Battlestar Galactica (#BSG)—The Triumph of Tragedy is Empathy


I must admit from the outset that I didn’t watch the original series during the late 1970s, and I didn’t watch the new series during its original run on TV, from the airing of the initial three-hour miniseries from December 2003 until the final episode on March 30, 2009.   The reason why I didn’t watch the original series or the new series when it first came out on television was not because I don’t like science fiction.   I tend to read a lot more science fiction and fantasy than I watch either on television or in movies.  My cousins in St. Louis, on the other hand, are avid fans of both media science fiction as well as written science fiction.   They had raved about the series, so I figured I would give it a try.  I decided to give up cable TV last year as part of a New Year’s Resolution to conserve both my time and money,  and this was my impetus for purchasing the series on DVD that I could watch each weekend as a “carrot” to keep me working hard during the week on various professional and educational projects.  I’ve been watching about an episode a week and I got to the final episode of the final season of Battlestar Galactica or BSG (the newest series) just last night.

I’m still reeling from the impact that the series has had on me.  The first emotional response I took from the series, besides my love of the individual characters portrayed, was the message that it is important to have empathy for one’s adversary.  The Cylons are a race of man-made robots that end up turning against the Colonials, the human inhabitants of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol.  The entire four-season series deals with the relations between the Colonials and the Cylons, who go from being implacable enemies to allies whose futures are intertwined.

Aristotle was said to have lectured on both the comic and tragic emotions in Greek theater.    According to Aristotle, the comic emotion is that of joy.   BSG does have moments of joy and humor, which are greatly appreciated given the darker nature of most of the material.    Aristotle’s lectures on comedy have unfortunately been lost.   As a side note, the entire plot of the historical mystery novel called The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, set in a Benedictine monastery in the year 1327, is based on the idea that a lost copy of those lectures by Aristotle was found.  The threat of the subversive power of laughter that the book represents to the Church authorities sets off a series of murders in the monastery which Franciscan friar William of Baskerville is ordered to investigate.

Aristotle’s lectures on the tragic emotions, however, have survived in his work the Poetics.   Tragedy serves a social function by being a catharsis or public release of emotions.  There are two cathartic emotions associated with tragedy:  pity and terror.  Pity is defined as whatsoever is grave and constant in human affairs which unites the audience with the human sufferer.  What makes a tragic work universal are the key words “grave and constant in human affairs”.  If you tell a personal story of loss, that may have meaning to those that know you personally, but to tell a universal story of tragedy, you have to tell a story that any audience member can relate to.  If they can relate to the hero or protagonist, then the suffering that the hero undergoes will create sympathy from the audience and attract them to the story you have to tell.

The emotion of terror seems similar to that of pity, but with a twist:  it is whatsoever is grave and constant in human affairs which unites the audience with the secret cause of the suffering.  The suffering of the human protagonist is caused either by another antagonist or it could be something more elemental such as the workings of fate, time, or Providence.  Terror in this context is secret empathy for the adversary, and Hitchcock was famous for being a master of terror for this very reason.  At the same time you are watching one of Hitchcock’s films and thinking that a murderer is despicable, Hitchcock manipulates you through point-of-view shots, etc., to have some sort of empathy for the character nonetheless.  As Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote, “Man must not disclaim his brotherhood, even with the guiltiest.”

The simultaneous sympathy for the hero and empathy for the adversary are the elements of what takes a work of tragedy from the beautiful to the sublime.  In the case of Battlestar Galactica, the heroes among the Colonials are seen as good but flawed people, and this naturally evokes the emotion of pity or sympathy in the audience.  But the triumph of Battlestar Galactica is that you end up having empathy for those who are ostensibly the enemy, the Cylons.  And in the end, you realize that they are both grappling with the same issues of survival and the search for meaning.   The series makes us ask ourselves:   are there Cylons we meet in life that we confront as adversaries who might become our allies someday?

Learning to have empathy with one’s adversary is a principle which has guided me throughout my life, and it’s one of the reasons why BSG has meant so much to me this past year or so.  I am sure it will continue to resonate with me to the end of own personal tale of survival and the search for meaning along the way.

The #LARiots of 1992–The View From Japan


I was living in Japan when riots broke out in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992.   Almost a year later, there was another violent event that occurred in the United States, namely, the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas on April 19, 1993.   The Japanese reacted quite differently to these violent events, and this weekend’s commemoration of the events that occurred 20 years ago has made me recall all of this.

