A Case for “Jewish-Muslim Relations” by Jonathan Glasser

I would like to gently make a case for the concept of Jewish-Muslim relations.

Gently because the disadvantages are clear. “Jewish-Muslim relations” brings to mind two unitary, rather decontextualized groups, which is why I have shied away from the term in my current research on Muslims, Jews, and music in Algeria. Why use the language of international diplomacy when trying to talk about a far richer, more indeterminate domain of human relationship that has varied over vast stretches of time and place?

A corollary of such binary essentialization is the temptation to summarily judge those relations, with good and bad contending for first place and a muddled middle the perennial runner-up. Hence Adi Saleem Bharat’s apt example of the American visitor to the Indian synagogue, drawn from Yulia Egorova’s work on Jews and Muslim in South Asia: the visitor is so saturated with a narrative of “bad” Muslim-Jewish relations that local Muslims’ use of the Jewish center’s courtyard for weddings is seized upon as an antidote, an example of “good” relations. [1] But for the Indian Jewish friend and the Muslim neighbors, perhaps this is not a question of Muslim-Jewish relations after all; rather, the courtyard is a convenient wedding venue in this predominantly Muslim neighborhood. As Bharat puts it, “Jewish-Muslim relations” is a particular framing that tends to cover over other, everyday forms of relationship that concern something other than two monolithic, primordial communal blocs.

And yet…

My concern is that in eschewing the concept of Jewish-Muslim relations, we might be giving away some valuable tools for talking about the things that interest us. One of these tools is the ability to talk about people in relation to structures and institutions that simultaneously go beyond and encompass the individual. Muslims and Jews are not just individuals who happen to be Muslim or Jewish but are also members of congregations and communal organizations, and subjects of various kinds of law, some of which very much pay attention to whether they are Jewish or Muslim. Within these varied, overlapping, sometimes contradictory institutional arrangements, Jews and Muslims come into relationship. Some of these forms of relationship emphasize difference, while others might minimize or efface difference. It might be hard to hear the plural in “relations,” but it is there!

This is not to say that an institutionalist perspective is free from its own dangers of oversimplification. It can be tempting to differentiate the power of the state, for example, from the less regulated forms of relationship that are said to “really” be there beneath the surface. Sometimes this approach takes periodized form, as when we give the colonial state a monopoly on the definition of those relationships, while something more fluid is attributed to the distant past and is said to survive in fragments into the colonial and postcolonial periods. Here we are back to the false choice of “good” versus “bad” relations. But instead of a primordialist vision, the binary is mapped onto time, with the colonial standing as the pivot point.

Another concern of mine regarding the move away from the concept of Muslim-Jewish relations is that discomfort with the language of relations—the suspicion that it discounts real closeness—might keep us from really delving into the conceptual complexities of closeness and relationship. These complexities are at the heart of my current research. [2] What does it mean to be close? Doesn’t social closeness already imply a baseline differentiation, a difference that here is definitionally entangled with intimacy? Yes, the everyday notion of “relations” might not capture just how close we’re talking about, but ultimately how close can one get? As Groucho Marx once said, “If I hold you any closer, I’ll be in back of you!” [3]

Another of my concerns is that in avoiding the framework of Muslim-Jewish relations, it can become too easy to differentiate between an ostensibly universal human subject and the specificities of lived Jewishness or Muslimness (a point that connects to Brian Klug’s meditation on the stakes of the Jewish-Muslim hyphen). In other words, one can slip into saying, “Yes, they are Jews or Muslims, but this particular aspect of their relationship is simply between human beings.” While this might be an interesting insider claim, analytically speaking it tends to reproduce a familiar sequestering of what is imagined as a rather parochial Jewishness or Muslimness from an allegedly more universal (read European Christian) form of personhood. This point both owes a debt to and picks a bone with Talal Asad’s work on Islam and secularism partly in that, with Shahab Ahmed, I am not convinced that we can so easily differentiate an Islamic (or, for that matter, a Jewish) discursive tradition from everyday human practice. [4]

I am too well aware of the stultifying power of the Jewish-Muslim relations frame, and we need to talk about it. But having liberated ourselves from its yoke and grounded ourselves firmly in a context, we will then be confronted with some real Jewish-Muslim relations. We had better be prepared.

 

Jonathan Glasser is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the College of William & Mary. His work focuses on modern North Africa, with particular attention to Algeria and Morocco. He is the author of The Lost Paradise: Andalusi Music in Urban North Africa. His current project looks at Muslim-Jewish interactions around music and poetry in Algeria and its diaspora in the early modern and modern periods.

 

Notes

[1] See Yulia Egorova, Jews and Muslims in South Asia, Oxford University Press, 2018.

[2] See Jonathan Glasser, “‘More than Friends?’ On Muslim-Jewish Musical Intimacy in Algeria and Beyond,” in Jewish-Muslim Interactions: Performing Cultures between North Africa and France. Edited by Samuel Sami Everett and Rebekah Vince, pp. 41-58. Liverpool University Press, 2020.

[3] I am grateful to Richard Taruskin for this reference.

[4] See Talal Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, 1986; Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford University Press, 2003; Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, Princeton University Press, 2015.

Leave a Reply

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