Thursday, January 8, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and Neighborliness

I'm cross-posting this from my personal blog. There is a lot more to say, and a lot more to tease out, but these brief thoughts seem like an important reminder while so many are so busy with the Clash of Civilizations narrative.

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Today, I began reading David Nirenberg’s Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, and the attacks in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the all-too-expected violence against Mosques provide an unsettling and imminent backdrop for what is otherwise some light research reading. Even if I were not horrified by these propagating acts of violence, my professional interests would already be raised in light of Salman Rushdie’s invocation of a “medieval form of unreason” as a way to describe Islamic radicalism. As many others have noted, the labeling of something as “medieval” is a comforting fantasy of casting the present (and our own responsibilities to it) into the darkened past. See this piece for an excellent take on it.

Of course, this event has brought back “The Clash of Civilizations” (as if it ever left). As a perfect example, Senator Lindsay Graham has stated that “Our way of life doesn’t fit into their scheme of how the world should be. If you stopped talking about radical Islam, if you never did a cartoon again, that’s not enough. What people need to get is they can’t be accommodated. They can’t be negotiated with. They have to be eventually destroyed.” It’s them or us.

These stark terms and boundaries, boldly-colored in lines of a rather cartoonish portrait, obscure the interdependence of Christianity and Islam. Nirenbeg describes this interdependence as “coproduction,” that religions coproduce each other in a dense network of identification and dis-identification. Another phrase he uses here is “ambivalent neighborliness,” an array of responses to the neighbor “ranging from love and toleration to total extermination” (2).

Senator Graham and many others would do well to heed Nirenberg’s analyses concerning the interrelationships between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam:
My goal in them [the ensuing chapters] is simply to convince you that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have never been independent of each other: that is as neighbors, in close relation to one another, that they have constantly transformed themselves, reinterpreting both their scriptures and their histories. Their pasts are not discrete, independent, or stable, and neither are their presents or their futures. (12)

Total annihilation can never be good public policy, and most importantly, it’s a blood-tinged fantasy that ultimately seeks to forget how much our neighbors mean to us, even (and sadly, perhaps especially) when we kill them.