Shared Shrines and the Discourse of Clashing Civilisations


By Glenn Bowman
Emeritus Professor of Socio-historical Anthropology University of Kent
Canterbury, U.K
13 March 2017


Early this year I was asked to write an afterword for a book on shrine sharing and contestation. I produced the following, only to have the editors turn it down as ‘too political’. I nonetheless feel that it has a very substantial contribution to make not only to discussions around intercommunal sharing but also to a critique of the power of an identitarian discourse which, over the past twenty five years or so, has come to dominate scholarly analysis of commensality and contestation. I hope people will find it useful and would ask, should they wish to cite it, that they use this title and note it is an unpublished manuscript.


Between the time the idea was proposed that I write an afterword for this volume and that in which I write, several events have occurred that foreground the importance of the material addressed by the book. The referendum on the U.K.’s membership in the European Union called in order to protect David Cameron’s prime ministership from the right wing of the Tory party gave rise to a heated debate about the place of ‘foreigners’ in Great Britain, culminating in a contentious decision to avoid the immigration of others regardless of what such avoidance might cost. Across the Atlantic the vitriolic rhetoric of Donald Trump and his fellow travellers, again focussing on the need to protect an ill-defined ‘us’ from a threatening ‘them’, gave the presidency of the most powerful state in the world to a man promising to exclude Muslims, expel immigrants and build walls against territorial neighbours. In France, Holland, Hungary and elsewhere in Europe a populist nationalism has burgeoned threatening to erode, if not eradicate, the progressive gains that the West, and with it much of the world, has enjoyed since the end of the Second World War.


One of the more troubling aspects of these events is that the ‘other’ against which people turn is not simply that of a territorial outside deemed antagonistic but is as well made up of people and communities living in contiguity with those who’ve come to see them as threatening and unwelcome. Trump’s deportation orders refer to ‘illicit’ residents who, in many cases, have been born and raised to adulthood in the USA, while in the UK, as in France, Holland and elsewhere in contemporary Europe, people who have been long integrated into those countries and their local communities are targeted by politicians and governmental agencies that question, and often delegitimate, their rights to be there. Undeniably there are people who repeat and amplify the antagonistic messages accompanying and promoting these events. Some of these have always been around, nursing their antipathies in silence or manifesting them under the cover of darkness but, as the recent surges of racialist and sectarian attacks have shown, the normalisation of discourses of intolerance and hatred gives legitimacy to their rage and encourages them to emerge from the shadows calling on others to take up their crusade. As those discourses proliferate, and are subtly or not so subtly legitimated by governmental, academic and media dissemination, calls to neighbour hatred come to seem increasingly commonsensical and anything but marginal. This book is important in demonstrating that neighbour hatred is not natural but an avoidable product of specific historical processes.


Outbreaks of intolerance and hatred are not simple expressions of primordial antagonisms despite what Robert Kaplan has suggested with reference to the wars in Yugoslavia (Kaplan 1993). In the case of most if not all of the countries mentioned above, contemporary nationalisms are recent constructions produced by discursively amalgamating a number of different communities (and excluding others). Even, however, where the sectarian and religious


identifications that morph into nationalist identities are historically well established — as may arguably have been the case in now Former Yugoslavia — it is quite evident that those histories are marked by long term commensality with ethnic or sectarian others operating with a range of intensities (Baskar 2006 and 2012; Henig 2012; Sorabji 2008).


That commensality can nonetheless, in certain contexts, disintegrate into inter- communal antagonism1. What is vital to consider, in investigating such outbreaks, is what it is that disrupts everyday interaction and brings about inter-communal antipathies and violence. I have argued, with reference to Yugoslavia and Israel/Palestine (Bowman 2003), that such eruptions are discursively prepared and, once effected, maintained in a feedback loop through which images of the dangerous other are amplified and circulated by narratives rendering those images verisimilitudinal. Certainly gruesome reports of ISIS violence, as well as images of waves of Islamic refugees crashing against the borders of the nation state (even if, in the case of the most powerful picture in the bank of UKIP propaganda, those borders belonged to Slovenia and Croatia rather than the U.K.), made visceral the threat many had come to feel in the face of what they were told to see as encroaching Islam. These images, however, served for many simply to confirm pre-existing opinions about the danger not only of Islam, but of cultural alterity full stop (blacks, Mexicans, Eastern Europeans, etc.). These, I contend were fomented by two decades or more of intellectual debate and media dissemination of identitarian arguments about the impossibility of living with ‘others’.


