you for coming to my talk. I hope that, by the help and
cooperation of all those nice and friendly ghosts that are
roaming this room in this beautiful full-moon Halloween night,
you won‚t leave this place disappointed! Any way, happy
Halloween to all of you.
be honest with you, I would rather let you talk and express your
opinion about ethnicity, religion and politics in the Middle
East. I could interject some ideas or historical information
whenever it became necessary. But, the format of the meeting is
set and I am supposed to talk first and at least for a few long
minutes. Nevertheless, I look forward to the question time that
comes after my talk.
before I begin with what I am supposed to say, I should also
thank Mr. Manu Ghaffari whose persistence and enthusiasm made
this gathering possible. I also thank him for introducing me to
you; and, in a sheer opportunistic move, I would like you let me
use this very subject of introducing people to people as the
beginning of my talk.
fact, one of the things that we usually do not think of, or take
it for granted, or do not doubt about its validity is our own
very identity. I actually doubt if any of the members of this
audience has ever paused and asked herself or himself: „Who am
from people who pretend to be philosophizing, others who get
trapped in such a mental discourse usually end up in
institutions specially devised to keep them apart from the rest
of us Ų i.e., people who do not ask such nonsensical
consciously declare who we are and confess to our identity only
when we are asked about it. You ask me about my identity and I
tell you who I am. Without your question I do not contemplate on
such shaky subjects. We declare our identity when we face a
question about us from someone other than ourselves.
interesting thing is that, despite the certainty we have about
our identity, the answer we give out, could take many different
shapes, especially when we are supposed to give more information
than our mere name.
try some of these answers. You ask me „Who are you,š and my
answers may be any of the following items: I am Esmail. I am a
father. I am a husband. I am an Iranian by birth. I am a Muslim
due to the fact that I was born into a Muslim family. I am from
Middle East. I am from West Asia. I am a Farsi speaking person.
I am an immigrant. I am an American citizen. I am a resident of
Colorado. I am an employee of so and so corporation. I am an
inhabitant of planet Earth. I am a member of the Milky Way.
know that apart from playing in a science fiction, it is hard to
imagine that to whose question I would give the last two
answers, the rest of those answers are very common and are
diligently tuned to questions that make us create such replies.
shows that every one of us has a wide range of identity-tags
invisibly attached to us but, each time, we introduce ourselves
under a certain tag Ų a tag that is suitable to a certain
evaluate every question about our identity and answer back
according to the implied intentions of the people who asks the
questions. If I go to my child‚s school and want to take her
home and the teacher, who has not met with me before, asks:
„Hey, sir, who are you?š I should not answer that: „I am
an inhabitant of the planet Earth.š though my answer is far
from any lies, I would have put myself in a very grave trouble
if I introduce myself to my child‚s teacher in such a
science-fictional way. The proper answer would be that „I am
this child‚s father.š Any other answer would be irrelevant.
sometimes even refuse to disclose our identity or respond
positively to a question that implies some kind of danger for
us. A terrorist surely will not tell the immigration officer at
New York‚s airport that he is a terrorist. Or an American spy
in Taliban land will not disclose that he is an American spy.
Many people fabricate passports and IDs just to prove that they
are not what they really are.
in all these situations, the answer we give out is shaped and
conditioned by the question we receive.
Since the horrible
catastrophe of September 11 in New York and Washington, the
people who are Arab or Muslim or merely come from the Middle
East (not to say all dark skinned people and all those who have
a turban on their head, notably Siekhs and Hindus who neither
are Muslim nor Middle Eastern) have been trying to find an
answer for an increasingly threatening inquiry into their
other day, an American friend of mine asked me about the curious
and emphatic insistence of Iranians to show that they are not
Arabs. Some go to such extremes as to explain that all Iranians
hate Arabs. Afghans try the same. They try to show that although
the regime holding the power in their country has been a host
for Mr. Osama bin Ladan and thousands of his Arab flowers who
have gone from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, Afghans are not
Arabs and do not have anything to do with them.
weekend, everyone familiar with the history of the Middle East
and North Africa, was set for a big surprise when Colonel
Mo‚amar Qadaafi, the ruler of Libya, who for the last 35 years
or so has always been a staunch defender of what is known as
Pan-Arabism, declared that Libyans are not Arabs and should be
seen as African.
answer to my American friend was simple: „It is the way you
ask your question, or it is the circumstances in which your
question is put forward, that makes them give you that kind of
an answer. For sure, none of the above utterances are wrong.
Neither Iranians and Afghans nor North Africans are Arabs. Even
the majority of the population of an Arab country like Iraq is
non-Arab. You will also hear them telling you that őYes, we
are Muslims; but not all Muslims are pre-terrorism. Islam is a
religion of peace.‚ You are astonished to hear this kind of
answers because you have your own agenda and assumptions about
the identity of those people. You actually are imposing an
identity on them that is made by you and for your convenience.
