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A Conversation with Nur Yalman



Nur Yalman

Professor of Anthropology, Harvard University

TFF associate

January 2, 2004 (This interview was conducted in 2001.)

In the fall of 2001, BRC president Masao Yokota met with Professor Nur Yalman to discuss the root causes of conflict in the Middle East and long-term solutions for achieving peace in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

MY: We are now six weeks past the attacks of September 11th. Do you feel the U.S. chose the best option available when it decided to bomb Afghanistan?

NY: It would have been so much easier not to start bombing. Instead, we should have brought the Islamic countries together - all of whom have condemned the attack - and had them say to the Taliban, "Okay, the time has come. Get rid of this guy, give him to us, we're going to try him." That would have been so much easier than bombing these poor benighted souls. Bombing will get people very angry. Also, we are really going into very dangerous waters because we have now destabilized Pakistan, which has destabilized India. It is also possible that a very dangerous situation may arise in Saudi Arabia, and then there will be real trouble, because Saudi Arabia has oil and money, and India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons.

MY: You have said elsewhere that no one discusses the real cause of terrorism. In your view, what is the root cause?

NY: Daisaku Ikeda [president of Soka Gakkai International] has been thinking of these matters and I think his approach has been of great use. His idea of a dialogue between civilizations, a dialogue between religions, is a crucial matter. It's obvious to me that we need to go forward in this direction. We need all our efforts concentrated on better communication, better dialogue between civilizations. In that sense, the view represented by Buddhism is very important.

On the whole, Buddhism has been a very pacific religion. It is true that there are cases where we had great trouble with Buddhism - as in Sri Lanka, for instance - but the message of Buddhism represented by the Buddha himself is one of making peace between warring tribes. This is a very good example for the future. My sense is that we need to continue this effort to bring people from different backgrounds together so that they can begin to understand each other.

As for the root cause, I do think the root of the problem has to do with racism. And the root of racism has to do with the way countries, including the United States, have regarded Muslims, in general, and Arabs, in particular, 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. And because they did not consider their interests, they thought that it would be easy to push the Palestinian people out of Palestine and give the land to the Jewish people for a national home for the Jews.

When you look at the historical background, it is quite clear that Jews and Muslims have 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 - racism against the Jews, anti-Semitism - is transferred to the Middle East. In effect, the Palestinian population is made to pay for a European problem.

How does that happen? There is anti-Semitism in Germany, in Russia, in Poland, in France, and elsewhere as well. So the Jews feel uncomfortable. Then they are attacked by the Nazi forces and so they have to find a place to escape. Where to escape to? They are given Palestine, and Israel is created for the Jews.

All of this happens without considering the needs of the local population. In fact, the local population is pushed aside. And we now, 50 years later, have the great problem of two peoples contesting the same piece of land. We need a resolution of this problem. Without a resolution of this problem, the relations between the Islamic world and the rest of the world will not settle down. This is becoming obvious to all thinking people everywhere.

MY: So you see European racism as the first issue, the fundamental root cause?

NY: Yes, that's the first issue, but then there are other issues which are related to the great anger that the local populations feel in many Islamic countries against their own governments. This is true in Egypt and it seems to be true in Saudi Arabia; there are all sorts of countries in which the local populations are unhappy with their governments. This anger takes the form of feeling dispossessed by the people who support those governments. And who is it that is supporting those governments? It's usually the Western powers and therefore the hostility gets directed to Western powers. People are well aware that the entire panoply of military power in the region has been set up for Western control.

MY: This is the source of violence, even violence toward the self.

NY: Absolutely, in their acts of desperation, they can commit suicide. We have seen many people commit suicide in Palestine. They've been referred to as terrorists, but you need to understand that these people have been driven to desperation. We are not taking this seriously enough. When we first saw all these people committing suicide and killing a few Israelis in the process, we didn't think that this was very serious. It was somehow "just a few terrorists." In fact, it was a symptom of a very profound malaise that has now come out in the form of this desperate attack on the Twin Towers in Manhattan. This is, of course, a totally tragic affair, but not surprising, given the background of what has been going on in the Middle East for years.

MY: It is interesting that you see a clear continuum between the history of trying to solve a problem and present-day violence.

