Sunday, September 16, 2012

Transcript of Harvard Divinity School Dean William Graham's 2003 Talk on Islam

The following transcript figures in a broader essay I wrote on my main blog, The Hesperado, about the profound effects of our West's currently fashionable paradigm, PC MC (Politically Correct Multi-Culturalism), upon the subculture of one important bastion of our civilization, Harvard Divinity.

Harvard Divinity Bulletin Summer 2003 


by William A. Graham 
Dean of Harvard Divinity School

[Dean Graham gave a fuller version of this informal talk at an alumni event in Washington, D.C., on April 30, 2003. He is also the Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard.]

Having been in the history of religion for more than three decades, I realize that today people are more ready to think hard about the evils and the goods that come out of religious affiliations, and religious feeling, and religious thinking. For a long time this was not so easily done outside of the academy. I am finding now, however, that even in the popular press there is a lot of commentary about the role of religion. Whether it is all intelligent or not, I think that is probably a good thing. 

Krister Stendhal used to say he was "not in management, but in sales," and I guess that would be true for me, too. I am not trying to sell religion, however, but simply say that I think for understanding politics or social issues—particularly issues of world hunger, of environmental degradation, all of the concerns that, frankly, a lot of politicians are turning their backs on—religious traditions and religious communities are ultimately going to be a very important part of finding solutions. For this reason, it is an exciting time to be involved with an institution like Harvard Divinity School. 

This evening, I would like to give you some of my reflections about Islam. In preparing for this, I realized that the reflections are not only about Islam, but also about ourselves and who we are. In America at this particular moment, it is impossible to think about Muslims and about Islam without being aware of ourselves as Americans, and as however religious or secular people we may be, simply because of events of the last few years, and even the last few decades. Everyone, of course, posits September 11 as the watershed moment when Islam impinges on consciousness. That is a very sad commentary on our knowledge about this major world tradition of culture and of religion. What is also sad is the kind of attitude that has been furthered by my colleague at Harvard, Samuel Huntington. His thesis, begun as an article and then expanded into a book, is I am afraid becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Starting with September 11 this so-called "clash of civilizations," to take the title of article and book, has now become a watchword of foreign policy, probably not only here but in other places in the Western world. 

In large part, this happened because it felt good as a basic premise for those who like to think about the world in terms of "the West and the rest." That sort of thinking has been going on for a lot longer than our lifetimes, but this does not make it a good thing, and it particularly makes it a very dangerous thing for public policy. Despite the sometimes admirable attempts of the current politicians here in the capital to make irenic comments about Islam and about Muslims, I am afraid actions are speaking louder than words. What I see, currently, is an unwillingness to think about Islam as anything except an "other" that belongs to some monolith that is the big, present danger in the world. We have the proclaimed new "Green Menace" that is supposed to replace the Communist Red Menace of our previous xenophobia. This one happens to be the xenophobia of the moment, and I fear that it may go on being that for some time. 

Notions such as Sam Huntington's "clash of civilizations" greatly simplify not only a massively diverse and international, centuries-long tradition, but they also simplify the West in very unhappy ways. All one has to do is consult the news media to see evidence of the notion that there is a monolith out there called "Islam." We may qualify it and say, "Well, all Muslims aren't bad," but that is about the best you are getting in terms of depth of analysis. On the other side, it is also true that recent decades, and particularly the very recent past, have been, for Muslims a rather catastrophic time of confusion, uncertainty, and general malaise. The politics of imperial and colonial expansion that Muslim-majority countries have suffered for going on two centuries now has dictated far too much the range of allowable discourse in Muslim societies and among Muslim intelligentsia. Muslims have been on the defensive for a long time, and they are even more sharply on the defensive now. This is a very dangerous and unhappy truth for the Muslim world. On both sides of this civilizational divide, as Huntington would have it, I see great problems, and we need to be thinking about the fact that the civilizational divide does not make a lot of sense today. 

