Wednesday, November 21, 2007

‘From Kaur to Khan’: the ‘problem’ of ‘forced’ conversions

by John Holmwood

This posting is partly to give a flavour of the sort of issue that will be addressed at next year’s Summer School in Birmingham. We briefly touched on the sensitive issue within and across different faith communities of conversion to other faiths and active proselytizing by some faiths, or groups within them (e.g. evangelical Christians). We also saw some of the difficult issues of marriages across religious divides in the film, The Syrian Bride, where one son returns home with a Russian bride and young child. In Birmingham, the issue of conversion and marriage across religious faith communities is currently a very hot topic among Sikhs, Hindus and Musllims. (Kaur is the Sikh name identifying females, while Khan signifies Muslim identity).

In particular, what is alleged is that Hindu and Sikh young women are being lured by Muslim young men into compromising (sexual) positions after evenings out, where they may have been ‘plied’ with alcohol or had rohypnol (the so-called ‘date rape’ drug) mixed with their drinks. They are then photographed and told they will be ‘shamed’ with their communities, unless they convert to Islam. Many cases have been reported, or at least have been claimed, and these are circulating within the Sikh and Hindu communities. In particular, it is claimed that there is a building in Birmingham, called ‘K to K’, where this all takes place. Speakers at gurdwaras and temples are encouraging local communities to be vigilant, and, of course, these allegations heighten tensions between communities.

To a very large degree, it is evident that this is something that sociologists call a ‘moral panic’, where particular kinds of ‘anxieties’ become focused upon a particular phenomenon, which then becomes amplified and distorted (especially through the role of the media). Indeed, there are few cases that can be identified, despite the large number reported (each, in turn, apparently personally ‘known’ to someone close to the person reporting it), and those cases that are identified seem to be about something entirely different, namely love matches between young men and women across religious boundaries.

Yet the different communities are convinced something is happening. The police are interested in ‘understanding’ this new phenomenon and, in so doing, reinforce the sense that something must be happening. This in turn serves to make relations between the communities tense (in October 2005 there was a riot with one death in the Lozells area of Birmingham, when African/Caribbean youth responded to a local community radio station report that a young African refugee woman had been raped by Pakistani youths at a local Pakistani beauty salon. Subsequently, no such event could be found to have taken place). Rumour can be very powerful, but difficult to counter.

In part, we can explain what is going on in the same way that we explain the existence of that significant proportion of North Americans who believe that they have been abducted by aliens. On the one hand, reporting of alien abduction serves to communicate the circumstances associated with being abducted (the descriptions of the aliens, the nature of the space ship, what happens on the ship, etc, all of which ‘recovered’ under hypnosis) and this then enters back into individual reports of abduction. People come to ‘know’ how to be a plausible alien abductee. The very similarity of the reports – itself a social construction – serves to confirm the sense that there must be something to it, or how else do so many individuals distributed across the USA have the same experiences?

So what cultural anxiety might underlie the phenomenon of alleged ‘forced conversions’? Several things seem relevant, quite apart from any historical tensions among the communities. First, all three communities in the UK, Sikh, Muslim and Hindu, have a cultural tradition of ‘arranged’ marriages, which take place in a wider cultural context of the UK where ‘love’ marriages initiated by young people are typical. Among different ethnic groups, South Asian communities have the lowest inter-ethnic marriages (compared to high ratio of intermarriage between whites and African-Caribbeans, for example). Given, the common cultural traditions among South Asian groups (as well as ethnically relatively segregated schools and residential areas) might we not expect that the pressure upon the conventions of arranged marriages might come first from relationships across different divisions within South Asian groups? Add to this that Muslim and Sikh communities present a mirror-image of each other with regard to visible markers of religious identities. In the Sikh community, religious identity is carried by males (turbans, unshaven beards, etc) while females ‘pass’ more easily in the wider community, unmarked by religious identity (indeed, female educational achievement among minority ethnic groups as in the wider population is also higher than that of males). In the Muslim community, religious identity is carried by females (head scarf, long loose garments, etc) and there is greater restriction on female participation in public life, such as employment.

In a context, where young Sikh (and Hindu) men have been demonstrating outside Muslim houses and mosques where young Sikh (and Hindu) women are believed to be ‘hidden’ (or, are ‘hiding’), is this not also a case where the politics of gender are very evident? The cultural anxiety is also manifesting itself as a gender anxiety about the freedoms of women. Is this not something, we also addressed at the Summer School concerning boundaries and the apparent need to maintain them in the face of potential threats? But in this case, we see how the boundary itself can become inflated and itself the source of threat. As the American sociologist, W.I Thomas said, if people believe things to be real, those beliefs become real in their consequences.

This is currently a very live issue in Birmingham with faith leaders being asked by their communities to take a stand, and faith leaders not knowing how to respond (except by asking if the Anglicans wouldn’t mind organising a task force!).

Note: Just googling ‘Kaur to Khan’ will give you immediate access to websites and blogs from within the Sikh community showing the nature of the angry responses to the supposed phenomenon of forced conversion.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Summer School Review: Is it Possible to Change?


Is it Possible to Change?

Selma Sevkli

For about two months ago, at the end of a mind-spinning India trip, I had to join a group of people whom all come from different countries, identities, boundaries, religions and looks for two weeks. Meeting people at conferences, having casual/ intellectual conversations were probably things we all do frequently. Living semi-together (under the same roof, in different rooms), however, was something new and it changed the concept of the meeting more than I had expected.

First, I saw myself trying to categorize people hastily. Earlier I do it, earlier my mind would be rested. Gender, nationality, religion and profession were my tools. I think I worked unconsciously on that for a few days and then I gave up. I had to come up close to 30 different rooms in my brain. Day by day, I realize everybody was unique. I realized how individual differences can be very significant. There were times when I managed to put two people in the same bubble, but I would see it would easily break when a controversial topic comes up. Everybody being different and having the same opportunities (right to speak, food, room, travel) has been my dream society for a long time. I was at the right place. By the end of the second day, I was physically excited to be part of the summer school.

At the first processing session, I caught myself with so many prejudices. When I was told to find the same and opposite of myself, it was very difficult to find someone filling these positions. What was the same? Not similar but the same, this was heavy. It was not my choice, but I had to find someone. This situation reminded me of other similar experiences in life. We feel not ready to make choices, commitments, but we have to do them anyway. It never feels like the right time, right place. So we go with quick judgments. In such limited time, without knowing people well, I did so. My decision on opposite, depended on my assumption of someone’s political view (which later turned out was not true), and the same looked like a mix of different identities (later turned out very different identities). I realized that I make assumptions on people depending on their groups, religions, countries rather than age, gender and profession. Somebody close to my age, a female, and even the same profession means nothing to me to have a connection. If I think we share some values on intellectual level, or politically, I unfold easily.

More than anything, nationalism and secularism have been bothering my mind. Talking and learning about those two subjects were very helpful for me. Although I was learning for my part, I felt that some of the information we were getting could be too complicated for the ones who did not know much about the subject. Kurdish issue, for example, was something we did not have a lecture on specifically. Many people did not even know why Kurds were not recognized as minorities. Under these circumstances, we watched a movie called “Journey to the Sun” which I did not know about beforehand. I strongly reacted to the movie as I saw it as a learning tool for the group. Many people who do not know about Kurdish issue in Turkey, would automatically believe that Turkish police would treat all Kurds badly, Turkish bosses would yell and take advantage of their employees just because they were Kurds, and many other assumptions that could be set to minds very easily. Moreover, the time that incidents take place were not mentioned so that the audience would think that is usual for Turkey. At this time, I was very part of this group and I really cared about people’s first assumptions on the issue. I would be very comfortable discussing the movie on an intellectual level if I were with people familiar with the subject. Yesim Ustaoglu is a director who is known for her sided political movies, that is why we did not see any reasoning in the movie. As long as Turks keep marrying Turks, I think it is a problem of state and politics. Comparing the Kurdish issue to the Palestinian issue would be totally nonsense. I strongly defend this opinion, and I know many people want to see the two almost identical. That is why I brought up the question of talking about Palestine. If we were to discuss state oppression, many more people were informed about Palestinian issue compare to Kurdish issue. I never intended to offend Adam related to his identity. On the other hand, I was not comfortable an Israeli commenting on Kurdish issue in Turkey, in front of Turks and Kurds almost as an expert. This was the time I changed my mind about my thesis subject. Before, I was planning to do research about the wall separating Israel/ Palestine and its effects on both sides. After this incident and a few others during summer school, I thought I would not be objective or it would be funny on an international level to present something in a few months deeply. I decided to solve my problems with secularism and nationalism first and I decided to understand secular nationalism in Turkey.

Another important thing happened during summer school was constant questioning and thinking. We were listening about ideas and countries first, and then we were commenting back on them by sharing with each other. I tried to see how an idea can reflect itself differently on different people. How a religion can be interrupted differently. How nationality can be an important component of identity for one person and how gender is more important for another one. In this group, if I looked a little carefully, I could see many details that shape identities, relationships, and even new groups.

While meeting, connecting and sharing with so many different people, I learned a lot. Some of the information I had, got updated, some changed. At the end of the 10th day or so, I was very confused with everything I learned. That was the time when people started to ask each other: “So, what do you think is going to happen?” My question was less patient: “What’s happening?” Many values I respected were in danger. Whose truth was more true? How come people believe in different things? How come people believing in different things can be married? Why am I not allowed to marry a non-Muslim? If my religion is not the most important part of my daily life, why should it be of my entire life? Or do I even have the right to question this rule? How about other religions? How much of them can we question? How is it possible to manage believing and thinking at the same time? Jews seem to be doing this very well, what is their secret? And many other questions were wandering in my mind. The most important question that I still couldn’t find answer was at the top though: Is my faith in danger if it reduces itself to equality with other beliefs? Do I have to believe that it is the true and best one in order to keep my devotion to it?

Going to Alevite community was another lifetime experience for me. This was a belief and community that I was not familiar with. I observed the ceremony very carefully, and took notes from the lecture. As much as I respect it as a culture, I do not/ I cannot see it as a religion. There are no written references about the belief, and it rejects some certain requirements of Islam. Not only that, but also the socio economic level of the society caused me some prejudice. I am sure I would be less judgmental if the women in the room were 30-40 year old college graduates. Is that why I felt myself closer at the ceremony in Adam’s room, Bursa? Is it because all these people were clever and open minded to me so the thing they believed in must have been more meaningful? Or is it because it was closer to my faith and the way it is practiced?

Identifying myself with my race, nationality and religion would not be something I like to do at the first place. I would mostly prefer to be perceived with my individual qualifications. Despite my will, the first thing people ask when I go abroad is “Where are you from?” “You Muslim?” Nobody cares what I study or what I think about world hunger. Religion and nationality are critically important to identify one another. I do not specifically include or exclude myself from those groups. I simply try to focus on different details. Until we went to Selimiye Mosque with the group, I had no strong feelings of belonging to any group. I thought there were no groups that would accept me as I am, and there were no groups I would accept them the way they were.

When I went to Selimiye, I felt a strong connection with the mosque. Maybe it was because all the mosques I go are very touristy and I do not go very often, but there was something different. After a very long time, and perhaps after heavy conversations about religions and borders, I felt like a “Muslim”. I covered myself properly and I felt like it was my territory inside the mosque. At this time, I was not a female, not a summer school fellow, not a graduate student, I was simply a Muslim. I focused on this spirituality and prayed for a few minutes. Little bit later, I saw some of my group members were coming in, and women members were not covered properly. As a person who does not care about this at all outside, I got strongly offended by this behavior in the mosque. I did not think about it before, I was just feeling that it was wrong. I didn’t want to “warn” anybody, still being respectful; I went upstairs to the women section which was empty. I kept praying by myself in peace until the other female members of the group showed up. I avoided eye contact and just moved to the other side without giving them any explanation. It was about prayer time and I wanted to join the “Muslim group” to pray together. Still upstairs but far away from the other women, I looked down and saw that they were all men. It would be awkward to pray with men, I got confused. I looked back and saw the women, no, I wanted to be with Muslims. I looked down, I saw men, I had to be with women. Stuck in the middle, I looked at myself and my situation was exactly the same what I am dealing in life. I feel close to many groups but I don’t belong to any of them. Either I don’t want them or they would not accept me, at the end, I am alone. I am trying to figure out everything by myself. This state of loneliness seemed very depressing for a few minutes. I realized many things in such short time with a simple experience.

