The Trouble with Traveling Theories
Diaspora is a typical traveling theory, in Edward Said’s sense. It originated in one situation, the dispersion of ancient Israel, but has gained currency in many others. Diaspora’s portability is part of its allure for politically progressive thinkers. It beckons a mode of belonging beyond the exclusionary nation-state; across borders, bodies, and tongues.
But a traveling theory, as Said warned, risks over-abstraction and over-extension. When it is recycled, it gathers associations with other ideas: in this case, exile, hybridity, migration, transnationalism, cosmopolitanism. Rather than foster critical ‟awareness of the differences between situations,” theory may block critique (The World, the Text, and the Critic, 242).
Instead of defining diaspora in general, therefore, it is more useful to compare how groups think diaspora out of their own political situations. This theoretical itinerary can help us to avoid appropriating or universalizing the Jewish diaspora and to notice new diaspora dynamics (within the Jewish case as well).
Awareness of differences is all the more important when we focus on the link between diaspora and political theology. Arnold Eisen helps us to see that diaspora began as political theology: a term for one stateless nation’s suspension between exile and home. It was the core Jewish political identity until modern territorial Zionism, and for many Jews, it still is.
Diaspora’s postmodern and postcolonial travels, however, stretched it thin. In the new journal Diaspora, thirty-six communities earned the label between 1991 and 1998. As its editor, Kachig Tölölyan, notes, few of these “new” diasporas were based on religious identity. Diaspora theory, dominated by the social sciences, saw ethnic or national identity as more salient. Religion was either presented as an ideological reflex of those primary diaspora identities or ignored.
With the resurgence of political Islam and other transnational religious identities, diaspora theorists began to take religion more seriously. Three lines of thought, emerging from different situations, illustrate this shift.
Diaspora and/or Nationalism
Hindu and Islamic movements share the ability to mobilize large global communities around religious ideals. They are diasporic in that sense. Yet they also amplify nationalisms in the subcontinent and in Islamic states. Both Hinduism and Islam expose a tension within the progressive vision of diaspora. Is diaspora truly an alternative ground for solidarity, a path to liberation from modern nationalism? Or an accessory to its crimes?
Empirically, this is a false dichotomy, but it reveals the political complexity of both diaspora religions. Hindu identity is highly local, eclectic, and fluid. As a result, it can easily strengthen or weaken nationalist rhetoric.
Hindutva (“Hinduness”) groups have fueled propaganda and violence against India’s Muslim minority. Ashis Nandy argues that Hindutva is a secularist wolf in religious clothing. It speaks in an idiom of Hinduism, but it wields power by politicizing religious rhetoric. When it resonates with some Hindus abroad–intensified by Western Islamophobia and their experiences of marginalization–we could call this a form of political diaspora.
Yet Hindu devotion outside India also creates new forms of worship and power structures. Hindu diasporas lend varied weight and roles to caste, temples, festivals, processions, canons, and the idea of “mother India.” Are there shared Hindu political dynamics from Fiji, Bali, and Malaysia to Britain, Trinidad, and California?
Theorists of the Hindu diaspora frame their answers along a continuum from Official to Popular Hinduism. On the Official end, they place the desire to standardize forms of worship; make meta-statements of belief; and reconnect with Indian roots. This may end up promoting egalitarianism among diaspora Hindus. Or it may trigger conservative counter-reforms which claim to restore traditional ritual and caste hierarchies.
Further, Official Hinduism conflicts with domestic and other popular spheres where Hindu devotion is practiced. There, it tends to diversify, syncretize, and resist top-down political models. As Steven Vertovec observes, even in the Caribbean diaspora, friction between those two Hinduisms has a wide range of political effects. One cannot say that the Hindu diaspora is either nationalist or post-nationalist. Its bond with India is politically potent but contested.
