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Cultural Identity in the Islamic World

A colleague of mine who now works as an editor at a large German daily newspaper told me about an experience he had while enroling in Jewish Studies.  Since the main currents of Judaism and Islam both flow through the same cultural space with a strong Arab influence, he thought it would be wise to pursue a minor in Islamic Studies.  When he informed his academic adviser of his plans, she quizzically replied: “You want to study both?  Well, you’ll just have to decide if you’re for the Arabs or the Jews.”  Although she was a young university lecturer, and this example is not typical, it does say a lot about how Europe projects its own, modern categories on the history of the Orient — which you must admit also includes Judaism and Christianity.

Many large universities have departments for Islamic, Jewish and Christian Oriental Studies.  However, as a rule these are almost never interconnected.  Only very few students in Islamic Studies take any note of the relevant works of non-Muslim authors — even though these texts may have been written at the same time, in the same city, possibly even in the very same street, as the treatise or poem they are currently reading.  For example, students in Christian Oriental Studies often know little more about the great poems of Jewish Arabs than that they exist — despite the fact that, like much of Muslim poetry, their motifs and ideas are often enough not specifically Jewish, but rather secular.  These works grew out of the immediate context of Arab poetry and its various genres, and out of a shared tradition that is Islamic in character.  Similarly, only very few students in Jewish Studies learn Arabic, despite the fact that the authors of significant works of Jewish philosophy, poetry and mysticism spoke Arabic, and wrote their works in Arabic for an Arabic-speaking audience.

The various artistic and religious traditions, and the literature and cuisine of the Arab cultural space are historically so tightly interwoven — often to the point of being indistinguishable from one another — that they must be portrayed and studied together.  Thus Islamic theology consists to a considerable extent of answers to questions that emerged from Judaism and Christianity, either through their respective religious traditions, or through direct, person-to-person contact at the courts and intellectual centres of Baghdad, Kufa or Cordoba.  One needs to know the questions to be able to understand the answers.  Much the same holds true for Judaism: recent research suggests that the way not only Europe, but also rabbinic thought, absorbed the heritage of antiquity was strongly influenced by Islamic culture.  Without knowledge of Islamic culture, it is almost impossible to realize the effect that Judaism had on Islam and, at a later date, Islam on Judaism — in the area of theology and, even more noticeably, in literature and mysticism.

In the formative phases of Judaism and Islam — and of Christianity — identities were barely as clear-cut as it appears today.  For example, the “we” in Arab philosophy and poetry often enough does not mean “we Muslims” or “we Jews”, but rather “we philosophers”, and is thereby opposed to the “you” of Islamic or Jewish mysticism and legal science.  Reading these texts from an exclusively Jewish or Islamic Studies perspective automatically limits the depth of their meaning and places too strong an emphasis on religious-confessional aspects in their interpretation.  As a result, texts, authors and historical developments that originally by no means referred to any specific religious identity, are today read in a confessional light.  In a fashion that bears astounding resemblance to Islamist views, early Oriental Studies hypothesized a primordial state of Islam and aimed to determine to what extent the history and culture of Islam conforms to, or diverges from, it.  As a result, any non-religious phenomena, discourses or schools of thought were almost automatically judged by these scholars to be unorthodox, instead of being viewed as autonomous subjects — as would be the case, for the sake of argument, with Shakespeare, World War II or the Phenomenology of Mind, which all have a religious dimension but cannot possibly be reduced to it.  Despite the fact that this essentialist view has long been questioned in Islamic Studies, it still dominates much of public discourse.  Islamic scholar Aziz Al-Azmeh goes so far as to say that there exists “almost a complicity between Western commentators and Islamist ideologues”, since both portray every phenomenon in the Islamic world as being rooted in the religious source texts of Islam (Die Islamisierung des Islam, Frankfurt am Main 1996).  Such a normative approach to the history and present-day situation of the “Christian world” would automatically discredit itself.  The West’s secular worldview excludes the Orient, which it considers to be the typical example of a religious region where all cultural and political developments and events must be viewed from the perspective of religious faith.