When I got out I felt like sharing this experience with someone. Looking for someone “similar”, I walked to Enver. As he is a “Muslim”, and a “thinker”, I thought he would understand me, maybe he had similar experiences. He listened to me carefully and gave me the comfort of “I feel you, I understand you” My estrangement lasted a few more minutes and then I got back to being a member of the group. Suprisingly, I was ashamed that I moved away from some of them in the mosque rudely. I felt like giving an explanation but I couldn’t. The next morning, Rahel asked me if they offended me in the mosque, she also felt bad that I moved away. I was touched that she sensed something and cared to learn about it. When I shared my experience, I knew she understood and felt it very well. Later on, we talked about many things, and it was very comforting to talk to somebody who can understand what I have been through.

What was more important to me while opening up to people? If you ask me the people’s common characteristics that I had a stronger connection, I cannot do any generalization that I did at the beginning anymore. They were Muslim, American, Jewish, Bosnian, man, woman, young, old, professor, student etc. I thought the most important feature I was looking for was sincerity and analytical thinking capacity. Everything else were spices, the taste was hidden at the deep.

Nationality and religion are very important keys to understand the people, but people are a lot more than that. Although they keep people “safe” and “control” them for their own good, they build strong boundaries that can prevent connection with one another sometimes. I guess it is true then, we cannot love through control. In this summer school, I questioned the limits of this control and left them behind to reach people. I think I am getting closer to build new borders now. I discovered them first, questioned for a long time, removed some and added some. At the end, I do not think it is possible to completely get rid of them, but they are subject to change as everything else. And this potential gives me hope for more improvement.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Developments with the Patriarchate

Ankara (AsiaNews) – The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomeos I, accompanied by representatives of Turkey’s Greek Orthodox minority, visited the newly-elected Turkish President Abdulah Gül to congratulate him for his election.

In view of important constitutional reforms submitted to referendum on October 21, Bartholomeos raised several issues that have negatively affected the Patriarchate in Turkey, like the historical recognition of the Patriarchate’s ecumenical nature, the return of buildings, monasteries and churches unjustly seized by the Religious Foundations Directorate and the re-opening of the Halki Theological School, shut down in 1971.

“We want all our citizens to live in harmony and prosperity. Minorities in Turkey enrich the country. Reforms will follow normal procedures, step by step. It is my duty to inform the appropriate institutions and I shall closely follow developments to solve the problems,” said President Gül after he listened carefully to the ecumenical patriarch’s plea.

“Everyone welcomed us warmly and with kindness. They listened to what we had to say carefully and promised to do everything possible to meet our needs,” said the ecumenical patriarch when he left the presidential palace.

Patriarchate sources noted though that similar pledges were made four yeas ago, in 2007, by Prime Minister Erdoğan. Now it is hoped that the circumstances might be more favourable.

The patriarch also visited Parliamentary Speaker Köksal Toptan and opposition leader Deniz Baikal. The latter expressed misgivings about the religious leader’s requests, suggesting that they might stoke Islamic fundamentalism.

The scheduled meeting between Bartholomeos and Prime Minister Erdoğan was instead postponed because of the deteriorating situation along the border with Iraq and the terrorist actions of the PKK. (NT).

Sunday, October 7, 2007

ISSRPL Blog Finally Active

Dear ISSRPL 2007 Fellows,

After quite a long time, we have finally established a blog of our own. We have all been very busy lately, so a silence in the e-mail communication between us - that had taken place to some extent, immediately after the summer school, but stopped as our day-to-day obligations took over - was somehow not surprising. We all have our daily duties, obligations and other things that occupy us, so it seems very hard to maintain regular communication with people living on the other side of the globe.

Nonetheless, in order to make the communication channel more visible and "tangible", we have - as promised at the school's last night in Yenisehir Palas - put some efforts and finally created this blog domain for our common use. As you will recall, the entire idea of that last night was related exactly to problems of our continuous communication, once we all leave Istanbul and go back to our lives in countries where we live. Well, this blog is an attempt to spur more communication between the Fellows, offering a place where the discussion we started in Istanbul can continue for as long as we like. So, consider this blog to be our "virtual" Istanbul, our virtual Academy for exchange of thoughts, ideas and news. However, this does't mean that the blog is exclusively reserved for "serious" stuff - quite contrary, all of the news, thoughts, poems, stories, jokes from the Fellows are more than welcome.

This is the Fellows' site. But, also this does not mean that our dear lecturers and teachers cannot consider it as their own space as well. We invite all of them to join us in this modest web endeavour, to give us their thoughts, news and other things they consider to be relevant for our common experience. We also invite them to offer their new ideas to us, their new essays, books and analyses on all of the matters we talked about in Turkey, so we could continue our discussion.

The main body of this blog will be reserved for the Fellows' contribution, be it short greetings, some news or entire essays and articles you wrote recently. On the right side of the blog you will find the archive of all of the posts, as well as some of the Fellow photos and other relevant stuff. We also invite all of you to post your photos at the section provided.

Let us hope that this blog will become a useful mechanism for nurturing our spirit of discussion, as well as our friendship. (The password for posting is available at Selma Sevkli and Eldar Sarajlic, so please contact these Fellows if you want to post something -or simply send your articles/essays to avoid technical difficulties and we'll publish them for you,

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Turkey's Big Dilemma: Headscarf Ban

ODTÜ rector says they will go to the European court if the headscarf is allowed in universities

ANKARA – Turkish Daily News
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

University rectors have mobilized against the possibility of the new constitution allowing students with headscarves to enter university facilities, saying that they intend to take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary, reported the daily Hürriyet yesterday. The Rectors' Committee, an advisory board of all university rectors, will meet today to discuss the amendments proposed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The committee will be chaired by fiercely secularist Higher Education Board (YÖK) Chairman, Professor Erdoğan Teziç, who has quarreled over the issue with the government in the past. Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) Rector Professor Ural Akbulut criticized the government's handling of the efforts to create a new constitution, and said, “it could have been more democratic.” He said there was no urgent need to change the Constitution and called for a broader reflection on the necessary amendments. The headscarf is a religious symbol and should not be allowed in educational institutions, and once allowed in universities, those who do not wear headscarves will feel pressure, he added. “We have seen it everywhere in the region. In Libya, there is no law about not covering oneself. However, over 20 years, all girls in universities covered themselves due to pressure,” he said. Any incremental sacrifice on secularism will bring about bigger changes, said Akbulut, adding that there are no gray areas when it comes to secularism. İnönü University Rector Fatih Hilmioğlu told Hürriyet that there had been a headscarf problem in the past but it was now solved. “Students got used to it. Any change will drag Turkey to chaos,” he said. Member of YÖK, Enver Hasanoğlu, said he did not believe there will be any changes concerning the dress code at universities, adding, “we will discuss the issue if anything changes.”

The Republican People's Party (CHP) opposes any changes on the issue and its Istanbul deputy, Professor Nur Serter, said once the headscarf is allowed Islamists will increase pressure on girls.


Friday, October 5, 2007

Reflection Paper by Adam SELIGMAN - Bursa and Beyond: Reflections on Group and Boundary

by Adam Seligman

There were many moments in the 2007 ISSRPL that lend themselves to reflection and more focused and analytic attention. It is however perhaps best to begin with what is most personal. Relevant here is the interaction with Abd Abu Omar and his daughter Nur in Bursa on Saturday the 7th of July.

Among the many different aspects of this encounter that lend themselves to reflection is how ambiguity and ambivalence are built into social life and as there is not ability to fully define or understand a situation or an encounter; interpretation, the drawing on existing assumption, the imputation of reasons, meanings, interests and strategies is always part of what we bring to almost every encounter. Moreover, these assumptions, sets of reasons and interpretative grids are not only individually produced, but to great extent reflect our own collective presuppositions, prejudices and the “ground” upon which we stand when we are forced to approach and deal with and make sense out of an always changing, never-fully-given-to-understanding reality. “Explanation is where the mind rests” says David Hume. This resting place is, more or less, Durkheim’s collective representations: the emic, internal, language of each community. This place is, moreover, connected to the sacred space of each community, where outsiders do not enter. It would not be possible to enter this place without, at the same time, sharing in the collective experience of the sacred.

All of these aspects actually came to play a role in the interaction with Abd which, in turn, highlights them in what may be useful ways. Abd lectured us on the Thursday and joined us on the trip to Bursa. He did not join the group in any of its group events (except possibly one lecture in Istanbul, I do not recall) in Bursa (on Friday night or Saturday morning) and was, (by mistake it later turns out) asked to join in the group processing meeting on Saturday afternoon. Immediately prior to the meeting two other lecturers were asked not to join the meeting as they had not been part of group dynamics prior to the meeting and just before the meeting I had asked the tour guide to please leave, as the meeting was really closed to the group. (I will not address at the moment if that decision regarding the other lecturers was a good one or not, that is another matter). Thus, I registered a bit of surprise when Abd showed up at the meeting with his daughter. In truth I did not know how to react. I felt strange asking him to leave, but also felt it was unfair for him to be present while we had asked other lecturers not to participate in the meeting. [I should interject at this point that at the very beginning of the school I raised the issue with the whole group, if people who were here for a few days only should be part of activities like processing. There were divergent opinions and we let it rest without coming to a decision. This was a mistake on my part. It was too early for the group to know enough to make an informed decision as a group and I should have just decided, together with the other staff members, based on experience of previous years.]

In the event, and with the Abd and Nur present I opened it to group discussion. People took very different positions. Some claiming that he was here and so should remain, others claiming that a group has every right to close itself, to have its secrets and, in essence, to posit boundaries. One, very perceptive comment was that the whole discussion was unseemly, taking place in front of Abd and his daughter and I should simply have gone up to them and asked them to leave in a personal and quiet discussion. Indeed when this was broached I had to ask myself why I did not do this. After all, I had no problem asking the guide to leave in just such a manner. Why then could I not have done the same with Abd. Now there may be many reasons for this. My own feeling was that it was because I consider Abd a friend (though I do not agree with his politics at all). He has been a guest in my house. I have arranged for him to speak at Boston University. I have come to his defense publically when Jewish groups attempted to have him expelled from the USA and I have organized meetings in my home with him as a guest speaker. I have also had him speak in my daughter’s Jewish school. I have been a guest in his house, have eaten in his living room and even prayed from there facing the Western Wall. All of this, to my mind, made it very very difficult for me to ask him to leave the group. My inability to do so led me to open it up to group discussion.

While these were my own reasons, it is important to note that other interpretations were certainly being offered by other members of the discussion. In fact as I later heard, one of the small groups that met following the larger discussion – a group, interestingly, made up of Jews, Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians etc. saw the difficult not as Adam’s relation with his friend, but of a Jew ejecting a Palestinian. Now I must admit that when told this, I was surprised as it certainly was not in my mind as the event unfolded. But that is not to say it was not or could not be a dimension that many experienced. After-all the Jewish/Israeli/Palestinian knot of complexities was very much with us. On Thursday, at the movie Journey to the Sun, one of the Turkish fellows reacted very strongly, saw it at first as anti-Turkish propaganda and one of the first things she said was: “What about the Palestinians?” This was off topic and I pointed out that 2 years ago we did a summer school in Israel and she was welcome to speak to the participants to see if a fair presentation of the problem was offered. The reason I am mentioning this incident following the movie is to show that the matter was very much before us. It was before us as well for in synagogue on Saturday one of the men given an honor had the prayer for the dead said for his son who was killed at the terrorist attack on Rehov Emek Refaim in Jerusalem 4 years ago. This was explained to the participants of the school who were at the synagogue. (I must add here that, as I was on the bimah at that moment, having just been given an honor and was near the man, I was very moved. It was for me a very very difficult moment, similar in many ways to what I had experienced a year before in Newton when I was leading prayers in the synagogue and the summer school group entered. It is the moment of de-centering, when you recognize that the groups you belong do have, at times, very different agendas and they are simply irreconcilable and you must live with that).