Islam is a different case. It has stronger centripetal force. Muslims, despite sectarianism and other divisions, share the idea of belonging to a community (umma). Worship and holidays are synchronized and centralized. Pilgrimage (hajj) is incumbent on nearly everyone. Arabic and the Quran retain their prestige. Islamic law is a transnational phenomenon. Due to this centripetal force, S. Sayyid reads Islam itself as a theory of diaspora.
In practice, however, Islamic politics cannot be called strictly diasporic or strictly nationalist either. One reason is that, just as Nandy says of Hindutva, scholars of contemporary political Islam have shown its secularism. Political Islam is oriented toward secular political discourses, which influence its categories and arguments.
Humeira Iqtidar, for instance, argues that competing Islamist parties in Pakistan have opened up new ways of being Muslim as a secular subject. Religion is increasingly a matter of private belief. One can choose between Islams, resulting in “spiritual and doctrinal promiscuity” that she likens to Christian denominations (6-7). Islam may be justified in terms of rationality or even pragmatic benefits, not only by appeal to group norms.
Iqtidar’s study of Pakistani Islamism supports Talal Asad‘s genealogical way of critiquing Western fantasies about political Islam. Like Christianity, but differently, Islam is shaped by both religion and secularism. Islamic and secular national identities are in tension but interdependent. Their relationship varies in each context.
This is obvious when a revolution is inspired by, and then a state is based upon, interpretations of Islam. But it also takes transnational and local forms. Saba Mahmood, for example, contends that Egyptian women’s “willed subjection” to piety shapes a political subject who challenges the secular biases of Western feminism. Islam does not keep such women out of politics. On the contrary, it defines what counts as politics for them.
Given its ties to secularism, Islam does not fall on either side of a line between national and diaspora politics. The Muslim diaspora is not a religious imagined community within secular states, let alone a crypto-imperial project (as attacks on “sharia law” would have it). Nor does a shared sense of being Muslim across national borders rule out engagement with secular politics. Within Islamic law and theology, there is no consensus on the boundaries of religion: whether the state should serve Islam, vice versa, or the two must be balanced. The Muslim diaspora is both an umma and a diverse constellation of arguments about secular national power.
Diaspora, Language, Race
As diaspora articulates with the mode of belonging that we call a nation, so it does with language and race. Martinique has an especially rich history of exploring the latter articulations. Here, psychiatrist Frantz Fanon and poet Aimé Césaire, among many others in Caribbean, American, and Francophone countries, inspired a discourse of négritude (Blackness) that would become central to both postcolonial and diaspora theory.
Fanon’s classic 1967 essay, “The Fact of Blackness,” traces this conjuncture between race and language. Fanon starts with a moment of brutal interpellation: the moment when he, a black man, is named as such. His reduction to the body, to skin, radically denies him all ontology. “The black man,” he writes, “has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man” (15-16). (This idea has informed what is now called Afro-Pessimism.)
Fanon reclaims Blackness through precisely that which it was denied: its own language and embodied being. Echoing Césaire, he develops “rhythm” as a category that represents Black creativity and global connection. I made myself the poet of the world. Poetry, music, art: Blackness as rhythm eludes the subject/object binary. It celebrates the unity of reason and passion, matter and spirit, that was feared as “primitive” by colonialism.
Négritude is usually read in light of secular philosophies, especially Marxism and existentialism. Its ideas were put into practice by Black Panthers and other secular Black Power groups. Yet the politics of négritude also has deep spiritual veins. A Christian might call it theology.
It is a mystical politics that, like vodou, draws power from the centering symbols of precolonial African societies: earth, savannah, lava, sun, totems, ghosts, blood. In its crucible, Christian icons seem to melt and change:
KYRIE ELEISON … LEISON … LEISON.
CHRISTIE ELEISON … LEISON … LEISON.
And not only mouths sing,
but hands, feet, buttocks, sex,
your entire creature liquifies
into sound and voice and rhythm.Aimé Césaire, The Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, 12.
