“Muslims”, “Islam”, and the Ordering of the World
Lecture by Katrin Bromber (ZMO) and Benjamin Zachariah (ZMO)
When is a Muslim not a Muslim? This is a question central to any elaboration of the categories ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam’. Historians are aware of the notorious difficulty of accessing the inner life of individuals. In analogy with the 'Judenfrage' in Germany, where the question was whether somebody of Jewish origin was a Jew only because the Nazis identified him as such, or whether an individual, ‘integrated’ into 'German' society or not, could identify as a Jew, we may proceed to ask – to what extent is birth or origin or a name adequate to the identification of an individual as part of a group of 'Muslims'? Is a (negative or positive) external identification the cause or catalyst for an engagement with or a reification of that which might be a relatively neutral 'social fact'? That this identification eventually has to be taken seriously internally, in a form of 'reactive ethnicity' that forces a turn to the search for 'Muslimness'? Is this Muslimness described in terms of a cultural vocabulary, a set of common codes that individuals invest with different meanings, but which has no necessarily religious signification? Is 'Muslim' an identitarian marker? In opposition to what? Or is it axiomatically legitimating to the extent that it has no particular relevance any longer? When everyone can invoke being Muslim, uses it as part of a self-definition, but invests it with a self-evident legitimating function, does it become emptied of specificity, functioning merely normatively? And if this is the case, does the ubiquitous necessity for such a legitimation serve to render it irrelevant? If we must all be Muslims, communists, vegetarians, to have a legitimate right to be heard, that is merely the precondition for any significant utterance, and is no longer an utterance in itself.