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See Noam Leshem's most recent Society & Space contributions: Repopulating the Emptiness: A Spatial Critique of Ruination in Israel/Palestine and Spaces of abandonment: Genealogies, lives and critical horizons
A political-theological spectre hovers above the violent events that have taken place in France, and the responses that followed them. Its role remains largely ignored, or at best, is considered as the dark irrational force driving what Michael Waltzer described recently as “Islamist zealotry” backed by “religious militancy”. I want to offer an alternative to this intellectually impoverished use of political theology, one which is not confined to familiar Greco-Roman or Christian models.
My starting point is therefore rather more prosaic than Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I start with a tweet: “To all the Jews of France”, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote after the attack on a Jewish supermarket, “I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home.” In less than 140 characters, the Israeli PM urges French-Jews to actualise and territorialise their abstract religious hopes and venerations.
This is more than political opportunism. It echoes a longstanding commitment of Zionism not simply to secularize Jewish nationalism, but to harness diasporic theological imaginations into the civil religion of the state. Jewish religious longing is not sufficient; it has to be acted upon. The state in this sense becomes the earthly vehicle for redemption: acts of political emancipation through land and labour have long been intimately connected to a more profound redemption, in what Walter Benjamin described as the marriage of the political and the messianic. Netanyuahu’s tweet then is a classic attempt at territorializing theology.
Netanyahu is obviously not alone in this project. The majority of Islamic political organizations in the Middle East and North Africa are engaged in a deterritorializing mission: to dismantle the colonial geopolitical heritage and the nation-state premise on which regional borders have rested since World War I. This is the everywhere notion of “global Jihad” that FOX News so loves.
However, unlike early forms of political Islam in the early 20th century (e.g. the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1930s), for the group known as ISIS (Da’ash), notions of theumma (community of Muslims) and caliphate are not abstract, but as Youssef Jabareen rightly notes, exercised through concrete tactics of territoriality. These tactics of territoriality— the conquest of land and establishment of quasi-state structures—are the main method through which violence is administered as a system of rule. In the double barrel name “Islamic State” it is the “state”, rather than the “Islamic”, that should draw our critical attention, particularly in the way it mobilizes these tactics of territoriality.
We must not abandon theology. Indeed, this would be a folly given the extent to which it continues to haunt the civil-political subconscious. Instead, I wonder whether there are alternative political-theological models we can draw critical inspiration from, models that are non-statist and invested in a deeper deterritorial cosmology.
A series of violent riots in late 17th century Ukraine resulted in some of the most gruesome anti-Jewish violence. The events saw the destruction of entire communities, the unrestrained mutilation and massacre of tens of thousands of Jews. The extreme scale of violence and the extent of brutality left a deep mark on Jewish thought. This included the emergence in the 18th century of one of the most radical Jewish theological movements: the rise of the Hassidic movement, which preached a theology of happiness, doing away with orthodox clerical hierarchies and celebrating the Immanent Divine presence in everything and everyone. The anarchic dimensions of this theology resulted in an open cosmology, but one that was also deeply threatening to orthodox Jewish dogma. This was the case in the deeply anti-Zionist stance the group took after the World War II. According to this interpretation, the nation state forms a heretical attempt to hasten Messianic redemption, and its effort to imbue earthly tactics of territoriality with a sacred meaning must be rejected.
De-territorializing political-theology—and the violence harboured in statist and quasi-statist territorializations—is as much an intellectual challenge as it is a political one. Anarchic political theologies, and their anti-authoritarian, anti-dogmatic responses to even the most horrific violent events, offer a good starting point in this endeavour.