Middle East studies in the News
Speaking of Islamo-Christian Civilization Amidst Turmoil of Clash of Civilizations [interview with Richard Bulliet]
by Aydogan Vatandas
The attacks that left 12 cartoonists dead in Paris last month once more revived the infamous sentiment that Islam itself is the source of all crimes and that the theory of the clash of civilizations articulated by Professor Samuel Huntington -- the leading figure of the confrontationist camp in the West -- is both accurate and inevitable.
One of the leading scholars in American academia, who has devoted himself to proving both the inaccuracy and the danger of such a perspective, is Professor Richard Bulliet. Bulliet, in his insightful book "The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization" -- which came out three years after 9/11 -- not only subverted the confrontational "clash of civilizations" thesis but also indicated that Islam and Christianity are actually siblings and part of a single civilization.
In these turbulent times, many believe that moderate and knowledgeable voices such as that of Professor Bulliet are sorely needed.
Professor Bulliet said he is very optimistic about the future.
"We have to think of us being together rather than assuming that we are in a clash," he said.
Last week, I sat down with Professor Bulliet and talked about his fascinating book, the future of Islam and the recent developments surrounding it.
The phrase "Islamo-Christian civilization" first appeared in your book in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It follows the pattern of "Judeo-Christian civilization," a phrase that came into use after World War II. Can you tell us about the purpose of your book and this title?
Until 9/11 -- although I had been studying Islam in the Middle East ever since 1959 -- I never was really a part of that world. And I was very conscious of the fact that I was studying something that was not my culture. After 9/11, America became part of that world because we were now directly involved. We became stakeholders. Unfortunately, this occurred because of a terrorist attack.
So, the question that stimulated me to write this book was, "Do we have to share this world with Islam only as enemies?" Unfortunately, "The Clash of Civilizations" by Samuel Huntington became increasingly popular after 9/11 because many Americans thought that we have to be the enemies of the Muslim world. I really felt very deeply that this was a terrible mistake and that we are all part of one world.
Some of us are Muslims, some of us are Christians, and some of us are Jews or Buddhists or whatever. But we should not look upon this as an adversarial relationship. So, I thought of the phrase "Judeo-Christian civilization." Virtually everyone who goes to school in America grows up saying, "Oh, we have Judeo-Christian values, we belong to a Judeo-Christian civilization," and yet, before World War II that phrase was not used. It was popularized after World War II as a way of affirming, in a symbolic way, that Christians would no longer kill Jews. Instead they would be with them. And I felt that it was important to say, in a symbolic way, that Americans were not going to kill Muslims, that they were going to be with them.
Though there was a history of many hundreds of years in which there had been wars between Muslims and Christians, nevertheless, there were many more centuries in which there was peace or in which one dominated the other. There was great variation over 14 centuries. But for now, I thought the important thing is to live together and that was the inspiration of the book and the reason, of course, why I chose the phrase Islamo-Christian civilization for the title.
I naively imagined that I would simply go to Google every day and write in the phrase and see it gradually catch on throughout the world. Well, it didn't happen that way. "Clash of Civilizations" still beats out "Islamo-Christian civilization" by a wide margin. But it still is the right idea. And I think it is still important for those of us who are in the education business, as I am, and for everybody else as well, to think in terms of being together regardless of our religious background rather than fall into the kind of hate speech mentality that seems to have a very strong audience in this country.
How were the reactions to your book? Did you encounter any resistance from either side, Christian or Muslim?
The reactions were interesting. The book was not reviewed very much in this country. There is no review in The New York Times or in The Washington Post even though one of my students was the review editor for The Washington Post. But it was translated into Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Greek, Italian and French. And the readers of those translations understood it to be an American response to the phrase "clash of civilizations." So, I had, in many ways, more of an impact outside of the United States than inside.
Can you tell us what Christianity and Islam have in common?
The reason that I left Judaism out of the phrase is because even though both Islam and Christianity are religions that come from the same tradition -- which is a Jewish tradition if you go back scripturally -- they are both religions which see themselves as being open to everyone in the entire world, whereas Judaism does not today welcome converts, even though there was a period in Jewish history when they did. So, there is this idea that you have 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and close to 2 billion Christians, and if you follow the structure of these two religions, you find that they have remarkable similarities.
