This talk was delivered by Nakita Valerio on March 18, 2017 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as part of the interfaith event, Religious Freedoms: A Community Conversation.

Assalamu ‘alaikum, peace be upon all of you.

I want to thank you all for having me here today, especially the organizers for putting together this wonderful day and program.  I want to begin by acknowledging that we are on Treaty 6 territory which is the traditional land of Indigenous peoples who have lived, gathered and passed through here for many thousands of years. In doing this, I want to convey my utmost respect for the dignified histories, languages and cultures of all First Peoples of Canada and reiterate that each and every one of us is a treaty person whether we arrived yesterday, are indigenous to the land, or were born here from settler-immigrant families. We all have a responsibility to uphold treaty values which include mutual respect and working to ensure we all remain here together.

I normally begin all of my lectures with treaty recognition but today it is especially important as I want to start my talk on religious freedoms by reading an excerpt from a different treaty – one written in the year 713, two years after the Muslim arrival from North Africa into what would be Al-Andalus – a Muslim polity in Europe for 750 years, and what is now known as Spain and Portugal. The Treaty of Tudmir was a peace treaty between ‘Abd al Aziz, the son of Musa ibn Nusair and Theodemir, the local ruler of an area called Murcia. The document is interesting because it counters the narrative that violent military victories are what enabled the conquest of the peninsula. In fact, it calls the entire notion of conquest into question as it suggests that the process of taking over the peninsula was gradual and piecemeal and required mutual respect and cooperation between incoming Muslims and their Christian and Jewish subjects. The treaty itself establishes the local religious communities as protected groups under Muslim rule, meaning a guarantee of their personal safety and allowing them to freely practice their religion in exchange for loyalty and (of course) becoming tax payers.

My point in bringing this treaty as an example is to show several things. Firstly, the idea of and anxieties about religious freedom go a lot further back into history than we think. And secondly, the very preoccupation with religious freedoms has historically been related to Muslim-Christian relations and how to navigate and negotiate our differences throughout our shared history together.

The Treaty of Tudmir is only one paragraph long, in which Abd al Aziz ibn Musa Ibn Nusair agrees not to set special conditions on the local Christians, nor harass them, nor remove them from local power. Christians would not be killed nor taken prisoner and they certainly wouldn’t be separated from their women and children (which was common practice in pre-Islamic conquests). Most importantly, the treaty notes that Christians and Jews “will not be coerced in matters of religion, their churches will not be burned, nor will sacred objects be taken from the realm.”

Much of this sentiment derives from the Qur’an itself, the Islamic Holy Book, believed by Muslims the world over to be the direct word of God, passed through the Angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) during the 7th century. Chapter 2, verse 256 of the Qur’an clearly states: “There is no compulsion where the religion is concerned.”

According to Islam, everyone has the right to live freely by his beliefs, whatever they may be. Anyone who wants to support a church, a synagogue or a mosque must be free to do so. In this sense, freedom of religion is one of the basic tenets of Islam, whether or not Muslim have been or are currently very good at implementing that.

So, if this has been a continuous preoccupation with religious freedom in Islam, being the most recent of the Abrahamic faiths, where do many of the modern problems concerning religious freedom come from then? Why are Muslims constantly in the news, particularly in secularized European and North American countries, and especially as it relates to their rights to worship, to build mosques, to pray and other rather simple aspects of Muslim life? Why are Muslim women, like me, constantly hearing about how our veils (worn freely for the sake of worshiping God through our modesty) are incompatible with things like Canadian values? When speaking of catastrophic refugee crises, why have many nations including America and at one point Canada, prioritized Christian refugees over Muslim ones because the latter seem incompatible with North American life? (leaving aside, of course, more important questions about the right to life and safety for these traumatized people fleeing terrible horror and tragedy) Why are these tensions continuously arising between Muslims and Christians? And more often and especially between Muslims and secular institutions?

The problem for me is an issue of translation and definition. Our ideas of religious freedom hinges on and differ based on how we define religion. In the verse of the Holy Qur’an that I quoted, about there being no compulsion in religion, I must note the term that God uses to refer to what we now call religion. In the original Arabic, which the Qur’an was sent down in, the term we now, in my opinion, improperly translate as religion is: Deen and this is largely where the issues stem from.

Deen is not the same thing as the current societal understanding of religion. Both of these terms have their historical geneaologies and both of them mean very different things according to those contexts. And our understanding of our terms has not been fully excavated or accurately translated. You know, academics in my circles are obsessed with defining terms because we know that defining them different ways manifests completely different understandings and social realities according to context and time. We build social worlds for ourselves based on how we define things, so it’s natural that when there is continuous issues, we would return to the terms as the root of our discrepancies.

The original Hebrew term, din, meant law or judgment and, in ancient Israel, often referred to governance and the Jewish legal system, as in beit din. In Islam, the term connotes government, law, reward, punishment, loyalty and submission. It is more accurately translated into our entire comprehensive way of life, or even more accurately, a cultural system.

