Observations on Cynthia Baker’s Jew from the Perspective of Islamic Studies
The questions raised by Cynthia Baker’s terse, sophisticated intervention in Jew resonate in, with, and for Islam in numerous complex ways. In the short space allotted to me here, I would like to ask how Baker’s analysis might be enriched through reference to phenomena pertaining to Islam, both by considering the place of Islam and Muslims in the Christian, European, and Western discursive environment upon which she focuses and by drawing parallels with Islamic sources, traditions, and contexts.
In addition, I will suggest a few ways in which her critique might refract through the prism of contemporary Islamic Studies to illuminate some significant issues in that neighboring area of research, which has been conjoined with Jewish Studies virtually from the beginning of the modern history of both fields in the nineteenth century.
Baker’s work untangles the dense web of claims and representations that constellate around the image of the Jew in Western history—indeed, around the word Jew itself—especially in modern times, including in contemporary media and scholarship. The interrogation of such claims and representations is both relevant to the study of Islam and urgently needed in our contemporary political situation. Baker’s main thesis is that the term Jew does not represent an ontologically given object with essential traits and characteristics, but is rather a protean signifier that provides a touchstone for Christian identity and a necessary foil for a host of ideas associated with Euro-American ideologies, especially those that bolster the modern secular state. Particularly over the last fifteen years, Muslim has come to carry similar kinds of baggage in contemporary America as the prevailing choice of Other against whom national and cultural ideals may be constructed.
The recent success of a presidential campaign energized by extreme right-wing rhetoric and ethnonationalist ideology has unsurprisingly led both to a sharp uptick of organized anti-Muslim activity and to a reemergence of anti-Semitic groups long consigned to the margins of American political culture. This sudden emboldening of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment is also evident in the proliferation of threats against places of worship and community centers, hate crimes against individuals, and even desecration of cemeteries. It has never been so clear that the fates of the American Jewish and Muslim communities are deeply intertwined.
One of the most trenchant passages in Baker’s book is her demolition of the claim that anti-Muslim antipathy is somehow justifiable while anti-Semitism is not. The often-contentious representation of Europe’s beleaguered Muslim immigrant communities as “the new Jews” typically inspires the objection that Jews were the victims first of centuries-long religious stigmatization and then prejudice based on now-disavowed race science, whereas Muslims actually warrant suspicion, surveillance, and public condemnation because of their reactionary, anti-Western, and violent religion or culture. The “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, which has long been critiqued and yet continues to have traction among vast swathes of the American and European publics, presents Muslims (or at least “authentic” Muslims, those who are true to the supposed core beliefs of their tradition) as totally unassimilable and ineluctably opposed to the cardinal Western values of democracy, freedom, and human rights. Even the most cursory historical investigation demonstrates that this attempt to disavow anti-Semitism but legitimate Islamophobia is specious: a century ago, bigotry against Jews was justified on the basis of arguments about their indelible foreignness, cultural backwardness, and subversive political sympathies, arguments similar to those made about Muslims today.
Common strategies of racialization may be detected in both the anti-Semitism of the past and the anti-Muslim hysteria of today. The Jew was once the unassimilable Other that threatened nation-state projects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, the Muslim is the unassimilable Other that threatens the neoliberal world order that corporatist and globalist American and European technocracies seek to maintain. Yet antipathy to Islam is also a cornerstone of the anti-globalist ideology that is now firmly entrenched in the highest levels of American government. The presence of alt-right “disruptors” like Steve Bannon in the Trump administration and the constant recourse to Islamophobic security theater betrays a larger agenda of normalizing and mainstreaming the racism and xenophobia characteristic of significant sectors of its base; clearly parts of this base can still be roused by reviving shopworn anti-Semitic tropes as well.
Thus, the complex dialectic between anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment is not of purely historical interest but rather is tragically relevant to our current situation, as the American right wing oscillates cynically between philo-Semitism as a token of its democratic bona fides and anti-Semitism as a central plank in its anti-globalist, nativist platform. At one moment, they seek to capitalize on the supposedly universal hatred of Jews in evidence among Muslims as proof of Islam’s incompatibility with Western values; at the next, Jews and Muslims are lumped together as the common face of the subversive Other poisoning the well from which true Americans seek to drink. Jews and Muslims may likewise share a common frustration at the evasion and sleight-of-hand that seek to disable coherent opposition to the administration’s rhetoric and policies. Just as the president’s spokespeople seek to gaslight an entire country by claiming that his Muslim ban, openly touted to supporters as a Muslim ban, is actually not a Muslim ban, so too have these spokespeople (and indeed, the president himself) insinuated that the recent rash of threats against synagogues in fact represent “false flag” operations orchestrated by the left.