At normal times they may not bother to explain to you that you
and your assumptions are wrong. But, at a time when a hunt for
Arab terrorists is on and allied countries‚ planes are
destroying the Arab settlements of Osama bin Ladan in
Afghanistan, every one who is not an Arab will spend time to
prove to you that he is not an Arab. If you begin Muslim
bashing, we will try to convince you that we are not that Muslim
after all. And there are ample historical facts to support our
fact, the catastrophe of September 11 has actually opened a can
of worms for my friend. And he, as a responsible American, has
become engaged in a research to get more information about these
peoples whom he thought he knew and now are showing him new ID
cards he is not familiar with.
me ponder a few minutes on the nature of our established
knowledge that shatters away in such moments of intense social
members of human race, we have been empowered by the natural
evolution, or God, the creator, (whichever you would like to
recognize as the responsible party) to use „concepts.š
Concepts are things that only exist in our mind and have not
concrete representation in the real material word. Let‚s take
an example. When I talk about a tree I am talking about a
concept. In the real world out of our minds there exists only
different individual trees and none of them are the same. Each
has its own shape, structure and ingredients. But we have a mind
that is capable of extracting the similarities common between
all individual trees and make a metal „treeš out of those
similarities. We know this mental tree as a „conceptš. In
fact, 99 percent of the time, we are dealing with concepts
rather than actual concrete entities of the real world. Language
is built on the basis of concepts and functions through their
usage. Without concepts we had no language, no culture, no civic
life and no civilization.
a later stage of the evolution of the human mind, concepts come
together to create higher abstract concepts such as what I just
mentioned: Culture, civic life and civilization. Can anyone
actually point to a culture or a civilization by her finger? Of
course, she can show us different material things with different
shapes and functions that are similar to each other in some
aspects. But the relation between those concrete things and a
culture or civilization that they belong to is merely a mental
entity. Indeed, culture and civilization are two major highly
abstracted conceptions. They are vast fields of amalgamated
facts and fictions, sensory apprehensions and imaginary
examine one of these highly abstracted concepts and see how it
relates to our present situation.
after the Soviet Union and the Communist block were dismantled
at the beginning of the 1990s and the threat of the Cold war was
removed from the life of the planet Earth and its inhabitants,
we have been dealing with new contemplations about our future
and about concepts like New World Order as well as all the
prerequisites attached to them. What is the nature of this New
World Order and who are the main players in its arena? Social
scientists, especially political scientists who usually are
involved in foreign policy making, have put forward different
scenarios. Let me give you just one example that most of you
should already be familiar with.
one scenario that has captured the attention and imagination of
many people has been designed by professor Samuel Huntington of
Harvard University who was a foreign policy advisor of Carter
administration in 1970s. He believes, and emphatically says so,
that, on the one hand, 20th century was the age of
ideology that came to its end by the demise of the Soviet block
and, on the other hand, the new world arena is becoming the
chessboard of new political entities that are called
Huntington does not go into a detailed and in-depth description
of what he calls a civilization. He rather ponders about the
main powerful existing civilizations on the planet Earth and
comes up with his famous formulation of „ The Clash of Civilizationsš in which the main skirmish
happens between the „Westš and the „rest.š
this regard, Professor Huntington comes up with a list of eight
„The Westš (comprised of the white Protestant
Christian US, Western and Central Europe, Australia and by
interference, the Jewish state of Israel) that is threaten by
the ambitions of the rest
Islamic civilization (from North-Western Africa to far
Orthodox civilization (that of Russia and other far
Catholic Latin American civilization
Sinic civilization (that of China)
West is threaten by all of these members of the „rest clubš
because it is the strongest civilization on Earth and, as far as
its foreign policy is concerned, tries to impose its values upon
other civilizations. This kind of foreign policy has brought
resentment and fury to the rest of the world. In his own words:
„What is universalism in the West is imperialism to the
if American way of life is to survive and flourish, American
should know and understand that „rest.š Unfortunately, it is
in this endeavor that grand scale concepts such as
„civilizationš give way to grand-scale prejudgments that
appear as theoretical frameworks. In other words, once you get
into a web of grand-scale theories in social sciences, you have
to come up with grand-scale suppositions and assumptions that
may not necessarily be scientifically provable. This is
inevitable. You begin to pronounce your prejudgments and
assumptions as scientific facts about grand-scale concepts,
trying to show that such concepts do really have real-world and
real-time representations. In other words, you enter into what
is known as „essentialismš in social sciences.
the realm of exact sciences, we can attribute certain qualities
and potentialities to material phenomenon. We can comfortably
say that „petroleum is flammable and has burning
properties.š Flammability is a potentiality of petroleum and
is an innate trait of its essence. But can we apply the same
lingo to social phenomenon and look for their essences and their
essential properties and potentialities? Most of the social
scientists do not believe in such premises and, therefore, the
concept of essentialism is considered as an aberration in social
sciences. In other words, if you believe that a social
phenomenon has its own unique essence and that essence manifests
itself in the workings of that social phenomenon in every
instance and over a range of time, you are an essentialist.