There was news in Japan about what were termed the “race riots”, and a lot of my Japanese colleagues at Mitsubishi Motors were asking about how I felt about what was going on, whether the riots would spread to other cities, etc.   I told them that the event that it reminded me of the most was the five-day Watts riots from August 11-15, 1965.   I was only a child at the time, but I remember my parents discussing the event.

Later on in life, during my history class while taking Asian Studies in graduate school at the University of Illinois, I read about race riots in Japan that occurred between World War I and II.   I remember interesting classroom discussions about the relationship that these riots had to the rightward drift of Japanese politics in the interwar period.  Now there is a book by Rick Perlstein called Nixonland about the origins of the rightward drift in American politics after the 1960s, and the incident the book starts out with is … the Watts riots of 1965.

About one year later after the LA Riots, on April 19, 1993, I was listening to news from the US over Armed Forces radio about the story of the tragic ending to the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.  There is a direct line between the Waco incident and Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.   That bombing was widely reported on in Japan, of course, but the Waco Siege back in 1993 received very little coverage.

Later on I wondered about the difference between the prominent coverage of the LA race riots of 1992 and the sparse coverage of the Waco Siege of 1993.   I asked several Japanese colleagues about this at the time, and after much thought, they said that it was because the Japanese people could comprehend the race riots given their own history, but the story about a suicidal religious cult was something that didn’t show up on the Japanese cultural radar screen.   They understood that there were foreigners who might be religious fanatics to the point of being homicidal, but it seemed them almost “un-Japanese” for someone to get so worked up about religion that they would kill for it.

The sarin gas attack called the “Subway Sarin Incident” on the Tokyo subway perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult on March 20, 1995 changed the perception of the Japanese forever with regards to the possibility of the connections between religion and terrorism in Japan.

But back in 1993, it was something that the Japanese could not relate to as much as the race riots in LA, and that was the reason for the differing coverage by the media.   I learned a lot during my five-year stay in Japan from 1990-1995, about race, religion, and the different ways they were perceived in Japan and the US, namely, that our culture is the filter through which we view the news of the world.

Lost in the Crowd


Looking back on my days at Homewood-Flossmoor High School has been a wonderful experience, largely in part due to the many posts of Tina Landry Otte, Shari Hahn-Kozak and others who have helped take me and many others down memory lane. 

I know that while the recent reunion was being organized, mention was made to those “invisible” members of the Class of ’75 whom people had lost track of.  I myself was one of those invisible members until recently.  I think it took me longer than others to connect to our classmates because in general those with more introverted personalities like mine find it harder to reach out socially to others, but I’m very grateful that someone took the effort to reach out to me!  Back in H-F, our class of 1975 had somewhere between 900 and 1000 students.  It was SO big that it was easy to get lost sometimes.  I’m not just talking about navigating one’s way between classes, but navigating one’s way through the social world of high school. 

For those that were naturally more outgoing or socially adept, the path was still probably not easy, but to those of us who felt more introverted there were many times when we felt envious of those who found it easier to go out and make new friends.  But that was the beauty of having such a large group of students; there were so many diverse groups that were all supported by the school that you were bound to find some people who shared common interest. 

That diversity in our student body meant that there were many people who inspired me because they were different from most of the students but still seemed to thrive.  I would like to mention two of them here:  Jacqueline Ambrose Knight and Cedric Yap.  They don’t know it, but they ended up inspiring me in later life after leaving Homewood-Flossmoor High School. 

When I lived in Japan for five years, part of getting used to living in a new country was the fact that I was considered by the Japanese to be a member of a racial minority.  It took some adjustment to my self-image because I had never been part of a racial minority before.   I distinctly remember thinking back on my days at H-F and empathizing with students I had seen like Jacqueline and others who had to endure being a racial minority back then.  When I saw them, they seemed to be successful in school, and yet I’m sure they felt differently than the other students, mainly because some students may have treated them differently.  If figured, “well, if they survived H-F, I can survive my stay in Japan”.  So I wanted to just give a shout out to Jacqueline and others who didn’t realize that they were pioneers who would end up inspiring their classmates someday.

I was not a close acquaintance of Jackie’s, but Cedric Yap I did know because we shared an interest in mathematics in common.  I remember going over to his house and becoming interested in a cursory way with his family’s language and culture.  Later on those seeds became in an interest which led to me studying Chinese in the Asian Studies program in graduate school at the University of Illinois.

So the fact that H-F was such a large class may have created its difficulties for those who found it harder to go and meet such a large number of people, but that very diversity meant that I ended up meeting a far greater variety of people than I would have if I had gone to a smaller school.   That in turn has helped me throughout my life relate to other people from other cultures who speak different languages. 

Now when I look back at our days in Homewood-Flossmoor, I see that our class prepared us for larger world more than we ever knew at the time.   The only regret I have about reconnecting with the class of 1975 is that it took me so long to do so.

7 Useful Things I Learned about Social Media at #SMMOC


Here are the notes I took at the meetup last Saturday, April 21st, at the Social Media Mastermind Orange County meetup.

1.  Hashtag–“What does # mean?”

Hashtags, the act of adding # in front of a topic in Twitter, makes that topic sortable, linkable, and can make a virtual “Twitter chat room”.  We did an experiment using #earthquake to see who could find out the fastest when the most recent earthquake occurred anywhere in the world.  You can create a stream in Hootsuite which uses a particular hashtag as another means of sorting Tweets other than lists.

It can send a Tweet to LinkedIn with the #in tag, as long as your LinkedIn account is setup to accept these tweets.  The general consensus is don’t send all of your Tweets to your LinkedIn account because this generates too much “noise”.

2.  Klout—measuring social media influence

There was a discussion of Klout and other sites which measure influence in social media, such as Kred.com, Peerindex.com.  Why should you care about Klout, other than bragging rights about your score?  Other than comparing your score with those you influence, your poors, or those who influence you in social media, it can be useful for a longitudinal (time) study of your own influence.  This can help you figure out what you’re doing that increases your influence.

Klout used to be based on three social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, but it is now expanding to six platforms, including Google+, WordPress, and Foursquare.

3.  Foursquare—the “drive-in” version of social media

What is Foursquare and why should we care?  When you go to a store, or an event, and you check in on Foursquare, it can give you the following advantages:

a)  It tells you where you are (helps you hook up with your friends).

b)  It gives you motivation through points which can earn badges like being the “mayor”.

c)  These badges can earn you discounts and other benefits from the hosting company or event (parking privileges, seating privileges, or price discounts).

d)  It can help brand you by having a record of the places you like to visit.

e)  It can help with personal security (tells your friends where you are).   Some cynics said it also tells your neighbors when you’re away from home which might not enhance your home’s security.

4.  SocialBro—managing your Twitter account

If the quantity of your Twitter community is getting out of hand, or the quality leaves something to be desired, SocialBro can help you analyze and manage that community.  You can have it search all of your followers and delete those that may be spammers, for example, by eliminating all those with less than 50 tweets.  However, once you tell it how what to do with your followers lists, you need to synchronize it with your Twitter account in order for it to take effect.

5.  Pinterest—Social media meets “scrapbooking”

Pinterest has gained enormous publicity of late, but this wave of popularity is starting to wane somewhat as the 13 million participants towards the beginning of the year have now dwindled to 8 million (which is still a lot).

There are other Pinterest clones, such as “WeHeartIt” geared towards women and “Gentlemint” geared towards men.  The majority of Pinterest users are still women, although the ratio of women to men is decreasing.

6.  Meetup—the human face is the ultimate social medium

There was a big discussion of the value of Meetup groups, of which SMMOC was but one example.  It is a great way for businesses to attract clientele, but you have to be careful about trying to monetize the Meetups directly by charging for membership or attendance at events.  Allowing free membership or events at which people can discuss or sample a product (such as wine) is ultimate the surest way to generate interest in a business or group.

7.  Privacy issues related to government and social media platforms

There is an Onion satirical story that says that Facebook is a program that was developed by the CIA to collect personal information on US citizens and it has saved the agency millions of dollars.  However, this satire contains a grain of truth, because legislation is being considered by Congress (CISPA) which would allow the government to access the personal information collected by such sites as Facebook, Google+, without the consent or even knowledge of the person whose information is being sought.  This legislation needs to be monitored by those who are concerned about personal privacy.