In the current political climate, Baker’s project thus proves especially relevant. In addition, there are notable intersections between what she observes of the term Jew and similar insights that may apply to, or emerge from, observation of Islam and Muslims. Delineating these parallels, at least in broad terms, demonstrates the ways in which future research might build upon her work by turning to comparanda drawn from this material. Naturally, this also implies that scholars of Islam who primarily work on this material might benefit from some of her insights.
First, the place of “Jew” in Western (read: European Christian) discourse is mirrored in Islam in complex and fascinating ways. Representations of Jews in the Islamic tradition, as in the Christian tradition, are not straightforward artifacts of historical encounters but ideologically charged literary constructs. Yet this recognition has still had only limited impact on the way Jewish-Muslim relations are investigated. David Nirenberg’s chapter on the trope of “Jewish enmity” in Islamic sources in his magisterial Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, building upon the work of Uri Rubin and others, represents a significant advance in this regard. The presentation of the Jew as a “haunted reflection” and sign of obsolescence in the face of the new dispensation for Christian authors is mirrored in classical Islam, although it tends to be more implicit. The Qur’an locates the Muslim umma it seeks to organize under the leadership of its prophet as the heir to the biblical prophets and patriarchs: the umma continues the legacy of the rightly guided communities of Banu Isra’il, in contrast to the obsolete remnants of the “People of the Book,” yahud and nasara, Jews and Christians as biological heirs to Israel who nevertheless have lost their chosen status by going astray. Even while strenuously condemning the Jews as the source of all waywardness, obstinacy, and subversion, various Muslim authors and groups have been able to capitalize upon the claim that it is now the Muslim community (or at least some part of it) that is now rightly guided and favored by God like the prophetic communities of the Israelite past.
As in European discussions, theological notions of chosenness become entangled with claims about descent. Baker shows in numerous places in her work how the ethnicization and racialization of Jewish identity impinges upon historiography in complex ways, with the Holocaust as tragic culmination of Jewish racialization inevitably haunting such questions in the present day. Objective academic discussion is rendered almost impossible due to the unavoidable political and even moral considerations with which one collides at every turn. The same is true of discussions of Jews in the Islamic world. Genomic research discloses that most Jews of Ashkenazi maternal ancestry are actually “European-indigenous”; this finding resonates very uncomfortably with the common claim in the Islamic world—recently reiterated, and recently discredited—that Europe’s Jews are in fact descendants of the Khazar kingdom (the semi-mythical Turkic principality that turned to Judaism sometime in the early Middle Ages). The implication is that the covenantal promise of sovereignty in the Holy Land to which scripture attests simply does not apply to modern Jews. (This is, of course, the reverse of the early Zionist quest to discern the Jewish origins of the Palestinian fellahin, establishing a persistent Jewish presence among the am ha-aretz and thus an unbroken tradition of habitation in the land.) Conversely, as if to bolster Zionist claims where the assertion of Khazar descent undermines them, scholarship on the Jews of Islamic lands, especially the Jewish tribes in Arabia at the time of Muhammad, has a particular tendency to link these groups to Palestine. Such gestures of authenticity may be largely conjectural, as when these communities are given an Israelite pedigree (viz., by asserting their foundation by refugees from the Babylonian conquest of Judah), or given a textual-philological rationale by asserting a (rather problematic) linkage between later Islamic accounts of the Jews of Muhammad’s time and parallels gleaned from rabbinic sources.
Second, the place of the Jew as Christian/European/Western antitype may be further illuminated by considering Europe’s Muslim Other as a second antipode used for European self-fashioning, from the Middle Ages to contemporary times. Just as we might learn interesting things about “the Jew” as a construct by moving from the Christian/European frame to the Islamic, we might learn other interesting things by considering the Muslim alongside the Jew in the Christian/European frame. It is not just the Jew that has provided (and continues to provide) a site for reflection upon and construction of the ideal self. Rather, Europe’s Muslim Other plays a similar role for Europeans (and now Americans) seeking to articulate claims about society, the state, and identity. The specific point of intersection raised by Baker—namely the representation of Europe’s Muslim communities as “new Jews,” playing upon the Jew as signifier of alterity and abjection—has significant parallels in the analogous though distinct representations of the Muslim Other in European discourse. Nor is exploitation of the abject Other for the fashioning of the self solely perpetrated by hegemonic Christian culture; Gil Anidjar has shown how Jews, and especially Israelis, have pursued similar projects by subverting and reversing the gaze—as exhibited, for example, by the customary reference in the patois of the concentration camps to the walking dead who had abandoned all hope of survival, resigning themselves to their imminent oblivion, as Musselmänner.