This differs from the modern, especially secularized, understanding of the term religion. The term religion comes from a specifically Christian historical context but through time, has evolved beyond that and has come to relate primarily to one’s private beliefs about the “supernatural”. Because religion has come to mean what we privately believe about God, there is an assumption that we can simply keep those beliefs and our actions around them at home and the public sphere can somehow be a “neutral” space for community engagement whatever our backgrounds. Where Judaism and Islam are concerned first and foremost with practice and governing social behaviour, which is decidedly public, and we use appropriate terms that are reflective of that, the term religion in the definition of private beliefs, when applied to these systems simply doesn’t work.  It is most important to note that the assumption that the public space free of religion is EMPTY is simply a historical falsity. Just because a secular public sphere seems to be empty does not mean that it is and we all need to think critically about what cultural system is invisibly in place – what values are we taking for granted because we are continuously under the assumption that nothing is there?

A famous hadith (or historical testimony from one of the companions of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him at the time he was alive) states that Muhammad said: “Deen is very easy and whoever overburdens himself with it will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded; and gain strength by worshiping in the mornings, the nights.” Here, it is clear that Deen must mean a complete way of life, and indeed, in Islam there are comprehensive guidances for almost everything you can imagine, from how and when to pray to how to brush your teeth, which shoes to wear, how to treat the environment, and what conduct is appropriate for dealing with our spouses, our families, our neighbours, our children and the wider communities. While the first pillar of Islam is, indeed, our declaration of faith, that there is no God except God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God, our way of life does not stop there.

Because Islam encompasses every detail of how we live our lives, it means that there can’t really be a secular, religion-free public sphere how people imagine it, as long as Muslims are around. Now before anyone thinks I am arguing that Muslims cannot live in secular society (which I am not) I want to state clearly and unequivocally, that historically Muslims have lived under persecution for their religion for hundreds of years, they have done so secretly for their very survival and will do whatever it takes to maintain their way of life, even if that mean, forcing it into the private sphere. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Further, does this tension mean that Muslims do not follow local laws as some groups would improperly claim, that we instead only follow shariah and are trying to implement it locally and impose it on everyone? Of course not. Part of the guidance of our way of life is in following the leadership and rule of our local governments as long as they do not cause us to leave our spiritual path. And that spiritual path is for us alone. And if there are local laws against aspects of our way of life, as I said, we are also permitted to acquiesce to those laws, depending on the context and time.

What it does mean, and explains historically, is why Muslims and Jews and many other “religious” minorities have decidedly been the OTHER in secular historical contexts, often with catastrophic results (most notably the Holocaust and colonization). In fact, there are virtually no other religious groups in the world who define their ways of life as privitizable or somehow limited to their beliefs only. There are none. And Christian groups who focus a lot on governing social behaviour are now feeling the same pressure against their ways of life in the so-called “neutral” public sphere, despite the fact that such a concept historically originated in Christian contexts.

While this is only the beginning of a much more complex and deep discussion of religion as an entity, I do want to briefly meditate on what the way forward for religious freedom then is?  I would say, that the first place to start is in definitions and translation, and that begins with education. If Islam, Judaism and virtually all other ways of life were understood for what they are, it would become immediately clear that keeping the practices of those ways of life out of the public sphere will be very difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. And if the truth of diversity studies enhancing our shared communities has anything to say about it, it would be that keeping the practices of those ways of life out of the public sphere is also detrimental to our understanding of one another.We have to recognize that historically and presently, we are not incompatible with one another. We have coexisted for centuries. We have to stay firm that it is not an option that coexistence fails. It takes hard work and agreements, and that work begins with the work of translating how we understand our own ways of life and having others learn that too.

Now, lest someone argue that I am against secularism, I need only mention that it not secularism itself which is at the heart of these social ills and misunderstandings. It is the idea of a homogenized, so-called “empty” public sphere that is at the heart of these social ills and misunderstandings and which I demand critique of. If the public sphere was instead understood as a pluralistic and diverse space for multiple ways of life to coexist in the spirit of treaties from 1300 years ago – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Brahmanism, the Sikh way of life, many others AND secularism, respectful of one anothers’ differences –  we could move forward in a much easier manner together. That is why I personally and professionally remain committed to protecting the religious freedoms of all ways of life, even when Islam is not part of the picture.

I look forward to speaking more to these issues on the panel.

Thank you.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta and sits on the advisory committee for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Join The Drawing Board community in congratulating owner and editor-in-chief, Nakita Valerio, on her recent appointment to the advisory committee for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life. The CRC is a gathering point within the University of Alberta: Augustana Campus focusing on a broad range of themes where religion and public life intersect. To the discussion of vital issues that often call forth deeply emotional responses, it seeks to bring original contributions that embody the highest standards of academic scholarship. While rooted in the academy, activities of the Center engage the public square and the full range of religious communities, bringing the depth and texture of the most varied religious and civil ideas into a hospitable and constructive conversation.