Brent Hayes Edwards shows, however, that négritude took a long time to become a diaspora discourse. Before the Second World War, Edwards argues, it was a form of Pan-Africanism. “Africa” in this discourse was a point of origin and source for meaning, as well as a political common denominator, as in Rastafari veneration of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.
Edwards argues that, as the global balance of power shifted during the Cold War, diaspora became more useful for Black identity because it preserved connections in global Black culture but, unlike pan-Africanism, also marked differences between the struggles of national groups (e.g., English versus French colonial histories).
The most influential framing of that new diaspora has been Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), joined by studies of other transnational flows. Rather than compartmentalize Black culture within colonial national cultures, Gilroy shows how it emerged along the slave trade’s capital networks and kept flourishing thereafter.
Whether due to the Marxist heritage of négritude, the secularism of academia, or the lack of clear boundaries around “religion” in this context, the Black Atlantic is an under-utilized framework for political theology. Exceptional writing on Bob Marley, dancehall/church hall, and Haitian vodou shows that it is a promising one.
In this light, one might explore a third poet-philosopher from Martinique, Édouard Glissant (1928-2011). Hard to read and harder to translate, Glissant’s voice is electric and life-affirming. His “poetics of Relation,” in dialogue with Deleuze & Guattari’s “rhizomatic” philosophy, restlessly uncovers organic connections precisely where one is schooled to set artificial boundaries.
For instance, a keyword of Glissant’s philosophy, éparpillement (scattering), praises diasporic fertility. Like seeds sown by the wind, his relentless search for relatedness “scatters abroad from Being-as-Being” (Poetics of Relation, 186). Glissant’s poetics is clearly political. But how is it “rooted and routed,” as Gilroy would say, in the Black Atlantic? Does it channel African spiritualities? Finding a way to define and integrate such questions would help to integrate Glissant with critical political theology, following scholars like Mayra Rivera.
Diaspora Comes Home
I have been arguing between the lines that diaspora might be a problem for political progressives for the very reason that it is so alluring. Diaspora promises both freedom and connection: freedom from national borders or the essentialisms of race and language, connection between people who affirm shared memory and heritage.
But heritage is never really free. It is made by the same history that makes nations and races. Heritage uses the same signs of identity, even if they signify differently. Not all of the Hindu diaspora is nationalist, but it is still tied to India. Perhaps in theory, the Islamic umma is a diaspora, but Muslims trade in state and secular politics. Négritude and the Black Atlantic went neither back to Africa, nor beyond. Africa’s rhythms echo and change.
Is there freedom in heritage that one cannot recover from history? Diaspora is a potentially liberating concept when it helps people to say Yes. By redefining heritage from the inside, in terms of its own sources of power, one can, perhaps, tell stories that elude the limits of modern nationalism, racism, and interpellation by Others.
Diaspora’s latest travels in its homeland, Judaism, are a strong example of this difference that diaspora can make. Many imagined that the birth of a Jewish state would supersede diaspora as a ground for Jewish identity. But Israel has no monopoly on Zionism, let alone Judaism–a simple point lost in antisemitic claims. Zionist, anti-Zionist, and post-Zionist Judaisms are still being formed by diasporic heritage as opposed to state power.
Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin have developed a vocabulary for this “power of diaspora” and examined how it operates. Their key concept is “generation,” in the metaphorical sense of a family or constructed genealogy. Generation has two sides that may seem contradictory. On one hand, it is “egocentric” and nationalist (but does not demand a state or territory). It is not pluralistic. It excludes. Inside its boundaries, there is the risk of violence against Others: the Boyarins focus on gender and sexuality. New work turns to figures of religious-ethnic difference within Jewish generation: the ger (convert) and the goy (non-Jew).
On the other hand, diaspora-as-generation is contingent. Identity is defined by one’s place in a structure. As the structure changes, identity changes, just as children become parents. The structure is not racist – it is not based on biological or other fixed characteristics. It can be joined or left. It is constantly drawing boundaries, but no one has the authority to say where they stop. The “mixed multitude” of Egyptians who left with Israel (Ex. 12:38) became Jews – and Jews have been trying to expel them ever since. They are still part of the family.
