Q & A with Abdelwahab Meddeb & Benjamin Stora

An interview with Abdelwahab Meddeb & Benjamin Stora, editors of A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day

Both of you grew up in places where Jewish and Muslim communities lived side by side but, for the most part, kept to themselves. How did your early experiences affect the way you developed this book?
Benjamin Stora: I grew up in Constantine, in the Jewish Quarter. At that time the Jews in Algeria mostly felt French, but their ties to the Muslim communities were real; we shared the same language of everyday life, the Arabic language. Then came the departure of the Jews from Algeria: another exile after the fracture introduced by the Cremieux Decree. I have worked extensively on the history of the Maghreb and on Algeria in particular, and more recently I have become interested in the question of memory among the Jews of Algeria: it is an essential part of my memory and of Algeria's history. And to inform these memories, the work of the historian is necessary because it puts events in context, it connects them to one another. This project made sense to me because it would bring together European and American historians, but also Muslims and Jews. And it is only in this collective dimension that the history of Jewish-Muslim relations can be written.

Abdelwahab Meddeb: During my childhood in Tunis, in the 1950s, the presence of Jews was part of my story. During my schooling I had many Jewish teachers in nearly all subjects--history, geography, French literature, English, mathematics, physics, the natural sciences. They were our fellow citizens, our elders. They helped us into the modern world as Tunisians. So, with this background, I decided to join this project. Because Jews have virtually disappeared from Arab reality, from the Maghreb, from Tunisia, it was important to revisit the past, to recall the peaceful coexistence with Jews, sharing the same city. It is necessary to remember, to replace imagination with memory, and from that point, history can be written.

This project took more than five years to complete--years that coincided with major changes and conflicts in the Middle East. Did current events affect your decisions about the essays and topics the book would include?
Benjamin Stora and Abdelwahab Meddeb: The history of relations between Jews and Muslims is complex. But the editorial committee tried to focus on the long term, not on issues tied solely to current events.

At a time when the relationship is in bad shape, very bad, we cannot ignore these religious conflicts nor their manifestations in political and social history.

Even in medieval times, when the two civilizations coexisted more peacefully, the "protected" legal status (dhimmi) of Jews did not prevent anti-Judaism among Muslims that led to forced conversions or destruction by the sword. This enmity mutated with the rise of Western hegemony that eventually subjugated the Islamic territories. Other forms of ambivalence developed under colonialism and imperialism.

We have situated A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations at the heart of this tragic scene. We wanted to make this an objective, balanced history, which at first seemed impossible. The history contains not only conflicts, but also times of fertile intellectual, cultural, and artistic exchange.

The book traces the history of a long and complicated relationship from a global perspective. Why is this shared history important for contemporary readers to understand?
Benjamin Stora: Making a book today on the history of relations between Jews and Muslims is a true challenge. Despite all the differences, all the apprehension, all the fears that exist between these two communities, one must maintain the link between them. They have experienced common histories, and despite the clashes, they belong to the same shared universe. It is a fundamental undertaking, not simply to remember but to engage readers at the civic level, at the political level. Because if you have this deep knowledge of the recent past, then you can envision working together. But if you do not have this conception of a shared past, how can you find common ground on which to build?

What are some of the cultural assumptions this book hopes to challenge?
Benjamin Stora: The first articles in the book challenge the idea that Muslims were hostile toward Jews from the outset. Specialists such as Mark Cohen have shown that the attitude of the Prophet of Islam toward the Jews was shaped by pragmatism, not ideology.

In contrast, the idea of an Andalusian golden age in which the two communities lived in perfect harmony has prevailed for a long time: but again, the historian must have the courage to reflect critically on its sources. This book, which ignores neither the bad nor the good, has the humble ambition to provide the results of contemporary research and to offer a common memory, a tool that will facilitate dialogue.

What do you think the future holds for Jewish-Muslim relations?
Abdelwahab Meddeb: I agreed to edit this project because I believe in the possibility of future reconciliation, but always also in the irreconcilable. For there is no reconciliation that does not preserve an irreconcilable part. It is a long history that contains the irreconcilable, on both sides, and for compromise to happen we must recognize that the two entities will maintain irreconcilable elements.

I believe in a future reconciliation and I agreed to do this work because I believe its effect remains to be seen: to work toward a better time in which everyone will regain reason. Without ignoring the negativities and the abominations, this book tells a complex story. The relationship between Jews and Muslims is complex: it has seen the best, it has seen the worst. But I think it is important at least to remember this ambiguity and to show that it does not move in only one direction. And to hope that, despite the hatred that currently exists between the two communities, a different vision is possible.