[Paleopsych] CHE: The Parallels of Islam and Judaism in Diaspora

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The Parallels of Islam and Judaism in Diaspora
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.8


    Two moments in modern history: A religious community is banned from
    wearing distinctive clothing in public schools as doing so is seen as
    a violation of the rules of secular society, while another religious
    community is forbidden from ritually slaughtering animals as such
    slaughter is seen as a cruel and unnatural act. These prohibitions
    take place more than 100 years apart, the former recently in France,
    the latter more than a century ago in Switzerland.

    What are the religious communities in question? In France the order
    banning ostentatious religious clothing and ornaments in schools and
    other public institutions affects the evident target group, Muslim
    women, as well as religious Jewish men and women who cover their
    heads. In Switzerland the prohibition against kosher Jewish slaughter
    (which still stands today) also covers the slaughter of animals by
    Muslims who follow the ritual to make halal meat. These different
    prohibitions have affected Jews and Muslims in oddly similar ways, yet
    each group has responded in different ways to its confrontation with
    the secular modern world. Those responses can tell us much about the
    flexibility and intransigence of both religious communities and the
    worlds in which they live.

    Scratch secular Europe today, and you will find long-held Christian
    presuppositions and attitudes toward Jews and Muslims present in
    subliminal or overt forms. Recently German, Italian, Polish, and
    Slovakian delegates demanded that the "Christian heritage" of the new
    Europe be writ large in the European constitution. It was only the
    post-September 11 anxiety of most states that enabled Valéry Giscard
    d'Estaing, as president of the convention writing the constitution, to
    persuade the group that such a reference would be "inappropriate." The
    demand was transformed into a reference in the preamble to the
    "cultural, religious, and humanist inheritance of Europe." No one
    missed what was meant.

    What continues to trouble Europeans about Judaism and Islam is their
    all-too-close relationship to Christianity. It is the seeming
    similarity of the three "Abrahamic" (the new buzzword including Islam
    in the Judeo-Christian fold) religions that draws attention to the
    real or imagined differences among them -- what Sigmund Freud called
    the "narcissism of minor differences." Those differences are
    heightened in a secular society that is rooted in the mind-set (and
    often the attitudes, beliefs, social mores, and civic practices) of
    the majority religious community -- that is to say, Christianity.

    Minority religions in a secular society that still has religious
    overtones are promised a wide range of civil rights -- including those
    of freedom of religion -- if only its members adhere to the standards
    of civilized behavior as defined by the secular society (and rooted in
    the desire to make sure that society, with its masked religious
    assumptions, redefines the minority's religious practice). Thus
    Muslims and Jews have the same rights to public schooling as
    Christians, if only they don't insist on wearing head scarves or
    coverings. Any differences between majority and minority religions
    seem threatening because the majority religion has already ceded so
    much ground to overt secularization. Over and over, the integration of
    Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries was decried as a force of
    "modernization," rather than as the result of modernization. Today
    Islam is accused of being a threat to the modernization Europe wants,
    but it also highlights the loss of religious identity that Europeans
    know comes with modernization.

    The West needs to understand these dynamics of change. If we assume
    that transformation occurs (or does not occur) only within communities
    that are seen as different, we miss the dynamic change that occurs in
    society as a whole. Religious experience is an aspect of all societies
    -- even those that label themselves as anti-religion. In tracking how
    religious ritual and practice shift and rebound, how they are
    transmuted and become a place for resistance, we can say as much about
    the culture in which religion is found as about religions themselves.

    A new project I am beginning will look at the experiences among Jews
    from the late-18th century (which marked the beginning of civil
    emancipation) to the beginning of the 20th century -- and will ask how
    those experiences parallel the experiences now confronting diaspora
    Islam in secular Western Europe. The similarities are striking: A
    religious minority enters a self-described secular (or secularizing)
    society that is Christian in its rhetoric and presuppositions and that
    perceives a "special relationship" with that minority. (That special
    relationship is marked for Jews by the Christian appropriation of the
    Old Testament and the Messianic prophecy; for Muslims, by the
    appropriation of the Old Testament and the New as part of Muslims'
    claims of a final prophetic revelation.) The minority speaks a
    different secular language (for Jews, it was Western and Eastern
    Yiddish as well as Ladino; for Muslims, it is Turkish, Bengali, and
    colloquial Arabic as well as others) but also has a different
    religious language (Hebrew and classical Arabic). Religious schools
    that teach in the languages associated with a religious group are seen
    as sources of corruption and illness. Indeed some authorities in
    Germany and the Netherlands have recently advocated that only native
    languages be spoken in mosques to make the message of the sermon
    transparent to the greater society. That is not far from the desire
    that was expressed in the 18th century that Jews learn German in order
    to become members of civil society.