The appointment carries a 3-year term which involves service in shaping an agenda for research, public programming, and dialogue in relation to religious communities in Alberta and around the globe. Being offered the opportunity to serve this institution is a great honour.


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Join us in extending heartfelt congratulations to our very own writer and researcher, Rachael Heffernan, on a successful defense of her Master’s thesis this week. Rachael’s research was on the body of God in the Hebrew Bible.

In the course of her academic career, Rachael has received a number of scholarships and awards, including the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

This article was written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board.

In an age of diversity and, unfortunately, hideous bigotry, it’s understandable that most of us are concerned with making sure the people around us are safe people. Are they racist? Homophobic? Sexist? Islamophobic? Judeophobic? Ageist? Sizeist? There are a lot of forms of discrimination to look out for.

Sadly, in many cases in our efforts to make sure we aren’t subject to stereotypes and generalizations we lump people into categories. Religious people aren’t safe for queer folk. Queer folk aren’t safe for religious people. White people aren’t safe for people of colour. Jews aren’t safe for Muslims, skinny minnies aren’t safe for the fat-bulous – the list goes on and on.

These are obviously problematic, and I don’t think it needs saying that stereotypes of all kinds are violent. They are pervasive though, and recently I’ve noticed a trend in some of my communities to simultaneously want to bring an end to bigotry while absolutely abhorring belief in God.

Of all the things to abhor in this world, that seems like a strange one. It’s like abhorring yoga, or a passion for decorating, or cooking with coconut oil – except it’s actually worse than those because abhorring belief in God leads to the alienation of religious (and non-religious, believe it or not) people the world over. Any kind of alienation causes more trauma than it prevents and it’s ultimately hugely problematic for anyone who believes in the beauty of diversity and wants peace. How can a person say ‘Ramadan Mubarak,’ and then unsubscribe to someone’s feed because they talk about God too much? That’s like going out to celebrate Chinese New Year and then getting angry that everyone keeps speaking Chinese.

So what’s the problem? What stereotype is causing that discomfort? Is it the idea that religious belief leads to violence and discrimination? Proselytization? Judgement? Ignorance?

Obviously each of these is problematic. Each is based on bigoted stereotypes.

Every day, every one of us has choices. The choices I make may not be the right choices for you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not the right choices for me. It is our duty to be nonviolent people, and that includes abstaining from discrimination in all its forms. In addressing violence, it is important that we do not become violent ourselves.

Eid Mubarak, everyone.

This article was written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board and graduate researcher in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

It’s a term that gets used confidently, like we all know what it means, but the first thing that happens in any theory of religion class is to reveal that, in fact, “religion” has no satisfactory definition. No matter how we may try – and try many do – we cannot figure out what makes a religion a religion.

To break this down:

Many definitions of religion centre on the belief in some superhuman power, like angels and deities, but this is problematic for multiple reasons. Firstly, not all major recognized religions include belief in any kind of superhuman power: Theravadan Buddhism is rather adamant about its lack of inclusion of anything transcendental in its worldview.

Secondly, for many, simple belief in a deity or deities is not enough for a person to be considered “religious.” There are behavioural obligations, dress codes, eating restrictions, and so on and so forth, that are understood to be part and parcel to ‘actually’ believing in G/god(s).

Thirdly, even those that do not believe can still be considered, and consider themselves, religious. If one is an atheist but nevertheless attends religious services, reads sacred texts, eats according to religious laws, and observes sacred holidays, would they be viewed as a non-religious person? Maybe by some, but not by all.

Fourthly, without a concrete definition of “superhuman power,” it is impossible to determine the exact qualities of the being(s) in which a person is expected to believe, and it becomes difficult to explain how belief in folk heroes, monsters, and fairies is different from belief in saints, demons, and angels. This problem becomes even further complicated by the fact that though the belief in certain figures (such as angels and ghosts) may be intrinsic to one religion, the belief in those same beings may be abhorred in another. What kind of definition, then, would be capable of differentiating between the religious and non-religious superhuman powers in light of these difficulties?

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The idea that religion can be defined solely based on belief in superhuman powers, then, is a pipe dream. In light of the shortcomings of one-dimensional definitions, some scholars have suggested outlining a number of different criteria of which religions must fulfill at least a few in order to retain their status as religions. These criteria often include things like:

  • Dietary restrictions
  • Sacred texts
  • Sacred buildings
  • Belief in superhuman powers
  • The existence of religious professionals
  • A particular way of dressing
  • Etc.

There are, again, many problems with this style of definition.

