Jews in Muslim Majority Countries – Interview with Yasemin Shooman and Achim Rohde
This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the International Conference on “Jews in Muslim Majority Countries – History and Prospects”. The event will take place on October 24-27, 2017 in the Jewish Museum Berlin. It is organized by the Jewish Museum Berlin and the Research Network Re-Configurations. History, Remembrance and Political Transformations in the Middle East and North Africa at the Philipps-Universität Marburg in collaboration with the Center for Jewish Studies Berlin-Brandenburg and the research program “Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe” (EUME) of the Forum Transregionale Studien.
Dr. Yasemin Shooman is head of the Academy Programs of the Jewish Museum Berlin. Dr. Achim Rohde is scientific coordinator of the Research Network Re-Configurations. History, Remembrance and Political Transformations in the Middle East and North Africa at the Philipps-Universität Marburg.
The conference “Jews in Muslim Societes – History and Prospects” focuses on Jewish communities in past and present Arab and Muslim societies. What are the questions you want to raise, and what kinds of discussions do you want to encourage?
Beyond the polarized debate between proponents of Arab-Jewish nostalgia and Dhimmitude-polemicists, we want to explore ongoing research in what has grown into a sprawling field of scholarship in recent years, particularly in US academia, but also elsewhere. This scholarship moves away from framing Jewish history in Muslim majority countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in communal terms isolated from the broader social context. Rather, Jews are increasingly addressed as part of diverse local and regional communities, power struggles, theological or political debates. The focus is on interaction, be it inclusive and accommodating, or polarizing and repressive. The conference intends to turn the spotlight towards this kind of scholarship.
There is growing interest among scholars in emerging memorial practices and cultures of remembrance regarding Jewish communities that seized to exist in most MENA countries. Some are re-discovering the Jewish dimension in their history, and smaller Jewish communities persevere in countries such as Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey. The Tunisian government, for example, has recently announced its plan to open a Jewish Museum in the capital Tunis, both in order to revive tourism and to raise consciousness concerning the diversity of Tunisian society past and present, as a kind of antidote against Salafist tendencies. In our conference, similar case studies from the Iraqi and Lebanese contexts will be discussed.
Beyond that, there is a scholarly tradition of Jewish Studies (mainly as part of Religious Studies departments) also in a number of MENA countries. This tradition exists largely separated from international currents in Jewish Studies. Our conference is not least of all an attempt to bring together scholars from different scholarly traditions, who don’t usually meet in academic conferences, partly due to political circumstances. We hope that our conference may offer a liminal space where such encounters and open debates are possible, not only as a means to take stock of the academic field(s) of scholarship on Jews in Muslim majority countries, but possibly also in order to develop perspectives for future cooperative research endeavors.
The relationship between ‘Islamic’ and ‘Western’ Cultures is lively discussed in recent years. Would you say that the focus on Jews in Muslim Societies can add new perspectives to this debate? Why did you choose this particular focus?
The idea for this conference came up several years ago, when we both were fellows at the Center for Research on Antisemitism, located at the Technical University Berlin. At the time, we were observing a growing tendency in the West to reassert essentialist images of cultural difference rooted in religion or creed, most notably in the context of ongoing culture wars in the wake of 9/11 and the events that followed since. As part of this discourse, Muslims are regularly accused of being particularly prone to antisemitism. This charge helps to construct a difference between external Muslim ‘Others’ and the rest of us, who are thereby implicitly cleared of antisemitism – how convenient! In our perception, however, contemporary anti-Muslim racism in Europe and elsewhere displays a number of similarities with 19th century European antisemitism and needs to be fought accordingly.
Needless to say, we are aware of the fact that enmity towards Jews and antisemitism exists among Muslims and it cannot be ignored that there is an impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the perception of Jews in the MENA region. This conference serves to draw attention to the multifaceted history of Jews in Muslim majority countries, including recent history and contemporary developments. Injecting Jewish perspectives and Jewish presences and absences in Muslim majority countries into the fray serves to dislocate homogenizing images of Islamic and Western cultures as distinct entities. Neither can be adequately addressed without taking into account a constitutive Jewish dimension. This focus enables comparative perspectives and research on connectivities between both perceived geo-political and cultural entities.
In the Call for Papers, you invited scholars from various disciplinary backgrounds, encouraging papers with a focus on connectivities and entanglements. What are the new insights that might arise from interdisciplinary and transregional perspectives?
For various reasons, older container concepts of spaces (areas, nation states, cultures) as distinct entities have been challenged through more dynamic constructivist concepts of space as effect of dense clusters of connectivities (people, goods, knowledge etc.). Deleuzian concepts have been used to introduce a spatial dimension to the study of cultural identities, not in a geographically determined sense, but in a culturally symbolic one. Accordingly, a territory can be a system of any kind, conceptual, linguistic, social, or affective. Such a de-territorialized conception of space encompasses the post-national “intermediate place”, “transition space” or Bhabaesque “third spaces” of cultural memory and production.
Scholarship on Jews in Muslim majority countries is a multi-disciplinary enterprise, in which scholars from different regional backgrounds are involved. In the German academic context, the conference serves to insert a hitherto neglected field of study into the scholarly fields of Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies. While the former remains mostly focused on German-Jewish history, the latter has largely forgotten its historic links to Jewish Studies rooted in the 19th century tradition of German Oriental Studies. We believe both could be enriched by developing joint research perspectives. The arrival of substantial numbers of refugees from Muslim majority countries like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan in Germany in recent years creates new spaces of interaction between Jews and Muslims, further highlighting the need to develop transregional knowhow through cooperative and interdisciplinary research.
 Ahl al-Dhimma (protected people) is the Arabic term that designates the legal status of Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims under Muslim rule in the Middle Ages. Dhimmitude is a neologism borrowed from the French language and popularized as a polemical term in analogy with servitude, in order to portray the status of non-Muslims under Muslim rule as inferior and oppressed.
Citation: Jews in Muslim Majority Countries – Interview with Yasemin Shooman and Achim Rohde, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.09.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/7861
Further contributions to the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics”:
- Politics and Sociability in a Transcultural Context: The Diplomatic Milieu in Istanbul during the Long Eighteenth Century – Interview with Pascal Firges, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.07.2017
- Mediterranean Perspectives in School History Teaching – Interview with Romain Faure, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.06.2017
- Imaging a “Middle East” – Interview with Saima Akhtar, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.06.2017
- Postcolonial Legacies, Scholarly Mobility and Research Capacity Building – Interview with Daniele Cantini, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.05.2017
- Reading the “1979 Moment” in the Middle East – Interview with Amir Moosavi, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.05.2017
- Konfiguration des Säkularen. Einblicke in die kritische Säkularismusforschung – Interview with Schirin Amir-Moazami, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.05.2017.
- Transregionale Verflechtungen: Räumliche Zusammenhänge jenseits etablierter Metageographien – Interview with Steffen Wippel, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.04.2017
- Heritage, Decolonisation and the Field – Interview with William Carruthers, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.04.2017.
- What Makes a Man? Sexuality and Representation in Europe-Middle East Encounters – Interview with Tarek El-Ariss, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.04.2017.
- Making and Changing Spaces of Action under the Global Condition – Interview with Martina Keilbach, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 31.03.2017.
- Practices and Processes of Space-making under the Global Condition – Interview with Steffi Marung, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.02.2017.
- Stepping Back in Time. Living History and Other Performative Approaches to History in Central and South-Eastern Europe, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.02.2017, guest contribution by Sabine Stach (German Historical Institute Warschau).