As the end nears, it is said, the entire course of a life flashes before one's eyes. Is there time then to learn the lessons of history? Perhaps this is what Walter Benjamin was asking when, evoking the "tradition of the oppressed," he wrote of an image "flashing in a moment of danger." We reside in this moment, and the "image of our time," which Primo Levi placed before our eyes as recapitulating the course of our history, is that of Muslims in Auschwitz. The sound is that of one civilization clashing.
This is not an indictment of that civilization. It is an acknowledgment of its self-proclaimed achievements and of the name it has claimed for itself. The West is Christian, which is to say that it follows and replicates the map of Western Christendom, whether Roman Catholic, Lutheran and post-Lutheran, and ultimately "secular." All of which does indicate that significant changes have occurred within it, of course, yet throughout these changes, and throughout its expansion, the West understood itself as Christian (more recently, as "Judeo-Christian").
Mission and conquest (the Americas, India, the "scramble for Africa"), science (linguistics, biological racism and eugenics, nuclear weapons), politics (the modern state, direct or indirect rule), and economics (slavery, wage labor, the corporation, the financial market, famine) have all contributed to the unfinished project of devastation of entire regions of the globe, the extermination of countless communities and cultures. One could, I suppose, present the same course of events or developments and point to the advances otherwise made, but it is possible that, in a moment of danger, pride is not what is most urgently called for. But we hear the sound of one civilization clashing.
That there were Muslims in Auschwitz means that we have an image (one among many, but a striking one, and rarely considered) in which is contained the geographical, scientific, political and economical achievements of the Christian West. It means that the history of Orientalism (from the Crusades to the oilfields) is "the history of a strange, secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism," as Edward Said effectively put it. Why "secret"? Because the peculiar and millennial investment of the West in the joined figure of Jew and Arab (or, if you will, in the rule over Jerusalem, heavenly or earthly) is one of the crucial knots tying together geography, science, politics and economics.
It is not a matter of mere ideology therefore, but the cooperation in one theological-political figure an image that flashes in a moment of danger - of a series of pursuits undertaken in the name of Christ and Christendom, in the subsequent name of Christian civilization (and for a brief period under the "secular" marker of the "white race"), and finally, in that of "civilization" itself. Thus the sound of one civilization clashing.
The Christian West invented the "Semites." That is no secret. Less commented upon are the earlier gestures that, responding to oft-expressed anxieties, sought to prevent any alliance (real or imagined) between Jews and Muslims. The 19th-century equation of Jew and Arab did not manage to undo the older and weightier contention that Jews are not Muslims (read: they should not be allies of Muslims). Beyond the familiar phantasms of a fifth column, we witness the sedimentation of a rhetoric of "security" on the part of the paranoid powerful.
Having subjugated the world, the Christian West managed to invent a knowledge ("science") that construes the world as full of hatred and danger, full of animosity toward it. The Jews (and the witches) were perceived as an internal danger, the Muslims (and the "dark hordes") as an external one. What was needed was therefore walls, between and within, to protect "us" from "them," and most importantly, perhaps, to divide among "them" (indirect rule perfected the technique, with the results we know: sectarianism and civil war in Lebanon, communalism and partition in India, tribalism and apartheid in Africa; and there are more examples). Jews and Muslims, and more precisely, their fabricated, scientific image - "Semites" - constituted an early laboratory within which Western Christendom concocted the geographic, scientific, political and economic "object" to its soon-to-be-modern "subject."
Geography (globalization and the unequal division of passports), science (high bio-tech), politics (the UN Security Council) and economics (the World Bank, the IMF) why refer to these as "the Christian West"? Because the secret is out, it is international, and its name is vera religio. From under the bombs and behind the walls being built in Palestine, North Africa and Mexico, behind the countless virtual barriers that separate Western Christendom from its others, one can hear a familiar noise. It is the sound of one civilization clashing. And in this moment of danger, the image that flashes still is the image Primo Levi figured as the "image of our time." It is the name of our collective blindness enduring.
There were Muslims in Auschwitz.
Gil Anidjar is Associate Professor in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures. His most recent book is The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (Stanford University Press, 2003).
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