Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Suzanne Schneider (SS): I’ve always been fascinated by the history of what are often assumed to be timeless constellations of religious belief or practice. There is a widespread tendency to project onto religions a stability and historical consistency that they lack, and I think the appropriate scholarly response is work that highlights religion as a site of change and contestation. However, I found that many histories of the Middle East took religion for granted as something that meant the same thing in, for example, the mid-nineteenth century, as it does now. Consequently, in Mandatory Separation I wanted to explore what exactly made something “religious” within Jewish and Islamic circles in late Ottoman and early twentieth century Palestine, and how that designation came to matter in material terms. In good dialectical fashion, I also wanted to attend to how material conditions—say, the need to rationalize Palestinian agriculture—contributed to the re-definition of what types of human behaviors and activities were counted among the religious. I found this all the more necessary in light of the common assumption that Zionist and Palestinian nationalist movements were largely secular in makeup. In fact, my research has shown that educators and leaders within these movements were interested in constructing new forms of political identity that consciously blurred the religious/secular divide.
What drew me to religious education in particular were the parallel lines of thinking about “old-fashioned” forms of religious learning I found within the writings of Jewish and Arab-Muslim reformers active in the Haskalah and Nahda, respectively. Jewish and Muslims educators in Palestine were heirs to these modernist traditions, though they did not accept their positions across the board.