An Interview with Gil Anidjar

Primo Levi, among other survivors of the death camps, has talked about the figure of the Muselmann, the Muslim, in Nazi concentration camps. In Levi’s words, “This word, Muselmann, I do not know why, was used by the old ones of the camp to describe the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection.” The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has commented that, “With a kind of ferocious irony, the Jews knew that they would not die at Auschwitz as Jews.” How does your reading of the understanding of Islam in certain canonical/philosophical texts of the Western tradition [Kant, Montesquieu, and Hegel], help us to understand the use of this appellation in the context of the concentration camp?

I started working on the Muselmann (a term I translate as ‘Muslim’ since that is what the German was taken to mean, according to countless testimonies) when I wrote the introduction to Derrida’s Acts of Religion although at the time I was not quite sure where it was taking me. By the time I read Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz, which had just come out in French (the English translation had not yet appeared), I was really taken with the book, and thought that I would have nothing to add. Agamben is after all the first to take Levi seriously on the crucial importance of the Muslim, and to dedicate an entire book to a figure that, though well known in circles familiar with Holocaust literature, has hardly attracted attention, or indeed, any serious reflection.

I subsequently came to suspect that there might be something to add after all, and this for two reasons. The first is that Agamben reinscribes the historical obscurity of the term, ‘Muslim’, its opacity and its strangeness. I do not by any means wish to diminish the strangeness, quite the contrary. I just want to say that this strangeness is even more extensive because of a combination of visibility and invisibility. What I am arguing is that the use of the term in the context of the camp, has a history that can be read on the very surface of major philosophical texts. This all-too visible history is however also marked by its invisibility.

The second reason I thought I may have something to add by way of a footnote, really, to Agamben, is that as complex as Agamben’s argument is – touching as it does on numerous issues and dimensions of language, of ethics, of politics, and of law – it has in this particular context very little to say about religion or about theology. This is particularly surprising to me since it is Agamben, who, after Derrida, alerted me to the importance of the theologico-political (think only ofHomo Sacer, of his analyses of Schmitt and Benjamin, and so forth).

So there were these two factors: the invisible visibility of the term, ‘Muslim’, and of its history, the alleged obscurity of its origins, and the absence of religion and theology in the discussion of the term and the phenomenon in Agamben. Agamben suggests, quite tentatively, that maybe the use of ‘Muslim’ relied on a medieval stereotype. Primo Levi, on the other hand, said the term might have come into common usage because of the way in which people imagined Muslims praying, or because of bandages around the head. Like Levi, I have found none of the explanations I encountered convincing.

So I wanted to explore this double-absence, and from then on, it seemed as though I only encountered symptoms as well as potential, if partial, explanations for this absence everywhere. The first was Kant, who says in his most famous statement on the sublime, in the Critique of Judgment:

“Perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law is the commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth, etc. This commandment alone can explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people in its civilized era felt for its religion when it compared itself with other peoples, or can explain the pride that Mohammedanism inspires.”

Some commentators do quote this passage in its entirety going all the way to the comment about Islam (“Mohammedanism”), but most of them actually interrupt the quote before Islam appears. They just stop, so that the whole passage becomes exclusively about Jewish law and about how Kant paradigmatically implicated the Jews in the sublime, which is one of the reasons why Kant can become ‘Kant the Jew’. Peter Gordon pointed out to me that what I am showing is not that there is just ‘Kant the Jew’, but also ‘Kant the Muslim’, which I thought was a lovely remark. When you actually look at the context of the Critique of Judgment, you realize that Kant is deploying the language that will later enable Hegel, with the help of Montesquieu, to describe the “religions of the sublime,” religions which, according to an overwhelming experience (if one can use the term at all), enslave their constituencies and subject individuals to their power.

