Richard Bulliet is a professor of history at Columbia University who specializes in the history of Islamic society. Adbusters contributing editor Micah White talked to him about his book The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.
ADBUSTERS: Why is the “clash of civilizations” thesis so popular and why did it come about?
RICHARD BULLIET: If you go back to the early days of Islam, it is a fact that the majority of all the Christians in the world in the year 600 ended up having grandchildren who were living under Muslim rule. Islam really did come close to snuffing out Christianity because the most populous Christian provinces – Egypt, Syria and so on – were conquered. So you had a fear that was built in very early. And that fear generated distortions and stereotypes that still get mined from time to time for contemporary usage.
But over time it turned out that the division between the Muslim world and Europe was not continual warfare. You had trade. You had Christians and Jews living in the Muslim world without difficulty. You had a massive flow of cultural influences from the Muslim world into Christian Europe to the degree that the culture that developed in Europe is based on things that came in from the Muslim territories. This has never been fully recognized.
Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis did not reach prominence until after 9/11. At which time it was the most convenient shibboleth to encapsulate what the Bush administration was trying to make everyone fearful of.
AB: Why do you believe it is necessary to reunite Islam and Christianity?
RB: Well, let me take America as an example. If you accept a Clash of Civilizations hypothesis then you either find a way to exempt Americans of Muslim faith from the civilization their faith represents or you have turned them into an irreducible internal enemy. We have a long history in the United States of demonizing groups – whether it’s Protestants demonizing Catholics or old immigrants demonizing new immigrants or everybody demonizing Jews or whites demonizing blacks. And the best moments in American history have been those moments when we have said: “We don’t accept that.” These divisions no longer stand out as eternal divisions in our society. But what the Clash of Civilizations thesis does is say, “There is one division that is eternal. And therefore there are some Americans who are by principle, by birth, hostile to our country.” This is something that goes back to the Know Nothing Party and other bigoted groups in this country. If you are a Muslim in this country, which I am not, then you are very sensitive to the fact that there is a very powerful ideological push to turn you into an unacceptable citizen. That is wrong, fundamentally wrong.
AB: Do you think Ramadan feels spiritually alive while Christmas has been denigrated into a spiritual emptiness?
RB: Everyone I know who fasts for Ramadan feels enriched. It is really striking. People I know who fast are proud they have the self-discipline to do it. I can’t think of anything we do in this country that leaves people thinking, “Gee, I’m glad I had the self-discipline to do it,” except stopping smoking. But nobody has been able to turn that into a movement. It is a matter of exhortation and then each person goes through that hell alone.
Probably the closest thing to Ramadan is Lent for really believing Christians. I know believing Christians who will give up something for Lent. But it is not as taxing an experience as Ramadan.
AB: What are some of the positive ideals of Islam that you think the West could benefit from?
RB: The Muslim parties today are the political trend most oriented toward the notion of social justice and social services within the national community. For people who see the world economic system as one of massive exploitation, in which globalized business and the great financial powers basically extract wealth from non-privileged countries, the idea of having a political ideology that puts an emphasis on delivering benefits to society and being supportive of society is very appealing. And we have seen it happen again and again where there is a crisis in some country, whether it be Turkey, Egypt, Algeria or wherever, and the people who come through and deliver relief are the Muslim parties. It reached a point where ten years or so ago there was a severe earthquake in Turkey and the government immediately prohibited Muslim groups from offering any aid. They knew the Muslim groups would be much more effective than the government. This is a pattern.
It could be that if those groups came to power they would be as self-serving and corrupt as any other political group. But ideologically what they stand for is the idea of a faith community in which brothers and sisters help one another. It is analogous to the early days of Christian democratic parties in Europe.
AB: How do you imagine an Islamo-Christian America would look?
RB: What seems most plausible to me is that Muslims who stand for strong family values and a moral society would hook up with already existing groups, especially religious groups. From a secular liberal standpoint this may not be terribly appealing. On the other hand, it might be a good thing in the long run. It is hard to know whether the personal freedoms of the late ’60s and ’70s are really destined to be the shape of society forever. Or whether we’ll see a different trend altogether.
If you were to see a Muslim influence on America in the long run, it would probably be through the Sufi side of Islam.