An Unnecessary Clash

Since the 1950s, when the full horrors of the Nazi atrocities were revealed and Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic were made aware of the ghastly consequences wrought by centuries of anti-Semitism, it has been customary to talk of Judao-Christian civilisation. A demonstration of solidarity, perhaps, or, as Richard Bulliet puts it in this stimulating essay, ‘the expression of a new feeling of inclusiveness towards Jews, and of a universal Christian repudiation of Nazi barbarism’. Setting aside the irony of linking in a single term two faith communities that have been at spiritual loggerheads for the better part of two millennia, the term has sound historical justification:

Common scriptural roots, shared theological concerns, continuous interaction at a societal level, and mutual contributions to what in modern times has become a common pool of thought and feeling give the Euro-American Christian and Jewish communities solid grounds for declaring their civilisational solidarity.

Adopting the same criteria, a case can be made for regarding Islam as integral to the same broad tradition - as part of what has come to be known, for want of a better term, as Western civilisation. According to the ‘clash of civilisations’ hypothesis popularised by Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis and others, the Judao-Christian West has always been and always will be at odds with Islam. According to the Islamic-Christian model proposed by Bulliet, Islam and the West are historical twins whose resemblance did not cease when their paths diverged. The problem today is that ‘neither sibling seems capable of seeing itself or its twin in a comprehensive and balanced fashion’

Taking the role of a disinterested outsider, Bulliet points out that the ‘scriptural and doctrinal linkages between Judaism and Christianity are no closer than those between Judaism and Islam, or between Christianity and Islam’. Muslim thinkers contributed decisively to the movement of ideas that would crystallise in the modern West. At least 14 of today’s 34 European states were at one time or another wholly or partially under Muslim rule for a century or more - a political engagement as substantial as any governing relations between Christian rulers and their Jewish subjects.

Yet how different are the assumptions governing the prevailing discourses about Islam, whether among clergy, in the academy, in the media or policy circles, especially in the United States! When the Reverend Bailey Smith, one-time President of the Southern Baptist Convention, proclaimed that ‘God does not hear the prayer of the Jew’, the chorus of protest was deafening, reflecting the sea-change in attitudes that has converted the overwhelming majority of US evangelicals into the most ardent supporters of the Jewish state. By contrast, the White House’s favourite preacher, the Reverend Franklin Graham (son of superstar crusader Billy Graham) has stated, without incurring even the mildest official protest, that the God of Islam is not the same God as the God of the Judao-Christian faith: ‘It is a different God and I believe [Islam] is a very evil and wicked religion.’

Fundamentalist preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, extracting Qur’anic phrases out of their original historical context, denounced Islam as a religion of violence (‘Mohamed was a terrorist’). Threatened with lawsuits and under pressure from state legislators, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had to backtrack on a proposal to make Michael Sells’ translation of passages from the Qur’an a mandatory text for first-year students.

To regard such attitudes as understandable, if not excusable, in the rage and confusion that followed the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, misses an essential point. In the eyes of many Americans (including some academics with influence over policy) the violence that destroyed the Twin Towers is normative or fundamental to the religion, rather than the outcome of a particular political-ideological construction incorporating some religious symbols. Such an assumption, as Bulliet’s analysis makes clear, long pre-dates the atrocities of 9/11. It is predicated on the notion of Islam as alien or ‘other’, a construction that necessarily denies the history of trade and cultural exchanges between the central Muslim lands and Christian Europe that prevailed over many centuries. Timothy McVeigh, executed for the 1998 Oklahoma City bombing, is rarely if ever described as a Christian or Protestant terrorist, despite his links to a fundamentalist Protestant church proclaiming a white supremacist theology. While occasional public gestures are made towards ‘moderate’ Muslims, Osama bin Laden and his associates are perceived in the wider US culture as authentic or representative exponents of their faith.

In the eyes of many Muslims, the suspension of civil liberties under the US Patriot Act, the scandalous violations of international law in the gulag of Guantanamo Bay, ostensibly aimed at combating terrorism, are in reality expressions of Islamophobia, a new style anti-Semitism that is scarcely less menacing than the old. Bulliet does not exaggerate its dangers: ‘The potential for tragedy in our current zeal for seeing Islam as a malevolent Other should make us wary of easy formulations that can cleave our national societies into adversarial camps.’ The basis of the prejudice that would deny the inclusion of Islam as an integral part of modern civilisation lies, he argues, in a ‘historical master-narrative rooted in fourteen centuries of fear and polemic’, along with the current conviction held by many Westerners (and fuelled by the writings of scholars such as Lewis, Huntington and Daniel Pipes) that something has gone ‘wrong’ with Islam and its history. We

do not include Islam in our civilisation club because we are heirs to a Christian construction of history that is deliberately exclusive ... Shifting Western portrayals of Islam over the centuries make it clear that reasons for disliking Islam have been constructed as rationales for a preexisting and ongoing animosity and not vice versa.

In the master-narratives of European history, Bulliet concludes, precedence is given to ‘violent conflict over cultural borrowing’. His assertion could be fleshed out with numerous examples from European literature. As the Cambridge scholar, Tim Winter, has observed, the founding epics of many European nations, including The Lusiads, El Cid, La Chanson de Roland and epics of St Louis, and Serbia’s The Mountain Wreath, are all celebrations of the triumph of Christianity over Islam.