This extensibility of the image of the threatening other testifies to a paradigm shift which, for illustrative reasons, I will trace back to the impact of Samuel Huntington’s hypothesis of a ‘clash of civilisations’ (Huntington 1993; Huntington 1996) although it must be acknowledged that Huntington’s argument was not original and had precursors in the work of orientalists such as Bernard Lewis (Lewis 1990). Huntington’s thesis is too well known to need reiterating at length although it can be summed up in a selection of quotes from his original Foreign Affairs article:


The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future … differences among civilizations are not only real; they are basic. Civilizations are differentiated from each other by history, language, culture, tradition and, most important, religion. The people of different civilizations have different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy. These differences are the product of centuries. They will not soon disappear. They are far more fundamental than differences among political ideologies and political regimes (Huntington 1993: 23 and 25).


Huntington’s argument for conflictual civilizational difference is primarily territorialist, positing spatial differentiation between ‘civilisations’ entailing “bloody borders” (Huntington 1993: 35) as well as “fault lines between civilizations” (Huntington 1993: 29ff ). This not only makes for conceptual problems in areas where ‘civilisations’ are mixed without conspicuous bloodshed but also in understanding displacement, diaspora and migration that ‘mixes’ civilisations on the same grounds. Furthermore, the clash of civilisations argument is simultaneously profoundly essentialist and deeply ‘groupist’ (see Brubaker 2002: 164ff ). Referring to the core example he


1. See, for a powerful illustration of this, Tone Bringa’s film “We Are All Neighbours” directed by Debbie Christie for ITV’s Disappearing World (Bringa 1993).

poses of inter-civilisational antagonism, Huntington writes that “conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations has been going on for 1,300 years” (Huntington 1993: 31). This temporal continuum from the defeat of Justinian II at Sebastopolis (692 C.E.) to the emergence of political Islam in Algeria and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) in the early 1990s2 erases social and political processes (and with them history per se) while at the same time refusing to recognise diversity and antagonism within civilisational groups.


‘Groupism’, which Brubaker defines as a “‘tendency to take bounded groups as fundamental units of analysis (and basic constituents of the social world)” (Brubaker 2004: 2), results, in Huntington’s analysis, in constituting civilisational ‘communities’ as trans-historical entities melding together all those who identify with what we can finally only see as a name. Hence a civilisation is

the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species. It is defined both by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people. People have levels of identity: a resident of Rome may define himself with varying degrees of intensity as a Roman, an Italian, a Catholic, a Christian, a European, a Westerner. The civilization to which he belongs is the broadest level of identification with which he intensely identifies (Huntington 1993: 24).


For Huntington that ‘intense identification’ is at the core of civilisational identity, but investigation shows that the object of such identification (say ‘Islam’) will, while retaining its nominal identity, vary its meaning depending on which community (or even individual) is identifying with it in what historical period. Huntington’s Islam, for instance, effaces the distinctions between and within the communities (not to mention individuals) of Shi’a and Sunni Muslims while simultaneously discounting differences between Salafists, the many Sufi orders and other diverse forms of Islam (cf. Gilsenan, 1982). Here the object of identification – the name ‘Islam’ – is what Kripke, Peirce and others have termed a ‘rigid designator’. Peirce describes its construction in personal terms: “I believe in mooring our words by certain applications and letting them change their meaning as our conceptions of the things to which we have applied them progress” (Charles S. Peirce, A Treatise on Metaphysics, 1861-1862, quoted in Short 2007: 264)3. Peirce’s idea that nominatives might retain their form while shifting their meanings as changing experience so necessitates can easily be extended beyond personal histories to those of communities scattered in their diversity and developing over time while retaining nominal allegiance to a term of identification such as Islam. As, obviously, that locus of