    Religious rites are practiced by minority religions that seem an
    abomination to the majority culture. Unlike the secular majority, the
    minority religions practice the mutilation of children's bodies
    (infant male circumcision, and, for some Muslims, infant female
    genital cutting); the suppression of women's rights (lack of women's
    traditional education, a secondary role in religious practice,
    arranged marriages); barbaric torture of animals (the cutting of the
    throats of unstunned animals, allowing them to bleed to death); and
    ostentatious clothing that signals religious affiliation and has
    ritual significance, among a number of other practices. Centrally
    relating all of those practices for both groups is a belief in the
    divine "chosenness" of the group in contrast to all others.

    The demonization of certain aspects of religious practice has its
    roots in what civil society will tolerate and what it will not. Why it
    will not tolerate something is, of course, central to the story. Thus
    Alan Dundes argued decades ago that the anxiety about the implications
    of cannibalism associated with the consumption of the body and blood
    of Christ in the Christian Mass shaped the fantasy that Jews were
    slaughtering Christian children for their blood. It was the often
    unacknowledged discomfort with its own practices that influenced how
    Christian society responded to the Jews. Such anxiety is also present
    in the anger secular Europe directed at other Jewish rituals
    associated with bloodletting, such as the ritual slaughter of animals.
    The way that a minority religion's practices, which differ from those
    of the majority religion, highlight the very things that seem
    confusing or uncomfortable about that majority religion in a secular
    society is part of the story. Thus Muslim women who wear head scarves
    evoke not just the repression of Muslim women in Western society but
    also Western insecurities about the role of all women in the public

    One of the most striking similarities of the process of Jewish and
    Muslim integration into Western secular society is the gradual elision
    of the national differences among various groups, both in terms of how
    they are perceived and how they see themselves. Muslims in Western
    Europe represent multiple national traditions (South Asian in Britain,
    North African in France and Spain, Turkish in Germany). But so did the
    Jews in Western Europe who came out of ghettos in France and the
    Rhineland or the rural reaches of Bavaria and Hungary, or who moved
    from those parts of Eastern Europe -- Poland, the eastern marches of
    the Austro-Hungarian empire -- that became part of the West. To those
    one can add the Sephardi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula who settled
    in areas from Britain (introducing fish and chips) to the fringes of
    the Austrian empire. The standard image of the Jews in 18th-century
    British caricature was the Maltese Jew in his oriental turban. By the
    19th century it was that of Lord Rothschild in formal wear at his
    daughter's wedding, receiving the Prince of Wales in a London
    synagogue. In the intervening years the religious identity of Jews in
    European eyes had become more important than national identity -- few
    (except the anti-Semites) remembered that the Rothschilds were a
    Frankfurt family that had escaped the Yiddish-speaking ghetto. The
    Jews are everywhere and all alike; Muslims today seem to be everywhere
    and are becoming "all alike." How does such a shift in identity affect
    religious practice and belief? Is there a decrease in conflicts felt
    among religious groups, or is there a substitution of national
    identity for such conflicts?

    I am also going to be looking at how Jews and Muslims adapted to
    Western society, and what the comparison of the two groups might tell
    us. For Jews the stories of integration took different forms across
    Western Europe because there were different forms of Christianity,
    different levels of tolerance, and different expectations as to the
    meaning of citizenship. Different notions of secularization all
    present variations on the theme, What do you have to give up to become
    a true citizen? Do you merely have to give up your secular language?
    Do you have to abandon the most evident and egregious practices?

    I hope to understand what Jews thought possible to change in their
    religious practice in the 18th and 19th century, what they
    accomplished within various national states, and what they did not
    accomplish. That is, what was gained and what was lost, both in terms
    of the ability of living religions to transform themselves, and in the
    understanding that all such transformations call forth other forms of
    religious practice in response. The history of the Jews in the
    European diaspora during the late-18th century called forth three
    great reformers who took different approaches to those issues: Moses
    Mendelssohn and the followers of the Jewish Enlightenment in Germany
    who, together with their predecessors in Holland, argued for
    accommodation with civil society in a secularizing world; Rabbi Elijah
    ben Solomon of Vilnius, known as the Vilna Gaon, who desired to reform
    traditional Orthodox Judaism to make it able to function in a Jewish
    world that kept itself separate from secular society; and the first
    modern Jewish mystics, the Hasidim, typified by Rabbi Yisrael Baal
    Shem Tov in imperial Russia, who fought, like their contemporaries in
    Berlin and Vilnius, against what they saw as the stultifying practices
    and worldview of contemporary Judaism. All lived roughly
    simultaneously. In their wake came radical changes in what it meant to
    be a Jew in belief and practice.