This development is more than just another deplorable, yet given low student enrolment figures, negligible consequence of the German and European education system which has grown out of a hundred years of ossification in academia, it is a veritable scandal which endlessly reproduces historic falsification.  Not only have the outlined views become a generally accepted, even exaggerated, part of Western perception, the much greater problem is that Jewish and Arab-Muslim societies have long since internalized the Western principles that separate Islamic, Jewish and Christian Oriental Studies from one another — with catastrophic political consequences.  The past decades have seen traditions in the Middle East retroactively nationalized and confessionalized, whereby a common — not peaceful, but certainly intellectually open — space was subdivided into many individual cells.  Thus over the course of the modern age, Jewish philosophy, mysticism and literature were taken out of their Arab context and placed within a newly-fabricated national Jewish tradition; many Israeli philosophy books barely mention the fact that Maimonides, for example, spoke Arabic, constantly referred to his Muslim fellow philosophers, and engaged in inter-religious philosophical debate.  In turn, Arab cultural history has been retroactively “Islamicized”, that is, purged of its multi-religious dimension.  In much the same way that Judaism has cut off the great Jewish-Arab poets and philosophers from their cultural and linguistic background in order to incorporate them into a national Jewish history, thereby negating the fact that they are deeply rooted in the Arab cultural space, the Arab world has chosen to ignore the fact that its identity was by no means shaped exclusively by Islam, and that its Jewish (and Christian) roots and branches have borne ample cultural fruit.  It is important to recall that in a city like Baghdad, the ancient cultural centre of the Arab world, up until well into the 1940s Jews made up the largest segment of the population.  A disproportionately large number of them were members of the intellectual elite, leaving their mark on the culture, the country and the renaissance of Arab literature in the modern age.  Quite a few were even leaders in the Arab nationalism movement.

The reason why all of this has nearly completely vanished from our collective consciousness is obvious: it is due to the political conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, in which Arab nationalism is pitted against Zionism.  To make the other side the enemy, the notion of “the other” had to be invented.  With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, this process is increasingly threatening the identity of Arab Christians, who have no place in a conflict with religious overtones between Jews and Arabs.  Political in the beginning, the conflict has acquired a mythical dimension due to its being increasingly laden with religious meaning — a primordial battle of sorts between peoples that one or two hundred years ago did not even view themselves as being distinct from one another.  This supposedly age-old struggle urges people to profess ethnic loyalties that are themselves a product of modernity.  The pressure to choose between Jewish and Arab identities becomes most painfully clear when one examines the situation of the Oriental Jews as illustrated by Samir’s film “Forget Baghdad” and the writings of the Israeli intellectuals Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin and Ella Shohat.

Europe’s cultural exchange with the Middle East reproduces the political fault lines rather than helping to close them.  By engaging in cultural dialogue with either Israel or the Islamic world, Europe is once again tearing Judaism out of its current geographic and cultural context — and incorporating it into the West.  This is another reason why to all appearances Israel is today nothing more than a Western colony in the Middle East, thus fanning the fire of both Israeli and Arab resentment, and certainly not promoting prospects for the peaceful coexistence of Muslims, Christians and Jews.  Peace will come to the Middle East only when Israel no longer behaves like an “implanted” Western colony in the Arab world and, in turn, when the Middle East is “Israelized”, that is, when the Arab world moves beyond reluctantly accepting a Jewish state in the region because it is too weak to change this fact, to once and for all professing Israel’s right to exist, also by recalling its own Jewish history.

German theories, in particular, on what shape a cultural dialogue should take almost never envision the Middle East as a common, multireligious area — or as one day possibly even becoming a transnational unit.  If anything, Germany views itself as a “moderator” between enemies.  Viewing the parties to the conflict as fixed entities, not only in a political, but also in a cultural sense, merely reinforces the very same mind-sets of Jewish-Muslim confrontation that were originally brought about by anti- Semitism, followed by the Holocaust, and which led to the founding of the State of Israel and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.  By the same token, anyone in Germany or Europe who harbours resentment against either Jews or Muslims is most happy to express solidarity with their respective declared “enemies”.  Anti-Semitism always likes to point out the suffering that Israel imposes on the Palestinians, just as almost all radical critics of Islam in the West emphasize the special responsibility they feel for Israel.

