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Jews and Muslims in South Asia

Published January 16, 2019 by Dr Yulia Egorova

Dr Yulia Egorova presents her new book, Jews and Muslims in South Asia.

Historically, Jews and Muslims have shared a common space reserved in the European imaginary for the ultimate other. At the same time, nowadays, political and mass media discourses often construct Jews and Muslims in opposition to each other and see their relationship as unavoidably polarised due to the conflict in the Middle East. When I started working on my book project, I set out to examine how Jews and Muslims relate to each other in a place where, in contrast to Europe, their perceived mutual attitudes do not often make headlines. However, very soon it became apparent that in South Asia, this relationship is still intrinsically connected to broader narratives about Jews and Muslims, and my analytical and ethnographic focus expanded to turn to what I would describe as Jewish-Muslim relations in South Asia writ large. As a result, the project pursued two separate but co-dependant strands of analysis – it focused both on the diverse interactions that could be broadly described under the rubric of Jewish-Muslim relations, and on the conceptual relationship between notions of Jewishness and meanings assigned to being Muslim on the subcontinent, putting the growing literature on Jewish-Muslim relations in dialogue with academic interventions interrogating anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and their overlapping histories.

The book thus examines how the difference between Jews and Muslims has been constructed and reconfigured in the modern world in global discourses about Jewishness and Islam by looking at the way this difference is imagined and lived in South Asia, and explores how in varying socio-political contexts and circumstances constructions of this difference acquire differing dimensions. I propose that in contemporary India, South Asian Jewish experiences have been turned into a rhetorical tool to negate the discrimination of Muslims, but also argue that anti-Muslim sentiments, which found extreme expression in communal violence, are then read back at Jewish persons and spaces in India. On the broader theoretical plane, the book suggests that the ostensible celebration of Jewishness in the discourse of the Hindu (and, analogously, European) right masks not only Islamophobia, but also anti-Jewish prejudice, as it builds upon narratives about Jewish constituencies' alleged radical alterity and strongly implies that the acceptance of the Jewish minority is contingent upon it fitting into specific and non-negotiable blueprints of behavior and modes of self-representation that collapse their perceived difference into the mainstream Hindu (or European) self. These discourses, which aim at the production of sameness, construct both Jews and Muslims as the other that needs to be assimilated into the normativity of the imagined majority, but, at the same time, differentiate between the two, creating a hierarchy of alterities where the degree of integration within the perceived 'host' society becomes a measure of success or failure.

My second area of theoretical attention interrogates South Asian Jewish and Muslim histories, imageries and lived experiences as a domain where the two communities encounter each other and interact in diverse ways that do not easily fit pre-conceived Western understandings of what the relations between Jews and Muslims are supposed to encompass. My ethnography shows that Jewish-Muslim relations seen as a set of interactions between Jews and Muslims in each locale challenge and disrupt Jewish-Muslim relations as a trope evoking in one's mind the Israel-Palestine conflict. I discuss how interactions between Jewish and Muslim spaces, organisations and individuals can take multiple forms which may or may not fall under the rubric of what some public and academic discourses would have described as Jewish-Muslim relations, and that these interactions are highly diverse and dependent on a wide range of contexts of global, national and local significance. These contexts in their turn intersect with and inform each other, and I therefore argue that popular narratives about perceived Jewish-Muslim antagonism (or similarity) are often a product of the same European discourses that have historically constructed both Jews and Muslims as the other.

Dr Yulia Egorova is Associate Professor (Reader) in Anthropology at Durham University. She is the author of Jews and Muslims in South Asia: Reflections on Difference, Religion and Race (Oxford University Press, 2018) and a co-author (with Shahid Perwez) of The Jews of Andhra Pradesh: Contesting Caste and Religion in South India (Oxford University Press, 2013).

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