They have educational traditions that are similar, they have legal traditions that are similar, and they have the notion of a learned body of scholars who specialize in the faith. There are differences in the way they articulate these things but essentially they are very, very similar religions.
It is often said by those people who dislike Islam that "Islam is violent, it is intolerant." Well, in some cases that is true, but Christianity is violent and intolerant as well. I mean, you might observe that, in the Middle East, where Islam becomes the dominant religion politically by the year 700, you still have non-Muslims living in the area. Whereas Christianity becomes the dominant religion in Europe around the year 400 and all of the pagans disappear because the Christians really did not want to have any non-believers around. So, you could actually make an argument that Christianity has a more violent past than Islam. But I don't want to dwell on that argument because every religious tradition goes through changes over time.
Between 1500 and 1800 the Middle East was one of the most peaceful parts of the world. The Ottoman Empire, of course, was ruling, and the Ottoman Empire fought wars on its frontiers, but internally this was a very peaceful part of the world at a time when Europe, which is about the same size as the Middle East, was fighting wars almost every single year.
The history of warfare pitting Christians against other Christians in Europe is vastly more intense, over the last five centuries than the history of warfare of Muslims against other Muslims. Indeed, when you look at, for example, the military dictatorships in the Arab world over the last 75 years, you find that with the exception of Saddam Hussein, they never go to war against other Muslims. They just like the weapons, they like having officers, they like having everyone respect the military, but they really are the most non-warlike warriors in modern times because they dominate without going to war. So, I think there has been a misconception of the role of violence.
Can you tell us about what Islam is according to your understanding? There are a lot of different interpretations of Islam, but it is often said that it is incompatible with democracy. Do you agree with that?
The Holy Quran says, "Obey God and His messenger and those who are put in command over you," which is a passive construction in Arabic. It doesn't say who puts them in command. So, when the Prophet died on June 8, 632, there was no agreed-upon idea of what would happen next. The history of Islam as a community begins that afternoon -- he died around noon.
Suddenly you had a community that had been gifted for a decade with the presence of someone who was communicating with God, then not only was he gone but no one would ever take his place, because everyone had learned that Muhammad was the last of the messengers of God. So, the burden of what happened next did not fall on a designated successor.
The Quran gave examples of earlier messengers. The earlier messengers did not choose their successors. In each case it was up to the community to decide what they would do with the revelations that God had given them. It was understood that all of the revelations from all of the messengers were the same revelation, that God's holy word was always the same. So, the question was: Would the community accept that word? And if they accepted it, would they be faithful to it? Would they be trustworthy stewards of that word, or would they allow it to be distorted in the way that Muslims believe that Christians and Jews distorted God's message?
When you come down to what happened on that day, during the next 24 hours, choices were made. Choices were made in ways that were informal, that were ad hoc. You ended up with Muhammad's friend Abu Bakr becoming the first head of the community after the Prophet, the Amir al-Mu'minin, the Commander of the Faithful, later taking the title of caliph. But, in those first decades, there was an understanding that there should be a consensus about who should lead. Not a vote.
One thing I discovered many years ago was that some of my Muslim students who came from the Middle East said that the worst experience they had in America was sitting through an American election. They remarked that here, you have two people running for office. One says, "I'm the best person to be governor of New Jersey," and the other says "No, I'm the best person to be governor of New Jersey." My student friends would say: "Why would anybody vote for either one of those people? Who wants a braggart to be the governor? Shouldn't it be someone who doesn't spend all of his time giving speeches and talking about how wonderful he is?"
So, there was a hadith that circulated in the Muslim political circles for many centuries. The story is that there was a raid being planned by the Prophet, and Abdul-Rahman, a follower, said "Oh Messenger of God, make me the leader of the raid." Muhammad replied: "Oh Abdul-Rahman! Do not seek command. For if you are given it because you asked, you will bear the full responsibility. But if you are given it without asking, God will assist you in it."
