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Image credits: HAMID ALGAR

A Conversation with Hamid Algar

by Russell Schoch for Campus Watch published in June 2003 --

Shortly after September 11, 2001, professor of Persian and Islamic Studies Hamid Algar hailed a cab in downtown Berkeley. The cab driver was an Indian Sikh, wearing a turban. When Algar got into the cab, the driver said: "Sir, don't worry, I'm not a Muslim." Algar responded: "Don't worry. I am a Muslim." Both men laughed, but with the realization that the climate had changed for Muslims in the United States.

"I don't look like the average person's idea of a Muslim," says Algar, who was born in England in 1940. (He declines to discuss his conversion to Islam, which he considers a private matter.) As a youth, he had a strong interest and facility for languages, mastering French and German in high school, and spending a year at the University of Freiburg in Germany before college.

After earning his B.A. with first-class honors in Oriental Languages (Arabic and Persian) at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was offered a scholarship to Tehran University in Iran, where he planned to work for his Ph.D. But the year he went, 1961-2, was one of great tumult in Iran, specifically at Tehran University, where he had "the memorable experience of witnessing an attack on the university campus by the Shah's paratroopers." He left the university and instead spent a year traveling around the country. "I can honestly claim there's no significant region of Iran that I didn't visit," he says.

Algar returned to Cambridge for his Ph.D., writing his dissertation on the political role of Shi'a religious scholars in the 19th century. "The reason for that choice of topic was the beginning of the movement launched by Imam Khomeini in 1963," he says. Algar met with Khomeini in exile in Paris and on brief occasions in Iran after the revolution there in 1979. He translated selected writings and speeches of the Imam (Islam and Revolution) and also gave his own account, The Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. He considers that revolution "the most significant, hopeful, and profound event in the entirety of contemporary Islamic history."

A faculty member at Berkeley since 1965, Algar teaches courses on Persian literature, on the history of Islam, and on Shi'ism and Sufism, and has produced scholarly books and articles on all these subjects. Former Algar student and current Berkeley colleague Hatem Bazian, Ph.D. '02, says that there are only a handful of scholars in the world with Hamid Algar's level of knowledge in a number of fields of Islamic studies, plus his mastery of Middle Eastern languages (Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, both modern and Ottoman) and his knowledge of half a dozen European languages. Among his scholarly achievements, Algar is the author of more than 100 articles in the Encyclopaedia Iranica.

Algar says that he began his career at Berkeley with a focus on Iran and early modern Iranian history, but has branched out in a number of other directions, both historically and geographically. He has also traveled extensively throughout the Muslim world. "What I've come to appreciate," he says, "is the great diversity of Islamic culture and the various expressions of Islamic religion."

The contemporary Middle East is not his primary field of study, he points out. But Algar's reputation as a scholar of Islam, and his lively interest in present-day politics--including his close knowledge of the Iranian revolution and his public denunciation of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in the mid-1990s--led us to ask him for a Muslim perspective on current events. He was interviewed in his Barrows Hall office following the end of the military campaign in Iraq.

Is there a "clash of civilizations" going on today?

No. That's one of those meaningless slogans which people hold seminars and write books about, which presumes an inherent and irreducible antagonism. But what may be underway is the launching of World War IV, as it's been called, most recently by James Woolsey [former director of the CIA].

Woolsey said that the Cold War was the third World War, and that the fourth is to defeat "terrorists" and to bring democracy to the Middle East. He doesn't target Islam.

He doesn't say Islam because we're told this isn't a war against Islam. But "World War IV" clearly focuses on Middle Eastern Muslim states. Woolsey mentioned Syria and Iran and went on to talk about the Saudis and the Egyptian regime. But if he thinks that the removal of the Saudi regime would result in anything other than a recrudescence of hard-line, undiluted Wahhabism, he's living in a world of fantasy. Likewise, if the regime of Mubarak falls in Egypt, the strongest popular force again is one that espouses some kind of relationship between Islam and politics.

One would find a virtual consensus on the subject throughout North Africa and the Middle East, with the possible exception of Turkey, that the state should in some sense be Islamic. Which doesn't mean an imitation of the Iranian constitution, which is in my view in some ways unwieldy and needing adaptation. It doesn't mean that the penal provisions of the Shari'a need immediate implementation. But it does mean that a total separation between the religious and the political is incompatible with Islamic culture and history and understanding.

Has Turkey been successful as a secular state?

They've had more than 80 years to work things out in Turkey, and obviously the matter has not yet been settled. One of the excuses advanced by the army for its occasional forays into politics there is to preserve secularism. Which must mean that the democratic process in itself is inadequate to preserve secularism.

Just as an "Islamic state" remains an abstraction without further definition and analysis, so does "secularism." Does it mean something on American lines? Or on French lines, where, for example, students in public schools are forbidden or discouraged from wearing signs of religious identity, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or Jewish? Or does it mean something like what we have in Turkey now, where, for example, it is not possible for a woman observing the hejab [the covering of the head] to teach or study in the university? If secularism is to be understood in that sense, what we have is not in fact a separation between church and state; it is, on the contrary, an intervention on the part of the state in the religious life of the individual.

In the United States, the belief is that the church and state should be kept separate.

Separation of church and state makes perfect sense in light of American history, in light of the American Constitution; but other countries have different histories, they have different cultures, they have different sets of beliefs. If one genuinely believes in pluralism, then one should accept a plurality of cultures and of the political systems that emerge from them.

Let me add that one cannot discern in Islamic history or in the Muslim present any uniform, universally binding, and valid form of Islamic government. To suggest that this is so is unrealistic; it does not do justice either to the complexity of the present situation, or to the complexity and variety that we find in Muslim history.

So if one says "Islamic state" or "Islamic government," it should not be thought that there is one model that is universally applicable. Precisely the course I've been teaching this semester, on the history of Islamic political thought, shows that throughout the history of Islam there's been a kind of continuing negotiation between principles taken from the Qur'an and other authoritative sources, and the actual reality of Muslim societies and countries.

When an American religious leader like Franklin Graham calls Islam "a very evil and wicked religion," or a neoconservative like Norman Podhoretz writes that "there is something in the religion [of Islam] itself that legitimates the likes of Osama bin Laden," how do you respond?

I don't. I think for anyone to deserve a response he has to have a minimum amount of correct knowledge, a minimum amount of decency, and a minimum amount of intelligence. And I would say that both Graham and Podhoretz, based on what you just read to me, are lacking in all three. Therefore, they're not worthy of an answer.

But people do hear what they say and read what they write.

I know. This kind of nonsense has been spewed forth ever since the Middle Ages, this kind of Islamophobic rhetoric. It's persisted as a kind of subterranean rivulet of hatred in the West.

What one ought to take objection to, more clearly, is the link between somebody like Franklin Graham and the U.S. government. On the one hand, we have Bush proclaiming that Islam is a religion of peace, and on the other hand we have Graham going to a Good Friday service at the Defense Department, calling down God's blessings on the U.S. adventure in Iraq while refusing in any way to dissociate himself from the remarks you quoted. This creates the appearance of tolerance, if not acceptance, of his views by a significant element in the United States government.

Let us suppose the impossible, that some Muslim preacher were invited who rained down hostile epithets on other religions. People would be justifiably outraged. But Islam is becoming increasingly fair game.

It's been said that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Islam has replaced Communism as the principal opponent of American democracy.

There always has to be a focus for hostility, to keep the juices pumped and the military machine well supplied. Now, somewhat improbably, Islam--or Muslims and Muslim countries--are fulfilling that role of a global, long-term threat.

Although it's "militant Islam," not Islam in general, which is said to be the threat.

Well, "militant" Islam because it's not politically correct to say you're against a religion as such. Therefore, an adjective has to be supplied: militant Islam, extremist Islam, Islamic terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, political Islam.

I would say that the Muslim world, or specifically the Muslim Middle East, has been chosen not because it is strong, a menace, or a threat; but, on the contrary, because it is an extremely weak and impotent adversary.

But September 11th, terrorism, and Arab Muslims have been grouped together as a threat to the West.

This is one of the gross disservices that Osama bin Laden has done, precisely to Muslims, by giving a veneer of apparent credibility to a pre-existing agenda for domination of the region.