In addition, Baker’s reflections on how historical discourse about “the Jew” in European culture inflects the field of Jewish Studies provides a useful counterpoint for current scholarship on Muslim identity and Islam, which has recently revived reflection on difficult questions of definition and representation. The thorny problem of ethnicity versus religion—especially the presumption that Jewish identity evolved from primarily being a matter of one to the other—that Baker shows to be at the heart of so many questions in Jewish Studies manifests largely in the opposite form in Islamic Studies. Muslim identity has long been presumed to be primarily a matter of religion; scholars have been slower to approach Muslim identity as an effect or expression of other logics, including the ethnic or “racial.” Given the racialization of Muslims in polemical discourse in Euro-American societies, it is worth considering how the ethnic/racial-religious tension may be negotiated and reclaimed.
Also resonant is Baker’s discussion of how considering the Jew as a trope or signifier—that is, as a mode of representation that is meaningful only in a larger discursive context—precipitates critical reflection on other forms of identity and processes of formation of the self. As she notes, such critical reflection has in many instances been taken up explicitly as part of a larger project in which scholars themselves seek to interrogate, deconstruct, and reclaim their own Jewish identity. The current political landscape in America is perhaps not the most hospitable environment for Muslim scholars to embrace such an agenda, but it seems to me that various debates over positionality in Islamic Studies are quietly resolving in the direction of a collective understanding that an insistence on stark distinctions between insiders and outsiders, between supposedly objective and disinterested scholarship and work in a deliberately interventionist and activist mode, is unproductive. Forcing scholars who identify as Muslim to accept a false dichotomy between a scholarly self and an invested self is unconstructive, if not inhumane. Likewise, the allegation that research and teaching on Islam that is not sheared of larger commitments is somehow biased or subverts the canons of disinterested scholarship evokes, in quite negative ways, the common polemical claim of a hidden and insidious agenda, a lurking alterity that always marks the Muslim who seeks to participate in a common rationalist discourse. It is not difficult to perceive such allegations as previously having haunted Jews and other ethnic and religious minorities as they have come to be fully enfranchised and fully visible in American culture.
Finally, one might ask how Baker’s investigation of definitions, boundaries, and terminologies may be complicated by adducing species of Jewishness in evidence in the Islamic(ate) sphere. Whether we designate them Arab Jews, Jewish Arabs, the Jews of Islam, or Islamicate Jews, or turn our attention to specific distinct categories such as the Jewish Sufis of the Middle Ages, now manifest as present-day “Jewfis” and the like, there is no doubt that Jewish engagement with the cultures of Islam has produced varieties of Jewish selfhood and expression that both confirm and contradict the patterns prevalent in the Christian/European sphere that Baker observes. To give only one example, Sam Kestenbaum’s recent reportage on followers of the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship in Philadelphia of Jewish background depicts in vivid fashion the diverse ways that members of this contemporary Sufi group understand and embrace plural identities and unabashedly lay claim to multiple cultural and familial legacies. This is a side of the Jewish-Muslim encounter that previous generations of scholars tended to overlook or misunderstand, largely due to an assumption that communal boundaries were as absolute in practice as they appear to be on paper. Over twenty years ago Steven Wasserstrom sought to inaugurate a new approach to the history of the Jewish-Muslim dialectic conceived as a process of synthesis rather than conflict. Yet that attempt has yet to bear fruit fully, and “Jewish Muslim” still seems like a contradiction in terms.
As a young man, the noted Hungarian scholar of Islam Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921) visited Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. In Cairo, he sought an audience with the Shaykh al-Azhar to seek his permission personally to attend classes at that most prestigious of Islamic institutions of learning. After observing the shaykh engrossed in a juridical discussion with his colleagues for a time, when asked to introduce himself, Goldziher did so by stating, “My name is Ignaz al-Majari [i.e. the Hungarian]; I was born among the Ahl al-Kitab, and I believe I shall be resurrected with those who confess the unity of God (al-muwahiddin).” As Dabashi’s skilled exegesis of this fascinating moment points out, Goldziher was here outing himself, quite without ambiguity, as a European scholar of Jewish descent who understood exactly how to articulate that identity in terms the shaykh and his colleagues could accept (and in fact he was accepted to study at the Azhar during this year abroad). Goldziher’s well-known affinity for Islam—he considered Muhammad a true prophet and thought of himself as muslim in the lower-case sense without formally performing the profession of faith—is on full display here, as is his open articulation of his Jewish identity in Islamic terms. And yet one is struck by the fact that at this crucial moment he did not call himself yahud, that is, Jew—a sign that in the context of Ottoman Egypt, as in his native Austro-Hungarian empire, that most contentious of terms remained troubling and troubled even for one who sought to acknowledge his identity openly and honestly.
This is the fourth essay in the Marginalia Forum on Cynthia Baker’s Jew.
Michael Pregill is Interlocutor in the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University and coordinator of the Mizan digital scholarship initiative.