Firstly, the criteria that are normally put in place in these lists are drawn from distinctly Western ideas of what constitutes religion. This is perhaps unsurprising, as it is a distinctly Western pursuit to try to discover what religion is, or even to attempt to separate religion from other kinds of human behaviour. Some languages do not even have a word for religion, and many do not consider religion to be a particular set of behaviours within a culture, but rather as fully integrated and inseparable from the culture itself. What happens, then, is that these attempts at definition ultimately fall short in their attempts to define religion on a worldwide scale. They do not take into the account oral cultures, or the fact that eating restrictions may have multiple justifications beyond “religious concerns,” or that sacred spaces are often ill-defined and can appear spontaneously, or that some cultures do not have or see the need for dedicated religious professionals.

Secondly, it is possible for some patterns of behaviour, institutions, or practices that are not normally considered religious to fulfill the criteria outlined in the above definitions. Sports fandom, for example, is often cited as a modern form of religion: there are designated buildings and particular clothing, people arrive en masse to participate in certain events at the same time every year, there are heroes and legends, it includes devoted professionals, and fans (or adherents) treat their team, the events, and the players with reverence. The same problem can be found in a large number of cases: political ideologies, recreational groups, community centres, even online communities may fulfill the criteria necessary to be considered religious.

Thirdly, it is possible for groups who want to enjoy the privileges offered to religious groups to simply ensure that they tick off the boxes necessary to be considered one. It is not so difficult to write a text, call a building “sacred,” wear particular clothes, elect a leader and then *poof* enjoy tax breaks and extended rights and freedoms. Most recently, scientology has been removed of its religion status in Germany and declared a business – pointing out the power differential when it comes to naming what a religion is and who gets that privilege.

And with this, it starts to become apparent why it is important to define religion. I would like to be able to say that it would be fine to simply allow people to call themselves what they want, and leave labels out of it, but I can’t, because the issues surrounding definitions of religion are larger than self-identification. It is not only that recognized religions enjoy considerable privileges in our society, but also that the term religion is used to make blanket-statement condemnations, promote discrimination, and encourage us-vs-them mentalities. When people say “religion is violent,” or “this religion is violent,” they are glossing over the fact that we have no way of determining what religion even is. The end result of this behaviour is often that millions of people are lumped in with the few, and the only solution proposed is if religion, or that religion, is left behind in favour of a ‘superior’ way of life. Root causes of issues are ignored in favour of blaming a porous, ever-changing, inconsistent, undefinable thing.

So define we must, because the more we recognize the issues inherent in our own categorizations, the less we are able to condone worldviews of us-vs-them.

ReligionWordleWhiteRound

 

This paper was presented by Nakita Valerio for the Annual HCGSA Conference at the University of Alberta, February 2016.

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On January 27th, 2010, I stood in the freezing cold outside Auschwitz-Birkenau after a long day of watching the ceremonies for its 65th anniversary of liberation. Visitors had been huddled around burning fires just beyond the women’s camp on the way to the gas chambers. In a large tent across the infamous rail tracks, survivors, politicians, and press had listened to speeches in Polish and Hebrew. Violins had been played. At the end of a twelve-hour day, with the sun having set over the camp, many of us started to make our way toward the exit to go back to the nearby town, or to catch a bus to Krakow. In the ‘parking lot’, we met with mass confusion as guards hurried everyone along in the dark, survivors were shuffled onto buses wearing their striped uniforms, and cars took off left and right. We were informed that there were no taxis and no buses for us who remained. We would have to walk five kilometers in the cold back to the town if we hoped to leave Birkenau that night. One woman from our group grabbed me and we raced over to a tour bus as it was leaving. She managed to convince the driver to let us on but we were told that we must stand at the back and we were to remain absolutely silent: we had hitched a ride with survivors. As the bus filled with the sounds of their laughter and their chattering in a variety of languages, the woman turned to me, complaining in English about the poor organization of the ceremonies and a litany of other criticisms about its memorialization, in general. This woman confided in me that she was one of the main curators at Bergen-Belsen and when I asked her why she thought it was such a problem at Auschwitz, she replied: “It’s because Auschwitz is in Poland.”

This unusual comment has always stuck with me, not only because it is indicative of a kind of German-centric authority in memorializing the Holocaust but also because it demonstrates a narrative common about Poland, which even permeates within Poland, about a kind of ineptitude at existing in general, never mind at memorializing what is considered one of the most important sites of memory for the Holocaust. This curator is not the only person to express a sense of insufficiency when visiting the camp, in fact, entire books have tried to get at why the memorials at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau leave the visitor with a nagging sense of incompleteness and “restlessness of the soul”. Such authours as Jonathan Webber argue that the Holocaust is a rupture in the fabric of creation, and that trying to identify its causes (morally) leads to insurmountable issues for the writers of history, thus rendering any memorial hopelessly inadequate, presumably more so than memorials normally are. Webber is not alone, citing a slew of authours grappling with the immense anti-ethical implications of the Holocaust and failing to come up with solutions for curators of this critical space. Webber concludes his article by citing the lack of a unified religious (specifically Jewish) voice as crucial for reconciling the immensity of the Holocaust to our inability to reason with it and, by extension, as a comfort for our collective morality.

