The Issue Between Judaism and Islam

Gil Anidjar

"Jewish thinkers," writes Jacob Taubes in the "The Issue Between Judaism and Christianity" (from whom I borrow my title), "have become so spellbound by Christianity's historical success that they try to give it a 'theological' justification." Although Taubes was writing in the early 1950s, one could easily argue that what we are witnessing, indeed, what we are doing in this issue on the other "issue" appeals still to the same kind of enchantment, albeit with significant variations.

There is no doubt that one could point to a long and diverse tradition of poets, grammarians, and philosophers, going back to Dunash ibn Labrat, Sa'adiah Gaon, and, of course, Moses Maimonides, whereby Jews would have been transfixed, indeed, spellbound, by some aspect of Islam. My favorite illustration at the moment—and, conveniently, a fascinating summary of its own—is But one could also turn to the essays collected by Martin Kramer on The Jewish Discovery of Islam, which, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin has pointed out, implicitly concedes the main point made by Edward W. Said. For if it has in fact been the case that Jewish thinkers and scholars have had a more positive, and less instrumental, attitude toward Islam than their Christian counterparts, the conclusion with regard to the Orientalism of the latter at least is clear enough. The issue between Christianity and Islam is, one can safely say, fraught and perduring.

Were Jews good for Islam then? Sorry. Was Islam good for the Jews? It may be important to recall that, as with the stereotype of "the virgin and the whore" admiring pedestals are not always more "positive" than their better recognized, degrading doubles (philo-Semitism is, after all, anti-Semitism under a different guise). Still, there are those who desperately try to conjure ancient truths, that Muslims were not quite as intent as Christians were on persecuting Jews, or that Haj Amin el-Husseini was not as damagingly evil as Himmler. And indeed, the fact may remain that, whether or not there was a German-Jewish dialogue, those involved— respectable individuals like Abraham Geiger, Moritz Steinschneider, or Hermann Cohen— seem to have thought that there was such a thing as a Jewish-Muslim dialogue, and quite a productive one too. And they have followers, eager and laudable proponents of interfaith dialogues or even Abrahamic trialogues.

There are, however, terminological oscillations that may or may not contribute to the clarity of the issue at hand. Consider the not so linear evolution from culture or ethnicity to religion in the discursive spheres. Shlomo Dov Goitein told us about Jews and Arabs, which emphasized ethnicity and culture, whereas Bernard Lewis refreshingly suggested that Jews may have been of that world, but not in it in The Jews of Islam. Steven Wasserstrom, who traces some of that very history in his own Between Muslim and Jew, argued that the turn to religion and away from culture was probably for the best, while Ammiel Alcalay compellingly asked whether there was something, anything, After Jews and Arabs, after the alleged divide. At a remote distance from the alleyways of state administrations and the powers that be, other debates have taken place over Arab Jews, the possibility (Shimon Ballas, Ella Shohat, Sami Shalom Chetrit) and impossibility (Albert Memmi, of course, and pretty much the entirety of the Jewish establishment) of their existence. The importance and accuracy of historical testimony on the matter can be read, among other places, in the work of Emily Gottreich, Ivan Kalmar, Gil Hochberg, and others. In the current public sphere, however, a different kind of fascination appears to be holding sway and growing still. Many are rather spellbound by that lachrymose conception of Jewish history—the heading is "dhimmitude"—as well as by the prospect of extending yet again financial claims and demands for compensations. Call it remittance or call it the "Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative." Or call it indeed, the Muslim issue.

