A Conversation with Mohammad Ja'far Mahallati
Also read his addendum below about the Oberlin Friendship Initiative
Berlet: You come from a family of Islamic clerics and scholars that traces back over 300 years. You are the Presidential Scholar of Islam at Oberlin University, and study the cultures and traditions of Mediterranean and Near East civilizations, especially that of Iran which you represented at the United Nations as Ambassador. Yet you live in a country where major media figures, politicians, and even well-known professors say outlandish, inaccurate, and biased things about the role of Muslims in societies around the world. Surely you must find this at least tiresome?
Mahalatti: I come from a background that gives me a bit of knowledge about the cultures on both sides of the globe. It makes me feel sad to see the sheer misunderstandings or lack of accurate information that is behind much of the controversies and clashes we see from time to time. A good part of it is based on some other factors that are not the real factors behind these confrontations. When religion or history or certain cultures are the object of severe criticism, of course it will add to these misunderstanding.
There are two points here. One is that when we speak of Western or Eastern or Islamic Civilizations without much background understanding or knowledge, it creates more problems.
The second problem is that when we only talk about a clash of civilizations we are avoiding real questions and covering up real factors that we don’t want to talk about. A lot of people like myself who have faced these problems on this side of the globe have had the same experiences on the other side of the globe. So these are mutual misunderstanding. We need to see beyond the usual misunderstanding on both sides and get deeper into the issues.
Let me go deeper into this. All the misgivings and misunderstandings about Islamic culture for example--so much of it comes from sheer ignorance about the past. What exactly do you mean by “Western civilization”? Why do you think there is an inherent deep clash between Western culture and Eastern Culture or Islamic culture? In reality, Jewish culture, Christian culture, and Islamic culture have been like sisters from the same family—living in the same family and the same space, having grown up together.
For example, a good part of Jewish theology is produced in places where there were a majority of Muslims. So a part of Jewish theology is a reflection of Islamic civilizations; just as Islamic theology is impressed by Biblical sources that existed prior to Islam—so Jewish, Christian, and Islamic culture and theology are much intertwined across the course of history. When somebody derides Muslim cultures it is as if that person is cursing their mother or father.
So there is no inherent clash within this family—no inherent clash between Islamic and Western civilization. I don’t know if you can even talk about this in separate terms. When you study about the history of civilization on both sides of the globe you come to the conclusion that you can talk about only one civilization: Judeo-Christian Islamic civilization. It is one civilization with different branches. They are not different civilizations in a clash. These are branches from the same stem, the same trunk, and the trunk is so big and so solid that it cannot be ignored.
With just a little bit of knowledge you can see the essence and say “wow” these all come from the same ideas, the same dream, the same goals, the same religious concepts. When we teach about religions as scholars we talk about the monotheistic religions. It is monotheism that is the trunk. It is the central theme for all the branches of the Abrahamic faith. The rest of the differences are rather ancillary questions around it; and commentaries around that central theme. So I deny there is an inherent clash of civilizations. Some scholars have called it a clash of ignorance.
And the same kind of ignorance you can observe on the other side when some Muslim activists talk about Western civilization. They mix the concept of civilization with the concept of colonialism and the history of the colonial era which is relatively new in terms of history. So you come to the conclusion that when someone can only talk about the clash of civilizations they really do not know what they are speaking about.
Berlet: If you are talking to students who disagree about the Middle East, what advice would you give them to help them find other ways to disagree than a confrontation.
Mahalatti: Just today I was reminded of this when one of the students raised a question. They asked “what is your perspective and view of a Palestinian state?”
Well, of course this question is highly controversial in class and I know that there are students on both sides of this issue. So I began by addressing the question from a different angle. I referred to the question of nationalism and how Europeans after fighting two major world wars with millions of casualties came to the understanding that perhaps this nationalism is not a very good idea. So they ended up in a European Union.