A similar dialectic of contingency and identity defines “indigenous diasporas,” where diaspora circulates in a productive framework for the study of religion today. Rather than give up their place-based heritage when they lose access to it, communities can transform its meaning. In the process, they recreate themselves as a diaspora.
As Kenneth Mello notes, for instance, the Wabanaki’s sacred mountain is now in a Maine state park. Wabanaki on vision quests have to share it with backpackers. Yet, back in Thoreau’s day, the mountain was taboo: neither he nor his Wabanaki guide could ascend. Is the desecration of Wabanaki heritage making Indigenous diaspora?
A nation-state claims where it is–as opposed to where it is not. A diaspora remembers what it lost or never had: home. Diaspora, as a ground for politics, means being able to hear: I am that common pain / cry me out.
James Clifford, Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.
The third volume of collected essays (preceded by Routes and The Predicament of Culture) by a major figure in diaspora theory and the history of culture. Includes “Varieties of Indigenous Experience” where Clifford, reflecting on dialogue with his students and colleagues, articulates the concept of “indigenous diaspora.”
Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Trans. J. Michael Dash. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. 1989.
Selected essays from Glissant’s much longer 1981 volume, Le discours antillais (“Antillean Discourse”). An excellent introduction to Glissant’s political thought.
Re’ee Hagay and Jonathan Boyarin, “Jewish Diaspora.” Oxford Bibliographies in Jewish Studies. Ed. Naomi Seidman. Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press. In production.
Presents research on Jewish diaspora in conceptual, historical, and cultural terms with a wealth of studies.
Steven Jaron, Edmond Jabès: The Hazard of Exile. Oxford: Legenda, 2003.
With Levinas and Derrida, Jabès is one of the most influential French Jewish thinkers on exile and diaspora. His work is not always well translated or widely understood in English. This revised Columbia dissertation–the author is now a psychoanalyst in Paris–is a thorough and lucid exploration of the theme of exile in Jabès.
Vineeta Sinha, “Modern Hindu Diaspora(s),” in The Oxford History of Hinduism: Modern Hinduism, ed. Torkel Brekke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 179-199.
Historical, theoretical, and geographical survey of Hindu diasporas since the nineteenth century. Not only synthesizes extensive research but also interrogates the category’s utility for studying global Hindu devotion.
 An important early essay on religion and diaspora is Ninian Smart, “The Importance of Diasporas,” in Gilgul: Essays on Transformation, Revolution and Permanence in the History of Religions Dedicated to R.J. Zwi Werblowsky (Leiden: Brill, 1987), 288-297. For diaspora theory in the early 1990s, see Martin Baumann, “Conceptualizing Diaspora,” Temenos vol. 31 (1995):19-35. Then see Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction (2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2008 [1st ed. 1997]), then Janna Evans Braziel and Annita Manur eds., Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader (Malden: Blackwell), 2003.
 See Alain Baudot, Bibliographie annotée d’Édouard Glissant (Toronto: Gref, 1993), for example, items 1000, 1025, 1085, 1092, 1154, 1192, 1225, 1244, 1317, and 1329, for studies that may help to situate Glissant in political theology.
 See the otherwise wise Stuart Hall, who conflates Jews with Israel, describing both as “a people who are not going to change, who sat on top of a sacred text and erected the barriers, and who then wanted to make the return exactly to the place where they came from. And who have gone back and sat on the head of all the other people that were there, too.” Stuart Hall, “Subjects in History: Making Diasporic Identities,” in The House that Race Built: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain (ed. Washneema Lubiano, New York: Pantheon), 289-299, at 298-99. See another example from Hall in Jonathan Boyarin & Daniel Boyarin, Powers of Diaspora: Two Essays on the Relevance of Jewish Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 12-13.
 Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. The authors’ recent book in Hebrew includes chapters on contemporary ramifications of the goy.