Sure. Almost ten years ago, Israel called for a complete break with the past, including the replacement of the Iraqi regime, among others. People like Douglas Feith, and Richard Perle, who have been advisors to the Israeli government, and Paul Wolfowitz--all of these people are on record as espousing, long before September 11, precisely the kind of policies that are now being implemented.

Another example of the unfortunate, to put it mildly, association between Islamophobes and the government is Daniel Pipes, who started the infamous "Campus Watch," which "monitors" Middle East scholars on U.S. campuses.

Are you on the list?

I only recently made it.

Why only recently?

I don't know--inadequate research on his part? Maybe he needs to beef up his staff a bit!

What is his purpose?

Pipes has made a career for himself by denouncing what he regards as the dominance of Middle Eastern Studies departments at universities in the United States by either Muslims or people who for whatever reason are pro-Muslim, pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian, or anti-Israel.

From your decades of teaching in a Middle Eastern Studies department, how accurate is the charge?

It's highly inaccurate. For a long time, pro-Palestinian voices were a small and beleaguered minority. It is true that things have changed somewhat in recent decades. But to characterize the whole field as somehow conspiratorially dominated by such voices at present is a gross distortion.

What Pipes is basing himself on is the assumption that Middle Eastern Studies departments should have as their primary purpose the furnishing of accurate information that will be useful in the formulation and execution of American foreign policy. In other words, the academic, scholarly purposes of Middle Eastern studies, as such, are invalid. And on that basis he criticizes, very broadly, a whole variety of people.

This too represents a change, a rise, in the undercurrent of Islamophobia. The fact that it can now be expressed in semi-respectable circles is due to a large number of relatively recent factors.

Such as?

The rise of a certain type of Christian fundamentalism, in tandem with the neoconservatives and Zionists, and then the gift--I use the term sarcastically--of Osama bin Laden.

Let's talk about the war in Iraq.

One can evaluate the war in Iraq from a variety of points of view; and obviously it's had different types of results, some of which can be positively evaluated, others negatively.

What are the positive results?

Well, the destruction of Saddam's abominable regime. Whether the U.S. had the right to undertake the task, whether it could have been done in a different way, at a lower cost in human life, are separate questions. But the important thing is that now the Iraqi people should be free to choose, not simply from a range of personalities or ideologies or systems recommended by the United States, but what they actually want.

If democracy is to mean anything, it must mean respect for the majority and its wishes. And if, which seems increasingly likely, the majority wish in Iraq turns out to be some form of Islamic government, that is really no concern of anyone outside the country.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that an Islamic state is not an option for Iraq.

Yes. Which shows that the true agenda is not to bring democracy to Iraq.

What would you say the agenda is?

Extending and reinforcing American hegemony in the Middle East, in close coordination with Israel. That's pretty clear, I think. The aim is not simply the elimination of a government--whose hostility to Israel didn't amount to much more than rhetoric and a couple of missiles lobbed at Tel Aviv during the first Gulf War--but beyond that the installation of a government that will endorse the so-called peace process. So, gradually, to dismantle any form of resistance to Israel as it is presently constituted, that is, as an occupying power, on the part of any state in the region.

And that's one reason why Iran has been mentioned as a possible next target?


I assume that, in your view, an Islamic state in Iraq, like the one in Iran, would not be a bad thing.

Since I'm neither Iraqi nor Iranian, and I don't live in either country, my point of view is really not of importance. I think what we can all agree upon is that people in those states, in fact in any state or country in the world, should be at liberty freely to determine their form of government. And if an Islamic state is chosen by the Iraqi people, then so be it.

Jay Garner [former overseer in Iraq] was quoted in the New York Times as saying that an Islamic republic is incompatible with democracy. Well, what if a democratic majority in Iraq wants an Islamic republic?

I think that Americans would very rightly object if, in some future world where American power has shrunk, a foreign state came and said: Well, we don't like this or that aspect of your government; or the whole system has to go; or what you can choose from is the following range, but nothing outside of that. Obviously, that would be rejected as outrageous. It's simply an expression of the gross imbalance of power between the United States and the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East, that this kind of discussion arises in the first place and is not found questionable: that you can have this kind of government, but not that.