2. see Robin Wright’s “Islam, Democracy and the West”, published a year earlier than Huntington’s article in the same journal, for a far more nuanced and less confrontational take on Islam and the West at that historical moment (Wright 1992).
3. What Peirce describes is an “initial baptism” (Kripke 1980: 96-97 and passim) whereby a word is linked to a reference prior to being passed on to different contexts along a chain of communication whereby the reference shifts yet is still indicated by the same word. Zizek, parsing Kripke, writes that “it is the word which, as a word, on the level of the signifier itself, unifies a given field, constitutes its identity. It is, so to speak, the word to which “things” themselves refer to recognize themselves in their unity. . . . It is not the real object which guarantees as the point of reference the unity and identity of a certain ideological experience—on the contrary it is the reference to a “pure” signifier which gives unity and identity to our experience of historical reality itself” (Žižek 1989: 95-96 and 97, see also Kripke 1980 and Volosinov 1973: 79-80).


identification mutates so too do the antagonisms posited by identitarian essentialists such as Huntington. One Muslim, living in the same community as another, may feel an abiding hatred for all things ‘Western’ based on her interpretation of ‘Islam’ while a neighbour, similarly attesting full identification with Islam, might find Western lifestyles and Western neighbours totally attractive and compatible4. Such contemporary responses will differ substantially from earlier manifestations of Islamic belief and practice.


Despite Huntington’s model’s conceptual weaknesses, it has proved highly influential in shaping both political and popular thinking about Islam in particular and alterity in general: Richard Bonney asserts that “no thesis has had a comparable influence on Western, especially American, strategic thinking since the end of the cold war” (Bonney 2008: 35); it has certainly become an academic and popular touchstone for discussions on cultural identities and antagonisms; and a number of identitarian studies of shrine practices (cf. Hassner 2009 and 2010; Hayden 2002, Hayden et al 2011, Hayden and Walker 2013 and Hayden et al 2016) pertinent to this volume can be seen to have been substantially influenced by it. From what does such influence devolve? Jane Mayer, an investigative journalist associated with the New Yorker, published Dark Money in 2016 (Mayer 2016a). There she argues that John M. Olin, through his Olin Foundation and with the cooperation of a number of other private foundations, “funded the creation of a conservative counter-intelligentsia…to reorient the slant of American higher education to the right” (Mayer 2016a: 94 and 93, see also Spring 2010: 121-150). The Olin Foundation funded professors at influential universities throughout the country, among them Milton Friedman (Free to Choose, 1980), Charles Murray (Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, 1984 and, with Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, 1994), Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind, 1987), Dinesh D’Souza (Illiberal Education, 1991), and John R. Lott Jr. (More Guns, Less Crime, 1998). This (often disputed) scholarship was not only disseminated via academic channels but as well massively amplified by the attention given by the sponsors to its media and political promotion. Thomas Medvetz, in his Think Tanks in America, examines the extensive promotional efforts invested in Charles Murray’s Losing Ground to exemplify the ways that right wing institutes promote the work they’ve funded (Medvetz 2012: 1-5). Murray, commenting on the way his book went from being a radical outlier assault on welfare to being the “compulsory point of reference” (quoted in Ibid: 5) in political discussions, noted that “it took ten years for Losing Ground to go from being controversial to conventional wisdom. And by the way there is very little in Losing Ground right now that’s not conventional wisdom” (quoted in Ibid)5. In 2005 Lawrence Mone told Lizzy Ratner of The Observer that “the Olin Foundation was one of the two or three major conservative foundations that laid the intellectual infrastructure of what we see today” (Ratner 2005). One of the primary beneficiaries of the Olin Foundation’s programme of “taking the liberal out of liberal arts education” (Mayer 2016: 104) was Samuel Huntington who received $8.4 million from the Foundation to establish and run his “hawkish” (Mayer 2016b) John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard that sponsored eighty eight fellows between 1990 and 2001, first six of whom took up professional academic careers at prestigious and Ivy League


4. A recent example of this was the BBC2 series Muslims Like Us (directed by Fatima Salaria), screened on the 5th and 12th of January 2017.
5. Lawrence Mone, director of the Olin-funded Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, commented that Losing Ground “captured the strategic audience….journalists who could reframe the terms of the debate. Charles targeted this audience and his book hit the bull’s eye….Slowly but surely over the course of the next ten years, it totally flipped the conventional wisdom on welfare. And that flip led ultimately to the welfare reform bill of 1996” (Interview, 14 June 2004 in Medvetz 2012: 241).


universities while others “became public figures in government, think tanks, and the media” (Mayer 2016b)6.