Huntington believes in some perpetual and unchanging traits in a
different civilization. For example, he thinks that „Islamic
civilizationš is based on „intoleranceš and cannot produce
democratic forms of governance. Therefore, with regards to the
belief of the West about the universalism of its values, Islam
becomes a challenger and a dangerous threat to the Western
civilization and its democratic way of life. Islam and Western
civilizations are incompatible.
is what many influential social scientist and policy makers of
the United States have advocated during the last 25 years or so.
During the last days of the Cold-War era, it provided the US
policy a theoretical basis for trying to inflame and inflate the
conflicts that exists amongst other civilizations to reduce the
effectiveness of their enmity towards the West.
The project of creating a green belt around the Soviet
block by encouraging religious element of the societies
neighboring that block had its roots in this mental image of the
human world. It was responsible for deposing semi-secular
regimes and empowering religious factions that are thirsty for
power in countries around the Soviet block. Islamic republics of
Iran and Pakistan, anti-Soviet fighters of Afghanistan and the
rise of Islamic fervor in Turkey are but a few outcomes of this
although the ideological anti-hero of the Cold-War era, the
Soviet block, was defeated in this way, the winners immediately
lost their value and function for the West and were left to
themselves to become a grave liability for the whole world.
Fundamentalism and terrorism are but the twin children of such
foreign policy that now have turned against their creator and
threaten its values, institutions and civic formation.
instead of studying this Draculian monster and trying to put it
back in a sealed bottle, or instead of rectifying the situation
id the Middle East that has become a breeding grounds for such
dangerous political and social traits, the advocates of the
theory of clash of civilizations are trying to show that both
fundamentalism and extremism that results in terrorism are the
natural children of what they brand as Islamic intolerance.
of us who do not like to be identified with Islam will agree
with these suppositions. Many more, who do not partake with our
Islamic heritage raise our voice and reject them.
me both these endeavors are nonsensical because they are based
on the assumption that a culture is monolithic and mono-vocal
entity. I think, the question that a social scientist should be
asking in such a heated periods of time is, inevitably, about
the validity of any essentialist theory.
Islamic civilization, whatever it is, indeed doomed to be
perpetually shaped within the cast of its intolerance and
anti-democratic nature? Isn‚t there any other kind of traits
within this civilization that may advocate tolerance,
brotherhood of men, and peaceful coexistence with the members of
other religions and cultures? And if there are a few of such
traits, why they cannot be cultivate to bloom and lay fruit?
already know that civilization is a highly abstracted concept.
The creator of this concept, well confined within and
conditioned by his own values and perspective of the world and
history, looks at different societies that he wants to put
together as the members of his grand concept of a civilization
and tries to extract the similarities between their actions and
reactions through out their history. Anything that is different
from those traits under the capture of our scientist‚s focus
should be sorted out as non-similarities.
essentialist scientist, of course, accepts the existence of what
he calls sub-cultures within each civilization. But he
intentionally ignores the fact that having a bunch of
sub-cultures necessarily mean accepting the existence of
dissimilarities that will work against our concept making work.
Our scientist puts his emphasis on the similarities and, in
doing so, becomes experimentally eclectic and theoretically
interesting thing is the fact that the people who enjoy reading
and implementing such theories are those very elements of
non-Western civilizations that are today classified under the
broad titles of fundamentalism and extremism. They are more than
happy to be acknowledged as the sole representatives of the
Islamic civilization and show how intolerant this civilization
can get. Through this mutual denial of historical facts, they,
thus, become the sole embodiment of a civilization and that
civilization becomes identified with them.
dangers of essentialism does not confine to this kind of
reaction. It goes beyond all historical facts to create a
fictional world of attractive theories for those impatient soles
that do not have time and appetite for details. It is in the
face of this danger (especially lurking in the corridors of
foreign policy making institutions) that we have to ask a lot of
necessary questions that are not necessarily very pompous and
eye-catching. They are innocent question like these:
Islam (if not any other religion) really a unified historical
and cultural entity?
do we hear about different sectarian fractions of Islam?
is the difference between Sunnism and Shi‚ism in Islam?
does an advocate of peace and love like Rumi, the poet, belong
to the Islamic culture?