Thus, and whatever may have been my personal and individual reasons for not being able to simply walk over to Abd and ask him to leave, it was clear that on a collective level of how the whole event was experienced; it was experienced in different ways by different people and at least one possible interpretive grid had little to do with the personal relations of Adam and Abd and was, rather, refracted through a much broader lens of the conflicts in Israel and Palestine.

Now, at the same time all this was going on, something else was going on as well and this something else was much more interesting to me than the actual discussion over Abd and his daughter. (By the way, Abd had no problem with leaving and had a very good and important discussion with Suzanne Stone during this time which benefited both greatly. I am hoping that in the future he will join us again and for a longer and more involved period of time). For what was of great interest to me was if the group would be able to posit boundaries. In my understanding, only if the group could posit boundaries and so admit the possibility of exclusion could it really be a group. I recognize that I may well be wrong here, but I am not a universalist. I do not believe in universal, unlimited, trust or love. I think our ability to trust and to develop feelings of responsibility for the other is extremely circumscribed and for me the discussion over Abd’s participation was actually a test of the group. Would the group be able to posit boundaries and so define itself as a group (with, pace Rahel’s strictures, a minimum amount of trust). Or, would the group remain open and so, by necessity, define the terms of trust and mutual responsibility that could develop among its members to what is generally taken as acceptable in say, the usual academic, global conference situation. For me this was actually a very very critical moment in the developing dynamic of the school and for this very reason I refrained from weighing in or attempting to influence any decision the group would make. I even refrained from looking anyone in the eye, not to influence anyone in any way.

As we all know the group voted overwhelmingly to ask Abd and Nur to leave, with the hope that there would be no hard feelings (as I do not think there were at all) and the expectation that Abd would be with us in future school. The group then broke into smaller units to discuss what had transpired.

So what is the point? What can we learn?

A number of things strike me as important. For one, reality is ambiguous if only because it takes place in the continuum of time. We can never know the whole context of any interaction or any event. Indeed, there is no “whole” context. Events take place in time and time is history. Where does one stop in tracing the etiology of a particular event? Again, Hume: “Explanation is where the mind rests”. There is no final or totally explained event. There is only the place where we stop asking questions. This place, in turn, can be very different for different people. Moreover and to no small extent, the mind “rests” in the space of collective representations (to use Durkheim’s phraseology). This, by the way, is what makes the summer school such a difficult and exhausting experience for us all. We bring together people who very much do not share collective representations. We cannot just muddle though on the assumption that everyone is basically the same. It becomes clear that we are not (sure, we are the same in our needs, but that is true for us and chimpanzees as well). We live in very different collective universes, do not share these representations and our minds “rest” in very different places. Moreover, we are forced to unpack these explanations and view the very fragile and particularistic basis for our judgments (judgments that outside the school, we assume to be of universal validity – such that any “reasonable” person would share).

To hark back to last year’ story of the cross in Mostar. We experience events and even words differently. Most of the time we do not really understand one another, but most of the time it does not matter. We are not pushed, or forced to either understand or recognize the failure of understanding. We thus exist in an “as if” universe of a reality that we take as shared, even if it is not. In the school we are pushed to uncover the cracks in this shared illusion and recognize just how much is not and in fact, perhaps, cannot be shared. (We should recognize that this issue came up again and again, not only in Bursa over Abd – but accompanied us throughout, in our discussions over the Alevi community, over Sunni Moslems refusing to eat the food of the Alevis, over the issues connected to the Nation of Islam and indeed over the complicated web of ethnic and religious identities in Turkey). Then comes the interesting challenge. Can we live together even as we recognize that we do not share a collective “resting place” of the mind?

This is why, for me, the issue of boundaries and the self-definition of the group was of such importance. For if the group could posit its own boundaries (which it did) it was an indication that shared experience or practice (in this case of participation in the school) could allow people with very different sets of collective representations (and so, of course, very different ideas of what is sacred), to come together – sharing a common, circumscribed purpose – even if they did not share an overarching set of ‘cosmic’ or embracing meanings.

I think we are on our way to understanding how this can happen as well as demonstrating that it can take place and this is no mean achievement.

(Note: All names in the essay have been deliberately changed.)

Introductory Essay by Adam SELIGMAN - Tolerance as Practice: A Pragmatic Anthropology of Civil Education in a Post-Secular Age

Experience of the ISSRPL

Adam B. Seligman


Tolerance implies living with, abiding or – in the medieval usage, suffering – the presence of that which we find objectionable. If something or someone were not objectionable, there would be no need to tolerate its presence.

Tolerance thus presents us with a double burden. It demands that we accept the presence of that which we find objectionable and in so doing, it demands that we suffer our own discomfort at this presence. It demands of us to live in some form of cognitive dissonance.

Simply stated, not so simply practiced and for the following reasons:

First and foremost, tolerance assumes the existence of difference. Tolerance needs to be evoked as a mechanism of social interaction we must find ourselves in the presence of something that is both different and objectionable. If it were just different, but not objectionable there would be no cause for tolerance (someone’s rather odd taste in bathroom fixtures say). The objectionable is, moreover, almost always seen as the different (though one could, as we say, “tolerate” one’s own heroin habit or alcohol addiction – but even here, the usage implies some split, some reflective differentiation of one’s ‘self’ from that part of self which is addicted to the substance in question).

If we make use of Freud’s notion of the “narcissism of the small difference”, i.e. that he or she who is slightly different from me is, in a sense, a continual threat to my identity and sense of self – constantly calling into question the distinguishing characteristics of my own sense of self, precisely because they are so alike in all other ways – we see how difference is almost always seen as containing some objectionable element. We almost always project a negative valence to the difference, precisely because that difference brings into question our sense of self worth.

When faced with the “small difference” we thus tend in fact to one of two moves. The first is to turn the small difference into a rather large one – ie. what is often called today “othering” the other, pushing him or her or this or that group beyond the boundaries of shared humanity (a process which defined to a great extent traditional Christian attitudes towards Jews, many current attitudes towards Moslems in the West, the orientations of some Christian evangelicals in the USA to gays and lesbians and so on). At this stage of course tolerance is ruled out as unnecessary as the other is so totally other, dangerous and beyond the common pale that there is no cause to tolerate. It is no longer a matter of some one or some behavior being objectionable – but rather, the boundaries between us and them have, in fact, become absolutized into boundaries of good and evil, humane and barbaric and so no tolerance is called for (clearly tolerance has limits, if it is not to fall into total relativism). Tolerance in this case is defined away as the person or persons who are different are seen, not simply as objectionable, but as downright dangerous.

This, as I say, is one, common move. The other, equally common, is to obviate the need for tolerance in a different direction. In most cases we tend to elide the problem of tolerance with an appeal to some essential, underlying or overarching similarity with what is different. We tend to trivialize the difference and posit some essential shared characteristic that, in effect, makes us one. So here too, there is no need to tolerate, for we have done away with what is different and trivialized what we saw as objectionable. Once again, then, we have absolved ourselves of the need for tolerance as we have done away with difference.

There are two problems with this move: First, it usually comes in tandem with the first. So that when we define our common bond with one group of people it is usually through defining a third group as beyond that common bond. A unites with B by defining themselves in opposition to C. To a great extent this seems to be what is happening now in the relations of Jews and Christians vis à vis the Muslim world. We all did this as children and it is a staple of group psychology. It is of course extremely dangerous, if for no other reason than that it demands that continual production of a C group. So that there is a continual impulse to redefine some difference in a sub-group of A or B as so different that it can no longer be part of the conjoined group and it is pushed out beyond a common, shared definition of solidarity. To no small extent, this is the history of heresy and sectarianism in the great world religions.

There is however yet another reason that this process cannot be stable (leaving aside the normative or ethical aspect) and that is because each and every one of us wants recognition and respect precisely in where we are unique, singular and different. By defining us in terms of an overarching similarity or sameness, we define away what is unique and particular to each. This uniqueness and particularity however is precisely what each of us wishes to be recognized in and through. It is in our difference, or ‘specialness’ that we wish to be recognized, not our sameness. Appeals to sameness, to our shared values or shared humanity as a basis of tolerance thus, in effect, do away with tolerance while leaving of bereft of that sense of unique personal worth that is so critical to our idea of self in the world.

However simple an idea, the reality of tolerance is almost always unworkable – resolving itself into either affirmations of sameness, which obviate the need for tolerance by positing the essential identity of all relevant social actors; or, by positing the absolute and dangerous nature of alter (or alters) to whom the proper response is not tolerance but some form of extermination (either physical or symbolic). In both cases we are seemingly running away from the extremely difficult demands of tolerance; that double burden noted above.

The following is an exploration of how to bear that burden.


The following reflections are the result of over a decade of engagement with the problem of tolerance and of crafting a practice, or set of practices that could further our abilities to live with and to abide with what we find disagreeable and even wrong headed.

In the course of these many years those of us engaged in this project have often been confronted by colleagues, advancing the very reasonable claim that tolerance was too negative a term, weighted down with medieval baggage and pejorative associations. Tolerance after all was what was practiced towards Jews and prostitutes during the middle ages and it was but a second best solution, the real desiderata having been to rid society of their presence altogether. Rather than such a negative and begrudging accommodation, what was really called for – so friends and associates claimed – was not tolerance, but pluralism, a rejoicing and celebration of difference in its myriad forms and voices.

Over the years of engagement with these topics some of us have come to the conclusion that pluralism is, indeed, a worthy desideratum; that is to say, it is a state of social existence that we should work towards achieving. The construction of a social and public space that is shared by very different and opposing organizations and points of view is a goal, a pluralist goal, if you will – that we willingly embrace. Having said this however, the question is how to attain such a goal. To posit the goal is not to posit the means of realizing it. In fact to posit the goal and leave it at that, rather begs the crucial question of how we even begin to realize such a goal – especially in a world of radically divergent agendas, commitments, interests, identities and orientations.

The usual move at this point is to invoke different theories of democratic and participatory politics that allow the free movements of ideas and actors in a neutrally constituted public space. At this point then the discussion usually moves into the intricacies of democratic political theory, the sociology of social movements, the history of the transitions to democratic regimes and so forth. The particular individual virtues imputed to the citizenry of such regimes tend moreover to be understood as those of a liberal individualist (often secular) variety that is a belief in the moral autonomy of the individual social actor pursuing his or her desiderata in such a public space. What is not sufficiently countenanced is the possibility that other virtues and ways of living, that do not necessarily equate with the moral autonomy of the individual, may also provide for the ability to abide by and even protect difference of a constitutive nature. In fact, they may be more essential to the working of such tolerance than the liberal/individualist model.

What is lacking is thus a serious inquiry into the type of actors and actions necessary to engage in such a politics of pluralism. What is lacking is an understanding of those social virtues, necessary for democratic politics to constitute themselves. We simply assume that they are of the liberal/individualist model (a throwback to the old modernization studies perhaps). This however is not necessarily the case.

What I make so bold as to assert in the following is if we intend to realize our dreams of pluralism what is needed is not simply specific institutional rules of social organization (freedom of organization, conscience, universal franchise, rights etc.) acting as some sort of third party enforcer, but rather an appreciation of tolerance as a virtue that must be inculcated at the most fundamental levels of socialization. What is wanted and needed is precisely a practice of tolerance – which can, itself, be rooted in very different traditions of practice (not simply assuming that those traditions must take a secular form). Tolerance then has to exist as a practice – as a pragmatic mode of being in the world, among women and men of different interests, commitments and even of different fundamental values.

