If the term “political theology” indexes a form of questioning that emanates from the failure of religion or politics to represent a dominant mode of explanation or form of life, then the work of Gil Anidjar (b. 1964) is indispensable to the clarification thereof. Anidjar illuminates political theology’s potentialities as much as he exposes its limitations in making sense of the effectuality of power. Writing in a style that defies disciplinary confines, he interrogates how texts activate and enforce hierarchical power differentials and simultaneously efface their workings through various modalities of transmission and translation. Following the writings of Jacques Derrida, Anidjar deems political theology a site of différance–that which makes difference and defers its questioning–in understanding and discerning modern power configurations and their histories of (re-)inscription and reception.
While Carl Schmitt claims that the enemy constitutes “the political,” his various writings largely ignore the historical and discursive evolution of the enemy. Anidjar’s major contribution to modern political theology lies in responding to this lacuna. Specifically, he examines the ways in which Western Christendom’s theologico-political concept of the enemy came into being and how it has been reinscribed through its secularization(s).
Anidjar’s multifaceted analyses demonstrate that political theology is not immune from what Western Christendom has bequeathed it and cannot reflexively suspend the historical quality of its dissemination and practice. Thus, political theology serves as the condition of possibility and vehicle of today’s allegedly enmity-free fraternity between Christianity and Judaism on the one hand and of the historical-cum-metaphysical hostility of (Judeo-)Christians toward Islam and Muslims on the other.
Recent critics of secularism and liberalism have often turned to political theology and theologico-political analyses of the fundamental categories of Western power/knowledge. Yet, for all Anidjar’s keenness to deploy political theology as a reflexive modality of critical inquiry, he resists, if not rejects, the project of pluralizing or globalizing it across regions and religions on conceptual-historical and rhetorical grounds.
The Enemy’s Two Bodies: The Jew, The Arab
If the critical tradition’s wager remains anchored in the analytical delineation and historical specification of the mechanisms of power, then Anidjar’s work poses a trenchant challenge to it. His contributions attend to the retentive dynamics of power that inhere within the linguistic order of things yet slip away from historical consciousness during its unfolding and play. Anidjar accomplishes this by calling attention to a cardinal and massively proliferative “medieval” formation of Western Christendom–the Inquisition and its Limpieza de Sangre in the fifteenth century—when Christianity conceived of itself as a community of blood. This event, which to be precise is an intrinsic division or redoubling as Anidjar shows in The Jew, The Arab: A History of the Enemy (2003), has reinscribed the political theology of Europe and of Western Christianity along an axis of enmity encompassing two bodies: the theological and internal Jew, and the political and external Arab/Muslim.
Tentatively, Anidjar regards political theology as “a lever, a way of interrogating, at least, the claim that secularization has occurred (or even that it should occur).” For Anidjar, political theology questions not only the possibility of categorical separation of religion and theology from politics, but also the separation of religion and theology from race. The substance of the political for Anidjar, following Schmitt, “is contained in the context of a concrete antagonism,” yet it is expressed in ordinary language, even when we are not aware of the logic of its persistence. In this sense, Anidjar understands secularization and the concepts of religion, race, and politics as polemical devices, terms whose relation to power is “inherent and dynamic.” In short, these concepts embody, enable, and perform “acts of power” at the same time.
Taking his cues from Mahmood Mamdani’s account of the modern colonial management of difference through law, Anidjar asks, “In Israel and Palestine … what are the historical, legal, religious, and political processes that have come to naturalize the Jew and the Arab as polarized identities?” (The Jew, the Arab, xvi). While Mamdani pursues the question of the enemy through the shifting history of political identities in Rwanda, Anidjar suspects that, to Jews and Arabs/Muslims, telling such a history would be insufficient. While it is true that Europe’s resolution of the Jewish question can be deciphered through the history of anti-Semitism, it is equally true that the stand-off between “Islam and the West” can be analyzed broadly through the history of Orientalism. Instead of reifying these two “distinct” histories by searching for their (hidden) intersections, Anidjar turns to the perpetrator, Europe, and asks whether today’s extreme polarization between Jews and Arabs/Muslims can be adequately understood as the result of the history of the conception of “the political” and its concomitant concept of the enemy.
