Aim of the network

In the years following the events of 9/11and subsequent developments in the context of the ‘war against terrorism’, many voices have noted the increasing significance of anti-Muslim discourses in Western societies. This prompted the rise of new research questions concerning patterns of exclusion and identity politics within Europe as well as concerning the resurgence of dichotomous spatial representations of ‘the West’ and its Orientalized ‘Other’, in this case Muslim majority countries in the MENA region and elsewhere. Many critics have highlighted the notably gendered dimension of such discourses. In a kind of new “sexual nationalism” gay liberation is now used to frame Europe as a secular symbol of freedom and modernity. Western “sexual nationalism” defines itself in opposition to the stereotype of the Muslim male within Western societies or of Muslim majority societies in general, who are being presented as pre- modern, oriental, patriarchal, and homophobic. Conversely, in a kind of occidentalist (Woltering) mirror image to these discourses, many Islamist intellectuals position an Islamic ethos against what they perceive as the West’s degenerate sexual licentiousness, whose intrusive and corrupting influence threatens the supposedly authentic cultural values of Muslim majority societies. Israel is often demonized in this context as a corrupting and destructive representative of Western imperialism in the heart of the MENA region in a way that is at times reminiscent of 19th century European anti-Semitism. Thus far, neo-Orientalist and Occidentalist discourses have been studied by social sciences as purely recent phenomena. Taking its cue from the humanities, this project aims to reconstruct their multilayered historical genealogies.

The aim of the project is to reconstruct a histoire croisée of Orientalism and Occidentalism. To this end, we will rethink the role of the long term intertwinement of internal and external figures of the ‘Other’ in Europe’s “many Orientalisms” (Lowe). On the one hand, our interdisciplinary research will explore the long term history of Muslims as targets of Orientalisation and as agents of self-Orientalisation. On the other hand, following Kalmar and Penslar’s “Orientalism and the Jews”- approach, we will focus on the long neglected history of representations of Jews as “oriental people” (Kalmar/Penslar), Europe’s “southern race” (Michaelis), its “internal Orient” (Aschheim), or “inner Orient” (Rohde). Thus, by including the longue durée of the Christian politico-theological tradition we will go beyond Edward Said’s claim that Orientalism is a “strange secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism” (1978).

Modern identity politics, as well as colonial and orientalist discourse have always been gendered and sexualized. Our project assumes a genealogy also of the gendered quality of ‘old’ and ‘new’ nationalisms. As Mosse claimed, 19th century nationalism was connected to virile hetero-normative masculinity whereas the male Jew was stigmatized as ‘effeminate’, ‘hysteric’, ‘oriental’ and ‘perverse’. Hence, as a response, Zionist discourse used orientalist and gendered tropes to reclaim a ‘masculine’ Jewish nation in Palestine. In general, the (Western-European post-emancipation) Jewish response and creative transgression to and of the anti-Jewish orientalism was threefold: rejecting it wholesome, romanticising the (biblical) Orient to negotiate their cultural position, and thirdly, depicting orthodox and traditional, particularly “Eastern Jews” as ‘Orientals’ in a pejorative sense. It was in the fin de siècle that the tension between the idealization and the colonial degradation of the Orientalized Other became a central vehicle of artistic self-fashioning especially for women and Jews.

Several scholars have noted similarities between 19th century discourses regarding the Jews and contemporary anti-Muslim discourses. The project will test the validity of such claims. Moreover, it remains to be seen if and to what degree gendered identity discourses promoted by Islamist anti-imperialist thinkers and activists today might unconsciously rely on an inverted mirror image of European colonial discourses, similar to Zionism’s construction of the ‘authentic’ Jew.

Focussing on the central role of sexual tropes in Orientalist, Antisemitic and nationalist discourse during the 19th century as well as in contemporary anti-Muslim and Occidentalist discourses, our network will go beyond dominant discursive dichotomies, in opening up third or liminal spaces within the “Orientalist web” (Aschheim) in the arts, literature and performance. The network brings together leading interdisciplinary research centres in Jewish Cultural Studies and Studies of Antisemitism, and scholars from the fields of MENA-region-studies, postcolonial, religious, gender, and sexuality studies, as well as literature, politics, theatre and history from Europe, the US and Israel.

Chair: Dr. habil Ulrike Brunotte (Associate Professor, Maastricht)


“Sexual Nationalism” was the title of an international conference on “Gender, Sexuality, and the Politics of Belonging in The New Europe”, (University of Amsterdam, 27-28 January 2013).