This chapter explores ethnography as an ethical process. I begin with the relationship between ethics, epistemology and social theory in approaching questions of justice. Through a detailed account of the development of my fieldwork, I explore the ethical limitations of binary theoretical languages for communicating about the Palestine-Israel conflict and begin to imagine and inhabit alternative vocabularies, which I learnt in my relationships with students. By attending to themes of proximity and distance in fieldwork, I explore how, as ethnographers, we never fully know ourselves but rather engage in a process of learning. This insight is shaped and exemplified through an account of my own ambivalences, exclusions and transformations in the research process; I go through a process of renaming myself as I learn to engage with my research subjects differently. This becomes part of a questioning of moral traditions, embedded in the university itself, that call on people to abstract themselves from everyday relationships so that they can exist as rational, ‘objective’ moral selves. As I introduce alternative resources for approaching questions of ethics and justice, I also build on Judith Butler’s appeal towards post-secular diasporic traditions as offering important ethico-political resources for responding to the Palestine-Israel conflict.
This chapter begins with an ethnographic account of the high profile student conflicts around free speech and racism which unfolded across UK campuses in 2008-9 in response to ‘Operation Cast Lead’. The discussion focuses on the unsettling quality of these events in order to introduce a number of key elements in the framing of this study. First, the chapter highlights how campus struggles around Palestine-Israel are not only constituted through competing discourses in the abstract but are also the locus of intense feelings, contradictory desires and visceral interpersonal encounters. Second, is argued that these raging campus conflicts over Palestine-Israel involve the destabilisation of established spatial boundaries under conditions of globalisation and so can be helpfully connected to Nancy Fraser’s theory of ‘abnormal justice’. Third, by highlighting how this case is also the focus of disputed historical claims, the chapter introduces helpful resonances with aesthetic notions of the tragic. The chapter concludes by introducing some key interlocutors - Ludwig Wittgenstein, Stanley Cavell and Veena Das - who will help with a key task of this book: to develop an ethnographic imagination attentive to movements between the discursive / embodied and public / personal dimensions of democratic life.
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.