As noted, a decade of experience and intense work with academic colleagues, religious thinkers, educators and activists from all over the world, but mostly from the Balkans and Israel have led me to a set of ideas about tolerance as practice that I think may be of interest beyond our own small circle of engaged practitioners.

John Dewey makes the important distinction between science as a statement that gives directions or states meanings and art which expresses them. The giving of directions (like a sign to a city) in no way supplies one with an experience of the object of those directions (again, a sign supplies the viewer with no experience of the city). Signs and statements of direction may be good one or bad ones, confused or clear, comprehensive or partial – but in no case can they give us the experience of their object. Art, on the other hand, does not simply lead us to an experience “It constitutes one”. It is expressive of experience. This distinction is helpful in the present context. Tolerance can only be expressed in action. It is constituted in the doing and only in the doing, in the practice – in the pragmatic orientations taken when tolerance of what finds wrong or distasteful is called for. Tolerance as a practice is also an art. It constitutes experience. And experience constituted in and through tolerant orientations is very different than ones constituted through non-tolerant ones. This essay however aims at something much less grand. It aims only to give some hesitant descriptions of what tolerance entails, of how to achieve it, of what are its constitutive as well as limiting conditions and how it may operate. It proposes no more than a prolegomena to the science of tolerance. The real work however is in its art.

Art presupposes practice. And practice, action is, after all, always temporary, contingent and fallible, dealing with the concrete, particular and circumstantial. In this it differs from theoretical artifices. It makes no enduring claims, stakes out no final demands and recognizes the always only partial nature of its effects (and for that matter of its provenances). It deals with ambiguity through the circumscription of its claims. It may just point the way to a delicate balance between the positing of a set of final ends and the self-circumscription of one’s concrete ways and practices in pursuit of these ends. However, when the ways or practices are devalued vis à vis the theoretical work of “positing the end” (what we would call the theoretical) then totalistic tendencies come to dominate. Such is the result in all cases marked by the division of theory and practice (and this of course is what thinks like John Dewey and educators like Joseph Schwab railed against). Traditions of practice thus become the touchstone of a much broader problematic, but also of particular relevance and saliency to problem of tolerance in contemporary world.

The issue of practice and of the doing, however, is also terribly complicated as it divides as much as brings together. We don’t, after all, do everything with everyone – not in our conjugal relations and not in our “truth communities”. We do not, we cannot, do our collective rituals with everyone; partaking in the Eucharist is not the same as a pick-up game of stick-ball. How then can we develop practices that preserve difference while engaging with the different? This is the pedagogic challenge of our century. By definition there can be no formulas, no algorithms. But there are indications, resources, experiments and past experiences of such that may present us with some model, however rough and undeveloped of how to proceed. Exploration of these will range from historical examples to curricula work in Israel, rebuilding mosques in Bosnia, the summer school experiences we have developed over the years in Israel and the Balkans and other similar cases. These will be drawn upon to show just how different experiences of doing tolerance inculcate an awareness of what tolerance involves that cannot be achieved otherwise.


In essence, we are in the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life (ISSRPL), attempting to produce an art of tolerance. We are attempting to provide the experience of the object – to constitute tolerance – and to produce at least one expressive form of its manifestation in the yearly two week school program. We aim to establish a practice, or more concretely, a set of practices through which a tolerant approach to the other can be realized and enacted. To paraphrase a title of one of John Dewey’s books, we aim to produce an art of experience, that is, an art of the experience of tolerance. In this essay we can however, only attempt the much more limited object of summarizing that experience and attempting to provide a set of directives, sign-posts and statements of direction in Dewey’s nomenclature which, hopefully, will lead others on to the practice of the art itself.

As many of the following vignettes as well as the analytic conclusions have emerged from the work of the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life over the past years, it would make sense, before anything else, to present the idea of the school and its work.

The ISSRPL was first conceived in a restaurant in Sarajevo, in December of 2001. It was Ramadan and Chanukah and a number of religiously committed Jews, Moslems and Christians who had gathered there from all over the world had to hurry through their meal to partake in a discussion of religious tolerance at the Franciscan seminary on the outskirts of the city. From that meeting came the idea to establish a school devoted to tolerance and the development of new perspectives on the intersection of religion and the public sphere. Bringing together roughly thirty people each year to explore specific issues in the intersection of religion and public life, the school’s major aim is to reframe our understanding of these issues and to bring the participants to enact their new understandings in their home societies – either through the establishment of new initiatives, the development of new projects within existing initiatives, or creating new institutional linkages across boundaries (of tradition, ethnicity, nationality).

The ISSRPL is an annual international, inter-religious summer school of approximately two weeks that meets in a different country every year. It provides a framework where students, civic leaders and prominent academic from different countries can explore the issues of religion and the public sphere with an aim to develop new strategies of tolerance and pluralism while maintaining a commitment to tradition and religious identity. The program is centered on three academic courses together with the processes of group building and the construction of working relationships across religious and ethnic identities. The didactic goals of the school are thus not solely cognitive but social as well.

The ISSRPL combines a global perspective on religious thought with social scientific research on tolerance, civil society and a pluralistic approach to pedagogic practice. Its goal is to transform both the theoretical models and concrete practices through which religious orientations and secular models of politics and society engage one another. Its guiding principle is that in order to build relations of tolerance and understanding between groups and to shape a civil society, the perceived barrier between secular, modern and more traditional religious values must be broken down. Rather, political orientations and social practices must be developed that will draw on both religious traditions and the insights of secular modernity in new and creative ways.

The ISSRPL meets each year in a different country. In line with its commitment to substantive dialogue across traditions and a mutual engagement of different perspectives, the changing physical location is of paramount importance given the educational strategy and philosophical purpose of ISSRPL. Meetings are held in the Balkans, the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere.

The ISSRPL mission is to educate a new cadre of religious and civic leaders who, while maintaining their religious identities and affiliations will provide much needed leadership in bridging the worlds of religious and secular communities. Along these lines we have selected as locales for the Summer School those countries where religious and secular worlds, commitments and desiderata, are often in conflict, or alternatively, where different religious civilizations face one another across a divide of hatred and intolerance and violence.

The 2003 Summer School was held in Bosnia I Herzegovina and in Croatia. It was dedicated to The Role of Religion in the Conflicts of ex-Yugoslavia. The 2004 Summer School was also held in Bosnia, dedicated to The Muslim Question in Europe. In 2005 the Summer School met in Jerusalem, around the theme of Religion, Nationalism and Fundamentalism: The Challenge of Coexistence. In 2006 it met in both Stolac (BiH) and Boston (USA) dedicated to Religion and Civil Society. In 2007 it met in Istanbul to look at Religion, State, Ethnos: the Legacies of Empire.

One of the most important functions of the ISSRPL has in fact been to provide a sort of international, global, and inter-religious agora, a space of parhesia (of publicly spoken truths) where the effects of each individual and organizational effort can be multiplied through the connections established and linkages effected. The ISSRPL thus has an important role as enabler of certain types of social, educational and institutional action around issues of religion, pluralism and the public realm through the networking capacities it offers.

While such gathering of dozens of people from different countries and traditions for two weeks of intense study and reflection seems to be a significant experience for the individuals involved, we feel it is incumbent upon us to attempt an assessment of the lessons learned from the experience that will permit its generalization and perhaps application to other and different circumstances.


One of the most important and recurring themes of the summer school is that of boundaries. As a major, explicit and stated goal of the school is the “decentering” of self; the question of boundaries and their repositioning has been a critical component of school dynamics. While an understanding of this can only be achieved through its detailed presentation in concrete examples; it is nevertheless useful to begin with a broader understanding of what we mean by boundaries.

Boundaries by definition impose constraints. By constraining they differentiate, limit, restrict, define and break the flow of what would otherwise be a fractal universe (of thought, emotion, sensuous perception or physical reality). They constitute the frames of a reality which always already are. They are given in the past. This pastness, the givenness of a past imbued with authority is what Hans Gadamer noted as the ground of our very existence in time. All innovation and creativity can progress only in reference to this past and its givenness.

Because of this the traditional or the given – that is, what we think we already know - is what is authoritative. It is what defines the field of our vision, including our innovative and revolutionary visions. Boundaries, the origin of our categories and symbolic differentiation of existence are always given in the past (included in what we already know, or think we do). The ground of our existence is always an already given reality that provides the boundaries in and through which we experience reality. This characteristic of boundaries, as always already existing, makes memory and with memory repetition, central to the continual symbolic differentiation of reality. The role of repetition in rhythm, religious rituals, myth, children’s stories, play, is in fact essential in the maintenance of boundaries and with them of an ordered social world.

The future of course can bring new frames. It can reorder what is in the frames. It can, in Gregory Bateson’s terms, turn existing frames into “muddles” – and that is precisely the risk that is inherent in the future and in future directed action (and which a good deal of the summer school is dedicated to achieving). The future represents as well the possibility for creativity, which is very much about breaking apart and reordering what is already framed in one particular way or pattern or set of patterns. Boundaries are reframed, limits are broached, constraints are torn down, clichés are unpacked and new meanings emerge. This is always a risky business – but a necessary one, for individuals as well as for all societies.

The very openness of the future thus carries the potential to question existing categories and the boundaries through which they are constructed. Though given, boundaries are never uncontested and the inherent open-ended nature of this contestation makes boundarywork an endless project, part of the continuing human enterprise. As we shall see, it is this always existent possibility that the summer school makes use of to further this very boundarywork among its fellows in the particular realm of relations with different people, traditions, ways of being, belief and practice – and hence also the questioning of one’s existing assumptions and boundaries in these realms.

To some extent the integration of existing boundaries with future possibilities is the boundarywork of each generation, in a sense it is as well the work of each and every individual. With this work, which we must note, is often accomplished with a good deal of tragedy, pain and suffering, the dialectic of past and future is filtered through two major, if, contradictory impulses: on the one hand the impulse to absolutize existing boundaries and on the other, to overcome the constraints of all boundaries. In the nature of things, this first impulse is most often associated with a certain pastness or past orientation, the second, with a more future directed orientation (often expressed in millennial, messianic or eschatological thought). When the integration of past and future is carried out through such processes of absolutization (of either existing boundaries or their total overcoming) the boundaries themselves are lost, dissolved into absolute totalities or absolute negations and their very quality as boundaries (that is, as entities which both separate and connect, divide and unite, differentiate and bring into mutual relation) are overcome and lost. Lost too are what resides on these boundaries, sentiments, hesitations, affects – and most tragically, human beings. We see this all the time (in fact we experience it all the time as well), not just in the great sweep of history with its wars and mobilization of public sentiment for or against some real or imagined enemy, but in our own personal relations as well. We tend either to solidify as a group against the other (group or individual), or else erase all borders, proclaim an all embracing sameness wherein all difference tends to get lost or, at the very least, minimized and often trivialized. Often of course these processes develop concomitantly – the creation of an insurmountable boundary vis à vis one group and the melding of all differences among those on “our” side of the boundary. We did this as kids playing on the street and we do it as adults at meetings and we most certainly do it in our media as we report on ‘others’ of one stripe or another. Psychological work on this is legion.

A similar tension, with similar processes, sometimes more creative, sometimes less so, between past and future must characterize all human arrangements – from a marriage to a university, from a textual tradition to a yoga practice - if they are to last over time. And always characteristic of this tension and play between past and future is some negotiation of existing boundaries. The past pulls one way, the future pushes another. As we know well, not all human arrangements last over time. It is good to remember this, for the absolutization of boundaries in one total form or another itself leads to the breakdown of existing categories and symbolic orders and their reemergence in new forms. New arrangements appear which define anew the work done on, what are now, newly constituted or defined boundaries. This then presents the possibility of change, of reframing and reconstituting boundaries and the frames of experience. And it is precisely this potentiality that we draw on in the summer school and try to make us of in a process of “decentering” of the self, as a form of reconstituting its borders.

