Robert Hefner: The debate is over and Huntington has lostAhsen Utku
"Turkey is a very fertile mixture of civilizations," says Robert W. Hefner, professor of anthropology and director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs (CURA) at Boston University. Even though visiting İstanbul and Ankara for the first time, Hefner has already been working several research projects on Turkey and has worked in Muslim majority countries for more then thirty years. "I have worked in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, which is a minority Muslim country," says Hefner. "I've had projects in Northern India, and then I've been involved in projects that took place in Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but I've not gone to those countries; yet I've been to Egypt."
Focusing mainly on the issues like modern social change and religion, Hefner has explored topics like civil democracy and Muslim politics, education and civil society in Muslim countries in his projects besides serving as the elected president of the Association for Asian Studies, the largest professional association for Asian studies in the world and been invited to be the editor for the sixth volume of the "New Cambridge History of Islam: Muslims and Modernity: Society and Culture since 1800."
What are your impressions and observations after so many years of research ?
I am surprised by two things. One is that the basic level of socio-economic development is significantly higher than I expected. I know that I am dealing with urban areas, and that the country side, particularly in the east, is significantly poorer. But you can tell a lot about a country by its major cities. I've worked in many Muslim countries and I've travelled in many more. I've also lived in Europe. I think Turkey emerges as a very sophisticated, complex place, indeed, much more than I expected. The second thing has to do with Islam and Islamic scholarship. I'm not talking about politics. I'm talking about the people with whom I've talked who think of themselves in various ways as intellectuals or Muslim intellectuals, with a kind of base in their faith. Here I have also been very pleasantly surprised. I talk to Muslim intellectuals and intellectuals who are Muslims (if we can make that distinction) and I had expected that perhaps because of controversies in Turkey over secularism, that perhaps the level of the intellectual figure would not be as great as I have encountered in other countries. But as I have said, I have had a number of very good impressions and I have been very impressed by the dynamism, the openness and the self-awareness that Turkish intellectuals of a broadly Muslims background have. It speaks very well of Turkey in general, and more specifically of the quality of the religious discussion that is taking place at this point. I know that all these issues are political in some sense. I consider myself a student of Muslim politics. But with Turkey, I am really more interested in knowledge, in how intellectuals, be they Muslim or non-Muslim, respond to the challenge of living in the modern world and developing an intellectual tradition that is capable of responding to that challenge. I have come away very impressed.
In terms of democracy and the development of a civil society, do you think that Islamic societies need a role model, or we should think more locally?
This is a point that came up in my discussions with my discussions with Professor Mehmet Görmez from the Diyanet, a very intelligent and interesting man. He said that one shouldn't use the word model when speaking of friends. I agree with this; this is true of any country. There is an issue of national pride that can get in the way if you present yourself as a model. Rather than "Model", mediator or an example that people in other Muslim majority countries can look to; indeed Turkey is doing this. I do most of my research in Indonesia. There are a couple of parties that pay enormous attention to what is going on in Turkey, some with just curiosity, some with great enthusiasm. I have a student who is doing research in Morocco and I know that Muslim-oriented parties there are very keen on what is happening in Turkey; I don't think they fully understand it. The cultural and political situation in Indonesia and Morocco, especially Morocco and Egypt, is even more complicated and is very different. There are still lessons to be learned.
Do you agree with the Clash of Civilizations or the Alliance of Civilizations? Which one exists today?
I have always been opposed to a Clash of Civilizations; I've been an academic, a professor, for 28 years. About 15 years ago, in 1995, for the first time in my life I was drawn into State Department affairs in DC. I was drawn in because people in the State Department knew that I was opposed to the Clash of Civilizations. In America, and in many countries, you don't work for the government, but when an official in the government wants you to provide an intellectual justification for something they support, they will invite you to speak. For about four years I was involved with Sam Huntington's ideas in Washington and I was strongly opposed to them then and I think history has proved him wrong. Leaving aside any missteps America has made in recent years, these don't have anything to do with Sam Huntington's ideas or the Clash of Civilizations; this thesis has definitively been discredited in the State Department discussions. As to an Alliance of Civilizations; I think this is an inevitability; it is the nature of the world we live in. It is not merely something we should dream of, although we need to work harder for it. It is already a reality. We may need to go one step further and recognize that some civilizations or some units within the civilizations are not just aligned with other civilizations, but they are themselves intersections of several cultures. Turkey, I think, is a Western country as well as a country with roots in the Middle East. I think it is a mistake historically to think that somehow three or four centuries of involvement in central and Eastern Europe was not an essentially formative part of the Ottoman identity, which then passed down to Turks; this isn't just academic conjecture, this is part of what one sees when one comes here. You see this when you come here; the style of thought, the openness with which they think about intellectual ideas and discuss religion, even though there are serious disputes. This is a healthy example of a kind of mixture, a very fertile mixture of civilizations which is Turkey. There are some countries elsewhere in the world, leaving aside the Muslim world, that play a similar role. Is Singapore a Chinese society? Maybe, but it is also very much a society that is at ease with the English language and literature and with a global science that belongs to all people. There are many societies like this; most countries are like this to a certain extent. But there are some countries which play this role more successfully than others, integrating several civilizations into their own self identity into the other countries. That is part of the genius of Turkey.