NY: To return to what I was saying earlier, it all derives from the fact that people in Europe and the U.S. do not consider Muslims in the Middle East to be proper human beings with worries and emotions and rights and problems. So when we see Palestinian children throwing stones, people think that it is not so important because there are so many of them and, so, perhaps they don't care as much for their children as we do here in the U.S. But that is never true, because the mothers care for those children. Yet there is a problem of a magnitude that is beyond the proper definition of mother-child relations. It's a terribly tragic situation.

MY: If solutions in the past have led us to this point, how do we go forward from here with a better, more long-lasting solution?

NY: Well, we must solve the problems one by one. The first problem to be solved is really the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The world must come together to ensure that there is some just peace established which protects the rights of the Israelis and protects the rights of the Palestinians. This is possible. I simply do not believe that with the immense resources and the immense intellectual capacity of the Jewish people around the world, as well as that of the Arabs, that a solution to this problem cannot be found. It is a matter of people putting their heads together to try and find a solution to this problem. It is a problem essentially created by Europeans and it must be solved with their help. Once that is solved, then other pieces will fall into place.

MY: Where does Afghanistan fit in?

NY: I am extremely unhappy that the problem has migrated to the East. Afghanistan really had nothing to do with this problem and I'm not sure that they were even much aware of what was happening in the occupied territories. But with the arrival of the Arabs in Afghanistan, things have taken a very nasty turn. And the development of the Taliban regime has been an unmitigated disaster for everyone concerned. Once again, we must acknowledge that Pakistan and the United States have had a role in that. They were involved in supporting the Taliban with Saudi Arabia, of course, but in Afghanistan as well.

MY: And this spills over to other countries in the region.

NY: Yes. For example, now that the problem has shifted to the East, it has become embroiled in the Kashmir issue, which is yet another one of these murderous issues that needs to be solved, but cannot be solved between Pakistan and India alone. It will need mediation. It's possible that Japan can help in that respect as a neutral power. I think Japan might even be able to help in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But obviously all intelligent people around the world will have to put their heads together to solve these problems one by one. Otherwise, we're going to have a very difficult time, not just for ourselves but also for our children and their children.

MY: As you remember, in 1993 you kindly hosted BRC founder Daisaku Ikeda's lecture at Harvard. After that, he established the BRC to conduct an ongoing dialogue of civilizations, which he believes is the most effective way to remove the root cause of conflicts. What do you think is the best way to conduct a dialogue of civilizations?

NY: I think what you're doing at the BRC already is very good, and I think we need to do much more of it. We need to bring these problems to the attention of world leaders. We must work with the United Nations. Then we must bring intelligent people from different places together to work on these problems.

In the longer term, we need to think of better governments for spaceship Earth because we're all on the same spaceship. I have friends - astronomers at Harvard - who tell me that there aren't very many places in the universe like ours. We're all on this spaceship, and it's getting smaller with information technology. This means we will need to be better governed. And one way in which we can be better governed is to have more of a sense of understanding of the needs of other people.

MY: And dialogue provides a mechanism for understanding...

NY: Yes. In fact, the only way to do that is through these meetings and discussions and dialogues between civilizations which Dr. Ikeda has so generously been supporting. That's absolutely vital. But we need to go beyond that. We need to begin to think of the systems of education in different countries. As we all know, Soka Gakkai's original message has to do with the nature of education and the significance of education. Once more we're being made aware of how important this matter is.

MY: You are referring to education for peace.

NY: Yes, because if you teach hate in schools to large populations, as apparently is the case with these Islamic fundamentalist schools all over Asia, this could be very dangerous. We need to somehow begin to develop a dialogue with people, with the leaders of these Islamic schools, which are mainly Saudi-supported Mujahadeen schools.

MY: Does this mean that how young people are educated in the United States may have to change as well?

NY: Absolutely. I think we need to get a conversation going on the subject of education, both in the East but also in the West. Because in the West too, there is a sense of false complacency. There is too little knowledge about the nature of Asian society, there's too little knowledge about Buddhism, too little knowledge about Hinduism, too little knowledge about Confucianism, and very doubtful prejudices of long standing about Islam. These will have to be changed through education.

MY: I was impressed by a statement by Arun Gandhi right after the September 11th attacks. He said, no one is born as a terrorist. They are educated to be a terrorist. Actually, the Taliban are students of a very extreme way of teaching.

NY: "Taliban" means "student," regrettably.

