Jewish-Muslim: What’s in a hyphen? by Brian Klug

Note: This post is adapted from the introduction of Brian Klug’s paper delivered during the JMRN’s Online Seminar on Race, Religion, and Secularism on June 18, 2020.

 

How refreshing it is to see a hyphen between ‘Jewish’ and Muslim’ in the name ‘Jewish-Muslim Research Network’. A hyphen rather than a ‘v’ for ‘versus’. It suggests that the two identities just might not be at odds with each other, despite the politics of the Middle East and its overflow into Europe.[1]

It is welcome for another reason too: as an antidote to the hyphenated ‘Judeo-Christian’, the use of which often signals a ‘v’ for ‘versus’ against ‘Islam’.[2] ‘Judeo-Christian’: how times have changed! The ancient and medieval Church saw itself as (in Cynthia Baker’s phrase) “the mirror-opposite” of the synagogue.[3]

But if the synagogue was its intimate foil (inasmuch as Christianity understood its genesis as precisely a fissure with Judaism), the mosque was its exogenous foil: the one it encountered several hundred years into its existence.

‘Jewish’ and ‘Muslim’ were joined, in the eyes of Christianity, by a hyphen – but not exactly the hyphen that links Jewish and Muslim in this network’s name!

This was a hyphen of otherness between two objects of disdain. There developed over the centuries a persistent and powerful binary in Christian polemics, with Christianity on the side of love – the gracious, the forbearing, the forgiving – and both Judaism and Islam on the other side: the legalistic, the vengeful, the merciless.

Then, when Europe, in the eighteenth century, reacted against its own Christian identity, the binary reappeared – but transposed into another key: the key of reason rather than love. The Enlightenment might have rejected Christianity as a creed, but it inherited the mantle of a universal mission to unreconstructed humankind. (I oversimplify, I know. But, just occasionally, it is useful to try to see the wood for the trees.) For the definition of this mission, Judaism played a role that was almost as crucial as it had been for defining Christianity’s mission.

“In much Enlightenment thought,” says Adam Sutcliffe in Judaism and Enlightenment, “the vital conceptual space of that which is most deeply antithetical to reason – Enlightenment’s defining ‘Other’ – was occupied above all by the Jews”.[4]

But not we Jews alone: the Muslims kept us company. Islam, writes Sylvana Tomaselli, “was one of the clearest embodiments of the ‘Other’ in the eighteenth century”.[5] Together in otherness: this was how Europe joined us.

This was its gift to us as Muslims and Jews. And with the hyphen that the JMRN places between ‘Jewish and Muslim’, we are, baruch hashem, alhamdulillah, reunited.

From the point of view of the hyphen that we share, Christianity and the Enlightenment are not poles apart: they are two different ways of performing Europe: Europe and its othering.

Where does this leave us, as erstwhile others (and not so erstwhile), when we come to define ourselves as Muslim or as Jewish? Typically, we see ourselves as faced with a choice: either we are secular or religious. What bearing, if any, do Europe’s projects have on the meaning and validity of this disjunction? Ultimately, the question is pointedly personal: How do you or I conceive our identity, be it Muslim or Jewish?

But God forbid we should give a general answer! The whole point is to return the question to each of us as individuals. Of course, the two cases, Muslim and Jewish, are not necessarily the same.

But don’t forget the hyphen in the JMRN’s name: perhaps we have more in common than a common history of being othered. And, just possibly, what we share affects the question of what to make of that dyadic choice: ‘Which are you: religious or secular?’

To borrow a line from an episode of Fawlty Towers: “There’s enough material here for an entire conference!”—perhaps the conference that the JMRN was going to hold in Manchester in May 2020, but which had to be postponed because of the pandemic.

 

Brian Klug is Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Offence: The Jewish Case (Seagull Books, 2009) and Being Jewish and Doing Justice: Bringing Argument to Life (Vallentine Mitchell, 2011).

 

 

Notes

[1] Apart from conflict in the Middle East, a number of historical factors have, of course, contributed to deforming present-day relations between Muslims and Jews.

[2] Indeed, in the background is the work of Anya Topolski on the hyphen in the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian’ and the subtext about Islam. In particular: ‘A Genealogy of the ‘Judeo-Christian’ Signifier: A Tale of Europe’s Identity Crisis’, in Anya Topolski and Emmanuel Nathan (eds), Is There a Judeo-Christian Tradition? A European Perspective (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2016); ‘The Islamophobic Inheritance of the Resurrected Saint Paul: From F C Bauer’s Judeo-Christianity to the Event’, in ReOrient, vol 2, no 2 (Spring 2017). See also Jean-Francois Lyotard and Eberhard Gruber, The Hyphen: Between Judaism and Christianity (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999).

[3] Cynthia M Baker, Jew, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017, p. 5. She cites “the images of Synagoga and her twin, Ecclesia, that appear in medieval art throughout Europe.” In the case in the thirteenth- century cathedral of Notre Dame, Ecclesia wears a crown, while Synagoga “lies fallen at her feet”.

[4] Adam Sutcliffe, Judaism and Enlightenment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 5.

[5] In John W Yolton et al, The Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991, p. 247.

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