JOHN SHATTUCK: Good evening and welcome to the John F Kennedy Library. I’m John Shattuck, the CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation. And on behalf of our Board of Directors and our Library Director, Tom Putnam, who’s here in the front row, and all our colleagues here at the Kennedy Library, I’m delighted to be able to introduce this very special forum on an extraordinary subject.
Let me start by thanking the many institutions that make these forums possible, and we’re especially grateful for these loyal partnerships in these very difficult times: our lead sponsor, Bank of America; The Boston Foundation, represented by Senior Vice President here tonight, Mary Jo Meisner; Boston Capital; The Lowell Institute, represented by Bill Lowell, here in the front row; the Corcoran Jennison Companies; and our media partners, The Boston Globe; WBUR, which broadcasts all these forums on Sunday evenings at eight and is represented here tonight by their Marketing Director Sam Fleming; and our newest media partner, NECN, represented by my friend, its president, Charlie Kravetz, who I think is just coming in the door, who has recently initiated a televised broadcast of these forums.
Because this is probably the last forum I will introduce before heading off into the sunset as President of Central European University in Budapest, a long way away, I also want to give my personal thanks to our forum producer, Amy Macdonald, who does such a wonderful job, I’m sure you’d all agree, and my colleagues Tom McNaught, Nancy McCoy and Tom Putnam, who worked very closely with Amy in planning every forum.
So would you please join me in thanking them and our forum sponsors. [applause]
In the summer of 1960, I was an American Field Service exchange student in Damascus, Syria. I was 16, and it was the first time I’d ever been outside of the United States. John F. Kennedy was running for President and the world seemed poised on the edge of something very new and exciting. My Syrian friends, my Syrian teenage colleagues, were excited about the spirit of freedom that was motivating young people in the post-colonial Islamic world. And I was excited about the world beyond our shores that was capturing the imagination of young Americans like myself. We were hopeful and innocent, very innocent. Here’s how our speaker, whom I’ll introduce in a moment, describes the world at that time in his extraordinary new book, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, and I quote, “By the end of the 1950s, the world of Islam appeared to be well on its way towards modernizing. Muslims could choose their pathway into the modern world. The choice was between which claims would prevail: those of the western democracies, the Soviet Bloc or homegrown variants of radical nationalism.”
During that time, John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, delivered a message to young people and their leaders in the new post-colonial world. Here’s what he said: “To those states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view, but we will always expect to find them supporting their own freedom.” Those were heady days. I remember walking through the streets Damascus as a teenager thinking that my Syrian friends and I were going to build a new world together, a world in which differences of religion and nationality and politics could be erased by contacts among young people like ourselves.
Today, sadly, most Americans and Syrians don’t think that way, and a large gulf of ignorance and misunderstanding has come between us. Much of that ignorance and misunderstanding is based on politics and on the destructive things that have happened in recent years that have twisted our view of the countries in the Middle East and their view of us. From the attacks of 9/11 to the Iraq War and the War on Terror, the last decade has been, I’m afraid it’s fair to say, catastrophic.
During those years, it would have been impossible, I think, to find a young 16-year-old American exchange student walking in the streets of Damascus with his Syrian teenage friends. Hopefully things are changing today. When President Obama addressed the Turkish Parliament earlier this month, he proclaimed that America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to terrorism. We convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over so many centuries to shape the world for the better. After the president’s speech, the polls showed that the vast majority of Americans supported his new effort to build a bridge of understanding between the US and the Islamic world. It won’t be easy. We’ll need not only a good bridge builder, like Obama we hope, but also a good tutor on Islamic civilization like our speaker here this evening.
Ali Allawi has spent much of his life crossing back and forth between Islamic countries and Europe and America. He’s a distinguished professor of international affairs, teaches at Oxford University and has been a Senior Visiting Fellow at Princeton. For nearly 40 years he has been a leader of the effort of the Iraqi people to transform their country into a democracy. Mr. Allawi has been a deeply thoughtful and constructive critic of US policy toward Iraq, and he spoke here on this stage at the Kennedy Library two years ago on this subject. He served as Minister of Finance and Minister of Defense in the post-war Iraqi Government. And in 2007, he published a celebrated book on the Iraq War, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War and Losing the Peace, which received critical acclaim and was characterized by Publishers Weekly as, “An immensely readable exposition of Iraqi society and politics that will likely become the standard reference on post-9/11 Iraq.”
Now, Ali Allawi has written an even more ambitious book, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization. In his thoughtful new work, which is, by the way, being unveiled here in the United States for the first time tonight; this is the first event on his book tour in the US. We’re very honored by that. And the book is on sale in our book store. And I know he will be very pleased to sign the book after the forum. In this book, he explores the pressures on Islam over the centuries and the huge internal tensions that have fractured Islamic society in the modern world. The thesis of the book is that Islam as a religion is central to the lives of over a billion people. But as a civilization, it is in the midst of a huge crisis, the outcome of which is uncertain, and the ramifications of which will affect the entire world.
Islam has been challenged simultaneously on three fronts, he finds: imperial expansion by the West into Islamic countries, mounting pressure by economics and technology, and the relentless march of globalization and global culture. The impact of all these challenges is something we will have to understand if we are going to support the effort to open new avenues of understanding between America and the Islamic world. And I think the best way to do that is to listen closely to what our speaker will have to say here this evening.
To moderate the forum, we’re fortunate to have with us NPR’s Senior Foreign Desk Correspondent, Corey Flintoff. Corey joined NPR as a newscaster in1990 and in 2005 became a foreign correspondent reporting from Iraq, Jerusalem and Haiti. Before coming to NPR, Corey was Executive Producer for the Alaska Public Radio Network where he won a Corporation for Public Broadcasting Award for his coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. He has reported for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Monitor Radio and the Associated Press. And he got his start, he says, in radio at a bilingual English-Yup’ik Eskimo station in Bethel, Alaska. So anyone out there who is starting out a career in a situation like that, look where you can go. He says he’s tried commercial herring fishing, dog mushing, fiction writing and various other occupations, but has never been able to break out of the radio business. So please join me in welcoming Ali Allawi and Corey Flintoff to the stage of the Kennedy Library. [applause]
COREY FLINTOFF: Thank you very much, John. You know, John gave us a good starting point, I think, by pointing out that that period that you described in the prologue to the book, that period when Islamic society — and in particular the society in which you grew up, in Baghdad — seemed so very modern and so very secularized. Describe that for us and tell us how we got to where we are today, where religious Islam, political Islam, seem to dominate the conversation.