To be sure, the concrete cases of “decentering” and of boundary questioning in the school, are most often achieved accidentally, rather than thought through in advance. Undoubtedly, the very bringing together of one to two dozen individuals from many different countries, ethnicities, religious traditions and practices to share an intense two weeks together in a foreign country is one that calls boundaries into question. Yet, and equally plausible in such an environment would be a response characterized by the retrenchment behind one’s own already constituted boundaries of identity, faith, trust fellowship etc., rather than their necessary opening or mediation. The engagement with the other does not automatically lead to openness and acceptance. It can, just as easily, lead to rejection, enmity and distrust. And, in fact, each school has experienced such moments – where the force of events have pushed school interlocutors to explain the unexpected events that is, where the ‘taken for granted’ world of quotidian experience was severely shaken and the participants had to full back on a default attitude or orientation that drew as much on past prejudices and preconceptions as current empirical reality for explanations.

The 2005 ISSRPL in Jerusalem presented one of the clearest examples of this: near the end of our school, we were scheduled to meet with the Deputy Chief of Security of the Palestinian Authority (PA), who was Fatah. We were to meet him at his mother’s house in the Anata refugee camp on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Practically en route to the meeting he was dragged from his car and beaten senseless by Hamas activists. We did not know of this, arrived at his house to find it empty (his family having gone to see him in hospital). The very first response of the Israeli Jews to this situation was, along the lines, that once again, there is “no one to speak to”, Palestinians are not interested in meeting, are ignoring us, refusing us recognition and so on. Once we ascertained the reason, after about 20 minutes of waiting, the Israeli Palestinians began: why didn’t you find someone else, our voice is never heard and so on (as can be imagined, this meeting took months and months to arrange and it was simply not possible, on the turn of a dime to bring in someone else to take the Deputy Minister’s place).

Similarly, and at the same school, Israeli Palestinians who were upset at not having as much “voice” as they felt was due them; explained that it was due to the “Jewish money” that was behind the school. They were somewhat nonplussed when I pointed out that all sources of funds were listed on the program and only a small percentage originated with Jews and that, anyway, I was the one in charge of funding. Nonplussed – because I had been clearly identified as, within the context of the national struggle between Israel and Palestine as pro-Palestinian and not Zionist and had, in fact, earlier in the school, pointed the very questioner in the direction of texts about the 48 war that gave a good description of the destruction of Palestinian national culture and homelands at that time (Benny Morris and others).

In both vignettes, we see how a breakdown of expectations (in the one case of the meeting with a senior official of the PA, and in the other, of one’s feeling that their narrative was not granted sufficient time and respect) opened the possibility for a return of all the existing prejudices, presuppositions and even ideological framing of reality that the experience of the school is set up to resist and overcome. On the other hand, there were many instances where such retreat was not possible.

In the 2006 School, this was illustrated most vividly by the visit to the former Bone Hospital on the outskirts of Stolac in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Bosnian Croats, self identifying as Catholics, tortured hundreds of their fellows Muslim citizens and townsfolk. Among us were not only Catholics (including a Brazilian priest) but also a Catholic from Croatia, now working at a US university – for whom the moment of standing on that ground, which certain of her co-religionists and co-countrymen had turned into a vast torture chamber was the most difficult of the whole two weeks. No “retreat” into existing ideological, social or historical constructions was possible at that moment. The result, in her own words, was a profound decentering of self.

An in some way similar moment in 2005 happened in the IDF cemetery at … where the citizen soldiers of the nascent IDF who fell in the struggle over the Jerusalem corridor in the 1948 was were buried. At that moment (and one can not extrapolate beyond that moment) the Palestinian Israeli fellows could not, one felt, look at the Jews only as oppressors and conquerors, but also as young, fallen men and boys.

In these and similar cases, the taken for granted reality that was questioned was not so much a specific, discreet event within the context of the school (the failure of a Palestinian official to show up to a meeting, feelings of voiceless ness, etc) but rather a more general orientation or disposition towards the other – that the participant had to recalibrate in the wake of the school’s experience.

While these are rather dramatic examples of such processes, it happened in minora often, and to many participants in different ways.

A Pakistani Muslim woman was surprised when staying with Muslim hosts in Stolac that her host were warmer towards and identified more with her Palestinian Christian fellow than with her. The identification as fellow suffered clearly, in this case, trumped that of ‘fellow’ Muslim.

An Israeli orthodox woman who had an 8 hour layover in Budapest on her way back to Israel from Sarajevo told her husband (over the phone) that rather than stay in the airport, she would spend the time in Budapest itself, do some shopping, etc. When asked “who she would go with” (as orthodox Jewish women do not often travel alone in strange cities) she said with Ahmed and Salam (Palestinian Israeli fellows on the same flight) and her husband was shocked. Reflecting on this she pointed out how much she herself had changed in the two weeks – for such a reality would have been inconceivable to her before hand.

A similar dynamic of being forced to re-conceptualize just who constitutes the boundaries of oneself, one’s other and one’s group would happen again and again: going into the Cambridge mosque and having some members of the group separate to enter prayer, entering Trinity Church in Copley to have one group member go up for communion.

In my own case, it was a moment in 2006, leading prayers in the orthodox Jewish synagogue in Newton. The group of fellows entered about 10 minutes into prayer and all of a sudden all was silent. The usual murmur that is so comforting and such a pleasing and enveloping aspect of Jewish prayer all of a sudden ceased as it was clear that in one way or another one group (to which I belonged – of the synagogue and by implication of the Jewish people) was distancing itself and marking some mistrust from another group that I had a great responsibility in putting together and had a good deal of loyalty towards and responsibility for (the fellows and by implication the whole edifice of the ISSRPL)

In all cases boundaries of inside and outside, of us and them, and where the ‘self’ belongs were profoundly shaken and even, if only for a moment, boundaries were in flux and definitions of group and membership were placed in question.

This issue of boundaries however goes a good deal beyond the perception of group membership and the limits of inclusion. In fact the question of the ‘taken for granted’ goes to the heart of our shared social life and one of the points that was made painfully clear in the schools has been just how much we don’t share even though we rarely confront that fact. The ‘taken for granted’ in fact is precisely that, it is what is taken for granted and as such, it is not examined and indeed, could not be examined, for if examined it would prove to be much too fragile and too confused to support the assumed shared meanings that are imputed to it.

A good example of this happened in Mostar in 2006. Mostar is still a tragically divided city, even though the famous bridge that Tudjman’s forces had bombed and destroyed had been rebuilt in 2004. The city center was rebuilt and thriving, though 200 meters away the city looked like Stalingrad. On the hill overlooking the “Catholic” side of the city, a huge, immense cross had been constructed. It had not been there before the war and presented itself as a provocation and incitement, hardly in that context a mark of the savior’s humility. Walking with one of the fellows, a Catholic priest, I put my hands on his shoulders, pointed out the cross on the hill and said something like: “That is a bad one, eh, Padre?” At this, the priest, with whom I was and remained very friendly, got visibly upset, crossed himself and said, “How can a cross be bad?!” Say it is poorly placed, say it is here provocative, but a cross cannot be bad” Indeed, for a Catholic priest a cross can not be bad. For an observant Jew (or for most observant Jews) it cannot be much else.

Here is a good example of what I am referring to. We both use the word, cross, we both think we mean the same thing, but in fact we do not. We have just enough shared meaning and shared resonances to allow the minimum necessary to maintain interaction and social communication in most circumstances. But the depth, resonances, deep meanings, symbolism, identities, affectual relations and so on with the word, are totally different.

Now, in most circumstances of daily life this is irrelevant, if for at least two very different reasons.

a) It may be that we have different affectual, symbolic, historical and meaningful relations to the same word, concept, symbol or artifice but as we act “as if” we understand one another and have no need to go into the full resonances each have of the word, concept, place or thing, the differences do not become visible or cognizant to the actors. [Unless of course we are PUSHED in some way, precisely that breaking apart of the taken for granted that I mentioned earlier].

b) Though the word, concept, place or thing, may have a wide and divergent field of cognate meanings and associations for each of us, together we – either explicitly or implicitly, or usually some combination of both – define the context of our mutual interaction in such a way as to limit the range of meanings, to circumscribe them to a pretty narrow, shared and hence mutually relevant field of meanings that allow the interaction. Thus for example the person who sells the house she has lived in for 40 years, the house where she raised her children, from which she set out to bury her parents, to divorce her husband and so on, has a very different attitude towards that collection of brick, stone, wood and plaster than the contractor who is purchasing it to tear it down and put up a condo. This difference is irrelevant to their interaction, for both agree to circumscribe their meanings to a very thin set of the commodity form: i.e. the price.

While this is the most usual form of such circumscription in contemporary society, it is a far cry from being the only type. Thus, whether we are Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims or Atheists, when we use the word CROSS in a university seminar on the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre we all agree that we use it differently than the way our Catholic colleagues use it in their Sunday liturgy.

What this contextualization of meanings points to – is that we do not so much share meanings, as share use of words. A more useful way of conceptualizing what I called the circumscription of meanings is to understand it as a construction of shared usage for the purpose at hand (buying and selling, proceeding with a history seminar, participating in a Mass etc.) So it is not that we ever share the meaning “all the way down” as it were, so much as we agree on a common use of the word. Similarly, I may, lacking a hammer, use a handy rock to knock a nail into the wood of my porch, after I get tired, you will help me, taking the rock up and using it in a similar manner. You have not at this point rejected your preexisting definitions of rocks and hammers, you have however agreed to work with me, to solve this problem – getting the nail into the wood with no hammer in sight – by using the rock in this manner. This is what we do with words. We share usage, not necessarily meanings, or always, only, partial meanings.

This is a significant point. We share usage rather than meaning. For often, entering into situations of dialogue we feel we have to arrive at shared or common meanings. This however is often illusionary, frustrating, ultimately destructive of one set of meanings, resonances, identities and symbols (it is simply senseless, to wish a Moslem from Mostar and a Catholic from Mostar to arrive at the same associative meanings on viewing a cross). It is also, at the end of the day, deeply disrespectful of differences. For if shared, if common, then, in some sense, one – at least, one set – of meanings is promulgated and accepted by all parties. What is lost is the difference in meanings, symbols, resonances and so on. Shared usage however does not compromise the different meanings. Its potentialities are therefore greater.

Needless to say, in some cases, this whole problem does not even arise. When we discuss parts for the lawn mower with the mechanic, the overlap of meaning is probably close to 100%. Usage and meaning coincide. Little potential for misunderstandings exist.

This however is not a state that should be strived for in much that is beyond the realm of spark plugs or gasoline/oil ration in a chain-saw. It is certainly not a state to be strived for when discussing those matters that we each most intimately identify with, what for each of us represents the core of truth, belonging and meaning in life. To do so destroys the very meanings that one seeks to preserve, through which one’s own selfhood and being in the world is made manifest and meaningful.

On the other hand, as we said, the ‘taken for granted’ of so-called shared meanings often only hides a deeply discordant reality where meanings are not shared at all, only we act ‘as if’ they were. Here, the problem was of course that this understanding can hold only so far. When pushed – an example of which would be the story with the cross in Mostar or the PA official who did not come to the meeting – the ‘as if’ is broken and one falls back into quite exclusivist understandings of a reality, no longer shared at all.

One possible alternative that I have suggested above and that the summer school attempts to implement is this notion of share usage. Rather than an illusion of shared meaning, whose very fragility threatens to destroy civil interaction as soon as it is put to the test; instantiate instead a practice of shared usage; painfully reconstructed concept by concept, place by place, artifice by artifice. Rethinking everything from scratch and recognizing the boundaries between what can (usage) be shared and what cannot (meanings).