To stress the commonalities between Islamic and Christian worlds is not to deny significant points of divergence, however. Bulliet’s argument that the sum of these differences is no greater than those that exist between the different versions of Christianity or Islam (indeed, it is customary to refer to Mormonism as a branch of Christianity, though the relationship it bears to its parent tradition is in no way closer than that between Christianity and Judaism). The most persuasive part of Bulliet’s essay is his account of the processes of acculturation in Europe and Western Asia, and the divergent paths taken by the religious specialists in their relations with the state. Christian missionising paved the way for Islamic governance, and later conversion, in many of the lands that were heirs to the Graeco-Roman imperium. Popular antinomian movements challenged the consensus of orthodoxy in both traditions. (Indeed, though Bulliet does not mention this, a comparison of heresiological literature turns up some virtually identical cultic groups, such as the primitive Adamites, said to have practised ritual nudity and free love, who appeared in tenth-century Bahrain and fifteenth-century Germany.) But whereas in the West the Church relied on the state to enforce conformity, Islam lacked a mechanism for doctrinal enforcement comparable to the Catholic Inquisition. The latter actually empowered secular rulers by imposing religious conformity (a practice persisted in by Protestant rulers after the Reformation). Lacking the institutional weight of their Christian counterparts, the ulama (Islamic legal scholars) had of necessity to come to terms with religious diversity, inveighing against it rhetorically while remaining vulnerable to the vagaries of power in a precarious political world.

The consequences were far-reaching and enduring. Unlike Western princes, the sultans and amirs who succeeded to caliphal power were unable to wrest the law from its religious guardians. Whereas, in the West, ‘the kings bested the priests’ in judicial matters, the ulama, as upholders of the Shari‘a (divine law), retained their role as guarantors of justice. ‘For Muslims,’ says Bulliet (in a sentence that ought to replace ‘They Hate Our Freedoms’ on the Oval Office wall), ‘the converse of tyranny is not liberty but justice ... When a Muslim community feels threatened, looking to religious leaders for help is an ingrained characteristic of Islamic political culture.’ The resistance of the ulama to efforts by reforming autocrats, such as Mehmet Ali in Egypt and the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamit II, to curtail their autonomy and short-circuit the divine law is not explicable only in terms of their innate conservatism or group self-interest - though these factors were undoubtedly present. Their opposition to reform was in part a manifestation of their time-honoured opposition to tyranny: ‘Ulama, basing themselves in traditional Islamic political theory, predicted that rulers freed from the bonds of the Shari‘a would seek absolute power, and (the rulers) regularly lived up to that expectation.’ Such rulers, Bulliet usefully points out, were inspired as much by their Western peers as by their own autocratic instincts. Abdul Hamit II’s suspension of the Ottoman parliament fell in line with similar steps by rulers Otto von Bismarck, Napoleon III and Nicholas II. The emasculation of the ulama in the interests of modernisation consolidated the Muslim autocracies without conferring on the new rulers the religious legitimacy that sultans and emirs had received from the ulama in the past.

In the post-colonial era, when intellectual prestige in Muslim lands has gravitated towards people with technical training in fields such as engineering and medicine, the crisis of Islamic religious authority has deepened. Many of the militant activists engaged in the modern Islamist movements

(including the engineer Osama bin Laden, the paediatrician Ayman al-Zawahiri and the architect-planner Mohamed Atta) are the products of a secular education system that lacks the rounded and comprehensive Islamic perspective inculcated in the traditional religious academies.

The final part of Bulliet’s essay is devoted to a critique of the modernisation theories of Daniel Lerner, Manfred Halpern and other social scientists he regards as having exercised a baleful influence on Middle East studies and the US government policies flowing from them. Too often, he says, Americans have looked for friends among the Westernised suit-wearing anglophone elites - ‘people like us’ - rather than listening to the men wearing beards or, indeed, the women in veils. (Bulliet is amused by the zeal with which his fellow Americans now urge Muslim women to uncover their hair, after a century during which puritan missionaries campaigned to persuade non-European women to cover their breasts.) His comparisons are always thought-provoking, if sometimes eclectic. The esoteric field of quantitative onomastics is invoked to chart, in comparative surveys of children’s names, trends towards secularisation in colonial Massachusetts and modern Turkey. Other anthropologically significant factors - such as the prevalence cousin-marriage in central Muslim lands, contrasting with Church-directed outmarriage in Western Europe - are overlooked, as is any consideration of the contrasting geographical milieus of Western Europe and the Middle East, which had an important bearing on differences in the relations between government, religion and civil society. Well known to specialists, there are issues that deserve wider discussion in the US policy community than they have hitherto received: how many lives could have been saved - American as well as Iraqi - if the US Defense Department had focused on the clan networks surrounding Saddam Hussein instead of disbanding the Iraqi army and top echelons of the Baath party, the only Iraqi agencies capable of preventing chaos? Despite the range of its subject matter, it is not clear whether this book is aimed at Bulliet’s fellow-specialists or at the larger interested public. This is a pity, because it deserves the widest possible readership, addressing as it does with wit and insight one of the most freighted issues of our time

Published in The Times Literary Supplement, 29 July 2005.

The book reviewed was:

Richard W. Bulliet (2004) The Case for Islamic-Christian Civilization. New York: Columbia University Press.

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