ALI ALLAWI: Well, I can tell you how I got there.
COREY FLINTOFF: Of course.
ALI ALLAWI: But how the others did … I mean, I was born in Iraq in the late-1940s, although I was technically in the first day of the 1950s decade. But the Iraq into which I was born, and the Middle East generally -- and if you read memoirs of the times, also the entire Islamic world -- was really one that appeared to have lost its connection with its Islamic legacy. People were rushing into modernity and not only in my own family, but if you look at the entire urban elites, as it were, of the Muslim world from the west, in Casablanca, right into the eastern parts in Java and Jakarta and so on. Memoirs of the times will tell you that what I experienced as a youth, really, was not that different.
Modernity was flooding in everywhere; society was secularized; few women in the urban middle classes wore what we call “hijab,” that is covered their hair. Most people had abandoned their traditional clothing. And they had assumed, to a large extent, what we thought were the mores of the secular modern world, which was firmly anchored in our minds in the West. And Islam as a daily influence on our lives was really not that great if you compare it to what we see today. It was there. It provided some form of an ethical scaffolding for peoples’ lives, but did not really feature in peoples’ day-to-day existence. We were taught the basic elements of religion in school, but it was never to the same extent and depth that we see today. And religious observance, at least in its outer form, was much more restricted. And it was a form that we sort of implicitly acknowledged, that the civilization or the legacy that we had was somehow destined to vanish, leaving behind, perhaps, just a religious sensibility and with it, accepted the outlines and also the contents of modernity.
And this, I think, went through up to the 1960s and even into parts of 1970s. But this complacency, as it were, was rudely shocked. We had a rude shock. First, I think in 1967 out of the Israeli war where the combined Arab armies were defeated in a matter of days by a much smaller adversity. It came as a jolt to the Arabs and also to the broader Islamic world. What has happened that these inheritors of this huge legacy, this profound world civilization, how can they be reduced to this quick defeat, as it were, by the elites that promised them that modernity, secularization, modernization would have opened to them, the doors of progress and re-empowerment?
So all of the ideologies of the times became, basically, discredited. Socialism, which had swept the Arab world throughout the late-‘50s and early ‘60s -- variant of nationalism, variant of military dictatorships -- all these which were seen to be pathways into modernization, became manifestly discredited by what happened. The entire experiment, as it were, proved to be a failure. This jolt caused people to ask themselves, why did this happen? What was it in the pathways that we had chosen in the last 40 or 50 years into modernity had gone wrong? Why did we abandon the legacy of Islam, the traditional civilization which had served most Muslims well most of the time? And this led to the ferment under the surface, which bubbled up in the 1970s, which exploded then into this great, popular revolution really, a revolution reminiscent of the French Revolution, which happened in Iran, and the attempts to re-inject Islam, as it were, as a fundamental principle in society and individualized in most of the Muslim countries in the 1970s.
So the 1970s was a time when these forces that were thought have, basically, atrophied and were about to die away, reemerged on the public scene and became later described as “The Revolt of Islam.” I call it actually “The Counter-revolt of Islam.” Because, in my mind, it wasn’t merely a reaction to a set of events, it was an attempt to reconnect with a past which seemed to offer far better options for empowerment, for improvement in peoples’ livelihoods. And I think that was one of the main inflection points, as it were, in recent history. And then, of course, the late-1970s also coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
So we had on both parts or both aspects in the world is Islam, which is the Shiite’s land -- which is the minority part -- exploding in this gigantic revolution in Iran, affecting, perhaps, 15 percent of the Muslim world, which was Shia. And then you had the War in Afghanistan, which was termed a jihad -- that is a holy war -- by those who sought to oppose the Soviet invasion and the entrenchment of Marxist-Communist power in Afghanistan. This energized the rest of the Islamic world, the Sunni world, and at the same time, radicalized them. So the 1980s was the period in which Islam became not only expressed as an outer political force, but also is expressed in terms of reIslamization of society.
So the 1980s was a period when people went back, as it were, in their own invented sense towards Islamic practices and Islamic patterns of behavior: women started wearing more Islamic clothing; Islamic law, Sharia, began to be considered as an alternative to Western law and Western patterns of jurisprudence; and you had the attempts to, as it were, Islamize education establishments. And this happened throughout the Islamic worlds from countries like Pakistan, which was before that run by a very secular military class, became a very staunchly Islamizing country. The same thing happened in countries like Algeria, which was then coming out of this radical, socialist revolutionary experiment. In the 1980s, we had these homegrown varieties of Islamist movements. And throughout the Muslim world in the 1980s was a period where Islam began to filter back and, in some ways, in a contrived way in society, and became a guiding principle in law making, in policy making and so on.
Now, of course, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was seen by many people, in some ways, as a vindication for Islam’s reentry into the public life -- because amongst a large number of Muslims, the collapse of the Soviet Union was primarily caused by the defeat in Afghanistan rather than by the accumulation of economic weaknesses and technological backwardness that they had into modern times, into recent times. And, of course, the whole thing reached a kind of apogee of disaster on 9/11 and the subsequent events that unfolded.
So, in my lifetime, when I was a young man, Islam was very much background noise. And any group that was thought to be modernizing, liberalizing, joining the modern world, as it were, became alienated from Islam. And then you see how that changed as a result of various powerful jolts to the point where we have now what Islam appears to be a fundamental aspect of the lives of people in societies and a very a large sway through the Muslim world.
COREY FLINTOFF: Going back still further, you talk about the effect of colonialism on the Islamic world and the sense of powerlessness that that forced on people, that maybe created the atmosphere in which the secularism that you described could grow. Tell us a little bit about how colonialism affected Islam.