I argue that it is neither some kind of perceived Polish ineptitude nor a lack of religious unity nor existential trauma that are to blame in terms of the majority of problems people have with the camp, and, in fact, the sacralisation that happens in the latter formulations, which make Auschwitz the inverse of the Kantian sublime, inhibit our ability to assess Auschwitz for the historical space that it is. The symbol of Auschwitz is no longer the historical place of Auschwitz and something very valuable and illuminating has been lost in the process. Considering I am working in the field of social memory and the Holocaust, you would think I would be deeply interested in the symbolic currency of the symbol of Auschwitz and how it is used in various mindscapes of cultural systems around the world –and I am. But my point in trying to ground us in the physical space of Auschwitz once more is to note something of urgent necessity which thinkers who sacralize the camp run the risk of overlooking, and which could have dire consequences for the symbolic use of Auschwitz in the future: its conservation.

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Before I get into the stark challenges of conservation, which are wholly unique to it and will illuminate a major reason for the sense of insufficiency in the camps, I want to discuss both the problems of religious unity and sacralization briefly. An article published on August 10, 2007 by The Krakow Post was entitled “U.S. Sacred Ground Foundation wants to build sanctuary in Auschwitz.” The concept behind the proposed monument “was to reflect a symbolic burial ground for those who died in the concentration camp.”[1] The presumed purpose of something like this is to recognize the diversity of people who died in Auschwitz and whose remains ought to be honoured. It is also assumed that this sort of project has been undertaken because of the impossibility of separating intermingled remains for appropriate burial according to each victim’s religion. Ultimately, however, “The International Auschwitz Board [was] not keen on the project [because] Auschwitz is considered to be a cemetery today and Judaism does not permit any monument erection within the grounds of a cemetery.”[2] Other such memorials have been proposed and rejected in the past, preferring instead to be built outside of the camp where they “have a greater chance of success.”[3] This is but one example of how Auschwitz has become a contested space. Some might argue that contestation is an inherent part of constructing culturally important places, particularly those that are religiously sacred; that, by virtue of defining a place for one group, others will necessarily be excluded. This is a bleak reality that does not bode well for the future of those seeking to heal at Auschwitz for numerous demographics who flock there looking for closure and answers, nor for those who want to use it as a space of learning for future generations. It is, in my opinion, that under exceptional circumstances, exceptions need to be made. An example of this type of exception was reported again in The Krakow Post when an Aboriginal Elder from the Budawang people in New South Wales Australia was permitted to perform the first ever Aboriginal healing ceremony in Auschwitz.[4] Perhaps it was the fact that 59-year-old Noel Butler had no link whatsoever to any identifiable religious group that had been victimized at Auschwitz that he was permitted to do this. However, this reasoning does not hold true for a mass Muslim prayer for the dead held inside the camp and conducted by imams from around the world on May 23, 2013. Rather, perhaps the acceptance of such acts of ritual healing have been accepted by the establishment because of the impermanence of such ceremonies.

Religious contestation of the space is, by far, the least of the worries associated with the camp. Most of these attempts at closure and religious healing in the space are thwarted by its sacralization in another realm: with the elevation of Auschwitz as the site for commemorating the tragedy of the Holocaust, as somehow emblematic of the entire historical episode’s face. By making Auschwitz untouchable, a kind of gruesome hierophany at which all the darkness of the human soul broke through and is somehow still emanating from that space, many historians have lost the ability to see what really underlies the first main obstacle to memorialization, something completely left aside in the conversation: that is, conservation.

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In “Wisdom Sits in Places” from Senses of Place, Keith H. Basso, states that “the self-conscious experience of place is inevitably a product and expression of the self whose experience it is, and therefore, unavoidably, the nature of that experience is shaped at every turn by the personal and social biography of the one who sustains it.”[5] Ultimately, our sense of a place like Auschwitz derives from our animation of place and its reciprocal animation of “the ideas and feelings of persons who attend to them… [and] this process of interanimation related to the fact that  familiar places are experienced as inherently meaningful, their  significance and value found to reside in the form and arrangement of their observable characteristics.”[6] Furthermore, Basso (quoting Jean-Paul Sartre) notes that things can reflect for individuals only their knowledge of them. In this understanding, it is possible to imagine an individual who has never heard of the Holocaust  and, in coming to Auschwitz, would not realize what took place there – in fact, this idea of place necessitates that hypothetical in order to counteract the alleged inverse-sublimity/sacrality that some people describe as now “emanating” from Auschwitz. What an individual such as this picks up on from the site itself is not the moral black hole that many claim is now there, but may be indicators from the landscape, both natural and altered, that offer subliminal or overt clues as to what took place there. As Basso points out, “places come to generate their own fields of meaning… [by being] animated by the thoughts and feelings of persons who attend to them[;] places express only what their animators enable them to say.”[7]