I think one of the attractive aspects of Islamic politics is that presenting yourself as a savior, as the great man is distasteful. This doesn't mean that there aren't people who do it. I can think of certain Muslims who believe they are the great man right now and spend a great deal of time telling everybody in the world how great they are and building a home appropriate to that greatness. But the fact of the matter is that there is a current of modesty in Islamic politics that I rather appreciate.
Now, sometimes it has to do with someone who is the head of a terrorist group. At other times, it has to do with someone who wants to contribute to the society in a peaceful way and build a society and build schools and services and be a man who is modest about it and doesn't present himself as a great savior. So, when people say, "Is democracy compatible with Islam?" I question what they mean by democracy. If it is a question of whether people should play a role in choosing their leaders, I would say of course they should. And you find that readily in Islam, in specific instances historically and in specific texts and traditions. But in terms of exactly how that role is played, then you have disagreement.
But disagreement over what constitutes democracy is also present in our society. I don't think we live in a perfect democracy here in the United States, I don't know of any perfect democracy in the Muslim world. But I think that it is always better to have people choosing their leaders than to have someone waving a sword and proclaiming, "I am the caliph." That's bad and that is, I think, a problem because you still have people doing that. But then, we also have people in Western society who in a similar way have declared themselves to be absolute leaders.
Does Islam have any political theory? Where does the caliphate stand in that theory, if there is one?
In Islamic political theory, as it was worked out over a period of centuries, there is a consensus that the worst thing you can have is anarchy. You must have government. In that respect, classic Islamic political theory is exactly the same as the political theory of Thomas Hobbes, who says that if you don't have government, you will have chaos. But if you have a government, the difficulty is that the government tends by its basic instinct to try to become more and more powerful; the word to describe this is tyranny.
Hobbes called the tyrannical state a Leviathan. So, what you have in Muslim political theory is a balance. You don't want anarchy, but you don't want tyranny. The question is, how do you prevent the government from becoming tyrannical? In Western theory, for many hundreds of years, there was the idea that it was the Church that prevents tyranny. And you had really heroic people in the Christian Church who stood up against tyranny. The problem is that after the Protestant Reformation, every country in Europe became either Protestant or Catholic. They kept their boundaries separate and so the effectiveness of Christian law, the law of the Catholic Church, was drastically limited after that.
In Islam, where you did not have a division of the Muslim community comparable to what took place in the Protestant Reformation, Islamic law remained viable. So, in Muslim political theory, what prevents the state from becoming tyrannical is Islamic law. The reason that the barrier to tyranny existed was because the law was not created by the state. The law was based upon sacred sources, primarily the Quran and hadith, and the law was interpreted by "fuqaha," people who had a strongly independent position vis-à-vis the government. So, in Islam there was a class of scholars who were in a position to go to the ruler and say that he was misbehaving.
Did this prevent the rulers from misbehaving? No, it did not. You still had murderous and tyrannical rulers, but the notion that you could use religion as a way to put pressure on a tyrannical government to moderate the tyranny was really built into the system. What happened over time was that in the course of the 19th century, particularly in the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, you had a modernization of the state, a Westernization of the state that had as one of its objectives to push Islam away from the center of power. The law was secularized, the educational system was secularized, the madrasas were closed and eventually the tekkes were closed. Culminating in the early years of the Turkish Republic, religion was pushed to the margins in the Turkish polity.
Westerners thought that it was a wonderful thing, but in fact, it created a kind of Leviathan. It was a kind of tyranny, though a gentle tyranny in many respects. After World War II, that kind of tyranny spread throughout the Arab world. In country after country, the generals took over to create states that existed of, by and for the officer corps. Like Turkey, they said they were secular states and they pushed Islam to the side. What Islamic political theory predicts is that when tyranny grows, the people will begin to lean towards Islam because they always think of the faith as the protection against tyranny. So, what should have happened in the 1950s is you should have had the growth of an indigenous tendency within the Muslim world -- within states that were basically living under versions of dictatorial rule -- you should have had a push in the direction of looking to the faith for ways to resist the extremism of the state. In fact, that is what happened. That is where Islamic politics comes from.
