by Sander L. Gilman
Scratch secular Europe today, and you will find long-held Christian presuppositions and attitudes toward Jews and Muslims present in subliminal or overt forms. Recently German, Italian, Polish, and Slovakian delegates demanded that the “Christian heritage” of the new Europe be writ large in the European constitution. It was only the post-September 11 anxiety of most states that enabled Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, as president of the convention writing the constitution, to persuade the group that such a reference would be “inappropriate.” The demand was transformed into a reference in the preamble to the “cultural, religious, and humanist inheritance of Europe.” No one missed what was meant. What continues to trouble Europeans about Judaism and Islam is their all-too-close relationship to Christianity. It is the seeming similarity of the three “Abrahamic” (the new buzzword including Islam in the Judeo-Christian fold) religions that draws attention to the real or imagined differences among them — what Sigmund Freud called the “narcissism of minor differences.” Those differences are heightened in a secular society that is rooted in the mindset (and often the attitudes, beliefs, social mores, and civic practices) of the majority religious community — that is to say, Christianity.
A Wide Range of Rights, if Only….
Minority religions in a secular society that still has religious overtones are promised a wide range of civil rights — including those of freedom of religion — if only its members adhere to the standards of civilized behavior as defined by the secular society (and rooted in the desire to make sure that society, with its masked religious assumptions, redefines the minority’s religious practice). Thus Muslims and Jews have the same rights to public schooling as Christians, if only they don’t insist on wearing headscarves or coverings. Any differences between majority and minority religions seem threatening because the majority religion has already ceded so much ground to overt secularization. Over and over, the integration of Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries was decried as a force of “modernization,” rather than as the result of modernization. Today Islam is accused of being a threat to the modernization Europe wants, but it also highlights the loss of religious identity that Europeans know comes with modernization. The West needs to understand these dynamics of change. If we assume that transformation occurs (or does not occur) only within communities that are seen as different, we miss the dynamic change that occurs in society as a whole. Religious experience is an aspect of all societies — even those that label themselves as anti-religion. In tracking how religious ritual and practice shift and rebound, how they are transmuted and become a place for resistance, we can say as much about the culture in which religion is found as about religions themselves.
A new project I am beginning will look at the experiences among Jews from the late 18th century (which marked the beginning of civil emancipation) to the beginning of the 20th century, and will ask how those experiences parallel the experiences now confronting Diaspora Islam in secular Western Europe. The similarities are striking: A religious minority enters a self-described secular (or secularizing) society that is Christian in its rhetoric and presuppositions and that perceives a “special relationship” with that minority. (That special relationship is marked for Jews by the Christian appropriation of the Old Testament and the Messianic prophecy; for Muslims, by the appropriation of the Old Testament and the New as part of Muslims’ claims of a final prophetic revelation.) The minority speaks a different secular language (for Jews, it was Western and Eastern Yiddish as well as Ladino; for Muslims, it is Turkish, Bengali, and colloquial Arabic as well as others), but also has a different religious language (Hebrew and classical Arabic). Religious schools that teach in the languages associated with a religious group are seen as sources of corruption and illness. Indeed some authorities in Germany and the Netherlands have recently advocated that only native languages be spoken in mosques to make the message of the sermon transparent to the greater society. That is not far from the desire that was expressed in the 18th century that Jews learn German in order to become members of civil society.
An Unacknowledged Discomfort
Religious rites are practiced by minority religions that seem an abomination to the majority culture. Unlike the secular majority, the minority religions practice the mutilation of children’s bodies (infant male circumcision, and, for some Muslims, infant female genital cutting); the suppression of women’s rights (lack of women’s traditional education, a secondary role in religious practice, arranged marriages); barbaric torture of animals (the cutting of the throats of unstunned animals, allowing them to bleed to death); and ostentatious clothing that signals religious affiliation and has ritual significance, among a number of other practices. Centrally relating all of those practices for both groups is a belief in the divine “chosenness” of the group in contrast to all others.
The demonization of certain aspects of religious practice has its roots in what civil society will tolerate and what it will not. Why it will not tolerate something is, of course, central to the story. Thus Alan Dundes argued decades ago that the anxiety about the implications of cannibalism associated with the consumption of the body and blood of Christ in the Christian Mass shaped the fantasy that Jews were slaughtering Christian children for their blood. It was the often unacknowledged discomfort with its own practices that influenced how Christian society responded to the Jews. Such anxiety is also present in the anger secular Europe directed at other Jewish rituals associated with bloodletting, such as the ritual slaughter of animals. The way that a minority religion’s practices, which differ from those of the majority religion, highlight the very things that seem confusing or uncomfortable about that majority religion in a secular society is part of the story. Thus Muslim women who wear head scarves evoke not just the repression of Muslim women in Western society but also Western insecurities about the role of all women in the public sphere.
Elision of a National Identity
One of the most striking similarities of the process of Jewish and Muslim integration into Western secular society is the gradual elision of the national differences among various groups, both in terms of how they are perceived and how they see themselves. Muslims in Western Europe represent multiple national traditions (South Asian in Britain, North African in France and Spain, Turkish in Germany). But so did the Jews in Western Europe who came out of ghettos in France and the Rhineland or the rural reaches of Bavaria and Hungary, or who moved from those parts of Eastern Europe — Poland, the eastern marches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — that became part of the West. To those one can add the Sephardi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula who settled in areas from Britain (introducing fish and chips) to the fringes of the Austrian Empire. The standard image of the Jews in 18th-century British caricature was the Maltese Jew in his oriental turban. By the 19th century it was that of Lord Rothschild in formal wear at his daughter’s wedding, receiving the Prince of Wales in a London synagogue. In the intervening years the religious identity of Jews in European eyes had become more important than national identity — few (except the anti-Semites) remembered that the Rothschilds were a Frankfurt family that had escaped the Yiddish-speaking ghetto. The Jews are everywhere and all alike; Muslims today seem to be everywhere and are becoming “all alike.” How does such a shift in identity affect religious practice and belief? Is there a decrease in conflicts felt among religious groups, or is there a substitution of national identity for such conflicts?