History of the Modern Middle East—Lecture 1 (Introductory Concepts) (4)


The following are notes from the lecture series done by Dr. Richard Bulliet for the History of the Modern Modern Middle East course held at Columbia University (Columbia Course Catalog No. W3719) in the Spring semester of 2009 which is available on iTunes U.

7.  Radical vs. moderate Islam

There was a subset of obsessions in modern Middle East history that had to do with concept of radical Muslims vs. moderate Muslims.

Moderate regimes (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan) were always contrasted with radical regimes (Iran, Syria).  To understand this term correctly, you have to realize that “moderate” means “pro-American”; it has nothing to do with moderation.  There is no regime less moderate than Saudi Arabia; it is an extremist regime.  But it is moderate if you consider that term to mean “pro-American”.  Radical then means “anti-American”, and so the concept of radicalism is actually substance-free; it only has to do with how the country is aligned politically with regards to the United States.

Another dimension of this whole question of Modern Middle Eastern history is therefore, what is the perspective of the United States towards the Middle East?  The prominence of the United States and Saudi Arabia, as countries who are the central agents for everything that happens in the Middle East in the present day, is something that could not be foreseen by any of the standard histories of the modern Middle East.

8.  Similarities between United States and Saudi Arabia with regard to religion

And yet there are some things that make the United States and Saudi Arabia strikingly similar countries.

a. Both of them have enormously powerful religiously conservative, puritanical population blocks.

b. Both of them have political systems that are hostage, to some degree or other, to those religious blocks.

You might say that this is purely happenstance, and something that has no historical roots.  But curiously enough, the founder of militant puritanical intolerant Islam in Saudi Arabia, a man by the name of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was born in 1703, the same year as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.

NOTE:  The word “Wahhabi” comes from part of the Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s name.  Incidentally, “Wahhabi” is not the proper term for people who follow his doctrines; they prefer to be called the “Muwahadeen”, which means the “believers in Tawheed, or the unity of God”.   However, Prof. Bulliet will refer to them as “Wahhabi” because that is the term most Americans recognize.

What comparison can you make between Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and John Wesley?  The great success of Methodism was in the British colonies that would later become the United States, which was the wild frontier compared to sophisticated, cosmopolitan European Society.  What you found in Georgia, where John Wesley went to preach along with his brother Charles in the early 1700s, was very different from you would find in London, Paris, or other major centers of Europe.  You had a frontier that was almost completely removed from the great cultural centers, and over time, particularly with John Wesley’s successor, George Whitefield, there grew a revival called The Great Awakening.  This was when people who were living in what would become the United States in the 18th century discovered the depth of their Protestant zeal, particularly in the South and Middle West, but also in other parts of the country.

There were a series of four Great Awakenings, two in the 18th century, two in the 19th century, and in each case you had great waves of Protestant zealotry.  People were summoned by preachers, of whom John Wesley was one of the pioneers who felt that a preacher could preach outdoors and didn’t have to be in a church.  In these successive Great Awakenings there was an enormous amount of Protestant zealotry, which promoted Protestant values.  At the same time, it promoted anti-Catholicism, because Catholics served the Pope who was considered to be the anti-Christ.  They were anti-Jewish as well, but there weren’t many Jews around in colonial frontier America, so they took their zealotry out mostly on Catholics.  This country was profoundly anti-Catholic in the 19th century.

Saudi Arabia, in parallel, is profoundly anti-Shiite, because of the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.  Another consequence, starting with the third Great Awakening in the early 19th century, was the birth of the great missionary movement, whereby tens of thousands of Protestant Americans went abroad.  They went particularly to the Middle East and to China, but even more so to the Middle East, in order to spread the gospel.  They went preaching either to new converts or, since they could not legally convert Muslims to Christianity, to those who needed it most, namely, other Christians who did not believe in the right form of Christianity, the Greek Orthodox, the Catholics, the Armenians, or others.  Most of what America knew about the Middle East down to World War II came from missionaries.

The story of missionaries in the Middle East is actually a fascinating story.  We had far more people who were expert in the Middle East in the 1920s than we have today, in proportion to our population.  This was because the missionaries went over to the countries of the Middle East, they learned the languages, and they got to know people at the level of everyday life.  They were not like diplomats, or Peace Corps people who only stayed a year or two; they would sometimes stay there 20, 30 or 40 years.  They represented an ideology that was fundamentally based on the idea that they had a superior religious view.