I won't go into how many exceptions there are to Huntington's notion that "Islam has bloody borders," or to his basic assertion that all conflicts basically boil down to civilizational conflicts. Today, we are in a world where we are dealing much more often with local conflicts, with ethnic and even intra-communal conflicts. And September 11 has certainly provided a convenient way for our government and one or two others, the British notably, to begin to think in, unfortunately, purely bilateral terms. Tonight, I want to discuss and try to understand the emergence, in the last 30 to 50 years, of so-called "Islamism." To begin, this is a term that has grown up in the Muslim world only in this particular period of time. "Islamiyya" is a neologism within Arabic and in other Islamic languages that didn't exist, at least not to refer to something that Muslims might want to be involved in, until quite recently. I think it is perfectly useful that we call it Islamism, because that is what it is called by some of the Muslims who are engaged with it. The difficulty in talking about Islamism right now is that it is a highly varied phenomenon. We like to think of it as just being those extremist organizations that work through smaller terrorist groups, plaguing the world scene of late. In fact, Islamism, even as a set of reform movements, as a kind of radical attempt to do something different within the Muslim majority world, and internationally within the Muslim community, is many different things. 

I would like to talk a bit about what I see as the common elements that crop up again and again, but at the same time try to highlight some of the sharp differences with the growth and development of Islamism, particularly in the last three or four decades. We lump many groups together under the term "Islamism." Often we use the term "fundamentalism," which is a very problematic term to take out of American Protestantism and apply to the Islamic world or any other world. "Jewish fundamentalism" and other similar terms are bandied about now, with some scholars even publishing volumes with that title. I am very uncomfortable with this, so I am going to stay with "Islamism." Every one of these groups is so different in terms of what it considers the "fundamentals" to be, that it is hard to form a unified idea about what "fundamentalism" might mean. Just as an example, one might say that the Qur'an is the only fundamental. There are some groups that believe that only the Qur'an is the word of God, and even the words of the Prophet, even the traditions, and certainly the later law schools and everything else, are really not "fundamental enough." 

Another group will think that what is fundamental is the Qur'an and the words of the Prophet only. Another group will say that it is just the early law schools, or one of the law schools, a sort of third-century fundamentalism; and so on. One of the characteristics of these Islamist movements tends to be a certain nostalgia for a perceived golden age, or some perceived time when the principles of Islam were established. There is a nostalgia for "true" Islam, if you like. Every religious community knows this kind of nostalgia. It may not really be distinctive about Islamism, but it is a very strong feeling. There is always a notion in these groups that they want to go back to a "purer" Islam, a purer kind of personal faith, and religiosity, and practice. And they will pick different times. Almost always it is, of course, conceived as the time of the Prophet and the early community of Mecca and Medina. 

To give you an example of the kind of range that exists, allow me to read a quote from a statement of the Muslim Students Association of Cairo from the late 1980s: "The return to our heritage does not signify fundamentalism [and the word here is salafia, which means 'going back to the forefathers'] in the sense of rejecting all novelty and resting on the laurels of the past. On the contrary; any renaissance begins by going back to the heritage. Any thought capable of change proceeds from a contemporary reading of the past. Any rejection of the status quo is inspired by a feeling that the present is unworthy of the past of our community, and by a belief that our community is capable of building a future worthy of her glorious past. We turn to the heritage not in order to bring back the past, for the past cannot be resuscitated, but rather to seek inspiration in its ever-living values, its eternal ideals." That may sound a little strange but is actually a pretty liberal notion for a group that we tend to think of as literalist and fundamentalist; any Islamist group is usually painted that way. This statement is a good example of how the nostalgia for the past, in some hands, does not necessarily mean recapturing the past, but using the past as an inspiration to do new things. Many Islamist groups, in fact, do that. 

So that is one point: It is a nostalgia, but it is a nostalgia that is quite nuanced and varied. A second element found within the Islamist discussions is a desire to insist on what probably every religious person in any religious community ultimately insists on: that religion is a total affair, a matter of comprehending all of life. One's religious worldview is, in fact, a worldview; it is a way of viewing everything in life through the lens of one's faith and one's particular faith stance. In that sense, it is really not anything very peculiarly Islamic. We also see reactions to both the liberalism that came into the Islamic world in the early part of the past century, and that in the end faltered, often through betrayal by many of the Western countries on which the liberalism was modeled, and to the socialism that came into the Middle East, but also to the wider Islamic world. There was a notion in both of these movements that religion was to be set aside, a secularist notion in liberalism and socialism, and in particular Marxism in some places. Religion was to be completely set aside as it had been in Europe by many of the political ideologies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And there was the sense that religion was to be privatized. Religion was to become purely a private matter and not be involved in public affairs. Again, this is a very familiar idea from European and American thinking about the proper place of religion in society. 

