Conversation, friendship and democratic possibilities
This chapter foregrounds my approach to ethics as a ‘new’ ethnographic object. I show how an attentive ethnographic sensibility can uncover forms of interpersonal relationality, which diverge from a politics of interminable opposition. Learning from Veena Das’ work, I turn away from the most visible campus ‘events’ and toward a seemingly mundane student meeting in order to address the following question: how, in a politically polarised context, do friendships and alternative sociabilities become possible? I offer an ethnographic account of a small scale gathering of students involved in an ‘Israel-Palestine Forum’ at Redbrick University. Tracing the interpersonal and institutional conditions of this meeting, I show how its participants cultivated practices of speaking and listening, which enabled us to engage with each other as uncertain, ambivalent and fragmented subjects. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s ethics of ‘parrhesia’ and Stanley Cavell’s insights into the pedagogic dimensions of democratic relationships, I explore how risk-taking, trust and singular friendships enabled the tragic histories of Palestine-Israel to be spoken and reflected upon. The chapter concludes with some comparative insights in relation to my three fieldsites, highlighting how the differential impacts of socio-economic changes to higher education can limit these democratic possibilities within campuses.
This chapter focuses on a campus meeting with a controversial Palestinian journalist at which escalating accusations of anti-Semitism and fascism culminated in physical violence. Drawing on the work of Simon Critchley, I frame this event as a ‘tragic’ conflict, in which the claims of entangled past and present sufferings came to be expressed as a passionate refusal of recognition. Attending closely to the linguistic, somatic and emotional dynamics of this meeting, I show how it culminated in the destabilisation of moral distinctions and the collapsing of spatial and temporal boundaries, including a blurring of distinctions between victims and perpetrators, a making-present of past traumas and of seemingly distant forms of violence. Drawing on interview material to deepen my psychosocial analysis, I explore how repressed feelings of shame and aggressive desires, associated with these entanglements, came to be acted out in the violent culmination of this meeting. The concluding section draws this analysis together with the preceding chapter to develop an explanation for the repetitive, circular quality of melodramatic and tragic campus conflicts over time, including the role of public media and the logics of spectatorship in this process.
For over four decades, events in Palestine-Israel have provoked raging conflicts between members of British universities, giving rise to controversies around free speech, ‘extremism’, antisemitism and Islamophobia within higher education, which have been widely reported in the media and subject to repeated interventions by politicians. But why is this conflict so significant for student activists living at such a geographical distance from the region itself? And what role do emotive, polarised communications around Palestine-Israel play in the life of British academic institutions committed to the ideal of free expression? This book invites students, academics and members of the public who feel concerned with this issue to explore the sources of these visceral encounters on campus. Drawing on original ethnographic research with conflicting groups of activists, it explores what is at stake for students who are drawn into struggles around Palestine-Israel within changing university spaces facing pressures associated with neoliberalism and the ‘War on Terror’. It begins from this case study to argue that, in an increasingly globalised world that is shaped by entangled histories of the Nazi Holocaust and colonial violence, members of universities must develop creative and ethical ways of approaching questions of justice. Tragic Encounters and Ordinary Ethics curates an ethnographic imagination in response to the political tensions arising out of the continuing violence in Palestine-Israel. It invites students and academics to attend to lived experiences within our own university institutions in order to cultivate ethical forms of communication in response to conflicts of justice.
This chapter explores the moral traditions that have shaped the university with its idealised vision of rational debate by offering a detailed account of the sources, dynamics and consequences of a public debate about the academic boycott of Israel. Showing how this university sought to materialise a liberal model of communication governed by rules of neutral, rational debate and secular norms, I highlight the paradox inherent in this attempt to dramatically perform communicative rationality. The discussion then situates this need to display an idealised image of the university committed to free speech within the context of wider pressures associated with neo-liberalism and securitisation. The final section of the chapter then explores the consequences of the academic boycott event, which fixed participants in rigid, partisan positions. I argue that, in the process of affirming this rationalist self-image, the university disavowed its own historical involvements in colonial oppression and ongoing inequalities, so concealing relationships of power. Bringing my analysis of the dramaturgy of this event together with interview material, I show how this polarised debate repressed and shamed aspects of students’ political commitments which could not be voiced in these terms.
This chapter was published as a guest editorial in Anthropology Today, 29: 4, August 2013, under the title "Foregrounding the Muslim tribal periphery". This book is arguably the finest of Professor Akbar Ahmed’s many publications, blending a literary and religious sensibility with political and historical analysis – a model for engaged anthropology. It can be read on two levels. It is a political indictment of the disproportionate victimization of Muslim tribespeople by remotely controlled military weapons – a policy which risks leading to a cycle of revenge. But the drone is also a metaphor for the current age of globalization, "something which comes from nowhere, destroys your life and goes away", while the prickly, tenacious "thistle" is an image that captures the essence of tribal societies (an image borrowed from Tolstoy’s posthumous novel Hadji Murad).
Adducing some insights from cultural anthropology, this Chapter compares and contrasts the histories of the Christian and the Islamic traditions of religious toleration, considering in particular the blurring of the distinction between "People of the Book" and "pagans" or "polytheists". It argues that each tradition has strengths and weaknesses if we consider them as contributions to a humanism acceptable to people today who subscribe to various religious beliefs or to none. Christendom was guilty historically of worse religious intolerance than Islam, yet it also engendered a humanistic respect for "primitive" belief systems. Islam institutionalized the concept of People of the Book, which gave a qualified recognition to its "confessional cousins", but it excluded "pagan" cultures unless they agreed to convert. Yet Islam was also capable of flexibility when a small Muslim court in India ruled over a vast non-Muslim population. An extended prefatory note reviews the progress of scholarship since the first publication of this text in Anthropology Today in 2005, and asks whether it is necessary to modify the suggestion that Muslim social scientists are inhibited from choosing to study non-monotheistic cultures. The conclusion reached ten years later is that there are at least some major exceptions.
This chapter considers the question of "cultural proximity", i.e. the proposition that a Faith Based Organization can have a privileged access to beneficiaries who share the same religious culture. It was based on a visit in 2007 to Aceh province in Indonesia, to observe the contribution of Islamic charities to reconstruction after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. Special attention was given to the rebuilding of houses and schools, in which several other international NGOs experienced serious local difficulties. The conclusion was that a common religion can be an advantage, but not so much as to outweigh the importance of technical proficiency, especially in the heated political climate that prevailed during this period. As well as describing the mainly successful work of Islamic Relief Worldwide, Muslim Aid, and the Turkish Red Crescent, the chapter also notes that official international evaluations of the huge aid flows after the tsunami gave little credit to local organizations, notably the Muhammadiyah.
The Introduction summarizes the book’s content under the following headings. Since all the chapters have been previously published elsewhere, it also adds some complementary material to bring the book up to date on some important topics: Part One: Chapters 1 to 9: Islamic charities, Summary of the Chapters, Some recurrent themes, Faith Based Organizations and "cultural sensitivity", Islamic Relief Worldwide, The West Bank zakat committees, Banking problems, Towards a more complete description, Pakistan, Turkey, Domestic Islamic charity in the United Kingdom, A zakat movement?, Towards a more comparative approach, Part Two: Chapters 10 to 17: Islamic humanism