M. Marxsen of the
Research Center for the 21st Century
Professor of Social Anthropology and
of Middle Eastern Studies,
October 19, 2002
Nur Yalman is Professor of Social Anthropology and of
Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. He has
published numerous books and articles, from his first
entitled Under the Bo Tree: Studies of Caste, Kinship,
and Marriage in the Interior of Ceylon (University of
California Press, 1967) to recent essays on the role of
science in international conflicts and the relationship
between terror and cultural diversity. Since September
11, 2001, Professor Yalman has been a compassionate
critic of the U.S. military response to global terrorism.
In the Fall of 2001, his course entitled Thought and
Change in the Contemporary Middle East was overwhelmingly
popular among students. Patti Marxsen, BRC publications
manager, spoke with Professor Yalman as the first
anniversary of September 11th approached.
PM: I'd like to start by just asking you about your
own journey. Could share with us some of the experiences
and motivations that brought you to your interest in
cultures, religions, identity, and the condition of
NY: I was brought up in Istanbul, Turkey, which is a
very cosmopolitan and very complicated place in the
middle of many cultures and continents: Europe, Asia,
Africa. I had a German governess and before that I had an
Austrian governess, both of whom taught me German. My
mother and father also spoke French. And at school I had
English. That combination, with Turkish of course, opened
up to an interest in other cultures and how they relate
to each other. I think the experience of really being
involved in other languages early on opens you up to an
interest in other cultures.
PM: When did you first get a chance to do the field
work of anthropology?
Cambridge University gave me a good background and,
later, I worked on my Ph.D. in Sri Lanka. I spent
numerous years in Sri Lanka in very out of the way
places. And that was wonderful because it really opened
my eyes to the riches of Asian cultures and
civilizations. I went back to Cambridge where I was
elected as a fellow of one of their old colleges,
Peterhouse. Then I went back to Turkey and, meanwhile, I
had an invitation from a research center in California. I
was still very young and the idea of California was
PM: Has this study of anthropology turned out to be
what you thought it would when you were first embarking
NY: I had not realized how very exciting it was going
to turn out to be. It has indeed turned out to be the
most interesting and the most fascinating study, because
you really deal with the immense variety of human
experience and human behavior, human thoughts, and human
imagination. I really can't think of many other fields
which really open you up in the same way.
PM: Your field, social anthropology, is all about how
humans interact with one another, how we structure our
societies, and work out our differences. As Americans
reflect on our post-9/11 stance in the world&emdash;
which has been militaristic and often mistrustful of
foreign cultures&emdash;I'd like to know if it's valid to
suggest that the policies in democratic states typically
mirror the values of the culture?
NY: Yes and no. The degree to which the best American
values are expressed in the American government would be
a controversial question because democracies have very
positive aspects&emdash; the openness, the desire for
equality, the hospitality, the openness to
immigrants&emdash; but they also have some negative
aspects. That is to say they lend themselves to mass
manipulation. Also, there is a violent edge to American
society and, regrettably, some of the American reactions
to terrorism have tended to go in an extremely violent
PM: What is the source of this tendency toward
NY: The metaphor of 'control' is an aspect of American
society. We see this when it comes to controlling crime,
especially in black neighborhoods which are vigorously
policed and controlled. There are other ways of handling
social problems. We could give much more attention to
education, to improving the lives of the poor, to
improving the lives of the racially disadvantaged people
in a much more serious way.
PM: How does this controlling instinct play out in the
NY: The metaphor of controlling other people through
police action is something that the U.S. has been willing
to do in many parts of the world. And it is a method that
doesn't work terribly well when you don't understand what
is going on in these other places. That's my criticism of
the kind of violent reaction we have had to either the
Taliban regime or to the Palestinian matter.
PM: What could we have done differently in response to
the Taliban regime?
NY: I would have preferred to have much more
international involvement, particularly involving the
Islamic societies, to put pressure on this nasty regime.
We could have used the more liberal Islamic
countries&emdash;all of which indicated that they were
very unhappy with what was going on&emdash;to put
pressure on these people. I think we would have had a
much less violent result and I think we might have
achieved the same thing in the end. We might even have
achieved a somewhat more stable Afghanistan. At the
moment, Afghanistan looks very unstable and the
instability has affected Pakistan, Kashmir and India, all
of which are nuclear powers.
PM: It sounds like you're saying that our 'violent
edge' draws other peoples and regions into our way of
resolving conflicts. Is this how the 'metaphor of
NY: Yes. The violent reaction has had widening effects
both in the region of India and Pakistan, which is very
dangerous, and also in the Israel-Palestine affair. Since
September 11th, we have witnessed the Israelis using the
same excuse as the United States to declare "war on
PM: Has this period since 9/11 taught Americans
anything about how we operate as a society?