The record for the preservation of Auschwitz has been grim and it is clear that the primary reasons for this relates to inadequate funding that has hampered the process of restoring the buildings and other structures of the camps.[8]

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Jolanta Banas, the head of preservation at Auschwitz has stated matter-of-factly, “Our main problem is sheer numbers. We measure shoes in ten thousands.”[9] When the sum is totaled, Banas and her staff are responsible for the monitoring of 150 buildings and more than 300 ruins at the two main sites of Auschwitz-Birkenau.[10] According to Robert Jan Van Pelt, a cultural historian in the school of architecture at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and the leading expert on the construction of Auschwitz, “80 to 90 percent of the original structures are gone or in a state of ruin.”[11]

Part of the issue with this state of affairs is the size of the camp and thus the sheer volume of funds that are required on a continual basis for the maintenance and upkeep of the grounds. For anyone who has not been there, the three camps comprising the Auschwitz zone are enormous and total 40 square kilometers or 4000 hectares. In comparison, the other major killing zones on Polish soil are tiny. Treblinka, is a mere 17 hectares. It was never conceived of as anything other than a place to commit murder and the overwhelming majority of people sent there were killed within two hours of their arrival, totaling a minimum of 870,000 murders. Belzec camp near Lublin, Poland (another death center only) was reported to have been the site of murder for at least 434,508 people. It measures only 27 hectares. Sobobir death camp claimed the lives of between 200,000 and 250,000 prisoners and it measures only 24 hectares. Auschwitz, on the other hand, was part of a larger agricultural and industrial experiment initiated by Heinrich Himmler to assist Germans of the Reich who had settled on stolen Polish land. Slave labour from the camp, involving around 10,000 prisoners at any given time, was part of the prerogative of the creation of Auschwitz. The size of the camp is the first major obstacle to preservation because the level of funding required is both enormous and in constant demand. The fact that the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau has come to stand for the face of the entire Holocaust makes its preservation crucial for many and yet, it is in need of the most funding to do this, to the neglect of other killing centers.

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Reports immediately after the fall of the USSR indicated that many of the wooden barracks had rotted away, the crematoria were literally sinking into the ground, and the mountains of belongings stolen from the victims (from their hair to shoes, suitcases and eyeglasses) were breaking down. An article in the Ocala Star-Banner from February 19, 1990 indicated that Poland (which had toppled its Communist government only the summer before) had “formed a commission to change the 35-year-old museum exhibition, which highlight[ed] the Soviet army’s liberation of the camp but mention[ed] the Holocaust only in passing.”[12] Preservation cost estimates at that time were thought to be around $40 million. Frank Reiss, the vice-president of a New York foundation enlisted to help with the assessment of the site, called for an urgency in the repairing process, stating that “If nothing is done, in 10 to 20 years, the site will be practically non- existent…[and that] the tens of thousands of pairs of shoes…if you touch them, they fall to dust.”[13] The fact that these exhibits have not changed since the 1950s (until the present day) says a lot about the sense of urgency employed in addressing these urgent matters.

Preserving the structures and the artifacts of Auschwitz were not the only priorities for museum staff at this time. Former inmate, Kazimierz Smolen, who headed the museum group, has “struggled with the beautifying effect of ever-growing grass, the soothing sound of bird singing and the government’s limited resources to maintain the camp’s hellish authenticity.”[14] While some might assume that grass and birds were present when the Nazis were gassing prisoners, this was not always a reality. Firstly, Polish winters are very long and have high precipitation rates in the form of snow. This is why many visitors to the camp have expressed its especial bleakness when seen during the winter months as it resembles its former terror and what people expect of it much more eloquently. In the spring and summer months, the camp would have been very muddy or of hardened dirt because of the constant impact of numerous prisoners’ footfalls on what was once a grassy field. In this sense, Smolen is quite right that the current grass affects one’s overall experience of the camp when visited outside of the winter months. As Andrew Curry put it, “the scene [at Birkenau] was so peaceful it was almost impossible to imagine the sea of stinking mud that survivors describe.”[15]

It is also true that the grass threatens to overtake the boggy pool of ashes that still lies beyond the crematoria where remains were buried. If this is an issue that can (or should) be addressed is another point of contention in memorialization. Are curators supposed to “recreate” the experience for visitors? Does this lend itself to authenticity or Hollywood-esque practices? Reiss, in the exact same article, notes that rebuilding things to be as they were is unproductive, and that ruins should be preserved as they are: as ruins.

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Competing narratives about how preservation should happen continue to plague the allocation of limited funds, to the continued detriment of the decaying camps. Van Pelt, quoted above, has also stated that recreating the experience for viewers undermines the nihilism of the camps, particularly Birkenau. He has publicly stated that it is “the ultimate nihilistic place. A million people literally disappeared. Shouldn’t we confront people with the nothingness of the place? Seal it up. Don’t give people a sense that they can imitate the experience and walk in the steps of the people who were there.”[16] And yet, most people don’t share this view, particularly when the impending disappearance of the camp running parallel to the disappearance of Auschwitz survivors as time marches on.

