Thoughts on Western antisemitism and the treatment of minorities in the nation-state era

These are thoughts inspired from reading Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular.

My main little intuition is that there is a peculiar difference between historical western perception of ‘the Jew’ before and after the creation of the state of Israel. A Jew with Israel around is somewhat less threatening than a Jew somewhere in Europe. The territorialization of Jewishness tames antisemitic feelings. First, it gives substance to the Jews, it normalizes them, second, Jews cease to be a perceived disruption in the Western nation-building cultural process. The Jew ceases to be this floating entity but become attached to specific empowered institutions (Israel) that gives it substance at the ideological level. The Jew then can be simultaneously ‘here and there’.

This need for the territorialization of different definitions of subjects (national, religious, ethnic, etc.) owes its genesis to state formation in the West that transported rigidities from religious-based institutional practices to state’s “rule of law”. The gentile becomes the secular citizen. But there are specific practices a ‘secular’ citizen engages in that do not tolerate the practices of other minorities. Secularization is a ‘way of life’, a social set of rules and regulations that reaches down to the management of individual bodies (of subjects). What the “Jew” experienced a century ago, a “Muslim” experience it today. The modern-state has a ‘minority problem’. But here I can let Asad speak.

Asad is very keen on showing that he does not fall in the idea that the secular is just another religion, but that the very definition of the religious that we rely on (the academia and other producer of knowledge that spread prevailing doxas, hegemonies, etc.) is political and serves to push for a particular discursive definition of what the secular is.

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13 Responses to Thoughts on Western antisemitism and the treatment of minorities in the nation-state era

  1. Anonymous says:

    Yes, Talal Asad is the most important thinker of our time.

  2. M Bashir says:

    thanks for introducing me to him

  3. Rami Zurayk says:

    “This need for the territorialization of different discursive definitions of subjects owes its genesis to state formation in the West that transported rigidities from religious-based institutional practices to state’s “rule of law”.”

    Man this is one heavy sentence. some things never change…

  4. bech says:

    But does it make sense? I will progress with time don’t lose hope…

  5. nadia says:

    I do believe that he is one of the most important thinkers alive, but I don’t think that he is the most ‘influential’ thinker – unfortunately. Except for the very few anthropologists (of the Middle East) and Islamic studies scholars, he remains an illustre anonymous within large part of the humanities and outside academia. Unfortunately.

  6. Anonymous says:

    In an interview from the Stanford Humanities Review, Talal Asad suggested that “Whereas in the West political debate about liberal-democratic states more or less takes for granted where things are now, discussion about the Third World tends to be about where politics and morality ought to be heading.” Maybe the same reasoning applies to your thoughts on Jews and Israel. Israel might be said to represent where Jews themselves ought to be heading (physically, psychologically, and/or spiritually) – partly because it is the same direction that both secular and religious currents in the West see themselves heading. It is, therefore, okay for the Jew, formerly a threatening figure to Europe in particular, to be simultaneously here and there, because Jews are no longer “floating entities” as you call them, but are part of a current that is aimed outward in the direction of Western goals and not in opposition to them.

  7. bech says:

    thanks for clarifying this anonymous. I am still working on understanding how the shift happens on the institutional level, from one body of rules to the other.

    Nadia, you’re definitely right, and I meant ‘influential’ in the sense of breaking ‘intellectual’ ground.

  8. Esmé says:

    (Same as anonymous from above) First of all, I think you meant to write that you really don’t think you’re exaggerating how influential Talal Asad’s work is…right? I see what you mean about rules and institutions, but I think it might help if you more clearly distinguish between norms/discourse and rules/institutions. I suggest that a shift on the institutional level must come directly from a parallel shift in norms/discourse – a level which is, of course, much more deeply entrenched and more gradually changing. To be more concrete: one reason Walt and Mearsheimer’s work is so threatening to some is because they’re trying to transform normative discourse on Israel as a means to influencing institutions (the US government) and rules/policy (foreign policy regarding the Middle East). On a larger level, Western politics is schizophrenic because it is founded simultaneously on a bedrock of a religious norms AND a continuous struggle to divorce religious-based norms from rules and institutions. These efforts have failed on two levels – (1) there’s no divorce as an ongoing secularization process has not actually produced a secular government and (2) those involved who are most bent on secularism believe themselves to have been successful and resist any attempt to have the wool of self-deception pulled from their eyes.

  9. alhaqid says:

    Well, first, no i dont agree with you that Talal Asad is the “most influential”, because i dont see him quoted as much as Marx in social science books and political essays and speeches etc etc

    Second, this has been said before by Hannah Arendt (see, im more sophisticated than you😛 i can eveen give you precedents to Hannah Arendt, but i dont feel like promoting someone else)

    Third, im sorry🙂 (see my newest article, YOUR IN IT)

  10. Dr Miletzki says:

    ‘Would I be exaggerating if I said that Talal Asad is the most influential contemporary thinker alive?’

    Obviously in the eye of the beholder, don’t you think?

  11. bech says:

    tayeb i will change the word “influential”, 3ifouneh!!!

    he’s the greatest. But i hope will be recognized as the most influential in terms of innovating in the discipline.

    haqid rou7 balett bq7r enta w harendt

  12. slivers says:

    yet how to reposition secularization in the state of exception itself — israel — in which religion is public, political, and private. bears comment on ‘history,’ not only your note ‘jews cease to be a perceived disruption in western nation-building cultural processes’ but in general in asad’s disregard for questions of how muslim communities contest religion and politics in contexts that may not be distinctively modern (eg discourse on sharia).

    your last point is great– we are constantly negotiating this world, our crisis!

  13. bech says:

    in general in asad’s disregard for questions of how muslim communities contest religion and politics in contexts that may not be distinctively modern (eg discourse on sharia).

    I don’t know exactly what you mean by this, but what is modernity and how is it different from ‘discourse on sharia’?

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