ALI ALLAWI: Well, Islam interacted with many civilizations in its history -- in the early days with what were culturally, materially the more advanced civilizations of Prussia and of Greece. And then it interacted with Hindu civilizations when it moved into India, with Buddhism and Confucianism it moved into parts of Southeast Asia and of course, the great — I won’t say conflict — but the great engagement with the Western world or with Christian civilization, which was affected in two places: one, in the extreme West, mainly in Spain; and later, in the Eastern and the Southeastern parts of Europe as the Ottoman Empire, which as the champion of Muslim power, confronted the Habsburgs and various other European empires.
So you had two zones of the engagement with Western civilization: in the West, in Spain, and in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Of course, Islam always had inside it very large Christian communities. And there’s always the myth that Islam was propagated by the sword. In reality, the Christian populations of the Middle East continued to be the majority populations until maybe three or four centuries after the Islamic conquest. So Islam did not necessarily tolerate other world views the way that we think of in modern times. But it accommodated them, which is an important difference. It created a space for them to coexist with it.
So Islam’s interaction with other civilizations was by and large of one ascendant civilization meeting another. So it was never a thought that they could learn anything of consequence from the other world until, of course, things turned around in the 17th and 18th centuries when Europe and then North America -- the technology-based civilization - led to this huge material and military power that was focused on the main imperial powers of Europe initially. These began to expand — first of all, commercially in the Muslim world through these commercial companies like the East India Company in India and so on, but in the early 19th century, through actual physical expansion into the Muslim world. And you had, in the early to mid-19th century, expansions, for example, France into North Africa, the British in India, the Russians into the Caucasus. And that was at the period when Islam began to retreat under very powerful military opposition. And a lot of these territories, which were uniformly Islamic in their history, suddenly fell under the control of foreign powers. Of course, this led to a huge questioning as to how can this happen? How can this civilization, which is supposed to be the repository of all that was virtuous from a Muslim’s point of view, find itself in this sad state?
The first response was the response of people who resisted. And they were mainly drawn from the traditional elites, people who had no exposure to the West or to Europe or to any modern ways. And they fought the best way they could. And I described the way in which these traditional forces defended what they thought was the integrity of Islam, but against immeasurable odds. And when they were finally defeated sometime around the mid-19th century, the second wave began to see, well, why have these powers, which were in the past in a subordinate or defensive relationship to Islam, how can they win? How can they succeed? And they, in my mind, naively isolated two or three factors. One is that the West took up science and rationality, and that the West was where institutions and organizations and method and efficiency were best displayed. So the reformers of the period, the late-19th century, let’s say, thought that by just changing or adopting Western science, Western rationality, Western systems of legislation, Western systems of government, that somehow that they are going to modernize their societies, re-empower them and allow Islam, again, to be on the ascendancy. Of course, things didn’t really turn out that way because the West is not just that, neither the weakness of the Islam world was to do with it specifically nor the absence of these attributes.
Then we had the third wave of people who said, “The West is not like a menu that you can pick and chose.” You know, “I want to have this and I want to have that. I will have their laws, but I will still maintain my family structures. I will have this part, but not that part.” The third wave that came after that is what I would call the wave of people who were determined secularist and westernizers, people who thought that what we had was fine but it was of no use to the modern age, and we should adopt not only the systems of the West, but we should adopt their civilization basically. And you had then introduced into the Muslim world a whole range of ways of looking at the world, as it were, that were outside the Muslim frame of mind, of Muslim consciousness.
To many people this was seen to be a liberating thing. You know, you’re getting rid of this dead wood and new areas of human endeavor open up from modern architecture to literature to novel writing to playwriting to opera going, all these things. So sometime around the, say, the early part of the 20th century until this revolt of Islam in the 1970s, the Islamic world was, by and large, run by people who wanted to westernize, maybe not just westernize, but certainly modernize it along Western lines. And there are examples of that.
For example, in Turkey when the Ottoman Empire was defeated -- the Ottoman Empire was the last multi-ethnic Muslim power -- was defeated in World War I and its territories were divided up into nation-states. The idea of a nation-state is alien to the Islamic form of government. The empire was divided into Turkey on one hand and a number of Arab states in the Middle East. But all these states were, by and large, run by people who wanted to emulate the West, who wanted to not only introduce reforms into the system but, in fact, adopt the Western pattern of thinking, of being and so.
And that was a period I think we had for about 80 years and various degrees of commitment, as it were, to the westernizing ideal. In Turkey, it was the highest. In places like Egypt, it also was quite intensive. I mean, the Egyptian elites of the 1930s and ‘40s thought of themselves as Europeans actually, the idea that Egypt was part of Europe rather than part of the Arab world and Muslim world. And there were very few people of substance who stood against that.
So this entire period of the Islamic world’s history was a period where westernization, modernization, secularization was supposed to make over that society. Obviously, it didn’t succeed in doing that. So this was, I think, an indication as to the deep-rootedness of the Islamic consciousness of people, even though they may have been superficially modernized, which led me to the thought of Islamic civilization, I mean, how much of it was still alive and vital.
COREY FLINTOFF: Exactly. It seems to me that both the themes that you’ve traced out for us come back to this definition of the reason you chose Islamic civilization instead of, say, Islamic society or Islam as a religion or Islam as a political force. I mean, I know that in fundamental Islam and fundamentalists of all religious stripes look back usually to some sort of golden age of what early Christendom was, what the early Islamic world was like. Describe for us what the real idea of Islamic civilization is.
ALI ALLAWI: Well, I think we have to accept that, at least this is my conclusion, is that Islamic civilization has a different approach to matters of fundamental substance than other civilizations, almost by definition. It has a different consciousness; it has a different perspective on the self; it has a different perspective on gender relations; it has a different perspective on family; it has a different perspective on the rights of the ruler and the ruled; it has a different perspective on human rights and duties; it has a different perspective on how social relations should be organized and how transactions should be effected. This is the ideal, I’m saying. It’s not the reality. The reality is, in some ways, not that different from any power relations that you have.