The second point to take from Smolen’s comment is the inadequacy of funds that the Polish government has made available for undertaking such a massive preservation process. It should be noted that there are at least 13 important extermination, concentration and labour camps located in Poland alone –  all in varying stages of neglect, some in far worse condition than Auschwitz.  For example, the gas chambers at Sobobir weren’t unearthed (after being discovered beneath a road) until September 2014, likely due to the fact that the camp was closed in 1943, prior to the end of the War.[17] The number of places of historical responsibility for the government of Poland is seconded only by Germany. This has resulted in a number of unusual methods of preservation in the country, some of which people might call bizarre. This includes one program (called Tikkun and meaning “Fixing or Rectification” in hEBREW), started in 2003, which has enlisted the help of 1,500 inmates in Polish prisons to clean and repair Jewish cemeteries, and engage in Jewish cultural and learning activities such as touring extermination camps and watching films about Jewish life.[18] That the Polish government has contracted out its memorialization work to inmates at the local prison is a clear indication of the dire and desperate point to which the process has come.

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As a result of frustrations in the Polish government about the inadequacy of reactionary preventative measures, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was founded in 2009 following repeated failed efforts by the Polish government to raise adequate funds for the preservation of the camps.[19] Just prior to this, the spokesman for the Polish government on the issue of Auschwitz, Jaroslaw Mensfelt stated, “Without outside help, Poland could have trouble retaining Auschwitz as a memorial site.”[20] This occurred due to continuous underestimations of the costs involved because of the size of the camp. Revisions of the budgets forced the government to seek more funding, exacerbating lucrative relationships previously established. In 2008, the director of the memorial, Piotr Cywinski, pointed out that “Poland has been mostly the sole up-keeper of the museum for 60 years now. In the 1990s and 2000s the programmes for conservation works financed by other countries were those that catered to the most urgent needs.”[21] However, because the site was never designed to last long and it was built by inexperienced prisoners, it is deteriorating at a much faster rate than anyone had anticipated. Cywinski has argued that this burden should not fall on Poland alone but rests with the international community, particularly the European Union which should share in it.[22] When asked to justify this stance, Cywinski gave an interesting response that verges on the abstraction outlined above. He said,

Auschwitz, as the only concentration camp, and at the same time extermination camp – the biggest of them all – a symbol of the terrible entirety, is one of the foundations of our post-war European civilisation. This is the reason why for me, turning to other countries for financial support is not accounting for historical responsibility. What is to be won here is not only the preservation of the past and memory, but the foundations of a future where we understand the importance of Auschwitz as a place where we should all meet.[23]

Thus, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation began with “the aim[…] to create a Perpetual Fund which will finance conservation work and preservation of all authentic remains of the former Nazi German Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp.”[24] The group’s mission statement says:

We created the Fund to make sure that future generations will have a possibility to see the authentic space which is not only a living witness of one of the biggest crimes in the history of mankind but also a place which has a fundamental meaning for the entire European civilization. In Auschwitz we can fully confront and address the most important questions about: mankind, society, the poisonous fruit of anti-Semitism, racial hatred and contempt towards others. [25]

State donors for the preservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau include these main contributors: Germany ($80 million), the United States ($15 million), Poland ($13 million), the European Union ($5.9 million), Israel ($1.5million) and Canada ($400,000). However, less than a year after the establishment of the foundation for the site, the shortcomings of the museum were exposed in terms of security (with the stealing of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign in January 2010) and continuing conservation issues.[26] In an interview in The National Post as recent as May 5, 2013, Eli Rubenstein (an Auschwitz tour guide) has shown that the problem of decay at Auschwitz is still very real despite significant funds being raised and action taken.[27] It may, in fact, be an impossibility in terms of long-term preservation. The fact that, “with each spring thaw, shifts in the soil threaten to deliver a final, devastating blow to the fields of ruins”[28] is not the only daunting part of this task. Specialists in building infrastructure have the goal of restoring three brick barracks per year. This is an exceedingly expensive task that requires significant underground work, installing concrete foundations to slow the effects of the shifting ground. Conserving one brick barrack is expected to cost as much as $1 million.[29] As if that weren’t overwhelming enough, specialists in charge of deteriorating personal effects have noted that each individual shoe takes two hours to clean and inspect.[30] With hundreds of thousands of shoes alone, these specialists feel a sense of urgency like no other.

