Thursday, December 14, 2006

Now this is an interesting debate about nationhood

I've been trawling through the Head Heeb's archives, and this link from June has me fascinated: an argument for a non-religious conversion to judaism - what another nation would call citizenship. At the moment, to become a Jew means to convert to the Jewish religion, but it wasn't always so:
The Jewish people are not racist. We have always been open to accepting members of other nations, as in the biblical story Ruth, who was a convert and the grandmother of King David.
So, back during the time of the original Kingdom of Israel, you "became a Jew" in much the same way you "became French", or Roman, or whatever - you learned the language, maybe served the king, and pledged allegiance to the same God as the king. Citizenship in the era before border controls. Today, other nations that have states will ask you to learn the language and serve the sovereign, but you don't necessarily have to follow the same God.

There are plenty of secular Jews in Israel, and I've seen at least one poll showing that Israel has a higher proportion of self-described atheists than all but three other countries. (Can't remember them all, but Russia topped Israel.) But - and here I confess my abject ignorance - it seems that the immigration controls in Israel are inherently religious, with people forced to convert to the Jewish faith before being issued citizenship.

Now, because the Jewish people lacked any kind of political community for quite some time, it's perfectly natural for them to have defined themselves in terms of the religious community. But Israel exists now. How does this change the calculations of what it means to be Jewish? I know at least one Chinese Jewish convert, so the ethnic argument isn't ironclad. If you can be an Atheist Jew, why not - to pick the weirdest possibility - a Muslim Jew? Is the preference of a different God (I know, "abrahamic faiths", work with me) directly antithetical to Jewishness in a way that denial of any God isn't?
The absurd result of all this is that Israeli citizenship is left in the hands of thousands of rabbis around the world, including many non-Zionists and individuals who oppose the State of Israel, whereas the state itself has no parallel, independent mechanism of its own...

The secular stream of Judaism is the central and most important one in Israel, but in the absurd world of this country it is the only one to which entry is blocked.

We need a secular alternative for welcoming newcomers into the Jewish people in Israel. We must set criteria for joining the Jewish people, such as a knowledge of Hebrew and the traditions of our people, the lack of a criminal past and the ability to contribute and a willingness to blend into our society, and to fulfill responsibilities (such as serving in the army).
Actually, the question of a Muslim Jew - aside from being absurd in the present - is interesting, because the contrast with the Jewish state and Muslims is that there is no single, recognized community for Muslims to call home, or to look for guidance. There was the Caliphate, back in the day, and today bin Laden keeps hope alive. Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca, but nobody pretends that Saudi Arabia is the natural community of the Muslims except for the House of Saud itself.

The idea of a unified, Muslim polity that could be a "homeland" in the sense that diaspora communities use the word might terrify us. But should it? In the most recent issue of Democracy, Peter Bergen and Michael Lind make the argument that much of the grievances the Muslim world has against the west stem not from economics, but from pride. Bin Laden and his ilk are explicit that Dar al-Islam has been crushed by the west, and the Muslim community needs to be re-formed (though not reformed!):
Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s chief strategist, concluded his 2001 biography, Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, with the following observation: "Liberating the Muslim nation, confronting the enemies of Islam, and launching jihad against them require a Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land that raises the banner of jihad and rallies the Muslims around it. Without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing more than mere and repeated disturbances."...

Bin Laden sees the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which led to the carving up of the Ottoman Empire, as the beginning of Arab humiliation. For bin Laden, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, like the Versailles agreement for Hitler, is a humiliation that must be avenged and reversed: "We still suffer from the injuries inflicted by … the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France which divided the Muslim world into fragments," he said.
One thing worth pointing out was that it was not the colonial powers but the fanatically-westernizing Kemal Attaturk who abolished the Caliphate. Even with Sykes-Picot, if it hadn't been for Attaturk some rump Ottoman Caliphate could have survived. I'm not sure that we can expect men like bin Laden or Zawahiri to see the difference. Bergen and Lind again:
the American occupation of Iraq is now inspiring jihadists in the way that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, Russian control of Chechnya, and Indian rule over Kashmiri Muslims long have done. Ending the humiliating occupation of Muslim populations by non-Muslim nations will remove some of the major grievances that jihadists use as a recruiting tool. Conversely, to perpetuate these deeply resented occupations in the name of fighting "Islamofascism" will only help the jihadists.
Draw your own conclusions for what that means for Aghanistan.

The question for Muslims is whether modern nationalism is compatible with the impulse to build a religious polity. Will the Egyptians, for example, deign to live under the same rule as Saudis? If anything, that's the easiest match in the region. If the Caliphate is to be restored in some meaningful way, maybe the proper example is not Israel or the Islamic equivalent thereof, but rather the Vatican. After the unification of the Italian kingdom during the 19th century - under a King, by the way, who didn't speak Italian - the Vatican was left untouched, though the Pope refused to recognize the King's power over them. Italy (under Mussolini) eventually recognized the Vatican as a separate state with authority over other holy sites in Italy.

This, then, was the final (so far) settlement between European nationalism and political Catholicism - recognize the Catholic Church as it's own, highly-limited polity.

The political authority of the Caliph is gone, and isn't coming back. But if there's a shakeup in Saudi Arabia (out of the question, I know!) a purely religious Caliphate restored along the models of the Vatican City, encompassing Mecca and Medina, might be a possibility. Something that would pacify those Muslims who want to see the return of a pan-Islamic identity, without threatening the national governments that currently exist.

I mean, Muslims in the west are already suspected because of their faiths. Frankly, if they were only subjected to the same discrimination that Catholics had to endure for the last 200 years or so, that might be an improvement.

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