In this early example of absolute subjection (as theologico-political!), such as Kant articulates it, it is impossible to ignore that Kant offers two moments, two paradigms, that are at once distinct and indissociable. The basic terms, which will then coagulate with Montesquieu – and his elaborations of the Muslim as the ultimate example of the despotic subject – and finally with Hegel, are formulated in Kant. In the book I hope I have succeeded to show this genealogy of sorts, but what I would want to do were I to write it now would be to claim that Hegel (by which I mean Hegel’s time, of course) invented the Semites. He invented the Muslim, no doubt, as he provides the clearest and most thorough formulation of what will then be repeated almost verbatim in Auschwitz and in Holocaust literature. But he also invents the Semites. He is the one who basically begins the tradition whereby whatever you say about the Jews you can say about the Muslims (note that Kant does not collapse the two into a barely differentiated unity), and Hegel does this long before Ernest Renan. He also does it before the category of the Semites really gets disseminated. He is writing at the beginning of the 19th century, which is just a few decades after the very notion of a distinction between Aryans and Semites is formulated by Herder and by very few others. Hegel has perhaps not been given enough credit (or blame) for this but to my mind it is really an extraordinary moment in the history of Western thought. And again it is no accident that it is found in Hegel. You could attribute a whole lot of things to Hegel and of course he is not alone, but I think the formulations are truly momentous and revealing.

The argument then is that the “religions of the sublime” are a direct consequence of Hegel’s learning from Kant, since we know that Kant and Montesquieu were the two intellectual heroes of Hegel. It is on the basis of their work that he wrote much of what he did. The moment in the Critique of Judgment quoted above complemented by the new articulation of despotism in Montesquieu and more importantly of the despotic subject – meaning the one who is subjected to the despot – and of Islam being the example, or the Muslim being the example par excellence of subjugation, all come together in Hegel. He points out that both Jews and Muslims are thoroughly submitted, they are slaves. They are slaves to their god. Aside from that, there are differences, yes. One can compare Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and there are slight differences, political here, more or less political there. But for the most part, this is what it is, and there is much more similarity between Judaism and Islam than between either and Christianity (this is something that the German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig understood well and opposed explicitly). It is critical that the terms of that submission are precisely those that describe the Muslim in Auschwitz.

I presented this material at a conference in France after which a kind woman, whose name I unfortunately forget, approached me. She told me that she was French but her mother was German and had grown up and gone to school in Germany in the 1930s. This woman had called her mother after having heard my talk and, in response, her mother had read out to her the words of a song that reads roughly as follows:

trink nicht so viel kaffee!
Nicht für Kinder ist der türkentrank
schwächt die Nerven, macht dich blaß lassen und krank.
Sei doch kein Muselmann,
der ihn nicht lassen kann!

Don’t drink so much coffee!
The Turk’s drink is not for children,
It weakens the nerves and makes you pale and sick.
Don’t be a Muslim
Who can’t help it!

This is like a contines pour enfants; a children’s song that people still learn, as it turns out. I have since met young German people who know that song and I am told it also appears in an opera.

The figure of the powerless, of extreme weakness and subjection, is not shrouded in mystery: coffee will make you weak, it will make you into a Muslim, aMuselmann. Here the image of Islam in the West is both that it is a political threat and a feminizing threat, a weakness. They are weak, and they make us weak. Coffee was one of the sites of that Christian anxiety, dating at least from the attempts by the Ottoman Empire (“the Turk”) to invade Venice, Vienna, Europe, in short. At some point, though, Christian Europe realizes that the threat may not be as large as initially anticipated. Historians will know this better than I, but if I recall, the battle of Lepanto, and the failure of the Ottoman fleet to invade Venice signals this turn downward in the fear of “the Turk.” Here, by the way, is another instance of a strange phrase concerning which I looked but could not find a history. The Ottoman Empire will, in the nineteenth century, be referred to as “the sick man of Europe.” This profoundly disturbing and evocative figure, said to emerge after the War of Crimea, seems to me to resonate profoundly with the Muslim, for what is he if not the sick man of Europe? You can do a Google search on the sick man of Europe and find enormous amounts of material. It is simply everywhere. Every Ottoman specialist knows it.

There are thus numerous traces, all of which can be found and followed, read and interpreted, that suggest possible venues for a genealogy of the Muslims of Auschwitz. These traces are both visible and invisible on the surface of the modern philosophical tradition, in children’s song, and in nineteenth and twentieth century popular culture. Nothing here diminishes the mystery which the Muslim is, its dreadful paradigmatic dimension. Yet, its genealogy, essentially related to Jews and Arabs as they appear at crucial moments of its articulation in and by Europe, is, it seems to me, less obscure.