There is an increasing fear and Islamophobia in the United States and in Europe. How is this seen in the United States, is there really an increasing fear?
To be honest, I think there has been a slight increase in negative perceptions in Islam. It is nonetheless disturbing for someone like me. This is to do with the fact that ordinary North Americans, more so than Europeans, not intellectuals or academics, but ordinary Americans have a much less of an experience of Islam than did Germans or French, who had a colonial experience of them in Muslim majority countries, which was very negative, not only in terms of their perception of Islam, but in terms of their own sense of superiority. The United States is not without a troubled history, but it has had a history of friendship with several Muslims countries; Turkey is very significant among them. There is also Morocco, with which the United States has always had very cordial ties and then there are the tactical alliances; but this is not what we are talking about here. But America's relationship with Turkey is much more substantial and positive and it doesn't have a colonial taint. But all that said after 9/11 some ordinary Americans who weren't well read on questions on Islam have reacted to acts of violence by small groups of hard-line militants, acting in the name of Islam. Some Americans have not been able to draw on a deeper understanding of Islam to correct that image and to realize that this is just a fringe. It isn't representative of the overwhelming majority. This is a little problem. But if I look at Islam from the perspective of college campuses, here I think we can be much more optimistic, because as I said, there wasn't a broad knowledge of Islam, but now things have improved, because the number of students on university campuses take courses on Islam, Islamic history, arts, theology, has not merely gone up, it has grown by four to five times. For a class that used to have 15 students, they now have 60 or more. It is astonishing.
For terrorists, we used to say that they are radicals, poor people, in desperate situation. But recently these people are from good families, with good education. Can we say that a civil society which does not resort to violence does not exist in Islamic societies?
If we go to the beginning of the twentieth century in Western Europe, if you look at the history of radicalism, if you look at the people who became fascists or Nazis, or who became ultra Communists, most of the leadership came from the middle class or lower middle class. They tended to be better educated and they tended to be people who had a very ideological as opposed to practical approach to living. It wasn't poverty that drove them into the ranks of a radical movement. That is what we see among the extreme radicals; the leadership, not always the rank and file, tends to come from solidly secure middle class backgrounds and like their radical counterparts in the other parts of the world, they are drawn to an ideological interpretation of Islam that isn't based on the tradition of Jurisprudence or Theology. Most of them don't have a deep knowledge of Islam, but most of them, for example the bomber in the UK or this gentleman who tried to blow up a car, this was a man who had a very poor Islamic background; he was not a student of Islam and like some radicals in the US in the 1960s-1970s which put bombs in the US Senate. These were very well-educated people from affluent backgrounds. So this is just one of the qualities of people who are drawn to a very ideologized understanding of any doctrine. Islam itself is not an ideology; it has a universal meaning. But it can be simplified and turned into slogans, like anything. For people who are looking for simple answers, sometimes those interpretations can become compelling.
I also want to talk about your editorship of a very important work, "New Cambridge History of Islam: Muslims and Modernity: Society and Culture since 1800." What were the reflections after this was published?
It has just come out, so there hasn't been much comment on it. The fact that a six volume work has been published in Western countries is indicative of the interest in the scholarly issues of Islam. The other things is the education in the madrasahs and shariah. The comments have been overwhelmingly favorable. These are academic books, so they won't be reviewed by CNN or the New York Post. On the other hand, the prejudice isn't as big as it looks. I think we have to realize that in any country, anywhere, when there are acts of violence carried out in the name of an ethnic group or a religion it is very easy for people who are on the receiving end of the violence to fall victim to simplistic stereotypes. For almost ten years now, since 9/11 and Al-Qaida launched its attacks - more Muslims are killed by Al Qaida than Westerners - the news is good. The responsible media have a little bit more of an understanding of the richness and complexity of Muslim civilization and they don't fall victim to the scare tactic characterizations of Islam. There is also still a debate to respond to a continuing terrorist threat; the debate still continues. In the State Department it is very clear that there is a more sophisticated understanding of Islam than there was ten or fifteen years ago, and among other things, Sam Huntington has no place in the United States and the Clash of Civilizations thesis has no place whatsoever in the government of the United States. I am not part of the government, I am independent of it and if there were such a view I would criticize it as I do publicly, as I think it is such a dangerous idea. But I am delighted to say that the Clash of Civilizations has been totally discredited. But having said that, that doesn't mean that certain policies which the US conducts might not be as good as they should be. But this does not have anything to do with the debate of the Clash of Civilizations; this debate is over and Sam Huntington lost.