What to Give Up for Integration?
I am also going to be looking at how Jews and Muslims adapted to Western society, and what the comparison of the two groups might tell us. For Jews the stories of integration took different forms across Western Europe because there were different forms of Christianity, different levels of tolerance, and different expectations as to the meaning of citizenship. Different notions of secularization all present variations on the theme, What do you have to give up to become a true citizen? Do you merely have to give up your secular language? Do you have to abandon the most evident and egregious practices? I hope to understand what Jews thought possible to change in their religious practice in the 18th and 19th century, what they accomplished within various national states, and what they did not accomplish. That is, what was gained and what was lost, both in terms of the ability of living religions to transform themselves, and in the understanding that all such transformations call forth other forms of religious practice in response.
The history of the Jews in the European Diaspora during the late 18th century called forth three great reformers who took different approaches to those issues: Moses Mendelssohn and the followers of the Jewish Enlightenment in Germany who, together with their predecessors in Holland, argued for accommodation with civil society in a secularizing world; Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon of Vilnius, known as the Vilna Gaon, who desired to reform traditional Orthodox Judaism to make it able to function in a Jewish world that kept itself separate from secular society; and the first modern Jewish mystics, the Hasidim, typified by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov in imperial Russia, who fought, like their contemporaries in Berlin and Vilnius, against what they saw as the stultifying practices and worldview of contemporary Judaism. All lived roughly simultaneously. In their wake came radical changes in what it meant to be a Jew in belief and practice.
Today we stand at the beginning of a mass integration of Muslims into Western European culture. That culture prizes its secular nature, but the very forms of the secular state range from Britain (where the queen remains head of the Church) to Germany, which is still divided between Protestant and Catholic versions of secularism (and along the dividing lines of the Cold War). There were islands of Muslim integration inEurope, such as in Bosnia, that have been transformed over the past decade because of persecution and external pressure. There are also Muslim communities, such as in the large urban areas of France, that seem to be devolving into a permanent underclass. But how the local pressure for rights, on one hand, and integration, on the other, will play out in the future is unknown. The very forms of religious practice and belief are at stake. Perhaps some variants have already been tried with or without success among European Jews?
A Tiny Minority vs. a Considerable Minority
Now I know that there are also vast differences between Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries and Muslims today. There are simply many more Muslims today in Western Europe than there were Jews in the earlier period. The Jews historically never formed more than 1 percent of the population of any Western European nation; Muslim populations form a considerable minority today. While there is no Western European city with a Muslim majority, many recent news stories predict that Marseilles or Rotterdam will be the first European city to have one. In France today there are 600,000 Jews, while there are between 5 million and 6 million Muslims, who make up about 10 percent of the population. In Germany, with a tiny Jewish population of under 100,000, almost 4 percent of the population is Muslim (totaling more than 3 million people). In Britain about 2.5 percent of the total population (1.48 million people) is Muslim. Demographics (and birthrates) aside, there are salient differences in the experiences of the Jews in the past and Muslims today. The Jews had no national “homeland” — indeed were defined as nomads or a pariah people. They lived only in the Diaspora and seemed inherently different from any other people in Western Europe. Most Muslims in the West come out of a national tradition in which their homelands had long histories disturbed but not destroyed by colonial rule. And last but not least, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the past century, as well as the Holocaust, which set the Jews apart from all other religious groups as essential victims, seem to place the two groups — at least in the consciousness of the West — in two antagonistic camps.
Religion as a ‘Heritage’ in a Secular World
Still there are key similarities. Notably religion for the Jews of pre-Enlightenment Europe, and for much of contemporary Islam, was and is a “heritage” to be maintained in the secular world of Diaspora. What can or must such memory of ritual and practice abandon? What must it preserve to maintain its coherence for the group? One of the continuing questions in regard to religious practices has to do with ritual slaughter of animals, a practice that still links Jews and Muslims in contemporary thought. For Muslims, an alternative to the tradition of sacrificing a ram on Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) has been created on a website where one can sacrifice virtual rams. That is a direct response to charges of “inhumanness” lodged against Islamic religious practices both within and without the Muslim community. Can that be a further sign of alternative practices developing within Islam? I want to examine what the solutions were to similar problems raised by modern Western secular society in regard to Jewish religious practice; how the Jews responded; how these responses were accepted or rejected based on local contexts; and how the Jews became or did not become citizens in the eyes of their non-Jewish contemporaries. Such questions are echoed in the debates within Islamic groups today concerning everything from the meaning of jihad to the ritual preparation of food. Can common experiences provide a natural alliance between Jews and Muslims?
A Secular Society with a Looming Problem
The central cultural problem of Europe today is not how different national cultures will be integrated into a European Union, but how secular society will interact with European Muslims. Anyone interested in contemporary Europe before September 11, 2001, knew that the 800-pound gorilla confronting France, Germany, and Britain, and to a lesser extent Spain and Italy, was the huge presence of an “unassimilatable” minority. Much attention has been given recently to the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, and his pronouncements about the dangers of Hispanic immigrants rejecting American values. Such fears are already being voiced in Europe about Muslims. But exactly the same things were said about the Jews for 200 years. What does that tell us? I am only beginning to seek answers to that question, but I hope they will help us understand the debates that Western Europe is increasingly facing and that eventually the United States may face, too.
A longer version of this article appeared in The Chronicle Review, April 8, 2005.