And these are the building blocks of Islamic civilizations. And unlike, probably, other civilizations, with the exception of the West, Islam has an outer aspect to it, an outer aspect of institutions, an outer aspect of laws, an outer aspect of culture that is informed by its inner-reality: this core of beliefs, values, consciousness. I mean, any civilization has an inner and outer aspect. And most world religions -- again with the exception of I think Islam and Christianity and in a much different way, Judaism -- do not really have an outer expression to their civilization in the form of a method of governing, a method of ruling, a method of organizing social and economic relations.
These two, the Christian the post-Christian Western and the post-modern civilization is an expression of an inner set of values, beliefs, concepts and so on. Islam has that, too. But what happened is that because of these huge changes that have affected the landscape of the Islamic world -- the imperial expansion of the West, modernization, globalization, secularization -- Islam is not really that able, any more, to affect its outer environment. And in some cases, it becomes frustrating to a lot of people because they’re unable to express their inner consciousness in an outer way as their religion demands of them, so they believe.
And in the case of the Islamic fundamentalists, or what are known as Islamic fundamentalists, is that they see the world around them in ways that are completely antithetical to what they believe to be are the appropriate and correct ways that Muslims should organize their lives. And they go back to … I mean, in the Christian world there’s also a sense of the golden age; in the Greek world, a sense of Arcadia, and so on. In the Muslim world, there is a sense that there was a time associated, generally, with the early days of the Prophet Mohammad and the rule that he established in Medina, which was the first Islamic capital and the rule of those four successors, Caliphs, that came after.
There is now in the mind of most Muslims a sense that that period was the golden period. Not golden in the sense of material advancement or technological sophistication or military progress, but it was ideal. It was like the Athenian city-state where things were properly done, things were measured, the ruler was just, the ruled accepted the legitimate authority, transactions were done. So a kind of -- I won’t say a myth -- but a kind of halo emerged that created this vision that there was a golden age there. So the question becomes, how do you recreate that golden age? And a lot of the reformers of the 19th century, who again tried to change the nature of Islam in order to confront this expansionist West, developed this idea of the golden age, developed the idea of the righteous forefathers who were much better than we were, were much more just than we were, were much more fair than we were, and so on.
And from that base grew an entire school of thought, which became then basically an ideology, which glorified these people and began to look at their practice as ones that we should model our lives on. And in time this became part of the stock and trade of the Islamists, of the Islamic fundamentalists. That what they want to do in reality is to bring Muslims back to this golden age where things worked in harmony.
Now how do you get back to this golden age? Well, there are rulebooks to it. I mean, unlike trying to go back to Arcadia, there are no rules to going back to the Arcadia of the Archaic Age. But there are rules to going back to this golden age. Because part of that, also, is that the actions of the Prophet, Husayns, were practically mandatory for us and that whatever was done to all their society then is equally valid now, and if you deviate from that you are somehow betraying your religion.
COREY FLINTOFF: You know, one of the points that you make that I doubt that most modern religious people of other faiths could grasp to the same degree is the degree to which the authority of God is an element or is the base point of this Muslim civilization in the society and the judiciary and the political life.
ALI ALLAWI: Absolutely. I mean, the holy book of Islam, the Koran, it has a status in Islam that probably no other book has in other religions. And I say that guardedly regarding the Bible, but it’s true. To us, to Muslims, the Koran is the undivided word of God. It is not really allegorical, it’s not layered, it’s not intermediated through prophets. It is the un-allegorical God.
COREY FLINTOFF: What’s more, it’s in the language of God.
ALI ALLAWI: Absolutely. And it’s a language that is addressed to a certain group of people and through that people, to mankind. So, in fact, the first few verses of the Koran, it says quite clearly that this book, this Koran, is aimed at those who believe in the unseen. If you don’t believe in the unseen, you should not really read the Koran. So the core of the Islamic message from the point of view of religious dogma, and also from the point of view, I think, of people’s engagement with religion, is the absolute belief that there is an unseen, and that that unseen not only exists in order to give comfort, as it were, to give religious guidance, but is the basis for your action. There’s a famous saying in Islam that, “If you don’t see God, God sees you.”
So the action of human beings, in terms of Islam’s own worldview, should always be guided by the certain knowledge that they’re acting, as it were, in [inaudible]. Now, of course, to the modern mind, this is very, very difficult to grasp. And you can say, “Well, fine, I believe in the unseen. But what has that got to do with, I don’t know, a transit strike?” I mean, most people have transcended that. But in the case of Muslims, the idea that you can divorce, somehow, the acts of the unseen in terms of your daily living is a very, very alien concept, and I might say, an alienating concept. But this is, I think, where the core of the problem lies is that Islam is a religion which demands that you organize your outer world in ways which affirm the action of God, of Providence, of the Deity, or call it what you will, and that the sense of the sacred infuses peoples’ actions.
The modern mind does not necessarily accept that as an organizing principal for society. But the Islamic mind must accept that if it’s going to create a civilization that reflects its inner-being. Again, ask yourself, “Well, what does that mean?” Well, that’s where the whole system of laws of that we call “The Sacred Law”, which is known as a Sharia, comes to play, because there is supposed to be in Islam that connecting mechanism between your personal belief and your personal faith and the way that the outer world should be organized. And that is the sacred law of the Sharia of Islam. The main battle that we see today, at least in the Muslim world, is to the extent to which Sharia law or the Sacred Law should govern the outer lives of Muslims and how much should it be modified, reformed, changed or jettisoned to accommodate the needs of the modern world.
COREY FLINTOFF: You know, the thing that occurs to a modern mind is that then there is no room in Islam for the separation of church and state. But it seems that that’s complicated by the fact that, in our sense, there is not a church and there is not an organization that is equivalent to the political organization. So what does that mean for Islamic civilization?
ALI ALLAWI: It’s very hard really because we have no church. I mean, there’s not a hierarchy of priests or a clerical class that intercedes between the believer and God. I mean, technically there is no hierarchy. There are some hierarchies, of course, I mean especially in the Shia world. But it’s never so categorical as it is, say, in the Catholic Church where the commands of the rulings of the pontiff are supreme. In the Shia world, for example, where there is a hierarchy, there are several competing areas. And in the majority amongst Muslims, the Sunnis, there is no hierarchy. Most clerics in the Muslim world are in fact employees of the government. I mean, they’re like post office workers. And they get a salary from them, and they're told what to say.