The political conflict has continuously escalated since the Camp David and Taba peace talks broke down.  At the same time, however, and to a great extent unbeknownst to the European public, a significant and increasingly vocal countermovement is emerging in the Muslim and Jewish world, and among Oriental Christians.  It is a movement in literature, art and music — and above all among theologians and historians — that is striving to overcome national boundaries and religious barriers and to once again jointly think in terms of a common culture and history.  However, these intellectuals must first free their own tradition from the fundamentalist stranglehold of both Western and their respective own ideologies, and subsequently develop a new, secular hermeneutics in the areas of religion, art and the humanities.  This way of thinking champions religion, and precisely for this reason seeks to protect religion from being usurped by politics and nationalism.  Although it is a budding movement within Judaism and Islam, there is no space for it to put down roots in the Middle East: no seminars exist in which the Torah and the Qur’an, or midrash and tafsir, can jointly be read by Jewish and Muslim scholars.  There is no academy at which the threads of Jewish, Christian and Islamic Middle Eastern art and culture could be woven together, and even Arabic-Hebrew literary exchange has shrunk to a bare minimum.  Some dialogues do exist, however these presuppose separate entities that are attempting to communicate with one another.  Middle Eastern Jews, Muslims and Christians viewing and studying their cultures as a common heritage — as opposed to each assuming a supposedly unique role — remains a utopia.  Festivals that provide a forum for Arab and Israeli art and culture, and universities and academies that offer joint courses in the Qur’an and the Bible, midrash and tafsir, cabbalah and Sufism, thereby placing them in their original relation to one another, are today only feasible in exile — in the West, of all places, which bears part of the blame for the present-day impossible situation.

I therefore call for the entire region with a Mediterranean influence (in the broadest sense, the region between Berlin and Tehran, including Jerusalem, Haifa, Istanbul, Cairo/Alexandria, Beirut, Palermo, Sarajevo, Seville, Barcelona, Marrakesh and many other centres) to be viewed as constituting a common cultural space.  There would then no longer be any point in speaking of a dialogue, because “we” would be one “of them”.  It is not sufficient to simply reject America’s neoconservative vision for the future that hypothesizes a New Europe and an Americanized Middle East –as was the case during the debate on the war in Iraq.  Instead, Europe must develop its own cultural vision for its relations with the Middle East, a vision not based on dichotomy.  By doing so, Germany and Europe would underscore their historical responsibility for the entire Middle East, not only for Israel.  Rather than viewing the literatures, performing and visual arts of the Middle East as being opposed to European art, they should be understood and presented as an integral aspect of a culture that has jointly shaped the history of the Middle East and Europe.  Emphasizing the intellectual and artistic significance of Jewish-Islamic cultural heritage for Europe is important in particular with regard to the current discussion on European identity.  Europe is a secular project that owes its present-day shape and power of attraction not least to the historic catastrophes it brought on itself.  As bloody as these experiences were, the humanism that transcended the dark chapters of European history to ultimately prevail in Europe, more than anywhere else in the world, is of inestimable value.  In fact, this humanism is so valuable that one is tempted to call upon all people, regardless of their origin, to defend it against the self-appointed so-called “defenders of Europe”.  They are making Europe a creed, even a race, thereby turning the project of European enlightenment upside down, a project which, after all, is special precisely in that it constitutes a secular community of will that in principle is open to all citizens.  Europe only has a future if it embraces the diversity of its religions, nations and languages.  Considering its past and present, this also means that Europe only has a future if it embraces Judaism and Islam.


Navid Kermani, born on 27 November 1967 in Siegen, Germany, is a writer based in Cologne.  The German state of Hesse recently stripped Kermani of an award on account of his personal rejection of “the theology of the cross” as “blasphemy and idolatry”: “Muslim Stripped of German Award after Criticizing Crucifix” (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 15 May 2009); and “Major Dispute Breaks Out over Culture Prize” (Deutsche Welle, 16 May 2009).  This essay was published as Chapter 4 of Dialogue with the Islamic World / Dialog mit der islamischen Welt (2005), a publication of the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany.  It is reproduced here for educational purposes.


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