While the wooden barracks have long rotted away and brick barracks are on the verge of collapse, Rubenstein notes that despite the uphill battle, the crucial nature of preserving the places in which atrocities occurred cannot be underestimated. These are not only sites to animate narratives of survivors but they also hold power in themselves: “That power never diminishes. But, it’s only effective because the barrack is still standing to tell the story,” he said. “It’s only effective if the survivor is saying ‘I lay in this barrack and this is where my father saved my life.’”[31]

slide 8

It is on this critical point that I will conclude and know that I do so, because in a similar way as the survivors mention, I have wondered if such a massive project of conservation is worth the effort against what seems like a futile end-goal. However, if we accept that places can tell us volumes of historical information and can made to do so as well, then the narrative of the Holocaust relies on future funding for Auschwitz’s conservation in a collaborative effort, first and foremost. Simultaneous to this, while the issue of religious contestation may only be overcome through the creation of impermanent rituals of healing on the grounds of Auschwitz, the sacralization of Auschwitz as an inverse moral hierophany must be abandoned, and by scholars especially. It does not lend itself well to comprehending the factors that allowed for Auschwitz to occur, nor the possibility of another Auschwitz. The challenges of evoking sensations and understanding from a place like Auschwitz, particularly in an educational way for people with no experience of the camp, are real, particularly as time marches on, survivors continue to pass on and we get further away from the immediacy of this historical episode; however, none of this can even begin to be addressed if the space of Auschwitz is not given primacy through conservation efforts first. Given that the exhibits at Auschwitz-Birkenau still have not been altered in over sixty years and the grounds and artifacts are deteriorating faster than specialists can preserve and restore them, it looks like there is a long way to go in putting place first, before it is too late.

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[1] “U.S. Sacred Ground Foundation Wants to Build Sanctuary in Auschwitz.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/344

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “An Aboriginal Experience in Auschwitz.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1308.

[5] Basso, Keith H. “Wisdom Sits in Places” in Senses of Place. Ed. Feld and Basso. School of American Research Press: Sante Fe. 2001, pp. 55

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid, pp. 56

[8] “US Will Give $15M for Auschwitz Museum.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/2211; “Auschwitz Still Seeking Funding.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1814. “Auschwitz Museum to Receive EU Funds.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1384;  “Poles Ask the World for Funds to Stop Auschwitz Falling into Ruin.” Mail Online. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1041890/Poles-ask-world-funds-stop-Auschwitz-falling-ruin.html.; “With Auschwitz’s Historic Grounds Falling into Disrepair, Poland Appeals for International Funds to Preserve Concentration Camp.” National Post News. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/05/05/fo0506-je-auschwitz/.;  “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://en.auschwitz.org/m/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=722&Itemid=8.; “Poles Ask the World for Funds to Stop Auschwitz Falling into Ruin.” The Evening Standard. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/poles-ask-the-world-for-funds-to-stop-auschwitz-falling-into-ruin-6836666.html; Warsaw, Matthew. “Auschwitz Museum ‘needs £113m’ for Repair Work.” The Telegraph. April 24, 49. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/poland/4347667/Auschwitz-museum-needs-113m-for-repair-work.html; “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/can-auschwitz-be-saved-4650863/.; Berg, Raffi. “Cash Crisis Threat to Auschwitz.” BBC News. January 26, 2009. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7800397.stm.

[9] “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/can-auschwitz-be-saved-4650863/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid

[12]“Auschwitz’s Deterioration Alarming to Conservators.” Ocala Star-Banner. February 19, 1990. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1356&dat=19900219&id=CadAAAAAIBAJ&sjid=rwcEAAAAIBAJ&pg=4114,7711723.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/can-auschwitz-be-saved-4650863/.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Archaeologists Make More Historic Finds at Site of Sobibor Gas Chambers – Jewish World News.” Haaretz.com. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/.premium-1.616667.

[18] “Reconstructing Attitudes to Judaism in Poland.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/5840.

[19] “With Auschwitz’s Historic Grounds Falling into Disrepair, Poland Appeals for International Funds to Preserve Concentration Camp.” National Post News. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/05/05/fo0506-je-auschwitz/.;  “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau.

[20] http://www.standard.co.uk/news/poles-ask-the-world-for-funds-to-stop-auschwitz-falling-into-ruin-6836666.html

[21] “Counting the Cost.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1254.

[22] “Poles Ask the World for Funds to Stop Auschwitz Falling into Ruin.” The Evening Standard. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/poles-ask-the-world-for-funds-to-stop-auschwitz-falling-into-ruin-6836666.html.

[23]“Counting the Cost.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1254., emphasis added

[24] “Mission of the Foundation.” Mission of the Foundation. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.foundation.auschwitz.org/index.php/artykuly/12-articles/22-ratowac-auschwitz-birkenau.

[25] Ibid.

[26] “Auschwitz Still Seeking Funding.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1814.

[27] “With Auschwitz’s Historic Grounds Falling into Disrepair, Poland Appeals for International Funds to Preserve Concentration Camp.” National Post News. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/05/05/fo0506-je-auschwitz/.;  “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau.

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid