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.




One Response

  1. […] just linked my friend Jerome’s blog entry on radical vs. moderate Islam […]

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