Through an examination of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Othello (The Moor of Venice), Anidjar illuminates the disconnect between theology and politics and between the Western histories of anti-Semitism and Orientalism. He marks “the distance between the two dimensions of the body politic, the two dimensions of the polis of Venice,” between Shylock the Jew, the theological enemy, and Othello the Moor, the political enemy (The Jew, the Arab, 111). Juxtaposing the two plays draws attention to how Schmitt privileges the political (the friend-enemy distinction) over the theological when determining the stakes of enmity. Thus, the imperative for Anidjar is to elaborate the theological history of Christian Europe’s concept of the enemy, of the theological enemy–a history which became “racial” and devoid of theological signification. The political enemy, like the theological enemy, is ever shifting (sometimes religious but not national, or vice versa). The fissured two bodies of the politic are in fact one dual body of the enemy of Christianity’s theologico-political complex: one and the same in their very difference.
Race: Semites and Secularism
Informed by Talal Asad’s genealogy of the conjoined twins “religion” and “the secular,” Anidjar tracks the internal, historically-specific, shifts of these concepts and how they shape subjectivity in Semites: Race, Religion, Literature (2008). In a manner that could be seen both as contrary and complementary to Asad’s “anthropology of secularism,” Anidjar sets out to demonstrate how the discursive power of historically specific concepts of religion and the secular “trail” across spheres. In addition to tracking the trails (read: catachresis) and undertones (read: race) of the discursive power of secularism, Anidjar points to the context where the “stealth” grammar of concepts like religion and the secular becomes operative: Christianity. Put differently, he shows how discursive concepts qua polemical concepts are performative but contain practical sedimentations, which are never short of “concrete antagonisms” (recall Schmitt) molded by the pervasive power/knowledge of Western Christendom.
If Talal Asad’s work “problematizes the referential use of ‘political theology’ . . . and urges attention to shifts in the grammar of concepts and practices across different situations,” as Basit Iqbal and Milad Obadaei wrote in this series, then Anidjar’s work is primarily concerned with a supplementary task: demonstrating how Western Christendom’s political theology transmitted a formative understanding of enmity in spite of historically-specific and politically-particular embodiments of, and shifts in, the grammar of concepts and practices of secular translation.
In this vein, Anidjar attends to the late 18th and 19th centuries, when the notion of “Semites” was given lexical priority over religion. Semites (Jews and Arabs/Muslims, the two bodies of the enemy) were construed as “the race who invented religion” (Semites, 8). At the same time, a companion, opposing term was revived, which was crucial for the Nazis’ self-definition: the “Aryan.” Embodying race and religion, albeit asymmetrically and hierarchically, the Jews and Arabs/Muslims were governed by these polemical concepts of Western discourse. In this fleeting discursive invention, “whatever was said about Jews could equally be said about Arabs, and vice-versa” (Semites, 18). Anidjar wonders, why are “Semite” and “Aryan” no longer markers of subjectivities while “antisemitism” (small “s” and no hyphen) is alive and kicking? Why are Arabs/Muslims hardly encompassed within the ambit of “antisemitism”? The “Semitic hypothesis,” Anidjar contends, is indispensable to understanding the workings of Western power after Auschwitz, because the Nazis “at once produced the culmination and carried out the exhaustive demise of the notion of ‘Semites’” (Semites, 19).
Race: Orientalism and Secularism
Within Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), Anidjar finds all the ingredients needed to further substantiate the theologico-political perspective that gives rise to Western Christendom’s secular(izing) forms of power. In a brilliant essay titled “Secularism,” he reads Said’s Orientalism against Said’s participation “in the general movement of opposition to religion carried by the terms secular and secularism” (56). In fact, Anidjar claims that “if Orientalism teaches us anything, it is that Orientalism is secularism,” and that “it must be read as a critique of Christianity, secularized or not,” for “secularism is Christianity” (56; 62). Anidjar argues that Christianity translated the theological divide between the sacred and the secular into a theologico-political distinction between Jews/Hebrews and others. This division is crucial to Viconian historicism, which is not only fundamental to Said’s critique of modern Orientalism, but also crucial to the “the distinction between Christians and everyone else,” as Said himself noted (63). Furthermore, Anidjar relates this history of Orientalism qua non-secularized Christianity to secularized Christianity’s subsequent invention of the Semites and the asymmetrical classification and distribution of Judaism and Islam across the distinction between race and religion. This move was integral to modern Orientalism’s disciplinary and discursive practice of divide and rule. Anidjar concludes that secularism is Orientalism, and Orientalism is Christianity—“a form of Christian imperialism” (66).
