Dr. Richard W. Bulliet spoke about his recent book, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, to members of The Colombia University Club at Sofitel Chicago Water Tower.
Bulliet is a professor of history at Columbia University, where he has taught all periods of Middle Eastern history. For twelve years he served as director of the university’s Middle East Institute. In addition to his academic work Bulliet wrote four novels that involve the modern Middle East — where he has traveled often and widely.
After 09/11, several political leaders and academic scholars used the phrase, “clashes of civilization” in the media. Their endorsements established a dichotomy between America’s position and the Muslim world. Based on the factual events of history –” from the Renaissance through the 20th century – Bulliet offers a dramatically different counterpoint.
“Whether you’re Muslim or American or Chinese or Indian the problem is if you recognize the ‘clash of civilizations,’ it gets you no where good and with no signposts,” Bulliet said. “What I hope and is absolutely necessary is we experience inclusion with Arabs and Muslims in America.”
Although America has pride in its moments of inclusion, one of the current struggles within American society is xenophobia: people who fear and/or hate other people they consider foreign. As long as Anglo-Americans’ prejudices regarding Arabs and Muslims exist their hostility debilitates American society. While U.S. leaders preach to the world about American values of equality and acceptance, the international community sees the hostility Arabs and Muslims endure in the U.S. and abroad. Whether people are acting upon these prejudices or they are on the receiving end of them, people are struggling with prejudices and against them.
Another example Bulliet gave is the use of the phrase “Judeo-Christian civilization.” Prior to World War II the phrase is hard to find, yet it became so widely used that it is an important moment in American history. The phrase’s connotation is that Judeo-Christian civilization is rooted in Western culture. “The popularization of the phrase is a response to the Holocaust,” Bulliet added.
Although historians cannot point to the person who penned the phrase (German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche may have used it connotatively), the point Bulliet emphasized is that the use and meaning of the phrase after WW II changed the master narrative. In history the master narrative is the record of past events, and only primary historians can change master narratives. Historians understand that history was written by people who lived certain experiences in their lives, and they had expectations of societal futures.
When it comes to the likenesses between Western European society, Mediterranean society and African society, Bulliet makes a powerful case of identifying centuries of borrowing between these societies thereby “monkeying with” the master narrative. “What I do in this book is try to create a new reading of what the past has been so we can have a new prospect of what the future will be.”
Some people may question why Bulliet did not use the phrase “Islamo-Christian-Judeo civilization.” Bulliet is not interested in a scriptural reading of history. His research focuses on shared interests between people because they borrow language, religion and culture within their respective societies. Although Bulliet pointed out that people of different faiths lived side-by-side “…it doesn’t mean they are apart at the profound level.” He added that there has been extensive writing on the Judeo-Islamic civilization and the Islamo-Byzantine (East Christian) civilization that illustrates the fruitful, long-lasting and dynamic history between these peoples.
Bulliet gave numerous examples of how present-day society is based on the Islamic world. During a typical morning a person takes a shower with a hard bar of soap. He drinks coffee with sugar in a glazed cup. While he reads the newspaper he has orange juice in a transparent glass. Later in the day he may eat pasta. If he works in a medical profession he may play chess, backgammon or cards (if he has time). The point is that all of these items –” including the medical profession – derive from the Islamic world.
“When we look at our society we’re not that different from Muslim societies,” Bulliet said. “No one will ever talk about the massive borrowing in the Renaissance from the Muslim world.”
When there is discussion about European history in relation to the Muslim world, most people do not focus on the fact that the people of Europe and the Middle East lived in sibling societies that borrowed from each other’s models. Instead, people talk about the Crusades. However, most of the borrowing took place after 1500 because prior to the 12th century European history shows that the Christian religion was for the elite.
By the 12th century, in what is often referred to as the great days of Baghdad, virtually everyone in the Middle East converted to Islam. As the dominant structure of society it taught people to be humble and spiritual, and the primary agents of these teachings were the Sufi Brotherhoods.
During the 16th century Western Christendom had a rigid ecclesiastical structure. The Reformation created the Protestant Churches and changes within the Catholic Church, which involved a hierarchical structure. Regardless of the differences between the West and the Muslim world in societal structures, people in both societies saw the tendency for monarchs to rule despotically. In response to oppression societies put civil and religious mechanisms in place that could serve as counterbalances to the rulers.
“There is a parallel in the history of the West and in the Muslim world,” Bulliet said. “Tyranny is undesirable and should be curbed.”
He explained that in the West opposition to tyranny caused the growth of democracy, but in the Islamic world Muslim scholars and Islamic lawyers challenged tyranny of monarchies through Shariah law. However, governments in Egypt and Turkey recognized the success of tyrannies in Europe, such as the Emperor of France Napoleon Bonaparte, who ruled from 1804-1815. In the Middle East Islamist movements had political groups that advocated for elections and universal suffrage and from their point of view “…everyone should vote because this is how we curb tyranny,” Bulliet added.
Although Americans say they have a secular government, the rest of the world watches T.V. and sees that religion and politics are together in the U.S. With respect to the Arab world, “it is difficult for Americans coming from a Western background to see the idea that religion and politics can act in the same arena.”
Bulliet emphasized that there is no clash of civilizations and when talking about the future of the Middle East, “democracy is possible,” he said, “but you can’t get there without going through the front yard of Islamic politics.” Moreover, a divergence of views exists within the Arab world as to how Islam should relate to democracy because there is no agreed definition as to how Islam relates to power and politics. For quite some time there has been an election-based movement in the Arab world and how it would come to fruition with totalitarian regimes. At present there are numerous Muslim scholars and an enormous effervescence of Islamic thought.
When asked why the Arab world has not established democracy, Bulliet said: “They’ve been trying to install democratic regimes for decades and we have not been helpful because the structure of totalitarianism in the Muslim world is something rooted in the Cold War.” He added that the U.S. supported authoritarian rule as long as it closed out the Soviet Union and that our present-day policymakers are from the Cold War.
“We get attacked because we supported tyrannies,” he said.
Bulliet stressed that Americans should accept Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans “…in our society as a moment of inclusion, just like the Civil Rights Movement and it would be something we can be proud of.”