Theorizing Modernities article

Sacred States: Beyond the Secular-Religious Dialectic

Painting of Jerusalem, Israel, by Miner Kilbourne Kellogg. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

In an episode of the Israeli television drama Shtisel, set in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood, the show’s main character, school principal Shulem Shtisel, forbids his yeshiva students from going outside to watch a traditional flyover during an Israeli Independence Day military parade. His son Akiva, also a teacher at the school and facing protests from his class, allows his 10 year-olds to peek out the window to watch the flyover on the sly. The show emphasizes the disagreement within the Haredi community about the celebration; one elderly Jewish woman chastises a lifelong friend for expressing interest in it. The political entailments of their religious commitments remain subject to debate. As Ruth Margalit notes in a review for the The New Yorker, in watching this episode, “Israel appears like the contrails of those Air Force planes: blurry, ephemeral.” If only.

I was reminded of this scene in reading Nadera Shalhoub-Kevokian’s damning account from a different perspective of Jerusalem Day, another Israeli national holiday celebrating the “reunification” of Jerusalem, in her chapter “Sacralized Politics: The Case of Occupied East Jerusalem,” in a new volume that she co-edited with Nadim R. Rouhana, When Politics are Sacralized: Comparative Perspectives on Religious Claims and Nationalism. Jerusalem Day is also noisy, even violent, with large Zionist parades held in the Old City in what Shalhoub-Kevolkian rightly portrays as an affront to Palestinian self-determination. In both the television show and Shalhoub-Kevolkian’s real-life experience, and without suggesting any equivalency between the two, the State of Israel is perceived as having illegitimately usurped power and autonomy from the protagonists, threatening their ways of life, and perhaps their very existence, all in the name of a particular form of Jewish nationalism.

The sacralization of the Israeli state is especially noxious to the two prominent Palestinian editors of this volume, and understandably so. Noting that most discussions of religion in politics have focused on non-state actors, their collection ably turns the tables to examine and critique the sacralization of the state and its role in perpetuating settler colonial violence in Israel and beyond. To this end, the editors thoughtfully juxtapose case studies that are rarely considered side-by-side, including Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka, Zionism in Israel/Palestine, competing nationalisms in Northern Ireland, and Hindutva in India—even as Zionism gets the lion’s share of attention. I was eager to dive in.

The introduction describes the volume as an “effort to contribute to highlighting the dangerous impact of sacralization on national and international politics” (5). Religious claims, the editors suggest, “confer sacredness.” Violence ensues. Discussing various modes of sacralization, they suggest that, “Ethnic and religious nationalism… can play the destructive role of promoting an ethnically exclusive state, and the religious claims can play a double purpose—not only to increase the extent of exclusivity but also to provide legitimation for such exclusion (usually translated into political domination) and means of violence. These means can take extreme forms, precisely because of the religious legitimation” (emphasis mine, 9). A few pages later we encounter a similar reference to “religiously based legitimations that are by definition conflict instigating” (14). Their aversion to politicized religion leads the editors to conclude that “religious concerns” and “religiously-based justifications” are necessarily “particularly venomous” (15).

As I interpret this account, the problem with Israeli Jewish nationalism—and perhaps other nationalisms as well—is that it is violent because it is insufficiently secular. Religiously based justifications are “particularly venomous.” Yet would the challenge posed by (settler) state violence be resolved if nationalism were freed of religionism, or in this case, “Israeli Jewish nationalism from religionism” (17)? In her chapter, Shalhoub-Kevokian convincingly exposes “the various modalities of violence apparent in the ongoing Judaization of Jerusalem” (19). It is an important discussion and her account of the cruelty of the Price Tag movement is horrifying and effective. Yet I was left wondering whether one effect of attributing Israeli state violence in Jerusalem to Judaization may be to reduce Judaism to the violent form that it takes in this context while subordinating other factors that contribute to the violence. Might it not risk handing over too much power to the Israeli government’s interpretation of Judaism? Might it make sense for Palestinians and their allies to consider opposing the Israelization, or the colonization of Jerusalem, in whatever mode it presents itself, including but not limited to the expressions of Judaism/Zionism that are so tirelessly mobilized in its defense? In short: if the problems we face are power, greed, territoriality, and human aspirations for total mastery and control, then is purifying politics of religion the solution? Might it not exacerbate the situation by handing the floor to the most extreme voices who claim to speak in its name?

