»Why are we so obsessed with defining our boundaries?«
Interview with Prof. Wendy M. K. Shaw


»I think that for many people who are academics, there’s a personal component involved,« says Prof. Wendy M. K. Shaw, art historian for Islamic cultures at the Free University of Berlin, who will partake in the panel discussion God Beyond Borders. Naturally, the personal component is involved in her case too.

»My mom is a Muslim Turkish and my father was an Orientalist scholar and he’s Jewish. He was born a Shapira, but when he was living in Egypt in 1956, his mother told him it was dangerous for him as a Jew, so he changed his name to Shaw. He never thought about it as a change of identity, because for him he was American. He was one of the first Jewish professors at Harvard, but it was an assimilation era. In Turkey, my family was also secular, but religion was present with in private spaces. That was much more dominant in my childhood. So I’m part of this personal scholarship legacy that’s very Jewish, but I know more about Islam. What makes it even funnier is that my parents got married on June 6th 1967 [during the Arab–Israeli War].

My mom used to say, ›we never thought of ourselves as different,‹ and I told her ›well, you got married on the last day it was possible to think that.‹«

Prof. Wendy M. K. Shaw © Swami Silva

Prof. Wendy M. K. Shaw © Swami Silva

Shaw spent most of her childhood in LA. In 1978 she moved to Istanbul for two years. »I didn’t know any Turkish and I learned it by going to school. As a teenager, I went a lot back and forth and I always felt there very much at home. But when I tried to go and live there, when I was 19, and again when I was 32, it didn’t really work for me.«

In her research, Shaw deals with the intersection of post-coloniality and art history. »As a so­called Islamic art historian I’ve always had this problem that it’s not really modern art and it’s also not Islamic history. I realized that the entire concept of Islamic art history was so grounded in issues of coloniality and started thinking how I would recategorise Islamic arts. It’s a very complicated thing, ‘cause I’m actually rethinking what is Islam? What is art? What are the boundaries of these things? My approach towards history has very much to do with ways in which modernity categorizes people and then projects these categories and normalizes them as absolute for periods when they weren’t absolute. In the past it was very normal for people to know people of other faiths and to be affected by each other. It’s not just living side by side, it’s continual interactions. One of the nice things about art history is that you can actually see this in certain objects and practices.«

As an example for our categorized way of thinking about religion, Shaw points out the relationship between Islam and Buddhism. »The things people identify as Buddhist are very similar to things I have experienced with Islam. But those aspects of Islam have been sidelined, especially in the last twenty years. One of the ways in which Islam gets fixed in the modern period started in the 19th century, as orientalists wanted to find out what is Islam. They realized that what people were doing was actually very complicated and very different everywhere.

So they looked for the origins, thinking original Islam was the correct and pure one. This coincides with a practice of looking to origins, which has been part of Islamic practice for many centuries, but which really comes to the fore in modernity, with Salafi movements who focus on the first 30 years of Islam. So there’s this weird confluence between the orientalists and the fundamentalists. They get a lot of the media’s attention, but the odd thing is that for most Muslims it never looked like that. What they have been doing for the last thousand years is now ›wrong‹. The thing that is imagined as authentic becomes the most restrictive. When we’re asking the question of what is a religion, we’re expecting a category that’s fixed. But there is no fixity in a discursive space. Plato writes that when we try to fix something, it dies.«

According to Shaw, there are so many examples of every day behaviors that cross what we think of as ›boundaries‹, that one cannot help but wonder whether this is actually how life is.

»One example which I am very fond of is that of an Armenian man I know, whose family went in exile in 1915, so he grew up in Cyprus. His grandmother, who’s an Armenian Orthodox, would kneel on a carpet and open her hands up to pray. He didn’t realize until he went to England that that’s not how Armenian Orthodox pray. So was she doing it wrong? I think she was doing what was normal to her. There are so many examples in which not just individuals, but also cultures normalize their togetherness in different ways. This is why I feel inter­faith dialogues are artificial: ›Everybody, go into your teams! Now interact with each other!‹… We’ve gotten so invested with our categorized identities… why are we so obsessed with defining our boundaries?«

Natalia Ali, Halal-Haram, sound installation, burnt clay, loudspeakers, 2016 © Alexander Grossmann

Natalia Ali, Halal-Haram, sound installation, burnt clay, loudspeakers, 2016 © Alexander Grossmann

That IS has become an excuse for many people to categorize all Muslims doesn’t come as a surprise to her.

»The amount of tragedy we’re experiencing is too big to think about, so as long as we can believe that Muslims are all evil, then their suffering becomes OK. What people tend to ignore is that most of the people who are under attack by IS, and most people who fight against them, are Muslim. In places like Afghanistan or Iraq, where people have been living in a situation of utter chaos for so many years, without any services or security, I can understand why some are willing to do anything to have stability. People also lack historical perspective on how these groups have come to the fore. It’s not like IS just emerged one day. The Taliban in Afghanistan was fostered by US against the Soviet Union. These groups use the trappings of medievalness in order to forge identity, but they are very modern groups, enabled by modern situations of warfare.«

Though feeling very much at home in Berlin, Shaw was quite shocked by the lack of diversity in the local academy.

»When I moved to Germany two years ago, several professors who found out that I was part Turkish told me ›oh, don’t worry, you don’t look Turkish, nobody would ever know‹… It seems that the upward mobility in German society doesn’t function through the university system, and particularly not through Humanities. There are various understandable reasons for this, but the keepers of high culture are still the Humanities, and what ends up happening is that the cultural voice continues to be one which is very much grounded in Germanness. I feel that the university loses when it doesn’t include the amazing diversity of Berlin, not just as in ›we’ll offer couple of classes here and there‹…

To be different means to be different. It’s not always pleasant. My behavior fits better in other cultures and that might be uncomfortable. It’s definitely uncomfortable for my colleagues… When I mention it, they don’t want to talk about it. But there are certain norms that never get questioned because there isn’t a lot of diversity. And there’s a self­perpetuating system that makes it very easy to continue.«


Interview with Prof. Wendy M. K. Shaw (God Beyond Borders), prepared by Tal Alon (Editor of the Spitz Magazine Berlin)
You can also find the Hebrew version here: spitzmag.de


God Beyond Borders
Sunday 23 Oct 2016, 13:30 — 15:00, Saal
panel discussion

curator & moderator:
Dr. Elad Lapidot (philosopher)

guest speakers:
Prof. Wendy M. K. Shaw (art historian for Islamic cultures)
Hannah Tzuberi (author)
duration: 90 minutes