If we could do this, we could simultaneously transpose the whole problem of boundaries of self and other to a new plane of meanings. The boundary of self and other would no longer be the absolute boundary of different meanings (for which the only solution is either a: destruction: (physical or symbolic) of the other, or b: the ultimately hypocritical positing of “shared” meanings (which is in fact a form of the destruction of the other). Rather a realm of shared usage could be posited. This realm could overlap with that of shared meaning but would not have to. It could have its own set of (pragmatically defined) practices that would allow interaction, collective action, shared orientation to goals and so on – without demanding either a) the reduction of all shared action to shared interests or to b) shared meanings.

Shared usage would minimize the need for share meanings, or at least, allow us to construct a shared world where the ‘shared’ aspect of the meanings did not ‘go all the way down’. Or even more the point, that allowed us to admit to this fact. Quite consciously we would, from the start set out a circumscribed understanding of what is shared. As pointed out above we do this all the time, mostly however when involved in economic transactions, that is, in our market interactions. In our Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and schools I might add (be they public or parochial) the assumption however is that we share meanings (hence the debates over school curricula, the presentations of gay life styles therein, debates over gay priests in the Anglican communion and, the assumption – probably false, and certainly not verifiable, that the person sitting next to me in the pew is experiencing the same meanings of the prayer that I am, as we recite or chant the same liturgy).

I think there is a certain hesitancy to admit that we often share – or could conceivably only share – usages without necessarily sharing meanings (though we could share these as well, if only we could agree on them). The point however is that we could live together without such shared meaning, as long as we agreed to shared usages. All too often, our demand for shared meaning gets in the way. If however we could bracket out – even temporarily – the need for shared meaning we could, perhaps, begin a process of questioning, playing, reframing and reshaping boundaries that would only resound to our credit and make our life with other people less filled with friction, feelings of betrayal and mistrust.


In the summer of 2003 we sat down for a meal in a Sarajevo restaurant and all were hungry, it being much past dinner time. All immediately fell ravenously on the food placed before them, though the food that was being prepared for the religiously observant Jewish fellows from Israel – fish wrapped in tin foil, that would thus meet their dietary requirements was not ready. Hence these observant Jews could not eat with everyone – and again, I stress, all, were very very hungry. The other person who did not eat was the Palestinian Israeli Muslim who, refused to touch his food until his Jewish colleagues (who had come with him from Israel) had had theirs.

In 2006 we arranged for the fellows to attend Jewish services on the Sabbath and to then have lunch with different families of the community whose religious worship they attended. The fellows from Tajikistan was having lunch with an observant Jewish family who of course washed their hands before eating (and, following Jewish practice did not speak between the washing and the breaking and blessing of the bread) and who sang around the table, both obligatory prayers and the usual songs for Sabbath afternoon that will be sung around a table in an observant Jewish family. Sitting at this table, not at all sure what was going on, not quite understanding [before it was explained to him] why no one answered his questions when he spoke with them in the period of time between the hand washing and the blessings over the bread, our fellow was suddenly taken back to his childhood in Tajikistan. He recalled how, as a child, when his parents moved to a new apartment, they took with them their neighbor, a Christian woman who had no-one to look after her. For years this Christian woman lived with our friend’s family [who were Muslim] ate with them, and sat with them when they prayed and observed their other ritual obligations. At no time – until this Sabbath afternoon – did our fellow think that this may have been strange for this Christian woman, to sit at a Muslim table, and witness their prayers, their ways of life, which in some ways were shared [ the common culture of Tajikistan], but in some ways were very different [the difference of Christian and Muslim rituals]. Any number of times after this event, the fellow mentioned this with wonder: essentially how the experience of the Jewish Sabbath [his first] allowed him insight into a critical aspect of his own childhood. Being the “outsider” - welcome, respected, feted and honored though he was, still the “outsider” at the Sabbath feast, allowed him for the first time to appreciate what it must have been like for this woman who spent so many years at this parents table.

This subject, that of empathy and its sources will be the subject of this section.

1. Boundaries of the ‘could be’

Argument can be made that what constitutes society, that is to say, what makes the social a sui generis entity, irreducible to any other is precisely a shared “could be”. To great extent, this is what symbols do more than anything else: they represent a “could be”.

This shared “could be” (or sometimes, “what if”) is the nodal point of where a society comes together as symbol users. Terrence Deacon begins his important book on The Symbolic Species by invoking the subjunctive as what distinguishes us from other mammals and primates. We could perhaps go one step further and postulate that much of what the individual ego experiences as a uniquely individual event (love, desire, hate, envy, frustration etc.) can only become social and shared through its symbolic representation in terms of a “could be” or a “what if”: what if – we spent our life together, we slept together, he were dead and out of my way, I had her jewelry or beauty, I was boss and he worked for me, etc. We cannot actually share (as opposed to simply tell them about) our desire or hate or frustration with another soul, we cannot produce in another our own desires, or hates or frustrations. We can however, through a shared “could be” attempt to evoke the same sets of feelings or experiences. What we as individuals experience as an “is” (the very real feelings of desire, hate, or even hunger and poverty) can only become social through the imaginative act, the “as if.” It is this, as if, this construction of a subjunctive universe that constructs a community of empathy.

What we share as symbolic beings is potentiality. A community of fate is such because of its sharing of what “could be” (if they rounded up all the Jews in Poland or Japanese in California or Muslims in Banja Luka it “could” happen to you, even though you are a Jew in Toronto, a Japanese in Paris and a Muslim in Islamabad), as well as, of course, a shared “once there was”. From this then a very important point: the potential space of the shared subjunctive is, in no small measure, tied to our very ability to empathize and hence to our potential to develop trust and solidarity. This is of course what is supposed to happen when viewing a Greek tragedy. Our empathy is supposed to broaden, our heart expand as we enter into a potential space of shared culture that pushes us to realize that the “what if” that is being staged “could” apply equally well to me as it does to the tragic figures I am viewing on stage. To some extent this cultural possibility of empathy must be related, on the level of the individual, to the early ability to anticipate the future and in so doing “to wrest our activities from the immediate need for discharge inherent in the pleasure principle”. Empathy is thus not unconnected with decentering oneself from one’s immediate desires (pleasures) and therefore too, in a sense restricting the self (what in psychoanalytic terms is understood as “modifying” the pleasure principle).

In this context, it is useful to recall, that when the psychoanalyst Marion Milner comes to discuss the very ability of ego to perceive the other as external object she comes back again and again to the fusion of ego and object, to the loss of ego boundaries, that is of boundaries between ego and object as one necessary stage in the development of such apperception. The very “confounding of one thing with another, this not discriminating, is also the basis of generalization” she says, the basis, as she goes on to quote Wordsworth of the poet’s ability to find “the familiar in the unfamiliar”. Critical to this process is the role of symbols which act as mediums, intervening substances (transitional objects) that, in blurring boundaries between ego and object, make possible as well the eventual possibility to perceive object outside of ego. Symbols, as transitional objects are the critical link that allows us to perceive other, through a process of not quite incorporating other within our internal space. They allow both the blurring of boundaries and their reconstitution – analogous to what the psychologist, Winnicott claimed for the transitional object and, indeed, for all acts of creative play. Generalization – which is a necessary component of empathy – itself rests, as pointed out by Ernst Jones, on a prior failure to discriminate, a prior tendency to note identity in differences. Another way of saying this is that boundaries become blurred and reconstituted. Moreover, the ability, says Milner “to find the familiar in the unfamiliar, require[s] an ability to tolerate a temporary loss of sense of self, a temporary giving up of the discriminating ego which stands apart and tries to see things objectively and rationally.” Here too we find strong resonance of precisely that dual aspect of boundarywork – moving between renunciation and expectation which we claim is critical to its efficacy. Further, and as we have learned in the summer school, boundarywork must play a not insignificant role in the education towards empathy, resting as it does on a decentred self, and on an ability to generalize out, beyond one’s own experiences. For such to take place, boundaries must in some sense be fuzzy and less that strict and fully discriminate.

Of course, through the example of Greek tragedy something else becomes clear as well; that though the capacity to empathize, to share in the potential space of a “what is” may be inherent in the human species as symbol users – the specific forms of this cultural creativity, of the formation of this potential space are not at all given or constant. These change, are structured and are very much influenced by historical events. The strong image of the Barbarian as the other only emerged in Athens of the 5th century BCE in consequence of the Persian conflict. Thus the shared intermediary space of empathy can either contract or expand and its structuring is a subject of conflict, often violent conflict, throughout history. And here is where the problem lies.

The question before us is really one of how can this empathy be established between groups without destroying their borders and fusing them into one. And this bring the whole issue of empathy to one of sympathy across boundaries. Empathy, if you think about it, as a concept, preserves difference. For if the other was conflated with the self the feelings of empathy would be reduced to pure narcissism. If I feel another’s pain only in so far as she or he is like me, then I am simply indulging in some exercise in self-pity or self adulation or self-aggrandizement or something of that nature, concerned in the final analysis with self. But if empathy refers (as I believe it does) to establishing an “as if” or ‘could be’ with a person or group who is essentially different from me, then I have both broadened myself as a human being and opened up new possibilities for human cooperation and expression. I have not lost myself in the other, neither have I conflated the other into myself – rather, I have somehow managed to maintain those fuzzy boundaries discussed in our previous section, where the sharp distinctions between ego and alter are temporarily suspended (and I stress, temporarily) and the unfamiliar is made to present a familiar visage. What I am arguing is that when, say, Jewish communities in Newton mobilize and organize to protect Jewish communities in the Ukraine we are hard put to understand this action as based on empathy. Rather it is a community, with global dimensions, organizing for its own maintenance. Similarly, when the Pakistani community in Weston organized food and medicine to send to Pakistan after the earthquake in 2005 it was, again, not an example of empathy – but of a global community caring for itself in the most commendable of ways. Were the Jewish community of Newton to organize food, clothing, medicine and doctors for the victims of the Pakistani earthquake – that well could have been out of a feeling of empathy (though other motives could of course also play apart, but they do not interest us at the moment). It is moreover, this last case that we are interested in, or rather interested in bringing about a reality that would make this more of a feature of our world. The question then becomes: can we learn anything from the experience of the summer school and from our previous remarks on a shared subjunctive to allow us insights into how such a process may develop?

To get a handle on what is at stake here, let us return to our notion of the shared subjunctive or the shared “could be”. When we say of a culture that its members share a symbol system, or a set of values, or a common idea of the sacred we are in essence asserting that they share the potential space of a shared “could be.” That moral community of which Emile Durkheim spoke in his The Elementary Forms of Religious Life is such a moral community precisely because it shares the potential space of culture. There are all sorts of things we can share (subways, airports, soccer teams, garbage collection, rules of the road, fear of the police, even libraries) without making us a moral community. To be such a community we must share something else as well. We have to share empathy. And we share empathy (what in the classical sociological literature is termed trust) only in so far as we share in the potential space of the subjunctive. A good deal of ritual action can in fact be understood in terms of providing this shared sense of empathy - sometimes even in terms of an explicitly shared “what if”. When Jews sit around the Passover seder table and are explicitly enjoined to fulfill the commandment to feel “as if you yourselves has been liberated from Egypt” they then create that shared symbolic space where the communality of the “could be” becomes the very basis of the ongoing collective experience. The Shi’ite enactment of the defeat of Housain at Karbala, the Catholic participation in the Eucharist are all of similar import. Confucius, famously uninterested in the world of spirits, still insisted that when “he offered sacrifice to his ancestors he felt as if his ancestral spirits were actually present. When he offered sacrifice to other spiritual beings, he felt as if, they were actually present.”