Now it’s interesting that the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia have the same puritanical views.  They have the same intensely nasty hatred of their religious enemies, the Shiites and the Sufi Brotherhoods.  And they were enormously interested in sending missionaries around, so that today, the two largest exporters of religious missionaries around the world are Saudi Arabia and the United States.  The amount of money expended to send American Protestants around the world and to send Wahhabi missionaries around the world is enormous.   Even in Saudi Arabia, it is is primarily private funds that tend to support the Saudis who go around to every Muslim community in the world and try to improve their views (?) of Islam, in the same way the Protestants used to focus more on what the other Christians were doing than finding new converts to the Christian faith.

It is not a coincidence, but rather there is some parallel in that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century was also bringing his message to the frontier wilderness, the most remote part of the great cosmopolitan world of the Ottoman Empire, far away from big centers like Damascus, Cairo, or Istanbul, out in the middle of Arabia.  That was where the Wahhabis flourished, the middle of Arabia being the equivalent of Mississippi or Illinois in comparative terms.

The contrast between the culture of the cosmopolitan centers and the culture of the frontiers (Europe as opposed to America, Istanbul and Cairo as opposed to central Arabia) is an important one and one that is still important.  After all, if you look at the areas where official America and Europe have the most concern about Islam, they are the frontier areas, such as the northwest frontier province in Pakistan, Somalia, and any place where you are far away from any cosmopolitan area.  That is where religious zealotry seems to flourish—it’s the Muslim version of Idaho, just to name Sarah Palin’s home state.

Prof. Bulliet says he will come back to this theme during the semester, but there is something peculiar about the Saudi-American connection that antedates oil, and explains some of the particulars about the situation we see in the world today, and it goes back to the 18th century.

This concludes the formal first lecture in the 26-lecture course; the rest of the lecture was devoted to mechanics of the teaching of the class related to lectures, discussion sessions, and exams.

 

 

History of the Modern Middle East—Lecture 1 (Introductory Concepts) (3)


The following are notes from the lecture series done by Dr. Richard Bulliet for the History of the Modern Modern Middle East course held at Columbia University (Columbia Course Catalog No. W3719) in the Spring semester of 2009. 

5.  Modernization Theory and the History of the Modern Middle East

However, that was not the only option.  One of the most significant books to present the idea of “modern” for countries in the region was Bernard Lewis’s book The Emergence of Modern Turkey written in 1961.   It was an overwhelming success at the time, because not only did it give you a history of the Ottoman empire from the 19th to the 20th century, and the succeeding Republic of Turkey, but it give you a concept of what “modern” was.   He was not speaking specifically about a time period, but of what “modernity” meant.   What is the process by which people in Turkey are becoming “modern”?   It was the story of reform, Westernization, a whole series of quite well-described actions taken by rulers in the 19th and 20th century to discard the “traditional” way of life and to replace it with a “modern” way of life.   Contemporary with that work was the The Passing of Traditional Society:  Modernizing the Middle East by Daniel Lerner written in 1964.   It suggested that modernization is a precisely describable process by which each part of the world at its own pace will become more like … America.

The notion of a modern Middle East country meaning “a state controlled by the British” had involved into the idea of a country undergoing a process of modernization.  Theorizing about this process resulted in something called “modernization theory”.   The history of the modern Middle East was essentially eclipsed by modernization theory until the time of the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s.

The most recent edition of Bernard Lewis’ book The Emergence of Modern Turkey contains a preface describing how he came to write the book.   He felt a thrill in 1950 when Turkey had its first open election and the ruling party lost, but then peacefully ceded power to its opponent.   Even 50 years later, Lewis felt he could still remember the thrill he felt at the modern Middle East emerging in the results of this election.

By the time his book had been written in 1961, that government had been overthrown in a military coup, but Lewis’ vision never wavered.   In his book written in 2003, What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, Lewis basically is lamenting the fact that the Middle East did not continue to develop along the lines he thought it would back in the 1950s.