Islamic politics is not a response to Western imperialism, primarily. It is not some sort of backward-looking fanaticism. At its best it is an effort to make the faith an instrument for correcting abuses of power. So I think there is a Muslim political theory. I think we have seen it at work in the last 50 years. It had successes and failures. But I think over time, whether it is a success or a failure now, that won't mean anything 10 years from now, 20 years from now. The faith has been around for 14 centuries and I do not think that the basic sort of moral outlook that the faith gives to believers is going to change. I believe in a peaceful form of Islamic politics that relies on elections, that has parties that are elected to office, and if they fail to govern well, are voted out of office. I see absolutely no reason why that could not occur, but it hasn't worked really well yet.
It was interesting that in 1991, when the Algerian army suspended elections because they thought Muslim parties would win, the slogan that went around -- and I heard it even from intellectuals on my own campus -- was "one man, one vote, one time." In other words, if you elected a Muslim to the presidency, he would immediately take over, turn into a dictator, and that would be the end of democracy. I asked a colleague in my faculty: "Is there any example of that ever occurring, where a Muslim was elected president and then that was the last election ever held because he became a dictator?" He replied that he couldn't think of any example. I said, "Can you think of any example where a general or the head of a popular political party or a socialist was elected president and they suspended elections?" He said, "Yes, I can think about a lot of those." "Then why is it that the slogan 'one man, one vote, one time' becomes popular only when a Muslim is running?"
Historically, the people who really turn into dictators are generals and socialists and party heads, but what is underlying the phrase used for Algeria was the fact that distrust or fear of Islam is so deeply built into the American psyche that we have to struggle against it, and it is a continuing struggle. It will always be there. But this goes back to the question of why I coined the term "Islamo-Christian civilization." We have to think of ourselves as being together rather than assuming that we are in a clash and we have to manage that relationship.
How about the terrorism we see now and those who claim to be doing it in the name of Islam? Many started to claim that Islam promotes violence. How would you argue with that?
We often call the terrorists jihadists. I don't really think that is the right word. In the Quran, there are certain offenses for which capital punishment is permitted, one of them is "fasad fi al-ard" -- that is "corruption in the earth." There are variations in how "corruption in the earth" is defined. There are several different places in the Quran where it appears. It is a flexible term, but one of the common definitions is that "corruption in the earth" includes deeds that act to destroy the Muslim community.
Now, I think that people who kill in the name of Islam are not participating in jihad. Rather, they are participating in "fasad." I think they are seriously wounding their own faith community by leading people to believe that the Prophet Muhammad was a murderer and leading people to believe that Muslims categorically are murderers and terrorists. I think jihadist is too kind a word. I think these are "Mufasidun." These are people who are acting against Islam, while claiming to be acting in the name of Islam.
When we call them jihadist, mujahidun, we are talking about this doctrine of jihad, Holy War, but is this really a war? When you go into an office and shoot everybody? I don't think so -- I don't think that is what a mujahid does. There used to be a lot of rules about jihad in the Shariah. For example, there was a question as to whether an individual could carry out jihad, or whether they would have to have a government declare it. When Osama bin Laden called for people to go to Afghanistan and train for jihad, he said that there was a caliph in Afghanistan and he named him: Mullah Mohammed Omar. Mohammed Omar is still alive and Bin Laden called him a caliph. So, what is this guy doing in Iraq? Now we have two caliphs, and that is two too many.
There is a question as to whether you, as an individual, can participate in jihad. I know there are theological disagreements about that, but underlying them there is a notion that jihad -- in the sense of the term referring to Holy War -- means defending Islam. But the way it is being carried out today, I think it is killing Islam. The terrorists are not mujahidin but mufasidin.
How do you see the future? Is it more likely to have an Islamo-Christian civilization or a clash of civilizations?
I think that in the United States, Muslims are going to find that they fit into the country in the way that all other immigrant groups have fit in. There have been many people who have converted to Islam in this country. The thing is: What Americans have thought about Islam -- when they have thought about it, which was very seldom up until recent years -- inevitably changes and evolves. I think the undeniable fact is that Muslims in this country are part of the country. Though the phrase "Clash of Civilizations" continues to appeal to many people, the reality is that we do have an Islamo-Christian civilization in this country. What they have in France… God knows what they have in France. But here, I'm very optimistic about the future.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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