These kinds of arguments about the privatization or the isolation of religion from the real world of politics and social order, education, and other societal elements, represent the ideas that the Islamists are also reacting against. One of the reasons that people have looked to Islam in political contexts was in fact the failure of so many of these earlier experiments, including the liberal movements of the 1920s and 1930s. I don't think most of us understand how liberal some of these movements were: movements that brought women into the political arena in Egypt, where female leaders promoted a very strong women's movement that brought about women's suffrage before Switzerland and many other places managed to do so. In many cases, real movements of liberalization simply were betrayed by events, for example the British allowing a royal house to remain, and ultimately to gain control and become very corrupt. In the end, the Wafd party, the major party, was co-opted and discredited. (I'm just taking the Egyptian example as a very rough and obvious one.) The socialist revolution at the beginning of the 1950s brought in Abdul Nasser and his ideal of a socialist republic, which eventually was to include other states in the area. That, of course, failed as well. These various imported ideologies have all wanted to segment, in the way that we have done since the Enlightenment in the West, the various sectors of life: religion, politics, and society, and so on. 

All of these are what a lot of the Islamist groups in the last 30 to 50 years have reacted against, as they have looked for Islamic solutions to problems that could not be solved, or were not solved at least, by these outside ideologies. The notion behind most of these groups is that religion is not just a private matter; it is a part of everything from one's politics to one's personal hygiene. This idea is very familiar to anyone here who is a Jew, certainly, because of the encompassing nature of the religious law of Torah in Jewish tradition. For Muslims, it is equally obvious, but Islamists feel that the large majority of Muslims have begun to wander from this ideal. 

A final thought about the integrative aspect of Islamism is that not every Islamist group has been politically engaged, or wants Muslims to be politically engaged. Probably one of the largest Islamist movements in the world today is a group called the Tabligis. The Tabligi Jama'a began in the late 1930s under a man named Mohammad Ilyas, in what is now Pakistan (at that time, it was still British India). The Tabligis have a strictly nonengagement-in-politics approach to Islamic revival and to becoming a better Muslim. Their practice is effectively "each one, reach one." They don't seek to convert the world, to go out and convert infidels, if you like, or people who are not Muslims. Rather they strive to convert Muslims to faithful practice of Islam, to being real Muslims, real "submitters to God." To be a Muslim, according to the Tabligis, you only have to: have faith in God; pray; act with modesty; learn the word of God and transmit it; follow the right way; and receive all faithful Muslims, in other words, be kindly. That is a pretty simple credo. The movement has publishing houses around the world and has spread out through societies all over the world. In numbers, they are probably the largest Islamist, that is Muslim reform, movement in the world today. We don't hear about them because they are quietists; they are apolitical in their approach. "Reform the world, beginning with me" is their approach. 

Again, I want to point out that the range of possibilities, even in this kind of totalism, integrating everything under the rubric of religious faith, is certainly quite varied as to how it works itself out. We know this much more from the groups that want to have a so-called theocracy of some kind, something that, by the way, is virtually unknown in Islamic history. I could argue that there has never really been an "Islamic state," at least not since the time of the Prophet. And I am not sure the Prophet would have even described his state as an "Islamic state." A third aspect is the reformational quality of the Islamist movements. They do want to reform the world; they do want to make things better and different. Most of all, they want to reform religiousness among Muslims. The status quo is seen to be awry; history is out of joint. Certainly, the last two centuries of the history of most Muslim peoples has been a very unhappy period. They have also seen any regimes that are Muslim majority, such as the Ottoman Empire, fade or be relegated to what has been called for a long time now the Third World, the developing world. In thinking about Islam today, it is important to remember how much the Muslim-majority world overlaps the underdeveloped parts of the world. That has a great deal to do with how we identify issues as religious, in dealing with Islam, when in fact they are economic, they are social, and they are political, because of what I would call the Third World overlap. 

A major thrust of Islamist movements is to reform and to change, first of all, within, and secondly, without. By "within" I mean within the various countries in which they live, most of which are either despotic autocracies, or some other form of totalitarian regime, or at least repressive, oppressive regimes. (Again, that Third World overlap is a very important part of this.) Certainly, there are some states where that is not the case, but they are few and one can number them, probably, on one hand. The Muslim-majority states of the world tend to be in repressive political circumstances. And you have to remember that it has often been our government here or European governments that have been supporting those repressive regimes and that continue to support them, continue to be identified, in fact, with the very forces that these Islamist groups see as enemy number one. 