I think a more appropriate question, given what is currently under way, would be whether American imperialism and democracy are compatible.

Twenty years ago, Iran was the focus of U.S. concern, not Iraq. Why the change?

In every generation, one person or state is seen to be the source of trouble, and everything must therefore be linked to that person or state. It used to be Abdul Nasser, in the heyday of Arab nationalism; anything that happened that upset the West could ultimately be traced to Nasser.

Then, after the revolution in Iran, it became Iran, Imam Khomeini, and more generally Shi'ism. Then, for a while, as a focus and gathering point of troublesome people, there arose Sunni fundamentalism and Wahhabism. Attempts are constantly made to interconnect everyone. It does make life easier because then you don't have to analyze differences or overlapping divergences. You can just say: "It's that big mass of troublesome Muslims out there."

But there has been a connection between Islam and violence. Wasn't Islam spread by the sword?

The early Islamic expansion obviously was a military expansion. But that did not result in the forced conversion to Islam of the populations that came under Islamic rule. In Syria, for example, a Christian majority persisted for at least two, possibly three, centuries after the Muslim conquest. The largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, is a country where no Muslim armies from the Middle East ever went.

I think that if one compares the history of most branches of Christianity and the way in which they were established, the comparison is in favor of the Muslim record. And, if one wants to bring matters down to the present, it has not been even ten years since the genocide in Bosnia was brought to an end. And this genocide of the Muslim population was brought about, it has to be said, with the explicit blessing of the Serb Orthodox Church. Having been to Bosnia and seen soccer fields turned into cemeteries, and having talked to some of the survivors of the massacre at Srebrenica, I find it very hard to listen with equanimity to accusations that Muslims are the major purveyors of arbitrary violence in this age. It's absolutely incredible to say so.

What about suicide bombers?

That term, an invention of the West, does not represent the perspective of those who engage in such action and is not very helpful. It seems to me that such actions are closer to the case of a soldier who, in battle against overwhelming odds and in the certain knowledge that he will not emerge alive from the encounter, rushes upon the enemy.

What if the enemy is composed of innocent women and children?

I think the following has to be taken into consideration: that these so-called suicide bombings did not start until a considerable time after the beginning of the Intifada, when a large number of Palestinian children had been killed by Israeli forces, for nothing other than throwing a stone, or in some cases not even that. It was only after such casualties had begun to mount that this tactic was used.

In addition, there is the simple fact that the Palestinian people are now facing, effectively alone and with great courage, one of the best equipped and most ruthless military forces in the world. And while no one can take pleasure in the sight, as you say, of women and children being killed, it seems to me that a greater degree of moral condemnation should be reserved for those who continue, daily, with impunity, to kill and to humiliate the Palestinian people. In other words, there is definitely a cause-and-effect relationship here, and to criticize or condemn an effect while overlooking the cause is not very helpful.

What can be done?

The very least that is owed to the Palestinian people is that they should have a life of security, independence, and dignity on a very small portion of their ancestral territory. The West Bank and Gaza constitute less than 20 percent of historic Palestine. In addition, the right of return for Palestinian refugees is indispensable.

More broadly, as far as the Islamic world in the Middle East is concerned, the real problem is that there has been too much outside interference. I'm not one of those who says that all of the ills of the Muslim world are exclusively the result of imperialism and Zionism. No. On the other hand, if this ugly combination of confrontation and condescension that one sees from the West were to be removed from the equation, then I think that, after a period of trial and error, finally, the Muslim nations would be able to get their affairs in order. But this constant intrusion, which in its extreme form takes on the aspect of military aggression, is not helpful; it cannot in the very nature of things produce a stable result.

A final question: As a Muslim, do you find life more difficult these days?

Personally, not much at all, apart from a general sense of being beleaguered. Berkeley, both the campus and the city are different from much of the rest of the country, thank God.

To disapprove of American policy in the Middle East is one thing; to have the pleasure of living here is another. After all, there are a vast number of intelligent and decent people in this country who themselves advance many of the same criticisms I have outlined.

Source: California Monthly - Campus Watch.

Written by The Levant