    Today we stand at the beginning of a mass integration of Muslims into
    Western European culture. That culture prizes its secular nature, but
    the very forms of the secular state range from Britain (where the
    queen remains head of the church) to Germany, which is still divided
    between Protestant and Catholic versions of secularism (and along the
    dividing lines of the cold war). There were islands of Muslim
    integration in Europe, such as in Bosnia, that have been transformed
    over the past decade because of persecution and external pressure.
    There are also Muslim communities, such as in the large urban areas of
    France, that seem to be devolving into a permanent underclass. But how
    the local pressure for rights, on one hand, and integration, on the
    other, will play out in the future is unknown. The very forms of
    religious practice and belief are at stake. Perhaps some variants have
    already been tried with or without success among European Jews?

    Now I know that there are also vast differences between Jews in the
    18th and 19th centuries and Muslims today. There are simply many more
    Muslims today in Western Europe than there were Jews in the earlier
    period. The Jews historically never formed more than 1 percent of the
    population of any Western European nation; Muslim populations form a
    considerable minority today. While there is no Western European city
    with a Muslim majority, many recent news stories predict that
    Marseilles or Rotterdam will be the first European city to have one.
    In France today there are 600,000 Jews, while there are between 5
    million and 6 million Muslims, who make up about 10 percent of the
    population. In Germany, with a tiny Jewish population of under
    100,000, almost 4 percent of the population is Muslim (totaling more
    than 3 million people). In Britain about 2.5 percent of the total
    population (1.48 million people) is Muslim.

    Demographics (and birthrates) aside, there are salient differences in
    the experiences of the Jews in the past and Muslims today. The Jews
    had no national "homeland" -- indeed were defined as nomads or a
    pariah people. They lived only in the diaspora and seemed inherently
    different from any other people in Western Europe. Most Muslims in the
    West come out of a national tradition in which their homelands had
    long histories disturbed but not destroyed by colonial rule. And last
    but not least, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the past
    century, as well as the Holocaust, which set the Jews apart from all
    other religious groups as essential victims, seem to place the two
    groups -- at least in the consciousness of the West -- in two
    antagonistic camps.

    Still there are key similarities. Notably religion for the Jews of
    pre-Enlightenment Europe, and for much of contemporary Islam, was and
    is a "heritage" to be maintained in the secular world of diaspora.
    What can or must such memory of ritual and practice abandon? What must
    it preserve to maintain its coherence for the group? One of the
    continuing questions in regard to religious practices has to do with
    ritual slaughter of animals, a practice that still links Jews and
    Muslims in contemporary thought. For Muslims an alternative to the
    tradition of sacrificing a ram on Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice)
    has been created on a Web site where one can sacrifice virtual rams.
    That is a direct response to charges of "inhumanness" lodged against
    Islamic religious practices both within and without the Muslim
    community. Can that be a further sign of alternative practices
    developing within Islam?

    I want to examine what the solutions were to similar problems raised
    by modern Western secular society in regard to Jewish religious
    practice; how the Jews responded; how these responses were accepted or
    rejected based on local contexts; and how the Jews became or did not
    become citizens in the eyes of their non-Jewish contemporaries. Such
    questions are echoed in the debates within Islamic groups today
    concerning everything from the meaning of jihad to the ritual
    preparation of food. Can common experiences provide a natural alliance
    between Jews and Muslims?

    The central cultural problem of Europe today is not how different
    national cultures will be integrated into a European Union, but how
    secular society will interact with European Muslims. Anyone interested
    in contemporary Europe before September 11, 2001, knew that the
    800-pound gorilla confronting France, Germany, and Britain, and to a
    lesser extent Spain and Italy, was the huge presence of an
    "unassimilatable" minority. Much attention has been given recently to
    the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, and his
    pronouncements about the dangers of Hispanic immigrants rejecting
    American values. Such fears are already being voiced in Europe about
    Muslims. But exactly the same things were said about the Jews for 200
    years. What does that tell us? I am only beginning to seek answers to
    that question, but I hope they will help us understand the debates
    that Western Europe is increasingly facing and that eventually the
    United States may face, too.

    Sander L. Gilman will become a professor of liberal arts and sciences
    at Emory University in the fall. He is the editor, with Zhou Xun, of
    Smoke: A Global History of Smoking, published last year by Reaktion

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