So the idea of separating church from state, as it were, doesn’t really apply in Islam. I think also partly because Islam did not have the same trajectory as the Western world. I mean, the wars of the Reformation that you had in the Western world had no equivalent in the Muslim world. We didn’t have to go through these huge wars and struggles and so on in order to come up with a situation where you needed to separate church from state. Church and state were intertwined and one was part of the other.
And this idea that there was something called “the Ecclesiastic World,” which is the world of the Church and canon law and so on, and the civil world didn’t really exist in Islam. What you had was a kind of infusion of the two, a mixture of the two. So when you talk about separating church and state in the Muslim world, it means something else actually. It means, basically, secularizing the Muslim mind to most people, which is not necessarily the same thing or has the same outcome.
COREY FLINTOFF: What does that mean in terms of the Muslim fundamentalists and radicals talk about the return of the Caliphate, the return of just rule under a political ruler who’d be influenced completely by religion? How does that fit in with the thinking of Islamic theologians now, today?
ALI ALLAWI: Well, the Caliphate, there are a number of vital political institutions in Islamic civilizations. One off them is a Caliphate. But the Caliphate is not something that has been going on continuously since the beginning of Islam. It is a form of government where, basically, the ruler is … Part of the reasons for an individual giving that ruler his or her allegiance is that that ruler is going to preserve and protect Islam, the same way that the US president promises to preserve and protect the Constitution. So the institution of the Caliphate was somehow connected with that. In the last phase of Muslim power, the Caliphate became more of a political force. It was raised up again by the rulers of the Ottoman World as part of the system by which they were going to mobilize Muslim opinion. But the Caliphate as an idea holds a very powerful hold on the Muslim mind. Because it conjures up the image of Muslim power, it conjures up the image of multinational empires, military power, territory, and so on. And it’s a different kind of state than you have today. So its return is always one of the desires and one of the dreams of the Islamic fundamentalists.
Of course, to return to resurrect the Caliphate now is next to impossible, even if there is a huge groundswell of opinion for it, which is not really clear. Because it means that you have to basically dismantle all the nation-states of the Muslim world. And even though they are recent and they are only 100 years-old most of them, nevertheless they have set quite deep roots now. So what you have is a form of government that is not really authentic to the Islamic tradition and is seen to be, in some ways, an imposition. Most people have acknowledged that this is not going to go away and deal within the boundaries of these states. But still the fundamentalists appeal to this idea of a super-state represented in the Caliphate is a very, very powerful organizing force I’d say and is very attractive to many people.
COREY FLINTOFF: Now, you mentioned that Islam has not undergone religious sectarian strife of the ferocity and duration of say the Thirty Years’ War. And yet, we hear so much today, surrounding the Iraq War, about the tension between Shiites and Sunnis. And we hear explanations about how this is hatred that goes back to the time of Husayn and Ali. Isn’t that the case? I mean, isn’t there a blood feud in Islam here that is part of the thing that’s shattering the idea of Islamic civilization?
ALI ALLAWI: No, not really. I mean, what you say is true: we never had in Islam the kind of long, drawn-out wars. I mean, the Reformation in Christianity went on for 200 years until sort of the lines were settled. And it was extremely bloody as we all know. I mean, 5,000 people were killed in one day in Saint Bartholomew’s massacre of the
Huguenots. The Thirty Years’ War probably led to the death of maybe a third of Europe’s population. What happened in Islam is that the sects, the main sects which are the Shia and Sunni, crystallized maybe 300 years after the founding of the religion, and each one had its own dogma. And each one had its own ways of approaching the fundamentals of religion. But there was a space that accommodated them.
By and large, the Shias did not aspire to political power and their political doctrine, until very recently, was in fact to stay away from politics. Politics corrupted you, politics ruined your communion with God. So the Shia, until modern times, were known not to be keenly interested in politics and kept away. And there are many, I think, Christian sects who also shunned politics. A lot of the dissenters in 19th century England, for example, shunned politics as part of its corrupting nature. So there was no struggle for power for a long time between these two sects. And they accommodated each other. Things began to go somewhat belly-up when the reformers came back with this idea of the golden age.
And in my mind, I think the growth of Islamic fundamentalism can be traced to that. At that point, once you start thinking in fundamentalist terms, you start looking at the other sect or group that you had accommodated before with a different lens. You start seeing them as a threat, you start seeing them as deviants, you start seeing them as fifth columnists, and things like that. And even so, until very recent times, until, perhaps, the last 20 years, there were very, very few incidents of sectarian warfare in the Muslim world. I mean, there were riots and disturbances, but really not much different from these football hooligans that you have in Europe. And it wasn’t much more than that: riots, a few people got killed, and then things settled down.
But about 20, 30 years ago, it has to do with the rise of the peculiar fundamentalism associated with the Wahhabi Sect. That sect, which emerged out of the special conditions of Saudi Arabia, was very marginal to the Muslim world. It was a sect that emerged, really, in the wilds of the Arabian Desert, very far away from Islam’s centers of civilization and had no effect. But when you marry that to the oil wealth, and you marry that with a fundamentalist ideology, it began to seriously disrupt the coexistence that prevailed between the sects.
And the Sunni/Shia divide is not throughout the Islamic world. It’s only in what I call The Heartlands: in Iran, in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Pakistan, parts of India where there are large numbers of both sects in the same geographic space. If you go to the fringes of the Muslim world or if you go to other parts of the Muslim world, they’re based on monochrome in terms of their sectarian affiliations.
And part of this radicalization of the Islamic political language because of the rise of Wahhabis led, of course, to a counter-response. I mean, you can’t attack people and expect them not to respond. And it sort of jacked up the sectarian tensions, and they began to boil over in the 1990s. And they went in overdrive in Iraq and now in places like Pakistan, and not yet, mercifully, in terms of mass killings in Lebanon but still there’s a very, very serious divide there too. But it’s to do, in my opinion, with the radicalization of Sunni Islamic political thought, primarily because of the growth of the influence of the Wahhabi Sect backed by huge resources of the Saudi State and rich individuals, also, merchants.