The ‘clash of civilisations’ discourse promoted by Huntington and the Olin Foundation impacted powerfully on scholarship, particularly in the United States, and one of the significant sites of this impact was the debate on the ‘sharing’ of religious space. Ron Hassner argues in War on Sacred Grounds (2009) as well as in “The Pessimist’s Guide to Religious Coexistence” (2010) that “sacred places cannot be shared” (Hassner 2009: 3):


the very same motivations that lead religious groups to attribute importance to sacred sites also lead these groups into conflict with religious rivals at these sites….[T]he key to resolving religious conflict at sacred sites lies not in managing tensions between rival groups but in separating those groups from one another (Hassner 2010: 146-147).


Hassner claims to find “the optimistic attitude that characterizes current research on inter- religious strife…nothing short of baffling” (Ibid: 146) but writes it off as “part of a larger backlash against the pessimistic stance that has dominated the study of religion and politics since the publication of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations” (Ibid). Intriguingly Hassner was, in 2003-2004, a Harvard post-doctoral fellow at Huntington’s Olin Institute for Strategic Studies (see his c.v. at His arguments for the centrality of religious identity in both the sharing of place and the mobilisation of war (see his 2016 Religion on the Battlefield, Cornell) are profoundly civilisational.


In the case of Robert Hayden, whose 2002 Current Anthropology article “Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites in South Asia and the Balkans” can be seen to have initiated the contemporary debate on religious sharing, the impact of Huntington was not direct but shaped through the power of the discursive shift Huntington and his acolytes had worked to generate. Hayden was drawn into the issue of inter-communal sharing of religious space by his engagement in research on constitutional politics in Belgrade and Yugoslavia in the period leading up to and following the initial Yugoslav wars (1989-1994). His 1996 article, “Imagined Communities and Real Victims: Self-Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in Yugoslavia”, rhetorically claims to trace a personal conversion narrative “ from optimism of the intellect to pessimism of the will” (Hayden 1996: 796). Hayden there examines the constitutions of the successor republics to Yugoslavia that defined citizenship in exclusive ethnonational terms. Those formulations served, through the vehicle of war and ethnic cleansing, to realise what were in effect ethnically pure nation states in Croatia and Slovenia. Hayden concludes, with comparative validation from Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, that “‘ethnic cleansing’ in Europe is thus a phenomenon that has proven successful both in recreating social reality and in gaining political acceptance” (Ibid: 797). At heart, and despite his alleged regrets, Hayden is arguing that once ‘the people’ have brought about, in this case through extreme violence, the sort of homogenised territory they (or their populist leaders) want, they should not be forced to let their purged neighbours return. Thus a year earlier he had attacked the Dayton Constitution as a parody of democratic constitutional drafting [that] despite all of the rhetoric contained within it about human rights and democracy…amounts to trying to create a framework for a state when the state itself is rejected by a large portion of its putative citizens (Hayden 1995: 68).


6. Richard Bonney more conservatively writes that “Huntington is said to have received $4.7 million over fifteen years from the John. M. Olin Foundation” (Bonney 2008: 35).


A dozen years later he made his argument explicit, publishing a vitriolic attack on Western academics and journalists who, in looking at Bosnia, provide “an unreal reading of life as those in the West do not want it” (Hayden 2007: 105) and attempt to reshape that space against the people’s will to accord with that fantasy. For Hayden the ‘real’ is that the social boundaries between members of these groups, even when living as neighbours, were strong …[and] since the late nineteenth century mass violence between the three major groups had resulted every time the larger polity encompassing it broke down (Ibid: 111).


