Michael Dumper, Power, Piety, and People: The Politics of Holy Cities in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Michael Dumper (MD): As with many other researchers who had become involved in the Middle East peace process, the failure to achieve an agreement over Jerusalem led not only to disappointment but also to critical reflection. Like others, I started to ask myself what went wrong, what misleading assumptions were made, and how realistic had our expectations been? The current protracted impasse between Israel and Palestinian negotiators has demonstrated the need for a re-think, for new ideas, and for new perspectives. As a result, I have been looking at other “holy” cities in Europe and Asia to see if they offer possibilities to researchers to reconfigure the study of Jerusalem and make policy recommendations which may assist a resolution of its conflicts.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MD: All cities are arenas of contestation, but some cities exhibit specific forms of conflict arising from the salience of religious activity within them: powerful religious hierarchies, the generation of often unregulated revenues from donations and endowments, the presence of holy sites and the enactment of ritualistic activities in public spaces—all these combine together to create forms of conflict which are, arguably, more intense and more intractable than other forms of conflicts in cities. The question at the heart of the book is this: do cities ameliorate or exacerbate religious conflicts?

There are two main themes in the book. Firstly, “the paradox of ethno-nationalist urban governance” (my phrase). Here I mean that given that cities are intrinsically heterogeneous, the attempt to impose an exclusivist ideology by a dominant community (Hindutva in Banaras, Communism in Tibet, Ulster Unionism in Belfast, Zionism in Jerusalem) leads to the subordinate community to look for political, financial, religious, military support from external actors and to challenge the legitimacy of the governance. Thus, the action to assert dominance leads to a reaction that undermines it. This is particularly the case with cities like Jerusalem with strong religious associations. Heterogeneity and exclusivity are in opposition.

Secondly, large concentrations of religious sites in a city can constrain state sovereignty by empowering clergy, channeling funds independent of the state into non-state activities, creating semi-autonomous territorial enclaves and attracting international attention and scrutiny. In cities where these activities occur, the religious hierarchy becomes a significant political actor.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MD: The book’s starting point is my long engagement in discussions over the political future of the city of Jerusalem where religion is at the center of the conflict. At the same time, the book draws upon empirical research on the “holiness” of  four other cities: Cordoba in southern Spain where the Islamic history of its Mosque-Cathedral challenges the control exercised by the Roman Catholic church; Banaras, where competing Muslim and Hindu claims to sacred sites threaten the fragile equilibrium that exists in the city; Lhasa in Tibet, where the Communist Party of China is eradicating the ancient practice of Tibetan Buddhism; and George Town in Malaysia which is a rare example of a city with many different religious communities whose leaders at the same time have successfully managed the conflicts between them. The book draws insights from the study of religious conflicts in these cities to delineate a possible “toolkit” for researcher, civil society, and policymakers.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

MD: This book also departs from the style of my previous academic work in that I have worked hard at making it accessible to a non-academic readership. A few years ago, I read W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and also Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory and was amazed at the liberties they took with the conventional academic form, weaving personal observations, anecdotes, and imaginary scenes into their examination of landscape, history, and literature. It emboldened me to shake off the rather turgid and cautious style I had often employed and to become a bit more adventurous in the way I wrote.

So in this book, although it is thoroughly referenced and carefully argued (I still feel, even at this stage of my career, that I have to watch my back), I include travelogue, memoir, ethnographic observation, humor, and ruminations with the result that it is more engaging than my previous writing. The book, covering as it does Jerusalem, Cordoba, Banaras, Lhasa in Tibet and George Town in Malaysia, has ample scope to bring drama, color, and pageantry to the text. For example, in describing Muslim-Hindu tensions in George Town, although I was not present to observe a particular riot, I am able to draw a vivid picture of the violent night-time confrontation, mostly based on reports but partly also based upon my own experience of similar tensions in Jerusalem and my own personal knowledge of everyday religious life in George Town. In this way, I hope the book will prove to be interesting not only to policymakers but also to a more general reader.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MD: I would like to explore in greater depth the sectarian interactions in George Town, Malaysia, as my research to date suggests that it has important lessons for other multi-ethnic and multi-faith cities. However, the COVID pandemic and funding issues have put this on hold for the time being. At present I am examining issues with Palestinian partner institutions regarding the financing of UNRWA with a view to writing a book on UNRWA as a significant regional actor. I also help run a small farm in Devon, UK, where I live.

J: Did you have a “eureka” moment when conducting your research, and what was it? 

MD: There were a few, but the one that sticks out the most was when I realized the extent to which internal urban dynamics could neutralize the impact of national policies. By this I mean that residents of a city could push back on their municipal level some of the more unwelcome interventions from the national level. Taking this on board, I then could see even more clearly the role that some religious hierarchies and movements could play or would not play in fostering a more inclusive city identity.