COREY FLINTOFF: Would you say that the rise of Wahhabism has to do with that promise of getting back to a pure Islam or a pure state? And what’s the mainstream theological view of Wahhabism?
ALI ALLAWI: Well, Wahhabism promises very simple answers to very complex questions, like most fundamentalisms. But most fundamentalisms don’t really have a political agenda. They’re just limited to their religious damage [inaudible]. But the Wahhabis do have a political agenda. And they have managed to, in fact, change the methodology of most of the orthodox schools in Sunni Islam to accept their way of looking at things. And here you have a situation where in the Wahhabi perspective you can get detailed rulings on anything. And each of their rulings is, in fact, mandatory. So you have this huge sort of corpus of very detailed rulings affecting peoples’ lives which have the force of canonical obligation. So many people actually go into that because they feel it simplifies things, it puts them into neat categories, it causes people not to question too many things, not to be flexible. But the other side of the coin is that is also leads to a great deal of bigotry and basically rejection of people who don’t share your views.
Now apart from the Shia, who are obviously sort of in a long-term struggle with the Wahhabis, the main problem is not between the Shias and the Sunnis. The main problem, in my mind, is within the majority of the Sunni world. It’s to what extent will they allow their worldview to be taken over by this very narrow, bigoted way of looking at things. And that kind of ideology, at one point, was very, very powerful and used to fight the war against the Soviets. But then it can turn against you. The ways things are going now, I think, unfortunately -- I’m not that optimistic in the short-term -- that because of the power and the wealth and the resources that they have and the powerful way in which they can project their image and their message, they have basically won the argument for the time being. But I think there’s some glimmers of rejection of that taking place. So in the medium and long-term I think Islam will find its voice again and will reject this attempt to pigeonhole it in a whole catalogue of do’s and don’t’s.
COREY FLINTOFF: I think most Americans, we tend to think of Islam and associate it most directly with the Arab world and, to some extent, with the Persian world. But, in fact, practically the majority of Muslims are in other parts of the world of other ethnicities, Indonesia, for instance. What effect is the dispersion of Islam, as great as it is, having on the notion of an Islamic civilization, say Indonesia, say Africa, say any of the great areas that are Islamic now?
ALI ALLAWI: See, I mean, when you talk about Islamic civilization, you’re talking basically about the universal civilization that goes beyond its component elements of people with different languages, different cultures, different ethnicities. There’s a certain commonality that goes beyond that as there is in, say, Western civilization. You can go from Austria to the US, there are certain commonalities that bind a civilization together.
What’s happened, I think, Islam, as you say, is not limited to the Arabs. Far from it. I mean, Arabs are only 20 percent of the Muslim world. And if you add the Arabs and the Iranians, they’re maybe 25 percent of the Muslim world. So the Muslims are in fact nonArabs. But they fall into five different blocs, each one about 2 to 400 million.
One bloc, of course, is the Arab world. And then there’s another bloc, which is the bloc that’s affected by Turkey and Turkic civilization which goes into Central Asia. That’s about 200 million. There’s another bloc, also around 200 million, that connects with the Muslims of India. And if you add to that Bangladesh and Pakistan, it goes up to 400 million. There’s another bloc of Muslims in Malaysia, in the Malaysia Archipelago in Indonesia, another 250 million. And the other bloc is in Africa, which is about another 200-250 million. There’s a small group now having certain commonalities, what I would call “the Muslim diasporas in the West,” which are mainly immigrants rather than converts with the major exception of African-American Muslims. Each one of these is developing a culture of unity to itself and giving its own flavor to Islam. But most of them, I think, are locked into the globalized order more than they are to the notion of reconstituting Islamic civilization. So the connections between them, at the level of, say, of government, at the level of economic relations, at the level of political engagement is much less than the connection between them and other powers, mainly as sort of the globalized world power that’s emerging now.
COREY FLINTOFF: Thank you very much. I’ve had my opportunity and now it’s time to give you an opportunity to talk to Doctor Allawi. Do we have some questions from the floor. Sir? We have microphones set up here in the aisles.
QUESTION: My name is Roy Fried. I live in Canton. And I wonder how does being a Muslim fit in with the culture of the United States?
ALI ALLAWI: I think as a private faith, as a religious set of obligations, it should be a part of a mosaic of faiths that exist in this country. But if Muslims want to act their religion in an external way, then I think they should do that in the way that all other action-oriented faith groups have done, that is, to try to ethicalize the public domain by introducing good works, by doing virtuous works rather than try to create for themselves their own political culture, their own intellectual ghetto as it were.
So I think that Muslims in this country are probably in the best place in the Western world to do that, because this country is accommodating to varieties of faith and variety of faith groups. The main problem, as most people see, is that when Muslims try to exercise their Islam in the public space, then all kinds of sort of images of Sharia and women being oppressed and so on spring to mind. These, I think, are misplaced, these kinds of fears. So if Muslims are going to act out, I think they should do it in the tried and true ways of improving the quality of public life through acts of virtuous ethics, the ethics of virtue as it were.
COREY FLINTOFF: You have a question here?
QUESTION: Yes, Shirley Burton from Canton. I’ve seen considerable documentary footage of Muslim leaders calling for killing the infidels and holy war in the name of Allah, and Christian scholars fluent in Arabic have cited many passages in the Koran that validates this. While Jews and Christians don’t generally advocate living by inflammatory passages in the Bible, many Muslim leaders advocate intolerance of any criticism of Islam in Sharia law, whether it’s rioting over the Danish cartoons or suing for defamation over the documented stories on the Wahhabi-Saudi Arabian links to the Roxbury Mosque right here in Boston. My question is how do we get moderate Muslims to be the prevailing voice rather than these radical Muslims being the prevailing voice? And I understand there are 300 million radical Muslims in the world out of the 1.3 billion Muslims.
ALI ALLAWI: Well, I mean, I have to accept the premises of your question before I can answer, because I don’t really accept all the premises that you’ve said. Muslim leaders, which Muslim leaders? If you can quote me people, I can tell you why they said that and who is their audience. If you tell me that people are calling for mass murder and cleansing and so on, again, you have to be specific. But I’ll take the point that there is a general sense of an extremist discourse that seems to be the Muslim way of doing things. But I personally don’t accept that.