MY: Transforming our global society through education will take time. What actions can we take now to change the course of the current crisis?

NY: The most important practical problem before us concerns war crimes, war crimes tribunals, and other tribunals of an international nature, which are associated with justice. It is absolutely essential that the U.S. support the International Court of Justice that was started in Rome. The United States has not wanted to join that very important initiative of the United Nations. We must attempt to bring about more respect for the international rule of law and courts of human rights.

MY: How would we go about that?

NY: My own preference would be to have a conference, a serious conference, bringing together all kinds of lawyers versed in international law and to begin to talk about regional courts of human rights. We need them regionally because a court just in New York or just in Rome or just in Strasbourg is not enough to deal with problems in Africa, South Africa, East Africa, West Africa, South Asia, Middle East, etc. We need regional courts which bring together people from the local governments in a particular region. And they might go off to higher courts, but we need to begin to think in terms of human rights and individuals from different countries being able to apply to courts of human rights. This is something very important because it is this sense of total injustice that drives people absolutely up the wall. You have that very clearly in the Middle East.

MY: And an international criminal court isn't going to take care of that? It has to be a regional court?

NY: Yes, it has to be a regional court to which people can have recourse in their own cultural setting.

MY: Has this idea been tested anywhere in the world?

NY: A beginning has been made in Southeast Asia. I gather they have a very elaborate procedure in place now for dealing with conflict resolution and also human rights. But we need to begin to think as to how we can make this into something that is worldwide. I don't know what the limitations on this would be, but we need to start thinking about it. The time has come to treat other people as human beings.

MY: When President Ikeda visited Russia and China in 1975 Buddhist priests asked, "Why do you go where there are no Buddhists?" And he said, "I go there because there are human beings." In other words, one of the important elements of human rights is treating others as human beings.

NY: Yes. When the Buddha undertook his great exploration, there were no Buddhists. He was doing it for humanity, for human beings. And that, in a sense, was also the message of Muhammad. When he began, there were tribes with their different idols. One of the critical moments of Islamic history is when Muhammad breaks the idols of different tribes to make them understand that they are all children of the same divine being, that there is no difference between them, that they're all human beings. So the message of the unity of human beings as a whole is part of the original message in Islam, as well as-of course-of Christianity.

MY: Sometimes people find it easy to say that religion is a root cause of conflict, and sometimes this seems to be the reality. But religion also has a very important role in creating peace in the world because religion unites people. In your view, what kind of religious attitude creates conflict and what kind of religion creates peace?

NY: This is a very profound question, and I'm going to try to answer it directly. Religion always has two aspects: one aspect is religious identity, so that you feel that you're a Buddhist or a Christian or a Jew or a Hindu or a Muslim or a particular category. That's the identity function of religion. The identity is tribal, primitive, barbaric. And all religions have this, whether we like it or not; they all produce an identity.

The second function of religion is moral and ethical. And because Of this aspect the great religions are able to transcend particular identities and produce a desire for moral and ethical life that rises above particular religious identities. It is this second element of religion that we need to bring out, the ethical message, and it is at that level that dialogue becomes possible.

The identity aspect is always a hindrance. It is useful sometimes for people to feel proud of their own background, but it is a hindrance when you get to the problem of negotiation and discussion about religious dialogue. It is at the ethical level over and above the identity question that real dialogue is possible. The time has come to overcome our tribalism, to understand we are human beings. And the only way to do that is to get out of the identity part of religion to concentrate on the message.

MY: What you have just said offers hope for the future.

NY: I think there is a great hope for the future because it is quite clear that at the ethical level the messages from the different religions of the world are very similar to each other, particularly the mystical elements. In this respect, the great world religions are very, very similar. Daoism, the Hinduist mystical elements, the mystical elements in Buddhism, the mystical elements in Islam, the mystical elements in Shamanism. They all come very close together in the desire for human beings to transcend themselves and to become better human beings, to improve themselves and to rise above their ordinary, every day existence.

Those desires are very important and in that sense the mystical teachings in the great world religions - and I'm not differentiating between Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism - all celebrate the individual. It is the individual's own efforts, particularly in Buddhism of course, whereby you will transcend yourself as a human being and leave something for the next generation that is better than what has been achieved before. That great ideal of bettering humanity, bettering the world, is something that we need to hope for and achieve.

MY: I agree. Do some religions have a stronger ethical side than others?

NY: It's a little easier in Buddhism and Hinduism to see the ethical sides because they are very much emphasized and the identity side is easier to suppress. Buddhism and Hinduism both have this very general humanist aspect to them.

MY: And Confucianism?

NY: And Confucianism and Daoism. And also of course mysticism in Christianity and mysticism in Judaism and the Sufi tradition, particularly the Sufi tradition in Islam. The Sufi tradition is particularly attractive because it combines this yearning for transcendence, getting out of one's self, with the idea of the love of God, but that's just a metaphor for the love of humanity. This is beautifully expressed by generations of Sufi poets, the most important of which is our friend Rumi, who was born in what is today Afghanistan.

MY: Can different religions or cultures learn from each other?

NY: Japan has a very important role to play because Japan is non-Western yet highly modern. It, therefore, can understand the problems of non-Western countries and, at the same time, lead them in the right direction toward parliamentary, egalitarian, free societies. What Japan has been able to achieve is one of the great miracles in the twentieth century. One hopes that the example of the Japanese miracle will encourage the intellectuals and elites in other countries to put in the same effort.

MY: Do you think Turkey might be a parallel to Japan in that it is a highly modern country that has made a transition?

NY: Yes. Turkey is the only one of the Islamic states that has made a successful transition to an open and vibrant society. It has a long way to go in some constitutional respects, but it is on the right track, like Japan. One wishes that Turkey could emulate Japan's great achievement in educating its population in such a brilliant way. One cannot but admire the deep sense of discipline and civic duty so evident in Japan, and so rare elsewhere. But in Turkey at least you have free elections, many parties, lots of discussion. The airwaves are full of excitement. Everybody is willing to talk, there's free discussion of religion. In that sense, Turkey is a very good companion to Japan in Asia, and looks up to Japan as a great example.

MY: Do you see lessons in Japan's experience that might apply to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?

NY: Edward Said has written a very interesting article in which he says the way forward between Israel and Palestine is that we must have an arrangement to have all the citizens of Israel and Palestine to have their individual rights respected as individuals. At the moment, it's obvious that the Palestinian rights are nothing. Israel is only thinking of the rights of their own citizens, and only some of them at that.

MY: Just as Americans only think of their own rights. Also, some Americans argue that Arab governments have been shirking their own duties by actually fanning hostility against Israel.

NY: I think there's no doubt that governments will do what they think is useful for them. And I must say I have very little respect for many of these Arab governments who do not represent their people's interests.

MY: Which we are propping up...

NY: Yes, which the U.S. is propping up. The present situation, the structuring of the present power in the modern Middle East, is the creation of the West in one way or another. Winston Churchill was personally drawing the borders on the map sitting in a restaurant in Whitehall in London at the end of World War I. All those borders were drawn by European powers, by France and Britain. The whole thing is structured by and for Western interests.

However, all that aside, each and every one of the populations in these countries feels very keenly that they have been scapegoated by Western powers and their interests are being attacked. This is true of Syria, which feels that Israel has taken over part of its land. It's true for Egypt in which the Egyptians feel that injustice is being done to the Palestinians. It's true about Jordan and its relations with the West Bank. It's true in whichever country you deal with. They all feel that they have been put upon by the Western powers, and I think they're not far wrong.

MY: Where does this analysis leave Israel?

NY: There is no doubt, given the facts of this century, that some accommodation has to be made for Israel's security. Most Arab countries, and I would venture to say, all the rest of the Islamic countries would agree to that. If we had a larger international conference, no doubt there would be an agreement to provide some safe borders for Israel and make peace. But if Israel goes on taking over Palestinian land and creating these settlements on confiscated land that does not belong to them, you get large Arab populations very angry, angry at their own governments and certainly angry at the West, which is maintaining this status quo. Israel must stop creating situations which engender greater and greater hostility in the local populations. That creates ripples that go all the way out to the furthest edges of Islamic countries and touch many others who recognize that there's something fundamentally wrong here. It is a noxious witches' brew which poisons all positive relations between peoples.

MY: It all comes back to justice, compassion, and respect for all human beings.

NY: Yes. Regardless of where you begin, that is where you end up.


(Addendum: Since this interview, the Saudi plan, adopted at the Beirut summit of Arab States, and supported by the US, has turned out to be entirely in accord with the above observations.)


© TFF & the author 2004  



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