NY: There is the blind following of the desire to get
revenge, to get even with these nasty fellows. At the
same time, I think we're beginning to see slowly quite a
lot of thoughtful material coming out in some
publications, such as the New York Review of Books, the
New York Times, and the Washington Post.
PM: What do you think accounts for that shift toward a
more thoughtful approach?
NY: This has been a very profound trauma for America.
In a real sense, this cocoon in which we were living in
here in America, this beautiful sense of security, this
isolation from the rest of the world&emdash;isolation by
two great oceans and by a very friendly north and a
somewhat less friendly south&emdash;has allowed Americans
to feel that they are in a charmed continent. It's not
too surprising that it has taken time for Americans to
assimilate the threat of terrorism. I don't think other
societies have had that kind of shock out of a period in
which they felt as secure.
PM: Were you as shocked as the rest of us?
NY: For those of us who had been watching the terrible
things that were taking place in the Middle East, it came
as no surprise whatsoever. I was growing fearful of where
we might be heading with the kind of tensions that were
rising in the Middle East. I thought the most desperate
reactions might be expected, even nuclear reactions could
PM: So it could have been worse?
NY: It could have been much worse. And it is possible
that it might be worse yet, unless the root cause of this
PM: What is the root cause?
NY: I do think the root of the problem has to do with
racism. And the root of racism has to do with the way so
many countries, including the United States, have
regarded Muslims and Arabs in the past. That is to say,
they have always considered these people to be
second-rate persons. From World War I onwards, once
Britain and France took over the Arab countries and
dominated them, they did not really consider their
interests. When you look at the historical background, it
is quite clear that Jews and Muslims existed for
centuries in great peace together all over the Middle
East. The Jews have contributed immensely to the
civilization of Islam: they contributed to music, to the
arts, to literature. Everything gets turned around after
World War II, for it is then that the European problem of
racism&emdash;racism against the Jews,
anti-Semitism&emdash;is transferred to the Middle
PM: How do we reconcile the rich history of Islamic
culture with the violent acts that have now become
associated with Islamic societies?
NY: The kind of terror and militancy we are seeing in
Islam today has to do with something very particular, a
particular problem in the Middle East that has been
festering for almost all of the last century&emdash;that
is to say the problem of Palestine.
PM: Knowing and understanding all the pieces of the
situation as well as you do, if you could have given
Ariel Sharon advice earlier this year, what would you
have said to him?
NY: I would have said make peace, not war. I would
have said give up those settlements and make an
arrangement with these people.
PM: A two-state solution?
NY: A two-state solution.
PM: Why not Edward Said's recommendation of a
NY: I think we must maintain hope that we can have
complex states, rather like the direction in which the
European Union is going, in which human rights are
respected.. This can happen when very different people
from divergent cultures come together around certain high
ideals, as in the United States where we have the high
ideals of the Constitution.
PM: But isn't that the idea behind a one-state
solution? Is it possible that the Israelis and the
Palestinians might live under a Constitution that extends
rights to Jews and Muslims?
NY: It's not possible for the time being because their
cultures, as yet, are too different. Most of the Israelis
are very much attuned to a kind of European culture. Most
of the Palestinians are not. It will take time for them
to come to terms with each other.
PM: Do you believe these two societies will be able to
find common ground?
Right now, of course, all bets are off. Everything is
so shaken up that one wonders what sort of society can
exist there. But the future for the Israelis must involve
coming to terms with the fact that they live in a Middle
Eastern environment and they will have to make friends
with the people around them. They can't keep relating to
their neighbors as enemies, because that will make them
very uncomfortable for the future. They must make some
adjustments, and maybe even some sacrifices. The most
important sacrifice they must make, in my opinion, is
that they should get out of those settlements, which they
have no right to anyway.
PM: What can the United States do to help get us to an
era of peace and stability in this region?
NY: The United States is in a very difficult position
because there is a very powerful internal dynamic which
does not recognize the significance and importance of the
Palestinian cause and is very much geared to supporting
the most extreme kinds of Israeli actions.
PM: It's troubling for many Americans to be in a
position of endorsing this kind of disconnect, this
racism, with our Middle East policy. Do you imagine that
our policies might change?
NY: It looks very difficult for the policies to change
and this is the reason why the matter appears to terribly
intractable. The United States that is the only power
with the keys to a solution, and yet the keys are in the
pocket of the President and he will not, or is not able,
to bring them out.
PM: Couldn't the Islamic countries still get together,
as you have suggested elsewhere, and craft a solution to
the Israli-Palestinian conflict or act independently to
bring Osama bin Laden to justice?