The reason why this radicalization has taken place is because, in my mind, the pathways to people reflecting their anxieties, their conflicts in ways that are acceptable to them and to others have been blocked. The problem with the Muslim world is not radicalization, the problem with the Muslim world is that there is huge amounts of injustice, a huge amount of inequality, a huge amount of hypocrisy and very, very poor governance. If you focus on these issues and tackle these issues, I think this division between radical and moderates would cease to exist. There were no radical and moderate divisions 40, 50 years ago. In Islam this is entirely, in my mind, a recent phenomenon, this kind of division. A lot of it is also due to the over-politicization of the religion. And it is partly because by the rise of this unfortunate trend, as it were, in radical Islam, which is connected to Wahhabism. But this is a Muslim problem, and we have to tackle that. And it will not be tackled, I think, by foreign powers sort of interjecting into the Muslim world.
QUESTION: To answer your question, a major source of documentary footage is the hour-long documentary called Obsession, which you can buy online …
COREY FLINTOFF: I’m afraid I can’t give you time for a follow-up here. We don’t have enough time. We have a question here, please.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. I guess I’m a little surprised -- it’s a been a wonderful presentation -- but I’m a little surprised that we’ve spent an hour talking about Islamic civilization and women have never come up. The role of women in Islamic civilization seems to be, to me, somewhat extreme and especially the conservative, the versions we see from the Taliban, for example. How did this constrained role emerge when the Koran itself doesn’t seem to dictate that kind of constraint?
ALI ALLAWI: I think it’s to do with fact that the victory of patriarchy and tribal values over Islamic values. What you’re referring to, the Taliban, this has more to do with the ethnic composition of people in that area and the way that they relate women’s rights to honor and so on. And these are tribal values, tribal cultures, patriarchal cultures, that have different problems, different roots than those rooted in Islam. I think that the reason why I haven’t talked about women, because in reality, again, Islam’s perspective on human beings is somewhat different. And we have to accept that.
It’s not that women are higher or lower, or men are higher or lower, it is to do with complementality; it’s to do with that human being is both man and women and beyond these two components. It’s very difficult to try to treat the issue of women in Islam using a particularly contemporary perspective. It’s very difficult. And if you do, you find there’d be a lot of anomalies, a lot of issues that emerge. But I think, in time, if these issues are allowed to be treated within the context of the religion and civilization itself, I think it will come up with a solution that is in many ways equivalent to what you see in terms of women’s rights here.
COREY FLINTOFF: Thank you. Sir?
QUESTION: Yes. Very interesting exposé you had, but you had a problem explaining Islam as a civilization or a society, Islam. In my opinion, Islam is a way of living. Islam is a religion which has rules and regulations for every activity of human being, including the toilet. You cannot have a toilet which is facing south because it’s not recommended, because of mecca being in the south. I would like to know, you say are in post-war, you had cabinet situation? Minister of Finance Defense? Which war you mean? Could you tell me …
COREY FLINTOFF: Sir?
QUESTION: … because I have many friends in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein signed the Koran and gave it to me, but I visited Iraq …
COREY FLINTOFF: I think we’ve got your question, sir, thank you.
ALI ALLAWI: I’m sorry, what was the question?
COREY FLINTOFF: When were you in government positions in Baghdad?
ALI ALLAWI: Between 2003 and 2006.
QUESTION: Also, explain that the Shia … Your name is Allawi, which is Shia in Turkey and in Iraq, is it correct?
ALI ALLAWI: Yes, that’s correct.
COREY FLINTOFF: I’m sorry sir, I can’t allow follow-ups; we need to give everyone a chance to ask a question. Over here?
QUESTION: My question is you indicated earlier in your remarks that you were not actually very optimistic in the short and near-term in terms of the evolution, I assume, of the society and probably peace. And so I’d be interested to hear more specifically what your view is of the near and the middle-term?
ALI ALLAWI: Well, I think it’s like a fever that has to be overcome. I mean, what we have now is radicalization of people as a result of a huge number of factors, some local, some regional, some international. And it cannot be easily changed. Part of the momentum, although it’s a declining momentum now, is in favor of radicalization. But there’re also counter-currents developing. The history of Islam, no matter what people say about its expansionist nature and so on, is really quite … it is not punctuated by massive violence, either local or external.
So I think in time that natural equilibrium will come back. But you have to give it time. And you have to work not at the surface issues, which are the manifestations of violence and terror -- these have to be contained, there’s no doubt -- but the deeper issues, which are to do with injustice, to do with poor governance, to do with festering inequalities that have been going on far too long. And if this mechanism is allowed to move, I think it will find an equilibrium where these people will then be initially contained and then their scope will shrink.
QUESTION: Thank you.
COREY FLINTOFF: Sir?
QUESTION: Thank you for your history lesson, which was superb. And the part of the talk is the future of Islam. So we have a situation where Wahhabis are in Saudi Arabia, yet Saudi Arabia has offered Israel a peace plan. It would not have been predicted. You mentioned that Islam makes accommodations for Christianity, Judaism and so forth. Do you see any progress in the future for expanding beyond the Dhimmi-protected concept of having other religions being protected but subjugated to a concept that is much more of co-equal relationship? Thank you.
ALI ALLAWI: Well, again, the Dhimmi idea— I mean, some of you may not have heard. Dhimmi is the way in which Islam, historically, has dealt with non-Muslim peoples under its control. That state is to do with a series of regulations, laws and so on, that accumulated over time, it is not something canonical. So I really don’t like the idea that this is a kind of established fact, that Islam, including modern Islam, will treat all of its non-Muslim peoples the way that the non-Muslims were treated in Andalusia, say, or in Ottoman Turkey. I think that you have to accept that it has to be a modernization or contemporization of this idea.
But Islam has always been a religion or a civilization that has tolerated, sometimes guarded toleration -- I don’t want to gloss over that -- all other faiths and religions. I mean, Islam, for example, in India coexisted with the Hindus for five, six-hundred years. Islam coexisted with great Abrahamic faiths in both the Middle East as well as in Spain.
