views from the Underside of Modernity (2008), and La descolonización y el giro decolonial (2011), as well as co-editor of Latin@s in the World-System: Decolonization Struggles in the 21st Century U.S. Empire (2005) and Decolonialidade e pensamento afrodiaspórico (2018). In 2011 and 2012, he guest-edited two special issues on “Thinking through the Decolonial Turn: Post-continental Interventions in Theory, Philosophy, and Critique” in the open access journal Transmodernity: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World. More recently, in 2019, he served as co-editor of a special issue on “Fanon, Decoloniality, and the Spirit of Bandung” in Bandung: Journal of the Global South. He is also the author of the award-winning essay “On the Coloniality of Human Rights,” (Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais, 2017), the AAR Centennial Roundtable article “Religion, Conquest, and Race in the Foundations of the Modern/Colonial World” (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 2014), and “What is Decolonial Critique?” (forthcoming in the Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal), among many other journal articles and book chapters on the decolonial turn, Africana, Latin American and Latinx philosophy and religious thought, and the philosophy and critical theorizing of religion. Since 2019 he presides the Frantz Fanon Foundation with the Foundation’s founder, Mireille Fanon Mendés France.  
Decoloniality article

A Decolonial Theory of Religion

Columbus Before the Queen (1843) by Emanuel Leutze. Linking key events in the timeline of Ibero-colonial encounters, Leutze anachronistically depicts Columbus before the “Catholic Monarchs” inside the Alhambra palace of the recently conquered Emirate of Granada. {{PD-US}}

Decolonial thought presents important challenges to the academic study of religion. Numerous studies probing its relation to religion have been published in recent years within the various sub-disciplines in the field, yet the full significance decolonial thought offers for the study of religion needs yet to be unpacked. Decolonial thought and its analytic of modernity/coloniality as a theory and method for the study of religion calls for a careful reconsideration of the dominant—yet often unmarked and unnoticed–Eurocentric epistemic framework dictating the field.

The emergence of decolonial thought in the Americas is rooted in the long history of anti-colonial movement and criticism in Latin America and the Caribbean dating back to the first colonial encounter. It is, however, in the recent works of the Argentinean-Mexican philosopher Enrique Dussel and the Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano that a clearer notion of decolonial thinking emerges that parallels and complements postcolonial theory as developed by Edward Said and his interlocutors. Quijano’s notion of the coloniality of power highlights the polychronic nature of power that is operative in colonialism. On this account, coloniality manifests itself beyond the historical institution of colonization.

In his genealogical study of the modern category of religion, Talal Asad shows how the category of religion came to refer to a privatized notion of religion, one which essentializes religions based on their compatibility with the universalizing norm of secular rationality. Many have argued, after Asad, that the construction and the essentialization of the category of religion is itself a problematic endeavor because it reinforces the colonial framework of knowledge (Fitzgerald 2000). Likewise, because their definitions are dependent on one another, the emergence of the secular cannot be separated from the category of religion. Recent debates about secularism interrogate the modern concept of religion, pointing out the undying influence of religion in the constitution of the modern West (Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas, Jose Casanova). Yet others point at secularism’s significant role in the constitution of the modern colonial world. A critical study of secularism, they insist, attends to the complex structure of power configuration and power exchange at work in (neo)colonial governance as well. These complex structures both inform the construction of the secular and obscure the normativization of Western liberalism. In other words, the secular has been serving as the ideological banner of modern Western universalism which preserves Western/Christian hegemony while depoliticizing (the notion of) religion. [1]

A protest in Barcelona, where multiple organizations marched towards the statue of Columbus denouncing the genocide and the plundering of the entire colonial process of Latin America. Photo Credit: Flickr user

The modern notion of religion can therefore be viewed as a product of the emergence of modernity/coloniality. Here, secularism functions as the mirror twin of modern religion that welds together the two ends of modernity/coloniality. As Walter Mignolo and Nelson Maldonado Torres have shown, the invention of race cannot be articulated apart from the emergence of the modern concept of religion. The traditional lines demarcating ontological difference between people shifted from a religious language (religious difference) to a secular language of scientific reason (racial difference). In other words, Europe’s colonial imaginary was constituted by the newly emerging racial categories which now replaced religion’s role of drawing lines of hierarchal difference among diverse populations. From the fifteenth-century Spanish inquisition to the sixteenth-century Valladolid debate, and from the missionary activities in the new world to the rise of comparative study of religion in nineteenth century Europe, religion—in its secularized iteration—was racialized and became instrumental in marking off ontological differences which aligned with Europe’s colonial interests.[2]