It may be pertinent here to recall that Michael-André Bernstein obliquely contributed to the discussion when he contrasted foreshadowing and side-shadowing. The former is the tendency to see in the past the inevitable kernel of the dreaded future (all anti-Semitic roads lead to the Holocaust). The latter is the acknowledgment that historical events are knots of potentiality rather than markers of inevitability, mere confirmations of "foregone conclusions," as Bernstein's title has it. I submit that what we are witnessing— the Muslim issue—is an intriguing moment of back-shadowing: the renewed casting of historical Islam in the image and terms of modern, Christian, and "secular" anti- Semitism. Invoking another pertinent set of terminological resources, I have elsewhere referred to "the Semitic hypothesis." In the Christian imagination, the association and dissociation of Jew and Muslim (those other "Christ-killers") is as ancient as "the new anti-Semitism" (roughly: the eleventh century). Here I would point to the profound connections, denegations, and occlusions that link the war on terror to the war on anti- Semitism. Or, in Stephen Greenblatt's recent hawk-eyed observation: "Shylock refuses to be a suicide bomber." Back-shadowing indeed.

Now, what Taubes was objecting to was not the fact that Jews became white (as Karen Brodkin has it). Not quite. He objected to the fact that they became Christian. Taubes was quite precisely opposing the attempt to make sense of the Jewish-Christian dispute, of Jewish history, and of history at large in Christian theological and historical terms (Othello, Greenblatt doth protest further, was "evidently" not a Muslim, rather "conspicuously, insistently, decisively a Christian"). Taubes's argument was that the dispute could not be resolved by appealing to the Christian "economy of salvation." Taubes hoped (mistakenly, as it turns out) that this would be readily understood: "the Christian religion in general and the body of the Christian church in particular, is of no religious relevance to the Jewish faith . . . Christian history can have no religious significance of any kind for the Jewish creed . . . It cannot even be recognized as something which, though meaningless for the Jewish people, represents truth for the rest of the world."

What I am objecting to, in my (immodest) turn, is the enduring and derivative attempt to make sense of the Jewish-Muslim connection in Christian terms (just like Franz Rosenzweig did, as Taubes first pointed out), within the frame that has been set by the Christian West and that continues to determine and shape the ongoing war on terror (the economy of salvation also functions, of course, as the salvation of the economy, what Tim Mitchell is calling Carbon Democracy). The affirmation of the "Judeo-Christian," a post-genocidal concession of Faustian proportions, which functions in each and every single case as a negation of both Jews and Muslims, must be recognized as meaningless. As a frame of understanding that fosters a no less Faustian Jewish-Christian alliance, the war on terror ("the Muslim issue") is the present culmination of a Christian understanding of history as the history of progress, freedom, and secularism. It can hold no truth value for the rest of the world. Much less for us.

We must begin again, then, if it is not too late. And we must do so by interrogating the very frame within which we operate as we consider "the Muslim issue" in its relation to our Jewish, all-too-Jewish questions, God forgive us. These are older questions, to be sure, but still worth asking. Were there Muslims in Auschwitz? Are we a religion? Are we a people or a nation? Are we a race? Exile or sovereignty, torah or medina? As Mitchell Hart asked, are we even one anyway? And depending on the way we answer, one can only dream of the kind of political imagination that might become available to us toward ourselves, first of all, in our secure and insecure borders, and toward those who might be called Muslims, but many of whom were or are Arab Christians, Sunni Persians, or Pashtuns of a Shi'i persuasion—and even, lest we forget what was done to their blood as well, Iraqi and Ethiopian Jews.

What Muslim issue then? I do not think it is my task to assuage "security" concerns— as if I could—nor to recall a Jewish-Muslim symbiosis (although there were many, in case you're wondering). There is no Muslim issue, not for the Jews, and not for the rest of the world, or what's left of it. That is the inconvenient truth, which is not to deny that untruth has had, of course, staggeringly devastating consequences. Still, the notion that Islam is an issue (commensurable, say, with the weapon industry or the banking industry) holds no truth value today, and particularly not when considering the role of that name, "Islam," as a place holder in a long list of names—and targets indeed of the military and financial, and prisonindustrial, complex—from "the dark hordes" to the "third world," from terra nullius to "America's vital interests," from the "Saracen infidel" to the "illegal immigrant." We must try to look at history, as Taubes demanded, with different, less Christian eyes.

Let me repeat this, then: There were Muslims in Auschwitz, but there is no Muslim issue. No "issue" between Judaism and Islam, no shared perspective either.

Not yet.