I would like to give you an example of this from a sermon as reported by anthropologist Henry Munson. It is maybe 20 years old now, but I will quote it again. I am certain you could hear something very similar today from mosque pulpits around the world. It is a parable by a man named Zamzami in Morocco, who was a leader of one of the three major Islamist groups in the 1980s and 1990s in that country. This is from a sermon in which, as you will see, he is criticizing the government: "It is said that a king gave his prime minister [that is, ra'is al-wuzara', the chief of the ministers] 1,000 dinars, and told him to spend it on the illumination of the capital on a certain night. The prime minister took half the money for himself, and gave the rest to the mayor of the capital. The mayor kept half of this, and gave the rest to the head of the muqaddims [the people in charge of the city neighborhoods]. The head of the muqaddims kept all this money for himself, and told the inhabitants of the city that the king had ordered them to illuminate the capital on such-and-such a day. On the designated night the king stepped onto his balcony and observed the city and said that it was indeed illuminated as he had ordered by means of the money that he had paid to the prime thief [the ra'is al-surraq—the chief of the thieves]." This is a homiletic parable from a Muslim pulpit that gives a clear idea of what a great deal of the Islamist preaching is about. It is against the injustice that people feel in their own homes, in their own neighborhoods, in their own countries. We forget that; we tend to think that Islamism is all directed at the outside world, the West in particular. Certainly, it is directed there as well. 

As I said before, however, it is often directed without because so many Western countries, and nowadays America before all, seem to be in alliance with the unjust rulers and the injustices that are being perpetrated on the helpless peoples of these countries. This, of course, is not unique to the Islamic world; many parts of the developing world follow that same tendency, whether it is in South America or wherever where we shore up dictatorships and do not put our money where our mouths are in terms of democracy and support for free elections. An example would be 1991 in Algeria. The Islamist party was participating in elections—at that point, it was not just a group of terrorist extremists. When it looked as though the Islamist party was going to win the national elections, of course, the elections were canceled, and the military took over. France stepped right in line, as did the rest of Europe, and recognized the new rulers, the military junta; and the United States fell right in line behind them. The Western world has done that sort of thing on any number of occasions rather than have faith in democratic institutions. It is important to recognize, then, that a lot of reformative zeal is due to the immense level of injustices that many Muslims, and particularly a lot of the leaders of Islamist groups, have suffered. 

Finally, the other virtually universal characteristic of most of these groups is that they are highly moralistic and, in many cases, highly activist. The Tabligis with their "each one, reach one" notion of trying to spread moralism person to person are certainly activist in their own way. The level of activism ranges broadly, including much we don't hear about. One reason that Islamist groups are now so important and powerful in many countries in the Muslim world is not because of their ideology, frankly, but because of their engagement with the social realities of their suffering peoples. They are the people that at a time like the 1992 Cairo earthquake provided all of the relief for the poor quarters of the town, which really suffered terribly. The government was hopeless about doing anything. Instead, local Islamist groups went in, got shelter for people, brought food and fresh water, and did all the infrastructure activities that the government was unable to do because of its incompetence. 

This is a fact on the ground in a great deal of the Muslim-majority world, and we don't ever hear about it. It is one of the reasons that people flock behind the banners of a lot of the Islamist groups, because these groups are actually meeting the needs of the people on the ground. When they become political in this way, they are quite often successful. There is a seriousness about social justice in a lot of the Islamist movement that reminds me of the Social Gospel of Protestantism in this country of a century and a half ago and that still abides: a notion that being religious means being concerned about one's fellow and doing something about it. This idea is very strong in most of these Islamist movements, whether they are radical or not radical in any sort of overt political terms. Having studied the Islamic tradition over its 14 centuries of history, I can tell you that there is nothing in the tradition itself that is any more determinative of what Islam is going to be, either politically or religiously, in the coming century than is the history of Christianity or of Judaism determinative of what they are going to be. There is a wide spectrum of possible choice for people, both within the reform movements and in the wider populations. 

As Americans, whether we are Christians, Muslims, Jews, or whatever, we should be aware that our government's actions have consequences in ways that probably no other nation in the world can claim. We have such terrifying power and such powerful economic force, and we can use these for good or we can use them for evil. With respect to the Muslim world, I am very worried that we may be tempted to use them, or engaged right now perhaps in using them, much more for evil than for good. And that is a great tragedy. 

Copyright 2011 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. last modified: August 24, 2011


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