All of the elements of Hayden’s “Antagonistic Tolerance” model (Hayden 2002 and Hayden et al 2016) are here present: clearly delineated communal ‘groups’ with minimal mutual engagement and internal differentiation7; ethno-religious (civilisational) structures of group identity; inherent antagonisms between groups held in check by external constraints; and a proclivity to violence when shifts in the balance of power suggest the other can be expelled8. One can only surmise that the reason Hayden uses the fairly exceptional examples of nations that have suffered ‘civilisational’ cleansing (Former Yugoslavia and India most tellingly) to ground a universalistic paradigm of ‘antagonistic tolerance’ is that he has adopted the Clash of Civilisations assumption of groupist civilisational identities fixed in essential opposition to cultural others.


Unlike Hassner, who gives religion a determinative primacy over the political, social and historical by adopting Mircea Eliade’s conception of the sacred site as an “axis mundi” (Hassner 2009: 19)9, Hayden is very aware of the enveloping social and temporal context of sacred places. That context, however, serves either to maintain or disrupt equilibrium within the sacred place, preventing or enabling a shift in the balance of power between groups involved in sharing the site. The relation is, in other words, mechanical, and the groups engaging at the site, while remaining fixed in their essential competitive antagonism to each other, enact or restrain that antagonism with reference to the determinative outside. In effect, identities within the holy places remain groupist and identitarian — i.e. civilisational.


Investigations of cohabitation of shrines that are not based on the clash of civilisation model tend, for the most part, to be anthropological and/or historical and to be empirically


7. cf. Brubaker 2004 and Stef Jansen’s comment on Hayden’s 2007 Current Anthropology article, pp. 120-121.
8. Whether or not a direct influence of Huntington, who is never cited in Hayden’s bibliographies, can be traced, the civilisational conflict discourse was operative in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, as is unsurprising insofar as the conflicts involved the Bosnian Muslims, the Croat Catholics and the Serb Orthodox; Robert Kaplan, in Balkan Ghosts, notes that Slavenka Drakulic discussed the conflicts in civilisational terms with him (Kaplan 1993: 74). Certainly Hayden’s reading of the Yugoslav wars, as later his interpretation of conflict around holy places, resonated well with the burgeoning civilisational discourse in the United States.


9. “sacred spaces act as the world axis, or axis mundi in Eliade’s terminology…connect[ing] heaven and earth but also function[ing] as a spiritual pivot around which the world revolves” (Ibid). Despite this assertion of religious centrality Hassner intriguingly splits off a domain of sacred sites, one that has been the focus of many of the more positive assessments of ‘sharing’, from his category of “sacred places [that] cannot be shared” (Hassner 2009: 3). He writes that “the only exceptions to this rule occur at less pivotal ‘folk’ sites that occupy a marginal role in the religious landscape” (Hassner 2010: 147). Insofar as that proviso would allow for an understanding of the clashes described in this volume between hierophants and local worshippers on occasions when those hierophants attempt to legitimate such sites, it demands further attention from Hassner than the offhand disregard with which he dismisses it.


based around case studies10. To date a model has not emerged from this work, but that is perhaps all to the better insofar as one of the chief findings of this research is that identity is not fixed or groupist. These studies have demonstrated that peaceful inter-communal cohabitation around sacred sites exists, or has existed, although none have asserted that the willingness to share with others is an essential, necessarily durable, human characteristic. However, insofar as the focus of these studies has, in most of these cases, been limited to moments or periods of inter-communal interactions in and around the sites themselves, they might be seen, in their concern with amenable sharing, as being similar in their supposed essentialism to those that argue for an inbuilt competitive antagonism. Hayden, for instance, criticises “inherently static and essentialist forms of analysis” (Hayden 2016: 84) that focus “on a particular combination of circumstances at a particular moment in time” (Ibid: 83) as thus being in effect “structural- functional…and unable to handle social change” (Ibid). He faults the critics of his AT (antagonistic tolerance) model for failing to see that sacred sites are “inherently linked to social processes that are larger than the purely local” (Ibid: 84) and asserts that ethnography alone is inadequate to explain the relations between local groups even at the time when observations were made, unless the events analysed are contextualized in a trajectory of interactions between the religious communities concerned — communities not only at the local level but, more widely as well (Ibid: 84-85).