This type of activity – and with it, the construction of a subjunctive universe – is of course not limited to religious rituals, but can be found throughout many different modes of human interaction. The rituals of daily life, of courtesy and politeness are also modes of ritual action. In saying “please” and “thank you” we are also creating an illusion, but with no attempt to deceive. This is an important aspect and makes it quite different from a lie – which is after all an illusion with a clear attempt to deceive the other. It makes it much more like play – which is the joint entrance into an illusionary world – a world whose boundaries with other aspects of our quotidian life tend to blur.

What is important in such acts of iterated civic ritual is not the truth value of what is communicated in the invocation (say the terms of please and thank you) but something very different. We are inviting our interlocutor to join us in imagining a particular symbolic universe within which our actions are to be construed. When I preface my requests with please and thank you I am, after all, not giving a command (to pass the salt) but I am very much recognizing your agency (your ability to decline my request). Hence, in the please and thank you, I am in a formal and invariant manner, communicating – to both of us – that our actions together, should be understood as voluntary actions on the part of free and equal individuals (who can therefore also decline, hence my ability only to offer a request).

By framing our interaction in this ‘illusionary’ manner, the frame actually pulls us in after it, making the illusion the reality. And the reality will last only as long as the illusion is adhered to. So for example when we ask our children to please feed the dog and they refuse and we get angry and say DAMN IT FEED THE DOG NOW! we both leave the illusionary world of mutuality and respect to the one of brute power. We fall back into a world that the use of the polite form saved us from.

The continual possibility to fall out of the illusion does not however make of it a lie – anymore than children’s play is given the lie when mother calls them home for dinner, or a play by Euripides is given the lie to by exiting the theatre and getting on the subway. Illusion is not a lie – it is a form of the subjunctive. It is what can be, a potentiality that always exists, as indeed so many different symbolic worlds can so exist. In such speech acts, as saying please and thank you, we are creating an illusion with no attempt to deceive. Answering fine to inquiries about how we are is usually a ritual pleasantry. We do not mention the nagging headache, the argument with the teenaged child, or the overdue paper. Fine is untrue but still not exactly a lie – which is after all an untruth with a clear attempt to deceive the other. Fine deceives no one; it simply establishes a certain kind of social relationship. One can pull it out of the realm of ritual interaction and treat it as a lie ("but your leg is in a cast!"), but that is a different form of interaction. Not true yet not deceptive – this is also the world of play, the joint entrance into an illusionary world.

Of course, by presenting our actions in this light – more precisely by constructing a symbolic universe where our activities with one another can be understood in this manner - we are also in a sense actually denoting these as the real nature of our interaction. The ‘as if’ quality of the ritual invocation, its subjunctive sense, is also what makes it real. What is - is what can be. Again, the blurring of boundaries.

One possible hypothesis that we can offer is that what is accomplished in the rituals of politeness is the positing of a possible, even plausible mode of activity between interlocutors – the building of an illusion that pulls them out of a more Hobbesian world of the war of all against all – and of course one that works only so long as all are party to that possible world (through sharing that mode of speech and approach), represented by the formal codes of polite invocation. What is fascinating of course is the mode of speech (the please and thank you) are both sign and signifier in one. They both point to a particular way of human social interaction (of mutual respect) and are at the same time an instance of such mode of interaction. By saying please and thank you, we are both symbolizing a fundamentally civil recognition of one another – and, actually, acting out and instantiating such behavior in the world. Such civil modes of address are what Peirce called an index, with the unique characteristics of both being about society and mutually creative of it.

Such indexing creates an as if universe that is necessary for human life in the world. It is connected to the subjunctive aspects of all iterated activity and it is an aspect of many forms of civil social behavior (though of course the codes of civility may be very different in different places). Thus, it is not enough for kings to be kings, they must act as if they were kings. Justice must not just be meted out, it must be seen to be meted out. Imagine, a family of five, two parents and three children – all love and care for one another and in a crises (when one falls and gets hurt, or when one wins a prize) all are mobilized to help or support or praise (if that be the case) the member in question. But, in daily life there is often much pushing, screaming, grabbing of hair-brushes, not helping with the dinner or feeding the dog and so on. The parents then decide that everyone has to treat each other with a bit more respect, more civility, use of please and thank you and a willingness to accept it if the answer to the please is, “no, not now”. And so on. Many of us have experienced this and know that it works – at least for a time, until the please and thank you begin to get lost and dropped. Now this is pretty interesting. Clearly the way to make life more pleasant in the household is not to try and ratchet up the amount of love everyone feels. There is no need. It is in fact not possible. Everyone loves the other. That is not the point. The point, what is missing is their acting as if they love one another. Needed is not real love (what ever that may be), or reinstituting a feeling that has been lost. Not at all. What is missing is that they act like actors on a stage, acting in precisely a ritualistic manner. Eric Segal was wrong. Love does not mean never having to say you’re sorry. That is precisely what love does means – at least if you want to live with the person you love. Both self and other enter this world of shared action. Sharing the act, they both point to, or index the shared world that is their relationship.

In this reading, culture is this shared, potential space between separate egos. It is constituted by a common “could be”, by a shared subjunctive which, as we have claimed, pareses out the lines and boundaries of empathy as shared imagination. The problem with this reading however is that it begs the whole question, raised earlier, of empathy, if indeed, empathy implies empathy with he or she who is different. For shared imagination, a shared “could be” or shared “community of fate” would seem to imply sameness at least in terms of one’s fate or in the sharing of what has come to be understood as “imagined communities”. While there can be little doubt that this is often the mechanism at work in binding ego to ego and construction what Durkheim termed a “moral community” of those with a shared sense of solidarity – the question remains how to conceive of a shared commitment to the civil enterprise without imposing such a shared ideological commitment of ends and value assumptions. Is it at all possible to conceive of culture as something other than such sharing of value orientations – precisely what is becoming more and more difficult in our multicultural and global world. [Note as well, that the alternative, of reducing everything to material interests is also less than adequate in a world whose political interventions are increasingly being defined by suicide bombers and the resurgence of religious identities and commitments worldwide.]

And it is here perhaps that we would do well to re-engage with our earlier discussion of shared usage rather than shared meaning as possible bases of life together in civil society. If in our earlier discussion we juxtaposed meaning to usage, here we may well complement that by juxtaposing empathy to what I will call practice. Thus, meaning: empathy: usage: practice. And here of course we are drawing heaving on John Dewey’s stress on joint activity in “the use of things” as being particularly crucial in the forming of disposition. “Making the individual a sharer or partner in the associated activity so that s\he feels its success as his success, its failure as his failure” is for Dewey the key to a common life. The point I wish to stress here, is that we can do this without joining together in a subjunctive universe of shared meanings or the feelings of a shared community of fate (beyond that of sharing in the enterprise at hand). We needn’t share a symbolic universe in order to share “the use of things”. True we must both define hammer in similar terms, but not necessarily Cross. This does not however mean that we do not have very specific and perhaps even antagonistic understandings of Cross, only that they are irrelevant for any number of shared practices. Moreover, we continue to share a good deal more than the proverbial “thin meanings” of the liberal public sphere. For even if we do not share meanings, we do share practices! This is the whole point, shared practices without sharing meanings. When we concentrate on meanings we tend to want or assume that the meanings “go all the way down”. That is that the shared subjunctive is constitutive of alter in the same way that it is of ego – and if we find out that it is not, we tend to feel betrayed and turn on alter, turning him and her into a dangerous other with whom no common ground can be assumed or constructed. Yet, if we realize that all we share is practice or at best, practices, there is no need for a sense of “constitutive” similarity, since practices are always particular acts around particular concrete events that are ephemeral, passing and clearly cannot ‘go all the way down’ as there is nowhere for them to go. A practice, as act, is a discreet event in time that cannot be understood as anything more substantial or as providing a sort of ground for existence. We may share such practice with others, in fact we almost always do, but only so long as the practice lasts. It does not enter into the realm of meanings which may or may not be shared (and in fact may be shared in very different ways among those with whom practice-sharing may vary).

And here is where the whole preceding discussion of the performative aspect of the shares subjunctive becomes immensely interesting. For the very fact that what constitutes the shared could be is a set of performative acts, makes it just possible that what unites the performers is not or not only, the shared meanings inherent to the act, but the very shared aspects of the performance – that is, its shared usage. In fact, what we almost always see as an enactment of shared meanings, may not be much more than a shared enactment – and that indeed, this is its point. Again, we may have very different ideas as to what is going on inside of us as we recite the liturgy, but that is beside the point, the point, if there is one, is that we are all reciting it together. We are sharing in a usage.

This has been a perspective most developed by students of ritual and of the performative school of cultural studies, but its implications for our own interests are immense. For if we can develop an understanding of our life together as one where it is enough to understand our shared world as one where we share usage rather than meanings, we can develop an understanding of shared practice that will allow us to empathize with what is truly different and not fall into the ever present trap of reducing alter to ego, the other to us! And what I am claiming is that the very peformative acts that we so commonly understand as aspects of a shared inter-subjective world, one of a shared could be, a shared subjunctive can also be understood as shared practices that need no reduction to the world of meanings (let alone shared meanings) in order to frame a common life. Again, practice without the necessity of shared meanings. Not mind you, no meanings, just not necessarily shared ones. Again, think of the example of the house for sale, invoked earlier – the wood and bricks and mortar are replete with meanings, only they are very different meanings for buyer and seller. The point is, this may be true for many more social interactions than the limited realm of economic transactions. As such, it may as well provide a way to reframe our civic existence in a way to allow for constitutive difference and for a way to maintain civic community in a reality characterized by great differences in cultural, religious, linguistic identities, meanings and empathies.

I would like to explore this notion in the context of one of the most challenging of the summer school’s experiences – that of the idea that no one people of group has “ownership” on suffering and how this played out in the very difficult case of Stolac, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the summer of 2006.

2. Stolac and the Limits of the Subjunctive:

Very early on in the history of the summer school we developed a rule that no one person or group can claim a monopoly on suffering. With time this was revised, in an appropriately subjunctive mood, to become a rule where each must act as if, he or she (and the group they identify with) has no monopoly on suffering. We recognized that it is impossible to know how other people feel and even more impossible to control or direct our feelings along previously determined venues and, even if such were possible, we had little call to make demands in that direction. This then left us with the behavioral rule that we must all act “as if” our sufferings were equally distributed; however much we may, deep inside, dispute or reject this claim.

It may make sense to explain the origin of this rule, which was in the very first summer school, in Mostar in 2003 when an evening was organized on the subject of women and purity (and rituals of purity). The evening was titled, Women and Water after a book by Rahel Wasserfall or Jewish rituals of bodily purity and involved a panel of speakers including Wasserfall, a Moslem woman and a Christian man. The evening was in the civic center of Mostar, scheduled rather late in the evening, as usual, after a tightly packed schedule. Mostar in 2003 was still very much a destroyed city – not yet having undergone even the minimal reconstruction that occasioned the re-opening of the bridge two years later. It still looked very much like Stalingrad or Berlin after war – with destroyed and burned out houses everywhere. As the evening progresses it became clear that a number of men in the audience were having difficult with the theme of the panel, especially with discussion or description of intimate details of a women’s physiognomy. As the evening wore on a number of men left, including some men from the summer school fellows and staff. All were Muslims. By the end of the evening, there were few Muslim, male members left in the audience and their departure had a visible effect on everyone in the room.