Anidjar further argues that Orientalism is an exemplary critique of the strategic, discursive operations of religion (and secularism) and thus of Christianity. Since Orientalism is secularism and secularism is Christianity, the critique of Orientalism is a critique of Christianity. Moreover, Anidjar contends that we must not lose sight of the parallel distinctions at work, namely those between nationalism and religion and between race and religion. Orientalists who operated with a secularized conception of religion, like Ernst Renan, tended to see it as “the enduring condition for the rise of nationalism,” and they subsumed the distinction between race and religion under the category of nation (67). Said marks “Islam” as a paradigmatic figure in the construction of the Orient (and Occident) and points to the crucial role of Semites and “the Semitic” in the articulation of Orientalism as a field of study and style of thought. He frames these concepts according to a secular division of spheres despite acknowledging the role of Christians and Christology in their production. Anidjar sees Said’s failure to take stock of the Christian theological dimension of Orientalism as an effect of the secularization of Orientalism itself, whereby “religion” was no longer associated with “national” communities. As a result, “Islam” was both hyper-religionized and de-politicized, and the national character of the politics of Arabs/Muslims was denied. He concludes that “Islam is to Europe what religious criticism is to secular criticism, what religion is to secularism” (75).
Anidjar insists that Said inadvertently underscored “the active transformation of both East and West into religions, the conversion of Orientalism as Western Christendom into Orientalism as secularism” in a theologico-political sense (76). At times, Said’s Orientalism obscures the category of religion and oscillates between depicting Islam as lacking theological validity and as an extremely fanatic religion. At other times, it suggests that the secular and the religious are part of a pervasive apparatus of power. “That is why,” Anidjar contends, “Orientalism [in Said’s sense] is no mere political doctrine . . . it is also a religious one” (76).
Christianity via Blood
Anidjar asks, “What if Christianity … were at once the history of its transformations and the endurance of its efforts to change the world benevolently and violently?” In Blood: A Critique of Christianity (2014), Anidjar tries to show that “blood must become a category of historical analysis” if Christianity (secularized or not) is a necessary context of the question of modern power (44).
Anidjar’s Blood painstakingly elucidates the mechanisms that reproduced Western Christian communities. Their “autonomy” was contingent on blood, “with blood understood as (endangered and vulnerable) property and possession” (66). The Christian community of blood that coagulated in the Limpieza de Sangre was, according to Anidjar, co-produced by another late medieval event, namely the rise of the Eucharist as a ritual of blood sharing. The epoch we have come to designate as “modern,” submits Anidjar, already inhabited a novel understanding of community, kinship, and eventually race, which was articulated in the (kinetic) image of blood.
Blood became “a governing center of Christian life” (39). With and through blood, understood as a “liminal marker, the potent sign of politics at its recalcitrant limits,” Anidjar tries to move beyond the split between the sensible and the intelligible, between figure and referent, because blood acquires specific meaning and power in distinct discursive spheres by distinguishing itself from that which it does not signify (84). Anidjar de-essentializes blood–which “in and of itself is nothing”–and highlights how Christianity is “something” that has configured the global (“globaLatin”) predicament of power since the fifteenth century. Ergo, Christianity emerges as partaking in what we believe to have shed away, to have absolved ourselves from and resolved, as the thing that refuses to name itself, which nevertheless remains at stake.
Anidjar understands Blood to critically rearticulate the (phenomenological) horizon of Schmitt’s political theology: “All significant concepts of the history of the modern world are liquidated theological concepts. . . . the recognition of which is necessary for a political consideration of these concepts” (viii). Anidjar replaces Schmitt’s “the modern theory of the state” with “the history of the modern world,” “secularized” with “liquated,” and “sociological” with “political.” Each of these substitutions serves a purpose: the first takes us from the Euro-state-centric worldview to the theater of imperialist history; the second dethrones the secular “rupture” of the modern worldview and situates it a larger (exchange) economy of the linguistified order; the third applies Schmitt’s insight on the polemical nature of concepts against his own conceptual qua Christological thought.