Modernization theory which took over is perhaps a little bit difficult to grasp today, but if you take a look at the book by Daniel Lerner, you will see that it was based on public opinion polls that were conducted in a number of countries in the Middle East.   90% of the questions in the polls deal with listening to radio and reading newspapers, because part of modernization theory was that people becoming modern by becoming exposed to modern media.   That’s why he weighted his polling questions so heavily towards them.   And he also weighed the opinions of those who got their news from modern media more heavily than those that did not.Modernization theory dominated Modern Middle East theory, but the period during which modernization theory was predominant was ironically the period during which the most important seminal works by Islamic thinkers were published.   No American graduate student working on Modern Middle East theory ever studied those authors based on one of the most important concepts of modernization theory, which was that religion would become more and more obsolete, and people would replace it with a “civic religion” based on the state.   Islam was vanishing, according to this view.

6.   The Re-Emergence of Islam in the Modern Middle East

Modern Middle East was born after World War II, but it had some serious birth defects, and these defects became apparent during the 1970s.   Getting people to realize what was happening was difficult.   From 1973 to 1975, Prof. Bulliet taught at Berkeley and was a colleague of Dr. Hamid Algar who was an expert on political Islam.   He had been born as Rodney (?) Algar but had converted to Islam in Iran.  He gained enormous respect in the Muslim community and had extensive connections with Muslim political activists, particularly in Iran.

Prof. Bulliet learned a lot from him and they were among a tiny handful of American scholars who could see what was going down in the area before the Iranian revolution.   It was clear that you had people here in the United States who were planning to participate in the revolution.   Prof. Bulliet remembered attending a conference at UCLA and he later discovered that all the Iranian students in attendance received a phone call from a man named Kolte Zadek (?) who said “meet me under the Pasadena freeway at such-and-such an exit, I’ll be wearing a red carnation and carrying helium balloons.”   It was all very conspiratorial.   He was trying to lure the students into the revolution against the Shah of Iran.   The Iranian scholars who were in the United States at that time were a group of people who had come to this country to do graduate studies and had been part of the anti-Shah underground students association and had decided that the revolution wasn’t going to happen.   They made a choice:  either they could go home and work for the revolution or stay in the United States and become professors.   None of them he could think of quit their jobs and joined the revolution, and when it came, they were devastated.   They had started out as revolutionaries, and now that the revolution was actually happening, they were just professors.   What a demeaning situation to end up in as a revolutionary; on the other hand, they’re all still alive.

You could see what was happening if you knew where to look.   Prof. Bulliet had an advantage because his research was mainly in Medieval Middle East history and so he knew a lot about Islam.    He was absolutely convinced that what was happening in the Middle East with regard to Islam was going to change history.   But the modernists didn’t know anything about Islam, and so they were caught unprepared and missed a lot of what was going on.

Prof. Bulliet visited Israel in 1980 and there was a conference where he gave a talk saying that the revolution of Iran and the rise of political Islam was the most important historical trend in the Middle East and it would be one that would affect the rest of their lives.    The intellectual elite all denounced Prof. Bulliet and had the newspapers write articles extremely critical of his views.   He was in the airport in Tel Aviv and he saw his picture on the cover of an Israeli newspaper and so he casually sidled over to the person reading the article and asked him what the article was about.  “Oh, it’s some stupid American that says Islam is important.”

If you were into modernization theory, if you saw history as a path or trajectory and you knew where the path would lead, your job was simply to identify the entities that were moving along that path, and show how they were gradually making progress towards American-style perfection.  They didn’t know what to do with the revolution in Iran.  People in the Middle East who sucked up to America, i.e., virtually every government, told Americans what Americans what they wanted to hear, namely that Shiites were fanatics but that Sunni Muslims were peaceful.  When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar converted to Sunni Islam from the Nation of Islam, that was the first time when the word “Sunni” became introduced to the American public.  So there was a general image that the “Sunni” Muslims were the “good” Muslims.

Although people in the government would tell the US that the Sunnis were the “peaceful” Muslims, they knew that this wasn’t always true.  Around 1982, Prof. Bulliet went on one of his first trips to Saudi Arabia, and he was in a conversation with an official in the Interior Ministry.  He asked the official whether he could ask about religious resistance to the Saudi regime, and he said there was.  In the Eastern province there were a lot of Shiites, and they were potentially revolutionary and so they were making sure that everybody in that area had appliances in their homes and paved roads, etc., to keep them happy.  Prof. Bulliet said he wasn’t asking about the Shiites, he was asking about the Sunnis.  He responded that there wasn’t any resistance; nobody about the Sunnis was opposed to the kingdom.  Prof. Bulliet said he would take that message back to the United States where he knew of students in secret cells in Texas who were plotting to overthrow the Kingdom and they were all Sunnis.  (He didn’t share any names with the official, of course…)