Although sophisticated work bringing together ethnographic and historical research such as that of Anna Bigelow (Bigelow 2010 and 2012) certainly cannot be charged with either not handling social change or failing to link up with processes larger than the local, it is true that emphasis on the ‘local’ and the ‘ethnographic present’ within the specific context of sacred places enables the advocates of the AT position to charge the ‘sharers’ with a degree of political naivety. That focus, however, and the attention to the details of interpersonal and inter-communal interaction it enables, serves to highlight the dynamics of relations in and around a site, to interrogate the changing discourses operative in those situations , and to investigate what enables and what disrupts ‘mixing’ (cf. Bowman 2012 and Lubańska 2016 ). It also avoids the de-differentiation central to arguments such as, for instance, Hayden’s which talks of “interactions between the religious communities…not only at the local level, but more widely as well” (Hayden 2016 85) as though all the members of a nominal religious group — from, in Christian cases, laypersons through to priests and patriarchs — can be seen as an agentive unit. There are substantial divergences, and clashes, between the activities and aims of persons nominally of the same community, and these dissensions are evidence of substantial resistance to movements analogous to what Huntington terms “civilisational rallying” (Huntington 1993: 39-41). Intra-communal antagonisms, such as those between religious officiants and a diversity of local practitioners, make evident the distinct interest groups involved in pushing, and resisting, rallying. The intervention of state agencies in cases where it is effected suggest that power, and state violence, rather than civilisational identification is the driving force.


10. For a partial listing in English of the anthropological material see Albera and Couroucli 2012; Barkan and Barkey 2014; Bigelow 2003, 2010, and 2012; Bowman 1993, 2012a, 2012b, 2012c, 2013a and 2013b; Cormack 2013; Couroucli 2009 and 2010; Driessen 2012; Koneska 2013; Lubańska 2013 and 2016; and Valtchinova 2012 and for the historical Barkey 2008: 109-153; Cuffel 2003, Fowden 1999 and 2002; and Meri 1999 and 2002. See too Hassner and Hayden do, of course, mobilise specific site studies drawn both from ethnographic observation and historical research, but these serve to exemplify the tenets of general models rather than as starting points for processes of inductive reasoning.


At the close of my “Nationalising and Denationalising the Sacred” I argued for more research on inter-communal interactions around holy sites as a means of promulgating “counter- images…allowing for and prompting the imagining of forms of community other than those alienated and isolate forms characteristic of the present” (Bowman 2012a: 219). Citing Walter Benjamin, I suggested that the images of inter-communal conviviality discussed above might be seen as “chips of Messianic time” (Benjamin 1969: 263) — moments of history, buried in the detritus of subsequent and surrounding events, which can be recuperated to show ways in which the present might be seen and experienced differently. Certainly my investigation into the shaping of discourse by cultural conflict agents and agencies strengthens my sense of the importance of disseminating such studies so as to undermine simplistic arguments about ‘clashing civilisations’.


As Benjamin knew, one cannot be so intellectually naïve as to believe that works such as his own and those cited in support of intercommunalism can change history; history — intellectual and political — is shaped by discourse, and discursive power relies on far more than words. Nonetheless good scholarship can put into question the ‘common sense’ produced by those behind the Clash of Civilisations discourse, and offer alternative understandings resisting that ideology and the politics that inform it. Showing that difference can cohabit is important, but demonstrating how it does so, the socio-historical field in which it occurs, and what works against cohabitation grounds a counter-discourse.




Next Yeaar in Jerusalem by Stepen Bronner

In the Jewish Diaspora, Passover and Yom Kippur prayers end with the plea: “Next Year in Jerusalem.” At least since roughly the 15th century, these words expressed what was understood as the utopian hope of returning not simply to a homeland but a place of redemption. The sacred character of that longing from times past has been badly tarnished by exigency and hypocrisy; it is par for the course that President Donald Trump should soil whatever he touches. His decision of December 6, 2017, to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has already aggravated the conflict and further undermined the global standing of the United States.