On later clarification, some of the ISSRPL fellows and staff who left claimed that they were tired, one had indeed traveled back and forth to Sarajevo that same day to fetch his luggage which had been lost, others arrived late due to prayers and left, so they claimed, for the same reason. Be this as it may, there was a good deal of anger at the departure of so many Muslim men from the discussion and it was decided to discuss it openly at the following day’s session. The next morning however word of what had happened spread rapidly and was taken up by some colleagues from the Italian university who were joining our program (and who had provided financial support for that year’s school). One of these colleagues, a well known Italian feminist scholar was indignant, even hysterical, about what had happened (she was not at the event itself, but had been informed of it by a student of hers who had been present) and called the men who had left “Nazis” – more than once. Well this seemed to many (myself included) rather too much. To be sure, being disrespectful of one’s female colleagues was unacceptable behavior and leaving en masse in the midst of a discussion of gender related issues was also improper behavior; but not at all to be compared to Nazis. The hyperbole was shameful and of course dangerous. Whatever else it did, it absolutized differences and boundaries. If people did not share my ideas of gender equality and women’s status in all matters, then one was a Nazi. If anything was an example of a totalization of difference, of an inability to exist in a complex and multidimensional reality where one could disagree with certain things but not with others, this was it. Calling these men Nazis, was putting them beyond the pale of a shared humanity because they were made uncomfortable by a public discussion by women of women’s intimate matters. Surely this was going a bit too far. As we note, however it offers a very good example of what is a relatively common tactic that is often taken, the demonization of those with whom we do not agree.

In any case, it was in the following discussion that the group accepted the principle that no one had a monopoly on suffering and so no one group could claim the type of moral superiority, or privileged access to a moral good that so often goes with such suffering (the reasons for which however remain unclear – but that is another matter). Over the course of the next two summer schools this principle and its elaboration, from principle to practice – i.e. that we must act ‘as if’ we do not have a monopoly on suffering - became part of the opening clarification of ground rules at the start of every school.

I am unsure how much this rule was actually adhered to, but it may well be that without it, matters would have gotten much more out of hand than they did. As all participant ants, subscribed, as it were, to this practice at the outset of our time together, all could be called to account in cases of its egregious breach. This proved important in very different circumstances. As we have always brought together a very diverse groups of fellows: Bosnians, Serbs and Croatians, Albanians and Kosovarins, Tajiks and Pakistanis, Turks, Israelis – Jews and Palestinians, Catholics and Christians from the Eastern Church, Protestants, men, women it has been central to define the shared space of our interaction as neutral space where no one group could make claims to any sort of special status. Clearly, meeting not in the neutral space of Cambridge Massachusetts or somewhere in Sweden but in the contested spaces of Jerusalem and Mostar and even Roxbury in Boston – all made it difficult to abide by this rule, that on the whole carried the day as a working principle for group cohesion. It was, if you wish, rule #1 of our shared subjunctive.

In this section however we wish to discuss what happened in 2006, in Stolac in Herzegovina where this rule seemed to break down or at least was stressed to a point that it could not bear. It is hoped that this will give us some insights into the limits of the subjunctive and how it may stand in relation to the other principle we put forward – that of shared usage.

3. Reflections on Stolac

After one night spent in Sarajevo, the fellows traveled by bus to Stolac where they were hosted by local Muslim families. Stolac is a small town in Herzegovina whose Muslim population was assassinated in the war of 1992-95 and expelled. The perpetrators still live in the town with impunity. According to USAID officials in Sarajevo, Stolac is one of the most unreconstructed of Bosnian townships, with little done to reconstitute the society destroyed in the war. Thus, a local youth, pointed us to a beautiful house renovated in the style of the area and said, though the house is beautiful, the man who live in it is responsible for the murders that happened here during the war. The municipality is currently run by Croat sympathizers and the Croat flag, until a few months was still hanging on the ruin of a fort on the top of the mountain overlooking Stolac.

Another flavor of Stolac can be found in the following story. As R. needed to make a phone call, she bought a calling card at the local post office, which was a Croatian calling card in a town which is located in Bosnia- Herzegovina. When she wanted to use it in Mostar located half an hour away, she could not as it could not be used in the Muslim part of the same country. (In a similar manner, one cannot purchase bus tickets to Sarajevo from the bus depot located in the Croatian side of Mostar). Bosnia is still a country very much separated by religion and there are two schools standing in Stolac, (as in other parts of the country) a school for the Muslim children and a school for the Catholic children. A young woman (16 yrs) who worked with the International Youth Group on restoring sacred sites reported that they were almost run over by a car of some locals as they were walking to the camp. She said that the car swerved from its empty line and came to their side of the road, while the road was empty; they had to jump in bushes not to be hurt. When R. reported this incident to a French SFOR soldier, he dismissed it saying that the locals are in general poor drivers and he cannot believe that there was an intention of hurting the youth. Yet another story would indicate a different possible interpretation. As we were packing our belongings preparing to leave Stolac, we had left the outside door of the house where we stayed in unlocked. The house belonged to one of the most well known Muslim leaders of Stolac, who, during the war was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Munitions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The house was rebuild in the ancient style and an outside wall protected the inside wall and inside door to the courtyard. As we left we found that a human being had come in the outside door and urinated on the wall, as a clear sign of disrespect and of utter loathing. This was our last experience of the animosity of Stolac inhabitants toward the Muslim population and towards the outsiders who came during the summer to participate in the rebuilding of religious monuments.

Most fellows enjoyed the fact that they could be in close contact with locals and saw being hosted by families as an entry into society. Some families were more hospitable than others and for example invited fellows for dinner. Sometime language became a barrier, but in most cases people were very creative as in the case of on family who invited a friend to translate so that they could convey their story to the fellow. Most host families were Muslim returnees to Stolac who had endured much trauma during the war. All encounters can be seen from many points of view, for example host families were paid for hosting the fellows, as economic survival is hard on Muslim returnees this was perceived as a fair and good thing. It is also interesting to note that some of the families which were perceived by the fellows are really eager and nice were the ones who gave the organizers the most difficult time and kept bargaining for more money.

As said, host families in general were eager to tell their story and connect with the fellows. In one case mentioned above, a Pakistani woman who is Muslim, found it surprising that her host family was less interested in her background as a Muslim than that of other fellow’s background who was sharing the hospitality. That fellow was a Palestinian Christian woman from Israel. The family was much more interested in and identified with the Palestinian Christian than with the Muslim Pakistani. This was new to the Pakistani fellow who had until now experienced her identity as being exotic and expected her religion to be a bridge with fellow Muslims. This in itself is very telling; the connection between fellows and host was made on the basis of the hosts presenting their real suffering and themselves as victims.

The context of victimhood was most important to understand the experience of the fellows in Stolac as this context influenced their experience greatly. Coming from very different background, the fellows soon learned the basic working assumption of the ISSRPL that no people hold a monopoly on suffering. For the organizers, this means that to be able to teach in a diverse setting, we have to posit that it is quite impossible to posit whose experience of atrocity is worse than an others’. That does not imply that in a certain historical moment, one suffering is not single out, but it means that people entering a diverse situation are willing not to let their feelings as victims cloud their perception of the other.

Doubtless, the question is very complex, for certainly there are times were the situation is clear cut as in the case of Bosnian Muslims, they were assassinated as were the six millions Jews, the Tutsi in Rwanda and today the mass killing happening in Dafur. Yet, the fact of the matter is that we also have Holocaust denials, Croat and Serbian leaders presenting their suffering and victimhood and their vision of what had happened. As is well known, history is written by the survivors and we are not claiming that it is not possible to know the truth, on the contrary, the truth can and needs to be told very carefully but for this to happen, the people involved need to explore their own taken for granted vision of reality and put their assumptions on hold when encountering another group.

This process was called in the school the “de-centering of self”, making sure one see his or her own suffering not only from their own perspective but also from the point of view of the other. The process of de-centering is a process of understandings that involves moving beyond cognizance of one’s own group suffering to grasp and struggle as well with the other’s sufferings on the road to reconciliation. As it soon became evident, this was difficult to entertain in the context of Stolac. The question soon became is it possible or even fair to ask victims of atrocities to try to see the point of view of their aggressors? How do outsiders need to behave in such a context?

The war presented a strong background to the encounter of the fellows and the host families. More so, fellows encountered a situation in Stolac were Muslims returned to their land but were not welcome by the Catholic residents who identified with the Croats. This explosive situation was not made clear to the fellows at the start of the program, it was assumed by the local organizers that the fellows read all the material distributed and knew the context in which they found themselves. Even if some had the time to read the materials documenting the atrocities committed in Stolac, the fellows could not, at the beginning of their stay, fully understand or process this information or what was at stake. As the situation was not fully made explicit, some fellows wondered why they did not encounter the Catholics in Stolac, and this led to some questioning. This questioning in turn was interpreted by the local organizers as a lack of understanding. It took a few days for the group, (it really became clear only in Boston), to grasp that the current situation in Stolac is almost approaching apartheid. One local lecturer explained in private that being in Stolac was like being in a town in Alabama in the 50’s run by the KKK with all that implied in terms of a culture of fear and repression.

A small group of Muslim local leaders were stubborn and dedicated enough to spear-head a movement of return to Stolac. What was also fascinating and for us confusing in this story was that the local teachers and organizers were not willing to explain it to the fellows, even when asked by the international organizer. This situation was then explained to the fellows by three of the international staff, but only in fits and starts and only fully, after we had reconvened in Boston. The fact that the political situation was very shaky and that the mayor and the priest of the village refused during the months leading to the Summer School to even talk to foreigners (including the representatives of the Luxemburg Scouting Association who worked on the restoration of monuments) interested in reconciliation, was never publicly acknowledged to the fellows. That the Stolac political elite (Catholic Croats) were not interested in reconciliation and thus were not interested in hosting or having anything to do with either the international restoration project and the ISSRPL, was also not made explicit. The fellows became aware of the dreadful atmosphere (aggressive behaviors of the locals toward the fellows/foreigners and the youth) but could not understand the depth of feelings and political issues involved. They were left wondering why they could not speak with the ”other side”, they were under the impression that one part of the reality was deliberately not shown. For example, as on Friday night there was no organized meal, fellows organized themselves and decided to have dinner on the other side of the town, in a Croatian restaurant overlooking the river. As R. was going out to join the group, she told our host what the group had decided and was told that it was not wise, implying that it might not be safe. Unsure on how to act on this information, she nevertheless told the group and left the decision with them. The few people who had made the decision, said it looked safe to them and as we all are outsiders we might as well go and see the other side and get a feeling for what is going on. The evening was very nice and people had a great meal and a wonderful time. It was not clear to the group why we could not have contact with the Croats and people in that situation became even more curious and wondering what was going on. The fact that the organizers could not bring themselves to explain did not help the group to understand the difficult, apartheid like situation of the town. As one of the fellows related, it took being in Boston for him to fully understand the meaning of the fact that in Stolac there are two kinds of coffee-houses, one for the Muslims and one for the Catholics. Fellows understood the plight of the Muslim returnees and the horror committed by the local Croat population but could not understand that they did not have any contact with the local Croats, and because it was not explained, and hence could not understand the full meanings of what they were witnessing.

In one way the choice of Stolac was not conducive to the goal of the summer school to de-center the self as the questioning leading to this de-centering was not possible in this city for the Muslim organizers. One lecturer from Israel after hearing a description of the atmosphere fellows were encountering made the analogy of Stolac to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. In Yad Vashem questioning the veracity of the Jewish narrative would be perceived by the Israelis as more than insensitive, it would not be permitted. Likewise, for the Muslim organizers questioning the role of the Muslims and their status as victims and of the Catholic Croats as perpetrators could not be tolerated. In that sense the fellows/outsiders coming from different religions were not able to actualize in Stolac a main goal of the school: “to see the other” and “to see the other see you”. This was achieved in Boston for the fellows, as the Stolac experience became a referent in discussing the encounters with the American pluralistic reality and its conflicts. In another sense the Stolac experience was very important for the group; people came together very quickly and were able to “bond” because of the difficulty of making sense of what they were experiencing. Furthermore, reflecting on Stolac helped fellows understand the urgency of the work of reconciliation and but also its limits.

One lesson to be drawn is that in a traumatic context, the Summer School methodology of outside/inside reflective questioning and the resulting de-centering might not be feasible or as effective. I must add that Stolac was a difficult, intense but also worth while setting, just reflecting on the limits of the methodology is important for the group and the organizers.

(Note: Due to technical matters, all footnotes have been excluded. For full version of the essay, please contact the blog administrators.)