Anidjar’s catachrestic methodology of inquiry into the political theology of Western power/knowledge accounts for how power’s lines of transmission vanish from view with each translation. Taken together, his interventions establish an all too different way of rendering the workings of historical power through its proliferative and divisive activity. Any power-sensitive examination of the claim that anti-Semitism is necessarily a form of anti-Zionism must take into consideration the enduring effort of various agencies and forces to maintain Jews and Arabs as separate and opposed, as objects of allegedly different, unassociated, and exclusionary practices.
In view of “the unity of a theologico-political complex,” Anidjar writes, which “manages both hostility to Jews and hostility to Arabs, anti-Judaism and the war on Islam/Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and Orientalism, are revealed as indissociable: one and the same in their very difference” – an all too Christian difference, he might add.
“Our Place in Al-Andalus”: Kabbalah, Philosophy, Literature in Arab Jewish Letters (Stanford UP, 2002)
This work is crucial to understanding Anidjar’s mode of inquiry and method of analysis, which he applies to political theology. It offers a reading of Andalusi, Jewish, and Arabic texts from the 12th and 13th centuries that raise a historical question: how to read when contexts vanish from view and the notion thereof becomes historical. To that end, it underscores the non-mimetic and context-transcending character of language by demonstrating how in Al-Andalus “midrash” occurred as poetry, Kabbalah as “maqama,” and philosophy as literary criticism. Consequently, it establishes the question of translation in contradistinction to interpretation and lends historical-cum-rhetorical weight to the catachrestic, mediatic role of “the figurative.”
The Jew, The Arab: A History of the Enemy (Stanford UP, 2003).
A groundbreaking inquiry into the foundations of political theology, this book unwraps the fundamental role of the association and the separation of the Jew and the Arab/Muslim in the construction of Europe’s body politic and the Western discourse. It provides a novel framework for discussing Europe’s history of the enemy through the figurations of its two bodies without collapsing or equalizing them. It also makes a major contribution to the understanding of anti-Semitism and Orientalism, explaining how these concepts partake in the racialization of political theology. Subsequently, The Jew, The Arab unseals new dimensions in the debate about Zionism and the question Palestine and illuminates the role “Auschwitz” has assumed in their reproduction.
“Secularism,” Critical Inquiry 33, no. 1 (2006): 52-77.
In this essay, Anidjar reads Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) against his critical secularism. He demonstrates how the modern non-secularized form of Christianity translated the theological divide between the sacred and the secular into a theologico-political distinction between Jews/Hebrews and others. As a result, he reveals secularized Christianity’s re-invention of race (read: Semites vs. Aryans) through Orientalism. Thus, he contends, “[l]ike that unmarked race… Christianity invented the distinction between religious and secular…and made religion the problem – rather than itself.” Secularism “is a name Christianity gave itself when it invented religion, when it named its other or others as religions” (62).
“The Idea of an Anthropology of Christianity,” Interventions 11, no. 3 (2009): 367-393.
Representative of Anidjar’s engagements/exchanges with Talal Asad, this essay, whose title echoes Asad’s The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam (1986), ruminates over a large set of Asad’s works. It argues that, without pursuing the idea of an anthropology of Christianity, the anthropology of Islam will not fulfill its promise, because it would have to constantly counter the specter of the reductive project of the anthropology of religion, which takes Christianity to be “a religion” like all others.
Blood: A Critique of Christianity (Columbia UP, 2014).
Blood establishes the relative integrity of the context of Western Christendom qua Christianity that we have long liquidated from our modern purview, because it was supposedly transvaluated by means of historical ruptures animated by functionally differentiating secularizing force. By tracking the activity of blood as mere element, Anidjar elaborates on Christianity’s distinction between literal and figurative blood during its reconstitution in late medieval times. This transformation rendered blood ubiquitous to the operational economy of “religion” and “race,” which infests the modern trinity of nation, state and capital and the realm of law. Circulating across multiple boundaries, blood undoes the presumed oppositions between religion and politics, economy and theology, kinship and race. It demonstrates that modernity is in fact saturated with Christianity.