The way in which the Ottoman Empire treated its minorities, the non-Muslim minorities, may be something that is not acceptable to the modern mind. What happened is that they had all the minorities organize themselves as religious communities, and they dealt with the central power as a religious community. But that’s to do with the idea of what constitutes a citizen of the state. This is all modern notions that have crept in or become part of the political dictionary, as it were, of modern Muslims.
So the idea that Islam always treats its non-Muslim peoples in the way this term Dhimmi conjures up is not necessarily true. Islam always accommodates, creates a place for others. As I said, it sometimes is guarded accommodation, but it’s never exclusion. The radicalization of Islam has led to this, has led to the idea that the Islamic political space should be exclusive. But historical or traditional Islam never thought of it this way. I think it’s a complete misreading of Islamic history and of Islamic civilization to see that the non-Muslims were treated abominably or excluded or expelled. There are very, very few expulsions, if any, of non-Muslim peoples from Muslim lands. But the opposite, I might add, had happened quite frequently: expulsion of Muslims from non-Muslims lands.
COREY FLINTOFF: Sir?
QUESTION: You mentioned that this problem won’t be solved by foreign nations, it’s a Muslim problem. I’m wondering if you forecast or see a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi type of peaceful leader emerging in that region who could perhaps unite Muslims in a way in which would be more peaceful and create peace processes, not just in Palestine, but perhaps more in the region to create more equality?
ALI ALLAWI: I think that’s a very good question really, because I think this is what is lacking is that every movement in modern Islam has taken a political dimension, while in reality what we need is basically a re-spiritualization of Islam. And that can only happen if you have leaders of equality, of Martin Luther King or Gandhi coming up. And I think it will happen. In fact, I think that there is now a groundswell of people who reject the over-politicization of religion for purely power ends. And there is now a movement -- of course, you have to await the leader -- but it’s maybe something like the civil rights movement in the early ‘50s. It’s awaiting a leader. And I think if the conditions and the circumstances are right, then it will have a huge effect, a leader that can re-spiritualize Muslims at the mass level. And I think this will do wonders both for Muslims as well as for civilization itself.
COREY FLINTOFF: Sir?
QUESTION: I will have you know first that I am a Jew, but at the same time I feel a brotherhood to Muslims and Christians. And also I’m obviously a Westerner, but I feel brotherhood to the rest of the world. In your opinion, how is it that the West and also how is it that Israel can lend a hand to the Middle East, but without … Obviously some of the problems in the Middle East are because of Western meddling or problems with Israel.
How is it that we can appropriately help the Middle East and not hinder it?
ALI ALLAWI: Well, I think one way is by not trying to micromanage the affairs of the Middle East or the Muslim world generally, which has been the tendency in the past two centuries. I mean, this part of the world has been most exposed to invasion, occupation, attempts to reengineer its societies, to change its racial and ethnic composition, rule it. So that kind of an engagement, I think, should come to an end. And it should be at a different level; it should be at a level of really propagating commonly shared values and things that we know are in a serious deficit in our part of the world.
One of them, as I said, is justice. One is very poor governance. The other one is the impossible way in which each economy is managed, corruption. These are, I think, the more soft aspects of international relations should be emphasized. And I think with the change of mood, as it were, in the West, in particular of the United States, I think this is moving in the right direction. So the kinds of engagement should be more of that line, the line of trying to improve the circumstances for these countries to rejuvenate and revitalize themselves.
COREY FLINTOFF: I’m very sorry to say that I think we have time for only one more question, and that’s you, sir?
QUESTION: Thank you. In an earlier question, your response to an earlier question, you talked about Islamic nations historically have tolerated people of other faiths living within their midst and peaceful coexistence being possible. But I was just wondering, specifically with regards to the state of Israel and its existence and where it’s physically located in the Middle East -- I don’t want to say the Islamic countries or refer to any governments -- but can Islam, as a religion or as a cultural force, can Islam accept the existence of the state of Israel? Or can a good Muslim just not accept that the state of Israel exists where it is, and not in the sense of being within an Islamic nation coexisting under the leadership of Islamic nation? But can Islam accept that Israel exists? Or is it somehow not possible for a good Muslim to accept the existence of the state of Israel where it is?
ALI ALLAWI: Well, Islam really hasn’t anything to say about Israel or about Iraq or about anything. I mean, it is not a political ideology, Islam. Islamism is, and Muslims have evolved political perspectives. So the religion itself, I would say, is indifferent to whether Israel or any other nation-state is or isn’t. Religion is to do with the relationship between the individual and God. And there’s a whole structure of power and authority and so on that comes after that. What you’re asking is whether Muslims can accept the existence of a state of the kind that has evolved in the Middle East. I think it depends on that state. If that state in turn is exclusive, is exclusionary, is not accepting to others, then I think it will be difficult to have this relationship.
However, if both parties recognize that’s there’s accommodation and compromise so there’s flexibility within the rules that govern that state, so that all of its citizens are treated equally, all those who inhabit that land -- whether they have been there recently or lived historically or even prehistorically – there is a modicum of equality in the groups that exist there. I think if that is the evolution of the state of Israel, then I think it will in time be acknowledged, yes, and I think it will in time be part of the system. But then the nation-state, as it’s presently constructed that is sort of ethnically monochrome, I don’t think it can. Not just in the case of the Israel, even the Arab countries, that concept, I think, is not valid in the long-term.
As I said, it’s not just Israel. Most states now are built around a certain common ethnicity. That state is coming under enormous pressures from globalization, from migration, from weakening of borders and so on. So the world order is not necessarily moving towards the kind of state that sort of ethnically monochrome states. But what matters to me is whether in each of these states, the virtues are maintained and that the rights of people as citizens are treated equally. If that’s the case, then I think this and other states will be seen to be valid and legitimate.
QUESTION: Thank you. [applause]
JOHN SHATTUCK: I think everyone would agree that we have just been treated to a very careful, rational, fascinating, deep exploration of a subject that could be explored at much, much greater length. And I gave a compliment upstairs to our speaker, Ali Allawi, earlier. He’s written a book that’s both deep and highly readable. It’s on sale in our bookstore. He will be available to sign copies afterwards. Thank you all for coming. [applause]