Frustration has exploded into anger. The eerie silence surrounding stymied negotiations has made way for heated protests, talk of a new intifada, and Israeli military attacks that have left 4 dead and 300 wounded. Trump’s declaration offered no hint of a quid pro quo that might benefit the Palestinians. Media coverage in the United States (such as it was), however, lasted only for a day or two before MSNBC and CNN turned back to domestic issues. It wasn’t just a matter of ratings. Trump’s usual critics were not exactly outraged by the initiative. Former diplomats and Middle East “experts” did challenge its “timing,” its impact on negotiations, and the lack of Israeli concessions. But they offered few reasons why Trump should not have made his decision public. Negotiations are at a standstill, American policy was never even-handed, and Israel has no pressing need to concede anything. Trump’s critics quickly showed their common sense. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took the lead. He had initially opposed Trump’s declaration but suddenly recalled that “logistical” problems would prevent any transfer before 2020 and that, besides, the president was simply recognizing the facts on the ground: most American offices are already located in Jerusalem.

All this is, of course, completely disingenuous: symbolic politics is still politics. And Trump made his symbolic point. Jerusalem’s “Western Wall,” which stands outside the pre-1967 borders and adjoins various Islamic holy sites, now apparently belongs to Israel. More than a few liberal Zionists nodded in agreement, and in fact Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) boasted of having advised Trump on his Jerusalem initiative. Unlike Christian evangelicals, Zionist extremists, or most in the orthodox Jewish community, they may not go out on a limb, but they don’t have much of a problem with the idea of a unified Jerusalem under Israeli control.

Most Americans are sick of the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general and the Palestinians in particular. Trump’s cynical declaration on Jerusalem speaks to that reality. Shifting the American embassy to Jerusalem offers the president a momentary reprieve from the lurid Congressional investigations plaguing his administration, accusations of sexual misconduct, and the controversy surrounding his wildly unpopular tax bill. His decision also provides him with an “achievement” and proactive compensation, given the probable failure of the “ultimate” Israeli-Palestinian peace plan being formulated by Jared Kushner.

Details have come only from leaks and, apparently, the approach of the team led by the president’s son-in-law comes down to “take it or leave it.” Palestinians will supposedly receive a state without contiguous borders, control over air space and water, recognition of the right of return, or plans for the withdrawal of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank. Hamas will remain excluded as Fatah is turned into the sole representative of Gaza over which it lacks control. Bottom line: Kushner’s peace package will offer little more than the framework for a failed state, though, according to The New York Times (12/8/2017), Saudi Arabia might sweeten the pot with some cash. This is all just conjecture, but no Palestinian could possibly accept such terms. This kind of one-sided “peace” can only be implemented by force or fiat – a previously implausible idea yet, given the character of Trump’s foreign policy, not unimaginable now.

American policy will assuredly spark a new wave of European anti-Semitism as well as greater international isolation for Israel. The United Nations has already condemned the Jerusalem initiative. Israel will undoubtedly face more boycotts, vilification, protests and violence. Iraq’s powerful militia leader Moktada al Sadr has already called for a new “Arab Spring” targeting Israel that would unite Shia and Sunni. Unleashing an anti-Semitism wave and turning Israel into even more of an international pariah is not in its national interest. With regard to the interests of Netanyahu, however, it is another matter entirely. He will undoubtedly use the new state of siege to justify his obsession with security, Islamophobia, and claims of unfair and anti-Semitic treatment by the rest of the world.

Recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem also becomes a testament to Netanyahu’s leadership. No less than the American president, who is dealing with ever more calls for his impeachment, the Israeli prime minister is embroiled in a deepening corruption and bribery scandal of his own involving the German navy. Both leaders need support badly, and Trump’s Jerusalem initiative is a gift to orthodox religious and Zionist imperialist groups whose political support Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition requires. Trump’s declaration also enhances the “Jewish” and authoritarian rather than the non-denominational and democratic identity of the Israeli state. Extremists in Israel and Palestine have done everything possible to sabotage any prospect for peace or a two-state solution. Both are now off the table, at least for the foreseeable future. Trump’s initiative has officially placed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hands of those forces seeking to perpetuate rather than resolve it.