There was a tremendous amount of denial about the importance of Islam prior to and immediately after the Iranian revolution.  And yet, what Islam has become in political terms, in the balance of world strategic affairs, not to mention in personal terms for individual Muslims, is what is central to the Middle East now.  The problem is you can’t explain that centrality or even begin to guess at it by reading standard books on Modern Middle Eastern history, because they start with different premises.  They were based on the rise of nation-states, or they were interested in the process of modernity, or more parochially interested in the political fortunes of a certain ruler.

Tomorrow I will post Prof. Bulliet’s final remarks in the lecture, where he draws a remarkable parallel between the United States and Saudi Arabia when it comes to the role of fundamentalist religious movements.

History of the Modern Middle East—Lecture 1 (Introductory Concepts) (2)


The following are notes from the lecture series done by Dr. Richard Bulliet for the History of the Modern Modern Middle East course held at Columbia University (Columbia Course Catalog No. W3719) in the Spring semester of 2009.  

3.  The Concept of Civilizations in Middle East History

Arnold Toynbee wrote a book in 1922 called The Western Question in Greece and Turkey which covered the struggle between who would control the Western portion of Greece in the aftermath of World War I.  The subtitle of his work was “A Study in the Contact of Civilizations”.    This is one of the first times that it was postulated that civilizations, as opposed to countries or states, were in some sort of relationship.

Basil Matthews, an important official in the YMCA, wrote a widely appreciated book in 1922 called The Book of Missionary Heroes detailing the lives of those Christian missionaries who had given their lives for the sake of bringing Christianity to various countries in the world.   Matthews wrote a book in 1925 called Young Islam on Track. The subtitle was:  A study in the clash of civilizations.    His book was a deliberate reaction to the more neutral term “Contact of Civilizations” that had been used by Toynbee three years earlier.

Bernard Lewis used the term “Clash of Civilizations” in his essay The Roots of Muslim Rage (1990) published in The Atlantic Monthly, where he argued that the struggle between the West and Islam was gathering strength.   According to one source, this essay (and Lewis’ 1990 Jefferson Lecture on which the article was based) first introduced the term “Islamic fundamentalism” to the general public in North America, and has also been credited with coining the phrase “clash of civilizations“.   Another source said he had first used the phrase “clash of civilizations” at a meeting in Washington in 1957 where it was recorded in the transcript.

Whether Bernard Lewis got the phrase “clash of civilizations” from Matthews or not, Samuel Huntington wrote the book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order in 1996, based on a theory he originally formulated in a 1992 lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, and then developed in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article titled  “The Clash of Civilizations?”, in response to Francis Fukuyama‘s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man.

You have here the idea that there was something in the region that wasn’t simply the modern nation-state coming into being, which had been suggested in Lord Cromer’s history of Modern Egypt or a book written later in 1931 by Henry Dodwell called the Founder of Modern Egypt: a Study of Muhammad ‘Ali.

4.  Regional histories of the Middle East

When did the idea of having a generalized history of the region start?   There was a book written in the 1938 by George Antonius, a Lebanese Christian, called The Arab Awakening.  This was one of many books about history that originated in Lebanese Christian circles that portrayed the “Renaissance of the Arabs” as going back to the middle of the 19th century.   It focused rather heavily on the American University of Beirut which was founded by missionaries and which many of these historians had attended or taught at.   They associated the Renaissance with the literary and intellectual book that had been carried out largely by Arab Christians.

This irritated certain Muslim Arabs, such as Abdul Talif Tibawi, who wrote A modern history of Syria, including Lebanon and Palestine in 1969.   One of his objectives in his book was to show that the Arab Christians were not the only people who created an Arab Renaissance or a new era in Arab History.   What you have, from George Antonius’ book The Arab Awakening to A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (2002), is an identification of Middle Eastern history with the Arabs.

Tomorrow I will post about Prof. Bulliet’s remarks on the concept of “modernization theory” that was prevalent in academic circles from the 1950s until the end of the 1970s, and how it was eclipsed by the rise of political Islam, in particular the Iranian revolution.