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21 December 2010

The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization

How a common experience drove two civilizations apart: Book Review By Carool Kersten
In recent years media attention for the Muslim world has increased tremendously and many reputable scholars of Islam have joined the flurry of publications that is released month after month. With Following Muhammad -- a thoughtful essay on Islamic spiritual traditions -- Sufism expert Carl Ernst has attempted to counterbalance the torrent of books on political radicalism. Bernard Lewis, the nestor of Islamic history writing, took the easy way and jumped the bandwagon of Islam-bashing by rehashed his 1999 Vienna Lectures Series under the title What Went Wrong?

Partially in response to Lewis, fellow-historian Richard Bulliet of Columbia University dusted off some of the manuscripts in his archives and then elaborated further on these earlier musings. His The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization consists of four essays and, although the first one was drafted more than thirty years ago, they have been reworked into a remarkably consistent argument.

Refashioning that earliest essay, from which the book has taken its title, into a rebuttal of Huntington's Clash of Civilizations thesis, Bulliet explains that there are more similarities than differences between Christendom and the Muslim Middle East. The conversion processes during the earliest centuries shared many features; in particular the slow percolation of the new religions into the lower social strata. As contacts became more intensive during the middle periods, it is true that mutual hostility increased but even then peaceful exchange was more common than violent interaction. Only from about 1500 did the two civilizations go their separate ways, but - in an explicit rejection of Huntington - Bulliet observes that this was more due to accidents of history than an inherent necessity resulting from irrevocably different outlooks.

The second chapter "What Went On" is a correction of Bernard Lewis' negative assessment of Islam as a failed civilization. Bulliet attributed this misreading to the influence of 20th-century western history on Lewis' own worldview. Having been very much part of the effort against totalitarianism during WWII and the Cold War, Lewis fails to appreciate that a Muslim world fighting for independence from colonialism had very different issues on its mind. In his detached survey of Islamic political history, Bulliet consistently argues that, throughout the centuries, safeguarding justice and opposition to tyranny was the constant preoccupation of a religious establishment that tried to remain aloof of politics. When either indigenous despotic regimes - fashioned after the absolute monarchies of early modern Europe (!) -- or imperialist outsiders managed to take over the main power centers in the Muslim world this counterweight was successfully repressed. However, an unintended side-effect of the ensuing modernization efforts has been the rise of alternative `religious authorities' which have started challenging these political constellations.

The next chapter is more of a self-evaluation, in which the author critically examines the misconceptions that are still prevalent in his academic field of Middle Eastern studies. He illustrates this by critical assessments of three seminal works published in the first decades after WWII, when area studies were first introduced in the US. Tied up in the `development theory paradigm', scholars singled out only those congenial to this theory as acceptable representatives of and spokespersons for the Muslims. Those proposing alternative approaches to the challenges of a rapidly changing world, by drawing on the treasure house of their own cultural legacy, were greeted with suspicion and hostility.

Based on his own studies of medieval Islam, Bulliet extends some of the prevailing trends of that past into the future. In his closing arguments Bulliet shows that throughout history the most creative responses to the challenges, which the Muslim world had to face, came from `the edge'; meaning the often heterodox strands of thought and practices shunned by the power centers - and not infrequently emerging at what were also the geographical peripheries of the Muslim world. In our contemporary world, Bulliet sees three such edge situations that could become significant for the future: the `diaspora' Muslim communities of Europe and America; the democratically oriented political parties in certain Muslim countries; and newly formed institutions of higher Islamic learning. With regard to the latter, the writer specifically mentions Indonesia, where many Muslim scholars of Islam holding western degrees occupy key positions at Islamic universities and in the religious affairs departments. Interestingly, one of them is a graduate of Bulliet's own Columbia University. In his own writings, the rector of the Syarif Hidayatullah State Institute for Islamic Studies in Jakarta, Azyumardi Azra, has also stressed the important role played by Muslim intellectuals of the geographical periphery in shaping the intellectual discourse of Islamic reformism.

Bulliet's long-range historical perspective is a welcome contribution to the current discussions on the role of political Islam in the contemporary world, a discussion that has remained too limited in scope because of the myopic perceptions of those focusing only on the most spectacular excesses that have recently unfolded on the world stage.