Talk of peace is a smokescreen. Trump’s decision is actually a provocation that dares the Palestinians to embrace violence. It also complicates any future peace talks. Most European leaders have condemned the United States, and it has been called an “unreliable” broker. The 57-member Organization for Islamic Cooperation responded by recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, jettisoning the United States as a negotiating partner, and preparing to recognize a Palestinian state with very different borders. On December 12, 2017, in fact, the Palestinian Authority canceled a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence just before “pressing” domestic matters derailed his planned visit to the Middle East. Untrustworthy authoritarian states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt will become proxies for American interests in the Middle East. In keeping with its more general withdrawal from various international associations, the United States has now abandoned its role as a regional mediator. Indeed, the American president can now concentrate on ever more militantly confronting Iran and North Korea.

“Next year in Jerusalem!” was once the cry of an oppressed people seeking liberation from slavery and repenting its sins. Those same words now express the sentiments of an arrogant regime with expansionist ambitions. That change makes a mockery of the ethical gravitas associated with figures like Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Abraham Heschel, and a host of other intellectual and activist luminaries. New pragmatic proposals for peace are surely necessary. Especially when all seems lost, however, it is equally important to affirm the cosmopolitan ideals and humanistic values that will inform them. Today, there is something profoundly irresponsible in ignoring either the prescience or the challenge of Walter Benjamin’s call to “rub history against the grain.”



*Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. His most recent works are The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists (Yale University Press) and The Bitter Taste of Hope: Ideals, Ideologies and Interests in the Age of Obama (SUNY Press).







How Asian-American Actors Can Go Mainstream



By Aldous Davidson (4/27/2016)

Recently the New York Times published an article, which you can read here, highlighting the lack of Asian American representation on screen, pinpointing racism and not economics as the driving force behind the casting decisions in our industry. So we’ve identified the problem, but what about a solution? Don’t worry, I have a plan! There is a blueprint!

In the 1990s, African Americans in Hollywood were experiencing the same issues but something changed: The 1990s were flooded with urban-centric “street/hood” movies that brought the African American actor into the mainstream. Just to name a few: Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, Friday, Fresh, Juice, South Central, New Jack City, Dead Presidents, CB4, Don’t Be a Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, Set It Off, New Jersey Drive, etc. and these are just the ones that made it to the big screen. These films thrust stars such as Larenz Tate, Cuba Gooding Jr., Omar Epps, Chris Tucker, Nia Long, Morris Chestnut, into the mainstream, and at the same time, gave rappers such as Ice-T, Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur credence as actors, not just musical acts. Behind the camera, stars emerged as well. These films launched the directing careers of John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers, Mario Van Peebles, and Ernest R. Dickerson, among others. These days, the likes of Omar Epps, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Ice Cube don’t need the urban “street/hood” film to act. They are offered all sorts of roles in all sorts of settings, and the directors I named went on to direct films such as 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Book of Eli, and From Hell: none of them “street/hood”.

So what does this tell us? America wasn’t keen on accepting the African American actor and director on a large scale until they were given something they were comfortable with; something their limited, entertainment-viewing minds would accept. Maybe we as Asian American entertainers and filmmakers can learn from this.

So, I offer a challenge! A call to arms! A drastic move to spur a revolution that will do for the Asian American actor and filmmaker what the “street/hood” film did for our African American counterparts. Let’s give the American viewing public something they’re comfortable with: the Martial Arts film! For one year, let us make nothing but Martial Arts Westerns, Martial Arts Romantic Comedies, Martial Arts Sci-Fi, Martial Arts Dramas, Martial Arts Horror, Martial Arts Biography, Martial Arts Action Adventure, etc. Flood the market with hundreds and hundreds of these martial arts films, and of these hundreds, certainly a percentage will go mainstream, thus creating a large number of Asian American stars both in front of and behind the camera. Then when the year is over and our Asian American actor and directors are household names, we never make a martial arts film again. Instead, we do what Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr and Omar Epps and the Hughes Brothers did: we star in films as doctors, suburban fathers, and athletes; none of whom know the first thing about karate. We start directing apocalyptic sci-fi epics and big budget action race car films, none of which contain one spinning roundhouse kick. If all goes according to plan, the transition should be effortless and in no time, America will have accepted the Asian American actor and director into the mainstream without even knowing what hit them.

Are you with me in this call to arms? It worked before. It just might be crazy enough to work again.


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