NY: Of course they could. But because the United
States has taken the initiative and is, in fact, involved
in very elaborate military action, there is really no
space there for the Islamic countries to get in on in
this activity. It would have to be organized with the
PM: America has supported the Israeli government to
such a huge extent that we are clearly in the thick of
it. But why do Islamic leaders still need our keys, so to
speak, to unlock a solution to the bin Laden matter in
particular and to the threat of global terrorism in
NY: As long as the United States supports Israel so
strongly, a position which makes life impossible for the
Palestinians, it is very difficult for the Palestinians
and their circle of supporters&emdash;first of all the
Arab states&emdash;to take a position in which they
criticize those who are supporting their cause. Bin Laden
is, effectively, supporting the cause of the
Palestinians, the Arabs, against the colonial powers.
This becomes a very compelling argument.
PM: So you're saying that the Palestinian cause
remains central to all of the Arab states.
NY: That has not changed and it is not going to
change. And worse, I think the Palestinian cause is
bringing about something that is totally unexpected which
is a kind of national consciousness among Arabs. The
Arabs have been, so far, totally divided; they have been
totally diverse in their governments, attitudes,
relations with the West, and with each other. But this
cause is bringing the people together. In time, we are
going to see much more of a national consciousness emerge
among the Arabs, which is going to be much more difficult
to handle all around, for Israel especially, but also for
the United States.
PM: Do you see a contradiction in America's
declaration of war on terrorism and our support for what
the Palestinians experience as terrorism on a day-to-day
NY: That is exactly what the Palestinians think. But
of course, it is ironic that the Israelis think the same
thing in a parallel way and regard Palestinians as
PM: So what is terrorism? If we're all terrorists,
what does it mean?
NY: The United Nations spent a lot of time trying to
figure out what terrorism is and they didn't reach any
conclusion. Then there was a meeting of the Islamic
countries and they tried to come to an agreement, and
they didn't come up with anything. It cannot be easily
PM: I read an article recently not long ago by a
Women's Studies professor, Catherine McKinnon, who was
proposing that domestic violence be understood as a form
NY: I would entirely agree with that. Domestic terror
is the worst kind of terror because it's very intimate
terror. One of the things one sees as an anthropologist
is the terrible treatment of women in culture after
culture after culture. That really must change through
PM: You've said elsewhere that we need to be better
governed on 'spaceship Earth.' What would better
governments look like? Could you make a few
NY: Well, I am very much in the mind of the principles
of the French Revolution.
PM: Let's not forget, they were terrorists too.
NY: Well, yes, Robespierre said that terror was a form
of virtue, to his eternal misfortune. But a good society,
a well-governed society, is one in which people feel they
have equal chances to find fulfillment and where there is
a sense of justice. How do we achieve that in the world?
I believe that this idea of human rights&emdash;the
rights of individuals &emdash;must be respected
throughout the world. And I must add that this is a
highly idealistic, highly impractical position.
PM: How might your idealism become reality?
NY: The way to begin is by supporting institutions
like the International Criminal Court. We also need to
think about human rights in regional terms, because there
are sufficient cultural differences between regions and
their concepts of human beings and their concepts of what
is proper and what is acceptable and so on. We need to
encourage the United Nations to begin to develop regional
courts of human rights.
PM: How would this work?
NY: For instance, the European Union has now a Court
of Human Rights. Citizens of different countries can
appeal to it. It passes judgements and it exacts
punishments which are payments from governments involved.
I know this because Turkish citizens have been applying
to the European Court of Human Rights and they have been
getting justice. They are getting the Turkish government
to pay them for the miseries that have been visited upon
Step by step, we'll get to a larger concept of a
supreme court of human rights within the context of the
United Nations. I think it would be extremely short sited
of the U.S. to think that its tremendous military power
is good enough, that we don't need the international
institutions. Now we need the international institutions
more than ever.
PM: And yet, we, along with Somalia, are the only two
nations who have refused sign on to the ICC. It's an
NY: I agree. It has been an embarrassment for my
colleagues at Harvard Law School here. They have all been
throwing up their arms. And as I travel throughout the
world, I am asked about this. People are absolutely
PM: If you could gather 100 leaders in a room together
and initiate a dialogue, what would you ask them to talk
NY: Human rights, the rights of each individual human
being. Andre Gide said once that the individual was the
most irreplaceable of beings. A moment's thought
indicates how true this is. Individuals are
irreplaceable. Therefore, their rights are absolutely
vital and extremely precious.
PM: Can one envision peace without human rights being
PM: So we have to start there
NY: I think so, yes. And I think the United States is
in a particularly good position in this respect because
notwithstanding all that we have heard about how much
people hate us, in fact the U.S. with its wonderful
Constitution, with its wonderful record of welcoming
people to this country and giving them the opportunity to
flourish in this country, has been a beacon of liberty
and hope for peace for the rest of the world. It pains me
to see that that immense source of good will is being
TFF & the author 2002
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