The sick man of Europe is like the Muslim: there is no one who knows anything about Holocaust literature or about Holocaust history who does not know about the Muslim. That is the horrifying beauty of it all. It is the most manifest, and yet also the most invisible. Almost everybody I talked to tells me, “I have always wondered why the term Muselmann was used….”. It is just everywhere, and yet there has been no explanation for it. It is, as I said, quite horrifying.

In the book I also write about how in Hebrew the term ‘Muslim’ is not translated but rather transliterated (something which could be rendered as muzelmann, quite distinct therefore from muslemi, i.e. ‘Muslim’, in modern Hebrew). I do not mention the following anecdote in the book but I had an Israeli student with whom I went over this material in a class on Holocaust literature. After I spoke to her about the Muslims of Auschwitz, she recognized the term and said to her grandfather, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, “Grandfather, you have always spoken with me about the Muselmann, but you never told me that the wordMuselmann means Muslim.” She later told me that her grandfather flew into a rage such that she had never seen him in before. He adamantly insisted that this was not the case, that it is not what the word meant, that it never meant that. It is both tragic and even comic, that one could claim that a word is not a word, notthat word. Even in English one finds antiquated spellings of ‘Mussulman’ or ‘Musselman’ for the word ‘Muslim’. But I am not making an etymological argument. I am merely saying that the way the term functioned followed from previous usage, in very different yet related contexts. In Auschwitz, it functioned repeatedly by way of pointing to a similarity between certain peoples in the camp and Arabs praying. But how was this “recognition” possible? And why the popularity, the massive dissemination of the term after the end of the war? When Primo Levi says that ‘Muslim’ is another term like ‘Canada’ or ‘Mexico’ (names given to certain buildings in the camp) which has absolutely no recognizable referential value, or that its connotations have nothing to do with its usage in other contexts, it is simply striking, and to my mind, mistaken.

Of course words function outside of their context but the fact is that something of the common usage remains or is reinscribed. So that when people say ‘Canada,’ it may be a singular name but it is also overdetermined, culturally and discursively, if you will. The building where all the belongings of the dead were gathered and where it was actually (if only relatively) better to work has nothing to do with Canada, per se, and yet it was Canada that was thereby imagined as a place of plenty, toward which one could dream and, if one survived, escape after the war. And people did. And comparable things can be said of ‘Mexico’, which is where they stored blankets that had stripes such that reminded people of the traditional cloth of Mexico.

This is the culture of stereotypes. If one says to a little boy, “You throw like a girl”, the question is: what enables the “recognition” of a “girl” in this boy? What are the conditions that make possible such a slur? It is not because a girl “really” throws like a girl; it is because people think that they can recognize in a bad throw a girlish throw. This is all I am asking: How did that term – even if that is not what it meant to people – come to function? How did that recognition become possible? How could people say, “This looks to me like a Muslim.” When you have a song that says that a Muslim is weak and pale and submissive and can’t help it, and this understanding is ubiquitous in the whole discourse of modern Western philosophy, it becomes no less surprising, but perhaps less opaque.

It is not important that individual people know or endorse what its origins might be (think of the verb “to Jew” in English – would anyone claim that it is not a racial slur if used in a context where Jews are not present, not intended, not known? Or if people do not know, not consciously, that it has anything to do with Jews?). It may well be the case that my student’s grandfather did not know, and still does not know, but then why fly into a rage? It is not simply because of a mistake; it is far more loaded than that. So the stakes are enormous, absolutely enormous, in denying that there could be any parallel, that the Muslim is alive, against all odds, and still dying, in Israel and Palestine. That thought, I would argue, is simply unthinkable, and more: unbearable.

Read the full interview here.

“In this interview, Professor Anidjar engages the most urgent political questions of our times in suggestive and compelling ways. The issues he addresses – secularism, its limits and possibilities; the conflation of religious, ethnic and racial categories; the place of Europe in locating the enmity between Jew and Arab; the figure of the Muslim in Auschwitz; the problem of universalism – force us to question the most basic categories that shape our understanding of the world, thereby opening the space for a more illuminating and critical evaluation of our present historical moment.”

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