The urge to purify politics of (bad, violent, and exclusive) religion is an expression of a modernist tendency to seek to stabilize and master religion as an epistemological category. This is evident in the introduction, in which the category of religion is asked to do some heavy-lifting. This approach is ably critiqued most recently by Brent Crosson in his book Experiments with Power: Obeah and the Remaking of Religion in Trinidad. Crosson explains that liberal secularism has long identified “modern” or “good” religion by its alleged lack of entanglement with either supernatural power (evil/superstition, magic, and witchcraft) or the state:

The idea that good religion (or good governance) can be separated from coercive force is the foundation for the ideals of liberal secularism. Rather than simply leading to a reality in which church and state are separate and political power is a matter of consent, this ideal masks and distorts empirical realities of power. Religious movements, state violence, and security interventions are entangled in contemporary nation-states…” (44)

Despite such critiques, many social scientists are captivated by religion’s purported epistemological coherence and convinced by the need (for the state to) to contain or evict bad religion, a conviction that threads through the introduction to this important book. Critical secularist discourse, even if undertaken with the objective of challenging the violence of settler colonialism, as in this volume, risks reproducing particular modern categories of the religious and the political. It elides the possibility that, to varying degrees, all forms of politics embody and express what moderns call the “religious” dimensions of human experience. There is no superhuman field that can be infiltrated or distorted beyond recognition by religion or the sacred. In this instance, broadening the interpretive frame might allow for the identification of alternative voices, actors, and histories that embody dissenting forms of religion-politics and the empowerment of new collective imaginaries that reach beyond the secular-religious dialectic. The challenge, then, is to step away from the secular-religious dialectic as a viable interpretive framework in the study of settler colonial violence.

Critical secularist discourse, even if undertaken with the objective of challenging the violence of settler colonialism, as in this volume, risks reproducing particular modern categories of the religious and the political

A number of contributors to the volume take up this challenge. In his chapter, “Religion and Nationalism in the Jewish and Zionist Context,” Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin suggests that in the Israeli context what is known as “secularization” is the “articulation of messianic imagination…as a political-national narrative in the modern sense of the word” (34–35). “The centrality of the political theological aspect in the formation and definition of the State of Israel,” he continues, “is undeniable, and consequently any attempt to separate religion from the state is impossible” (35). I agree. There is no way to separate “religion” and “state” in Israel, or anywhere else.

Liam O’Dowd’s chapter, “Does Religion Still Matter? Comparative Lessons from the Ethno-national Conflict in Northern Ireland,” also resists the modernist framing by challenging the idea that religion ever left the domain of the political in the first place. As O’Dowd underscores, and in line with other contributors to the volume, “the links between religious and nationalist antagonisms first developed in the heartlands of Western imperialism” (358).

In his call for “transcending a simplistic secularist epistemology” (94), Yaacov Yadger’s “Zionist Theopolitics and Jewish Tradition” likewise resists the siren-like temptation of the modern secular-religious dialectic. Instead, he asks, “How does the Israeli nation-state’s theopolitics—constituted, as it is (symbolically, at least), on an ‘invented’ national tradition—approach Jewish traditions that preceded it and continue to live alongside it?” For Yadger, “the ‘problem’ with those Jewish traditions is that they do not fit easily, if ever, into the commonly used categorical frameworks such as ‘nation,’ ‘ethnicity,’ ‘race,’ and, perhaps most importantly, ‘religion,’ which originate in modern Western discourse” (101). In this reading Zionism is understood as a counterreaction to the transformation of Judaism into a “religion,” which itself “has to do with the modern ideological innovation and practical transformation that originated in Europe, mostly in Germany, from the eighteenth century onward, which allegedly sought to reinterpret Jewish traditions so as to render them applicable to the allegedly universal (and, again, essentially European Protestant) category of religion, in itself a contemporaneous invention” (102). One tragic, and paradoxical, result of this history is that Jewish Israeli secularism is unable to conduct meaningful dialogue with the Jewish traditions from which it emerged (107). Zionism, at least in its current, dominant Israeli instantiation, is deaf to dissenting Judaisms. As Raz-Krakotzkin suggests along similar lines, also in reference to Israel, it “denies important aspects of even the country’s Jewish past” (47).

This volume makes a noteworthy contribution to the long and challenging process of re-centering the histories and experiences of those who have been written out of history, and the present, by modern efforts to purify the nation-state in the name of something bigger. It deserves close reading and critical engagement, including, perhaps, through an insistence on questioning what Crosson refers to as “the indifference of the secular” (192). As historians such as Jonathan Sheehan remind us, attempts to adjudicate the lines between piety and profanity, sacrifice and murder, and suicide and self-martyrdom have long been, and will likely remain, deeply contested sites of power, violence, and sacrality.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd
Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is Professor of Political Science and Religious Studies and the Crown Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University in Evanston. She studies religion in U.S. foreign and immigration policy, the politics of secularism and religious freedom, religion and the American border, and relations between the U.S., Europe, Turkey, and Iran. Hurd is the author of The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (2008) and Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (2015), both published by Princeton, and has co-edited four volumes on politics and religion in U.S. politics, foreign policy, and international relations. Hurd enjoys speaking to public audiences and contributing to discussions on global politics and religion. At Northwestern she co-directs the Global Religion & Politics Research Group, and co-curates the Teaching Law & Religion Case Study Archive. She is currently working on a book on religious aspects of American border politics. Twitter: @eshurd

Leave a Reply

Fully aware of the ways in which personhood has been denied based on the hierarchies of modernity/coloniality, we do not publish comments that include dehumanizing language and ad hominem attacks. We welcome debate and disagreement that educate and illuminate. Comments are not representative of CM perspectives.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.