, according to professor Huntington, Christianity has been able
to produce three distinctive civilizations upon the basis of its
Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox versions, why Islam, with its
so-called 72 versions and nations, is the mother of only one
is the Muslim world divided into Arab and non-Arab camps?
Who do we consider an Arab?
Muslims have fiercely fought amongst themselves through out the
history, with the war between Iraq and Iran on the one hand, and
Iraq and Kuwait on the other, still lurking in our most recent
answer such questions, one has to abandon the realm of grand
theories and focus on the actual facts recorded in the annals of
history. One has to look at the ethnic formations of those human
societies that have been bundled together under the auspice of
great world religions, not by self election but by many horrific
and brutal acts of aggression and sword.
religions, like Islam and Christianity, are fundamentally
different from so-called local and ethnic religions. They are
vast umbrellas that exceed the boundaries of ethnic groups and
nation-states through imposition of a seemingly unified cover.
But, this umbrella is only unifying in the eyes of the external
beholders, the passengers in a high-flying plane, the aliens
from another planet.
you be patient enough to penetrate into the world that exists
under this cover and mingle with variegated nations that are
classified under a unified identity, you will see that there is
nothing fixed and essential about human societies. Every society
has a major religion and several minor ones. Every cultural has
developed conflicting traits of identity through its history.
Every history is full of different actions and reactions of the
nations that live under the same umbrella but fight together
more bitterly than with any alien army.
majority of Arabs, Kurds, Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis,
Malaysians, Turks, Tajiks, Mongols and many other ethnic groups
are all Muslims. There is no about it. But Islam was created in
Arabian Peninsula under the leadership of an Arab prophet. It
soon expanded into Middle East, West Asia, Central Asia, South
East Asia and North Africa by the force of sword that preceded
the power of ideology. This conquests turned many ancient
nations into Muslim peoples without being able to remove their
national pride and heritage. Islam had to become a vast
digestive system to swallow so many different cultural traits
and values and digest them into a flourishing civilization that
lasted for four hundred years and came to its demise and
disintegration 1000 years ago, leaving behind a hotchpotch of
Muslim nations full of enmity and hatred for each-other. Yes,
once, one thousand years ago, there used to be an Islamic
civilization that gave harmony and unity to a spectrum of
ancient cultures. But that is long gone. What we now call the
Islamic world comprises of members that their common values and
perspectives are much less than those traits that put them at
In the first decade of the 20th century, the last
semi-Islamic empire, that of Ottomans of Anatolia came to an end
after several centuries of war with its Muslim neighbor, Iran.
In 1950s and 60s, the Pan-Arabism of Jamaal Abd-al-Nasser, the
president of Egypt, was an ambitious venture to create yet
another Islamic power. It died away in the Six-day war of the
late 60s. The Islamic Revolution of Iran was a new ambitious
attempt to recreate a Muslim universe. But it created the worst
wars between Arab and non-Arab Muslims. Saddam Hussein of Iraq,
by emphasizing on the Arabic nature of his cause and attempting
to defeat the heretic Iran, had his eyes on the leadership of
the Arab Muslim world. His aspiration became also evaporated in
the Golf war of early 90s in which most of the Arab Muslims
ganged against Iraq through helping the West.
me, as someone who does not believe in any innate essence for
social phenomena, there is no fixed Muslim civilization. Muslim
civilization is a patchwork of historical incidents as well as
different, and at times antagonizing, social aspirations. Many
ethnic groups and cultural entities have contributed to its
formation or formations. Islam was an Arabic creation. It was
successful to conquer the world 14 hundred years ago. It could
wipe out many ethnic languages and substitute the Arabic
language as the official language of the Islamic empire. Iraq,
Syria, Lebanon, and all of North African nations, from Morocco
to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt lost their mother tongue and
accepted Arabic as their own language. They are now considered
as Arab nations. But, apart from this unity in language, it is
only the political manipulations of their leaders that some
times bring them together under the Pan-Arabic umbrella and, in
other times, denies any assimilation amongst them. To the east
of the Middle East, Iranian nations reluctantly accepted the new
faith but tried to preserve their language and their ancient
cultural heritage too. They, and their eastern neighbors in
today‚s Afghanistan, Pakistan India and further on, did not
turn into Arab nations. The Islamic empire was dismantled by
Turkish and Mongol warlords and they also brought their own
culture and value systems into Islam making it even more
scattered and disintegrated.
American friend tells me with dismay: „Do you want to tell me
that Islam is only a name?š
I reply: „Don‚t you think that Catholicism, Orthodox Church
and Protestantism are the versions of the same faith? If you
believe so, why professor Huntington believes in the existence
of three distinct civilization based on these Christian creeds
but does not accept the existence of different Islamic
laughs in despair: „Can I offer you a drink, Esmail?š He
sure would love a glass of Vodka - on the rocks!š I reply.