The other eureka moment was when, despite being a born swimmer and despite having many sins to wash away in its pure and holy waters, I decided that a swim in the toxically polluted River Ganges in Banaras was not a requirement for my research project.

Excerpt from the book (from chapter 2, pp. 27- 29)

London, 2nd May 1997: It was the morning after the British elections which saw the Labour Party sweep into power under Tony Blair with a huge majority. Threading my way through the exuberant, dancing crowds between Westminster and Whitehall, I tried to focus on the tense meetings being held in the offices of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). I had been asked by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office to chair a session on the future of Jerusalem at what is unofficially known as the “London Track”, a series of unofficial negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The London Track was attempting to build upon the breakthrough in 1993 when the Oslo Accords, signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, took place. The Oslo Accords, however, only laid down the framework for a transition period but did not spell out a final agreement on many contentious issues, with the issue of Jerusalem as one of the most contentious still to be agreed upon. The Palestinian team was led by the FATAH leader, Faisal Husseini, a charismatic individual who exuded gravitas and calm. The Israeli team was led by the veteran Israeli Labour Party member, Yossi Beilin, a principled operator who was convinced that Israel had to be steered away from the populist nationalism which was preventing a strategic vision of its place as a good neighbour in the Middle East being grasped. Active in his team was also the youthful academic and peace activist, Ron Pundak, one of the architects of the secret negotiations which led to the Oslo Accords. The discussion on the morning of 2nd May did not go very well. Not only was there a scratchiness and grandstanding between the two teams which had been absent from earlier meetings, but the sessions were also punctuated by shouts and victory chants from the Labour party supporters outside as they headed down Whitehall for Downing Street and Westminster Palace. There was one particularly loud and prolonged roar which drew all of us all to the tall windows overlooking Whitehall and we caught a glimpse of the Blairs walking into the Prime Minister’s residence in Downing Street, waving at the crowds. Even the police were clapping!

In contrast to the celebrations outside, the mood inside the grand RUSI rooms was increasingly sombre. The particular session I was chairing did not go well either. The excitement of Oslo had faded and the Palestinians were both confronting the cautious and legalistic pedantry of the Israeli team but also back-peddling from their over-enthusiastic embrace of a peace process which, on closer reading, did not lead to Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem or to the return of significant numbers of Palestinian refugees. The Jerusalem session was turning out to be an exercise in futility. The four presentations, two from each side, were, at root, extrapolations from two sets of assumptions that neither side shared. The Israelis were working on the assumption that whatever form the Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem took, Israel would remain in charge of policing and security. That was a red line for them. They were not prepared to give up security arrangements for a territory, that is, a tangible asset, for the promise of good behaviour on the part of the Palestinians, particularly for a territory as significant to them as East Jerusalem. The Palestinians, on the other hand, would not countenance anything much less than the status quo ante of 1967. A lease-back arrangement for some of the Israeli colonies in East Jerusalem including access to the Wailing Wall would be considered, but certainly no residual Israeli controls regarding the Muslim and Christian religious sites in the Old City. From their point of view, Israel had no right to be there and they were not going to go down in history as the people who had surrendered control over the holy places of Islam and Christianity. I found that as Chair of the session, drawing out the potential commonalities between the two sides had been almost fruitless. In one of the breaks between sessions, I chatted to Ron Pundak over some coffee and he asked me what I thought was going on. I remember answering that unless Israel worked quickly and demonstrated, as the stronger party, some magnanimity over the religious sites issue, the momentum towards a peace agreement that had built up around the Oslo Accords would flounder. The Palestinian position was hardening the more detailed the discussions became. Writing as I am now, twenty years later, after many hours of such off-the-record meetings, reams of paper written and digital files made, miles of travel covered, gallons of lousy coffee consumed, the two sides are no closer to an agreement. They are possibly even further away from one.

It is this experience of watching the possibility of peace slowly slipping through our collective fingers that partly drives this comparative project. The failure of the Oslo process has been analysed and dissected repeatedly and it has led me to personally reflect on what lessons can be learned. As I mentioned in the Introduction, the causes of religious conflicts are complex and need careful disentangling from many other factors. I hope to demonstrate this further in the following chapters as well. While this chapter will focus on Jerusalem, I want to ensure that the perspective I keep is broad and to some extent generalizable. To this end, the conflict around the religious sites of Jerusalem will be discussed while simultaneously exploring and delineating the contours of the religious dimensions to urban conflicts in a wider context. This approach has the added benefit of not repeating some of the material I have already published and also of allowing me to navigate around what has become a rather crowded field on the Jerusalem issue since the 2000s. In trying to encapsulate what it is about some cities which have religious conflicts that is different from others, I will at the same time draw on Jerusalem as my main case study. The first step in this exploration is to look more closely at the term “holy city”.