The substantial role religion has played in the historical trajectory of modernity/coloniality is obscured by the hegemonic installation of secularism as the ideology dictating the Western epistemic framework. This means that the secular can be viewed as the medium through which religion enacts coloniality. The large absence of engagement with religion in the study of modernity/coloniality is symptomatic of the coloniality of knowledge which informs the religious/secular binary. Taking decolonial thought seriously means considering the challenges and insights decolonial thought offers to the study of religion, especially as they pertain to questions about methods, texts, sites, and conceptual frameworks. There is an urgent need for a Trans-Atlantic, decolonial theory (or a decolonial method) for the study of religion in which scholars re-situate the Americas and the Trans-Atlantic historical experience as primary sites for theorizing modern religion. The collusion between the colonial encounter and the emergence of the modern study of religion has been pointed out by many already. Many suggest that the eighteenth and nineteenth century of colonialism are primary reference points for this collusion. While the modern discipline of the academic study of religion was certainly informed by the more recent imperialist enterprises of Europe, there is a much older and more important time and place for understanding the symbiotic relation between the simultaneous invention of the colonial other and the modern imaginary of the West: the colonial encounter of 1492.

Using the Spanish-American colonial encounter as a frame of reference for the study of religion and modernity/coloniality offers a more efficient starting point for interrogating the fundamental epistemic assumptions inscribed in the conceptual-theoretical frameworks employed in the study of modern religion. At the same time, focusing here also helps us to read the Latin American intervention in religion from a decolonial angle, highlighting the decolonial seeds that existed all along in Latin American religious thought. Eventually, this endeavor will lead to the call for an engagement with Latin American/Caribbean intellectual traditions among scholars of religion in the North American academy.

A decolonial theory of religion would involve reconsidering the Trans-Atlantic process of imperial designing as the primary site for analyzing modern religion—a process which involves the reconfiguration of the religious (racial) cartography in the Iberian peninsula (Spanish Inquisition), the colonial encounter, and the theological-legal debates on the humanity of the colonial other (Valladolid debates).[3] Other key sites that deserve equally important attention include the various anti-colonial indigenous thoughts and movements, liberation philosophies and theologies, as well as the work of scholars who turn to the historical experience of the African diaspora in order to probe and reflect on an alternative to the modern/colonial order and its worldview that is based on anti-blackness.

An auto-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition and the execution of sentences by burning heretics on the stake in a market place. Wood engraving by Bocort after H.D. Linton.

The general lack of engagement with religion in the field of decolonial theory is indicative of the hegemonic secularist regime which informs the theoretical categories employed for identifying and analyzing religion. Consequently, not only is the role of religion in coloniality unexplored, but so are the complex intellectual genealogies constituting diverse forms of anti-colonial movements and ideas (many of which are inspired and informed by religious sources). This is why engaging secular texts and thinkers deserves equally as much attention as religious ideas and movements in the Americas. When considering the mutual imbrication of religious/aesthetic/cultural sensibilities and political vision in the Americas, it is highly imperative that we reconsider these secular texts (such as Frantz Fanon’s or José Martí’s) as sources for theorizing religion. Failure to do so results in the continuous loss of nuanced critiques and understandings of religion in those texts, as well as an understanding of the full implication of their political vision. The fact that the study of Latin American and Caribbean religions is primarily dominated by the study of local communities’ “practice” elements, while little attention is given to their intellectual production, might be symptomatic of the practitioner-scholar divide in religious studies that Aisha M Beliso-De Jesús has recently observed. Such a divide reproduces the academic division of labor between the West and the non-West, or between the northern hemisphere and the global south, in which the Christian West/North produces knowledge through theory (text), while the contribution of the non-Christian global South is consigned to practice (ritual).

Using the Ibero-colonial encounter as the primary reference for the study of religion and colonialism offers critical resources for reconsidering the problem of knowledge and power inscribed in the process of knowledge production within the field of religious studies. It exposes the complex layers of coloniality of power in which religion (and its study) is implicated. The analytics of modernity/coloniality allows us to see the critical importance of re-situating the study of Western religion in the Trans-Atlantic framework. At the same time, examining the colonial Americas from the Trans-Atlantic perspective leads us to a fuller understanding of Western-secular modernity which emerges with its inseparable other, coloniality.


[1] On these points see Richard King, Peter Van der Veer (here and here), Talal Asad, and Tomoko Masuzawa.

[2] These issues are discussed in the works by J. Z. Smith; David Chidester; Brent Nongbri; Charles Long, and  Nelson Maldonado-Torres

[3] Lewis Hanke and Anthony Pagden have published numerous studies on the impact of the Valladolid Debates in the colonial encounter.

An Yountae
An Yountae is an assistant professor of religious studies at California State University, Northridge. He specializes in Religions of the Americas with a particular focus in Latin American intellectual history, Africana philosophy, and decolonial thought. He is the author of The Decolonial Abyss: Mysticism and Cosmopolitics from the Ruins (Fordham University Press, 2016), as well as the co-editor with Eleanor Craig of the forthcoming volume, Beyond Man: Race, Coloniality, and Philosophy of Religion from Duke UP. He is currently working on his second book, Decolonial Epiphanies: Race and Secularism in the Americas.
Decoloniality article

Introduction to Decoloniality and the Study of Religion

Mexico City – Palacio Nacional. Mural by Diego Rivera showing the History of Mexico: Detail showing the burning of Maya literature by the Catholic Church. Image Credit: Wolfgang Sauber.

Theories of (de)coloniality raise profound questions and possibilities for the study of religion. Decolonial theory names and challenges enduring social, economic, political, and epistemic Eurocentrism that continues to define modernity even beyond the era of direct colonial domination. Bringing a decolonial lens to Contending Modernities opens up crucial new sites of analysis and engagement, as we consider how the academic study of religion—and the concept of religion itself—has helped to perpetuate modernity’s violences, and might yet contribute to the project of decoloniality. Contending Modernities’ new series, “Decoloniality and the Study of Religion,” brings together preliminary reflections from thinkers exploring the intersection between decolonial thought and the academic study of religion, with future posts planned that will delve into different sub-disciplines in the study of religion such as comparative religious ethics, philosophy of religion, and theory and method in the study of religion.

The Co-Constitution of Racial and Religious Difference

The essays in this series have two goals. First, they show how modern, Western conceptions of religion reinforce a global system of power that decolonial thinkers refer to as modernity/coloniality, revealing the complicity of the academic study of religion in these enduring patterns of violence. As An Yountae’s essay shows, decolonial thinkers draw an explicit linkage between the emergence of the category of religion itself and the simultaneous construction of racial and geographical (European/non-European) difference. In particular, decolonial thinkers point to 1492 and the completion of the settler-colonial Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and the subsequent expulsion or forced conversion of the peninsula’s Jewish and Muslim inhabitants. In the aftermath of the fall of Granada, Jews and Muslims who converted to Catholicism remained persecuted as marranos (“swine”) under suspicions of crypto-Jewish and crypto-Islamic practices, revealing a novel co-mingling of religious and racial difference articulated in contrast with its constitutive (white/Christian/European) other through an emergent racial logic of blood purity. These interlinked Iberian constructions of racial and religious difference were subsequently globalized through European colonial encounters with indigenous peoples on the land that would become the Americas, and through the explosion of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans.

In the centuries since, this foundational construction of religious difference has functioned alongside interrelated and intersecting constructions of racial, gender, and geographical difference to frame systems of social, economic, and political domination—the conditions of coloniality—that reinforce the supremacy of a Eurocentered modernity over and against the perceived inferiority of those it has relegated to its darker side. As Kwok Pui Lan’s essay illustrates, the colonial construction of religion vis-à-vis the referent of a Eurocentered modernity has also been subsequently transmuted through modernity’s “secularist myth,” further reinforcing the othering of non-Western religions as backwards, irrational, and even violent in contrast to the modern, rational, and supposedly peaceful West.

Against this historical backdrop, the academic study of religion has itself functioned as an active participant in the perpetuation of modernity/coloniality’s Eurocentric hierarchy of knowledge production. Both during and beyond the era of direct European colonization, Western scholars of religion have played an active role in the imposition of Western concepts that have invisibilized non-Western ways of knowing and being in the world, flattening the epistemologies and ontologies of non-Western peoples within universalizing categories to fit within modernity’s self-narration. The Western academic delineation of “culture” from “religion” as distinct objects of study functioned through the age of colonial expansion to reductively categorize any number of non-Western epistemologies and constituted ontologies—that is, lived non-Western ways of knowing and being in the world—into the “backwards” or “primitive” categories of folklore, myth, and superstition. Nelson Maldonado-Torres’s essay elucidates a similar Eurocentric logic at work in the construction of the category of non-Western “world religions,” a thinly-veiled proxy indicator for racial, geographic, and even temporal (not “fully modern”) difference that marks the non-Christian religious as constitutively outside the modern West. As Tomoko Masuzawa explains in The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (also quoted by Maldonado-Torres), rather than affirming global religious pluralism as Western scholars might claim, the imposition of the category of “world religions” itself naturalizes an explicitly Christian theological lens for understanding what constitutes a religion in the first place, while simultaneously inscribing all non-Christian religions within a hierarchal system of rank-ordering that continually reaffirms (modern, Western) Christian hegemony. Through these two interpretive categories—world religions and culture—Western scholars thus continue to advance narratives of racialized religious difference whose shared logics are traceable to the encounters of 1492, dividing non-Europeans into those possessed of the wrong religions (Iberian Jews and Muslims first, and later adherents to any of the various non-Christian “world religions”) and those possessed of no religion recognizable as such (especially the indigenous peoples of the Americas).

De-Linking Religion From Modernity/Coloniality

Anti-neoliberalism protestors display flags and other symbols of Chile’s indigenous Mapuche people. Image Credit: Maximiliano Vega.

The second goal of these essays is to contribute to a burgeoning focus on the possibilities of imagining religion de-linked from the universalizing logics of modernity/coloniality. Such an approach rejects a modern Western conception of religion as a unitary, discrete variable that can be neatly disaggregated from other facets of human experience—what Kwok Pui Lan describes as “sui generis and separated from other cultural, social, and political aspects.” Instead, while highlighting the insufficiency of an unreconstructed understanding of religion, these essays also indicate the possibility of reconceptualizing religion in a way not reducible to the all-encompassing epistemological claims of a Westernized modernity. To this end, the essays in this series indicate the vital importance of the many ways of knowing and being in the world that have been suppressed in part through the use of the modern, Western category of religion itself.

Despite religion’s problematic genealogy as a category of Western analysis, these essays indicate the vital roles that decolonized accounts of religion might play in the formation of what decolonial thinkers refer to as “loci of enunciation“—a sense of positionality that reflects how one is acted upon by the global colonial matrix of power—from which ethical and political alternatives to modernity/coloniality can be imagined and enacted. Abdulkader Tayob’s essay in particular highlights the possibilities of a decolonized approach to Islamic Studies—and the study of religion more broadly—rooted not in the universalizing comparative hermeneutics of the colonizers, which presume a neutral vantage point that somehow transcends their subjects of study, but rather in the critical intellectual productions of Muslim communities themselves. Such an approach, to borrow a phrase from Tayob, helps to effect the provincialization of modern, Western approaches to the study of religion without simultaneously re-exceptionalizing them, opening the doors to dialogical possibilities between “other ways of thinking of religion and the religious.”

Decolonial thought unmasks the histories of violence that undergird Europe’s self-appointed status as the sole producer and purveyor of knowledge. Confronting these histories and their enduring structural manifestations requires that we also confront the epistemic legacies of colonialism that inhere within the Western academy. In the study of religion, this includes confronting the Eurocentrism of the field’s definitional concepts and categories and admitting the roles they have played in legitimizing the historic and enduring violences of Europe’s colonial projects. To that end, these essays offer an important and timely intervention into conversations on how the academic study of religion has participated in the maintenance of the modern/colonial world-system’s social, political, economic, and epistemic hierarchicalizations, while also indicating ways forward for the decolonial study of religion.

Garrett FitzGerald
Garrett FitzGerald is a PhD candidate of Political Science & Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and Research Associate for Contending Modernities. Garrett’s research interests focus on translating religious resources of meaning into political action, especially around the genesis, conduct, cessation, and processes of reconciliation that follow communal violence. In particular, he hopes to build upon previous field research in Honduras, exploring ways in which religious actors and communities articulate and enact alternatives to violence.
Global Currents article

What is so Special about Kashmir’s Special Status?

Nigeen Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo by the author.

Kashmir has a special place in the South Asian imagination not only because of the famed beauty of its landscape but also because of its unique religious and cultural history. The idea of Kashmir as a “special place” is an old one. We encounter it in pre-modern Sanskrit religious and literary culture, Persian histories, political discourse in postcolonial South Asia, and in modern popular cultural forms such as Bollywood film. The historian Ronald Inden has made a compelling case that it is these imaginings of Kashmir as a special place that account for the intractability and intransigence of India and Pakistan on Kashmir.[1] What is, and remains, special about Kashmir is a unique vision of religious pluralism in its religious and cultural history that has not yet found political articulation.

The modern State of Jammu and Kashmir, which the Indian government has reorganized through an act of the Indian Parliament (Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019), was born as a feudatory, princely State of British India ruled by the Dogra dynasty of Jammu (1846–1947). It emerged at the end of the Anglo-Sikh war with military help from the British. The idea of Kashmir as a “special place” had already been in place when it was mobilized by Kashmiri Muslim nationalists from the 1920s to the 1940s to challenge the legitimacy of Dogra rule. But it was only in the 1930s, after the Dogra army massacred protesting Kashmiris, that the latter launched a popular movement for sovereignty that received support from prominent Indian nationalists agitating against the British colonial rule. Such nationalists included Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Maulana Azad. By the late 1930s, many Kashmiri Hindus had joined Kashmiri Muslims in this struggle for the idea that Kashmir belonged to Kashmiris. This movement was interrupted by the Partition of British India in 1947 and rapidly unfolding events in its aftermath (communal strife which spread from Punjab into the Jammu region, the revolt against the Dogra State in Poonch, and the arrival of the Indian Army in Kashmir on October 26, 1947 to ward off Muslim tribal irregulars from Western Pakistan backed by the Pakistan Army that had entered Kashmir, and the first India-Pakistan war of 1947–48). Even though the post-Partition sectarian strife receded, it morphed into a political dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

Louis Mountbatten discusses the partition plan with Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and other leaders in 1947. {{PD-India}}

In 1948, the State of Jammu and Kashmir was effectively divided by the first India-Pakistan war into a Pakistani-controlled territory and an Indian-controlled territory (most of the Kashmiri-speaking region, however, passed into Indian control). The Kashmiri nationalists had close relations with the leaders of the Indian freedom struggle (Mahatma Gandhi had visited Kashmir just before India’s Partition in the hopes of reconciling different views in Kashmir) and the idea of Kashmir as a “special place” with unique political aspirations was recognized in the form of the special provisions of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. The terms of Kashmir’s membership in the Indian union were debated for five months among the Kashmiri and the Indian leadership in 1949, with the result that Jammu and Kashmir emerged as an autonomous State within the union of India. Yet the aspirations for full independence never died down in Kashmir (even as pro-Pakistan politics were increasingly suppressed within Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir ) and tensions emerged as early as 1953 when Kashmir’s nationalist leader, Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, was jailed for allegedly seeking independence. The arrest of Kashmir’s most popular leader, Sheikh Abdullah, in 1953 also started the process of diluting Kashmir’s autonomy and slowly eroding Article 370. Such slow dilution was evident as early as 1963, when India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, spoke of “the gradual erosion” of Article 370. These events, seen as a political betrayal by Kashmiris, were also the culmination of a strong protest movement by the Hindu nationalists in India who considered these special provisions to be nothing other than yet another shameful capitulation by the ruling Indian National Congress Party to Muslims.

It is this Hindu nationalist view which has triumphed in the Indian government’s recent decision to completely and unilaterally abrogate Article 370. Such a decision was made ostensibly to help better fight a decades-old anti-India insurgency in Kashmir (an insurgency which has for the most part been inconsequential, but has been significant enough to disrupt political processes and keep the Indian Army engaged in the region now for more than thirty years). It is far from clear if cancelling Kashmiri autonomy can boost India’s counterinsurgency efforts and produce a decisive victory, but it is possible that it could return Kashmir to being narrowly imagined as a site of sectarian Hindu-Muslim conflict. One might even wonder if a return to the original provisions of Article 370 that had been negotiated in 1949 and were demanded by Sheikh Abdullah’s son, Farooq Abdullah, on his return to power in 1996, could have stopped this insurgency in its tracks at a time when it was struggling militarily.

One ends up in Kashmir where one started off in the first place. The political claims of both India and Pakistan on Kashmir not only go back to the moment of the creation of the two States in 1947, but also pass through the history and memory of the sectarian conflict between the Hindus and Muslims of South Asia, stretching back even further in history (in the case of Kashmir, to the fourteenth century). The genesis of the Kashmir conflict, and its trajectory in the late twentieth century, is a complex subject. But what is clear enough is the symbolic centrality of both the religion and culture of Kashmir to India and Pakistan. Such culture includes shared sacred spaces such as astaans, Kashmiri Sufiyana music, folk forms such as Kashmiri folk theatre (band pather) and Kashmiri folk music (chhaker), Kashmiri poetry, and Kashmiri arts and crafts. These would be claimed by Pakistan as a distinctive Indo-Muslim culture and by India as an example of its secular and plural traditions. Religion and culture have been fundamental to shaping the idea of Kashmir as a “special place.” But even though the Hindu and Muslim religious cultures in India and Pakistan offer us fantasies of Kashmir as either a sacred Hindu space or a lost Muslim paradise, the actual Kashmiri Hindu and Muslim religious culture affirms Kashmir as a heterodox and plural spiritual space.

Dance of the Sufi Dervishes by Behzād, circa 1480/1490. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. {{PD-US}}

For most Kashmiris themselves, it is the vision of a Kashmiri spirituality expressed as a continuum of Saiva-bhakti-Sufi-tantric ideas in Kashmir’s literary culture—in particular, the mystical poetry of the Saiva saint-poet Lal Ded and the Muslim Sufi poet, Nund Rishi—that best articulates the idea of Kashmir as a place, even a “special place.” A close reading of these saint-poets reveals a deep commitment to religious tolerance, caste equality, and philosophical thought which gets taken up by generations of Kashmiri poets and historians, and informs Kashmiri ideas of the self. The Saiva, Lal Ded, uses Sufi metaphors and the Sufi, Nund Rishi, uses Saiva metaphors (Nund Rishi calls the Quran sahaja, the simple yet blissful path). This recognition, and the recognition of the political desires that flow from it, has become difficult to express in light of the rise in sectarian tensions in Kashmir and the rest of South Asia since the 1990s. It is likely to become even more difficult after the controversial end to Kashmir’s residual autonomy under an already eroded Article 370. One could dismiss this vision of Kashmiri religious pluralism as disguised nationalist rhetoric (as studies on “Kashmiriyat” or Kashmiriness as a nationalist, or subnationalist, ideology purportedly promoted by the Indian State often do), but these ideas about religion and culture are not only affirmed by many Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims. They also represent the possibility of a future that rejects sectarian understandings of Kashmir’s multiform past. But Kashmiri religious pluralism (philosophical thought of Lal Ded and Nund Rishi, in particular) also poses a challenge to official versions of Indian secularism that have not been able to ward off the threat of majoritarianism and offers a different way of thinking the secular (much like the thinking of Kabir and Gandhi) as an enabler of respect for and dialogue across religious traditions. The Saiva-Sufi milieu in Kashmir is one of the many distinctive moments of religious pluralism in South Asia. A deeper understanding of this religious pluralism can open up new pathways for thinking about democracy and freedom not just in Kashmir but also in the rest of South Asia. This idea of Kashmir is impossible to abrogate.


*Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the positions or policies of Ashoka University.


[1] See, for several essays which touch upon this theme, Aparna Rao and T N Madan, eds., The Valley of Kashmir: The Making and Unmaking of a Composite Culture? (New Delhi: Manohar, 2008). See especially the essay by Ronald Inden.

Abir Bazaz
Abir Bazaz is Assistant Professor of English at Ashoka University. His research interests include Religion and Literature, Comparative Indian Literatures and Cinema Studies. He is also a documentary filmmaker.
Theorizing Modernities article

Religion and Peacebuilding: A Postcolonial Perspective

End Islamophobia, Silent Protest at Union Station, Washington DC. Photo Credit: Lorie Shaull.

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.

Edward Said. A Mural on a San Francisco Street. Photo Credit: Rachid H.

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.

Cathayan Nestorian Cross from the Nestorian Stele. {{PD-US}}

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.

Kwok Pui Lan
Kwok Pui-lan is William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality, emerita, at Episcopal Divinity School and a past president of the American Academy of Religion. Among her many publications are Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology and Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue.
Global Currents article

On Disloyalty and Dual Loyalty: Is President Trump a Brandeisean Zionist?

Alt-right counter protestors holding Israeli, Trump, and American flags and ‘Stop Holocaust Exploitation’ posters at the ‘Close the Camps’ rally at Farmington Holocaust Memorial Center, Michigan. August 20, 2019

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.

The Trial of Dreyfus. Vanity Fair, November 23, 1899

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.”

In a lecture “The Rebirth of the Jewish Nation,” Brandeis said the following:

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.

In another essay “The Jewish Problem: How to Solve It,” presented to the Conference of Council of Reform Rabbis in 1915,  Brandeis wrote:

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.

Israeli and American Flags fluttering on mast. Photo Credit: James Emery

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.


Shaul Magid
Shaul Magid is professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are The Bible, the Talmud and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospel (UPenn Press, 2019) and Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism (Academic Studies, 2019). His forthcoming book Meir Kahane: An American Jewish Radical will appear in 2021 with Princeton University Press.
Global Currents article

Something Else A’Comin’ . . .

Dance of the Starlings, Photo Credit: Conni Nielsen

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.

A murmuration of starlings at Gretna, Photo Credit: Walter Baxter

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.[1] 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,[2] 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?[3]

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.[4] 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’ . . .

(I dedicate this essay to a free Palestine)

[1]See Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, “Black and Palestinian Lives Matter: Black and Jewish America in the Twenty-First Century,” in On Anti-Semitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 31–41.

[2]Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1967), 71.

[3]J. KameronCarter, “Black Malpractice (A Poetics of the Sacred).” Social Text 139 (forthcoming).

[4]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
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.
Global Currents article

From “Shooting and Crying” to “Shooting and Singing”: Notes on the 2019 Eurovision in Israel.

Olivia Wieczorek performing at the 2016 Polish National Final. Photo Credit: Serecki, Wikimedia Commons.

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

Beyond Aztlán: Latina/o/x Students Let Go of Their Mythic Homeland

Art Heals mural in Los Angeles, California. The image draws on the mythic imagination of Aztlán but depicts a Tongva woman and rebel leader, Toypurina, at its center. Photo Credit: Author.

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.

MEChA Logo

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. 

Chicano Park mural of Aztlán. Photo Credit: Author.

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 Mestizajecertain 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.

“Women of the Resistance” Mural in Balmy Alley, San Francisco. Photo Credit: Author.

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.

Jacqueline Hidalgo
Jacqueline M. Hidalgo is associate professor of Latina/o Studies and Religion at Williams College. She is the author of Revelation in Aztlán: Scriptures, Utopias, and the Chicano Movement and the co-editor (with Efraín Agosto) of Latinxs, the Bible, and Migration. For 2018-2019, she is president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States.
Global Currents article

Producing Motherhood? Uterus Transplantation for Infertility

Children hold hands with their mother in Dago, Indonesia. Photo Credit: Ikhlasul Amal, 2010.

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 normat