And now we are talking about creating new nationalisms and new states. How about thinking about it from a different angle? What about thinking of the opportunity cost both for Palestinians and Israelis--what has been the opportunity cost for both in the last 50 years of encounter and conflict? What have been the achievements by fighting over issues like nationalism in the name of religion, in the name of ethnicity, or whatever? I say to both sides that everybody has been on the losing side…that nobody has won because we have had a wrong approach.
I was suggesting to them that if I want to invite a major figure to speak on campus, why speak about this very controversial issue? [What about not] asking somebody to come to talk about the history of Palestine or the history of Israel; or whether according to biblical sources the land belongs to one group or another? I would invite an economist, and I would ask about the cost in terms of the huge loss in human resources or of natural resources.
What has been the opportunity cost in that part of the world on both sides? Why are we not talking about it from that angle?
Then I said to the students that the next village to Oberlin is Illyria. These are small towns. I said, “You know I think we should go and fight with Illyria. What do you think of that?” And everybody laughed. So then I said, “let’s go [on behalf of] the state of Ohio and declare war on Pennsylvania.” And again everybody laughed. So I said, “you know you are all laughing. But what you are laughing at is the same thing that is going on somewhere else where people are fighting over ridiculous issues--exactly as ridiculous.”
So compare the situations and see if what we have been fighting for is an illusion or for a universal truth. History is the past, the past has passed. So then I asked this question: To whom does the American land belong? To the Indians or to us all since so many of us come from many other countries and live here now?
So if history counts what should we do? What does the quest for justice tell us to do? It is very complicated. Instead of fighting over biblical sources, or history, or in the name of nationalism or Judaism or Islam or Palestine or Israel or ethnicity or faith—let us drop all of that and talk about our common humanity, which is what is at stake. We have all suffered and we need a wiser solution.
Maybe I'm being too idealistic when I tell my students to think about all of this. Yet when I raised these issues in class I saw students nodding their heads in agreement about what I'm saying. Maybe this is far-fetched or just a dream but this is how I express it.
Can I talk about a cartoon I saw many years ago?
Mahalatti: The cartoonist drew two different pictures. On the one side there was a scene of United Nations and representatives of many states were sitting at their desk in the General Assembly. Each sat under their own flag, and each flag carried the symbol of an animal—a lion, an eagle, you know—different animals were there on the flags.
In the second picture all the animals were brought down and sat at the desks and the people were on the flags. The cartoonist wrote down under the second picture "probably this is a more peaceful world."
Mahalatti: I agreed with him, this would be a more peaceful world. What are we fighting about? We always look at previous wars from the angle of all those marches and heroes, which [mask] the stupidity of war. The cost for humans and humanity tells us that all wars have been stupid. Maybe that is too extreme but [in class] I try to represent another perspective of hope.
Berlet: And you are still an optimist?
Mahalatti: I am very much an optimist for one reason. The son of an Ayatollah, a Moslem, has come to Oberlin and found a home here. What does it tell me? What I am thinking is a reality for me. I have seen it. I have seen that it works here. The friendship movement has worked at Oberlin. People don't look at my [color\collar] or my beard, or my prayer beads. I have made many friends because we have been eating with each other, celebrating [together], reading together…and then we have looked at each other and found our commonalities at our common humanity. The rest are just ornamental differences that are beautiful.
If this is what happened to me here [at Oberlin] it is possible in the world.
This interview was originally conducted in 2012 for Political Research Associates as part of a reearch project on antisemitism and Islamophobia on US campuses.
More about the Oberlin Friendship Initiative from Mohammad Ja'far Mahallati
April 3, 2013
I need to say a few words about the Oberlin Friendship Initiative. We promote friendship not only as an interpersonal virtue but also as a worldview, a normative worldview that is based on justice-plus perspectives. We know that the main paradigms that form and frame modern international and interpersonal relations are ‘justice,’ ‘rights,’ and ‘tolerance.’ These terms compared with notions of ‘aggression,’ ‘oppression,’ and ‘transgression’ look great but have nevertheless kept us on the ground-floor of morality. Our common understanding of justice is either backward looking geared toward penal or redistributive justice or self-centered justice geared toward what we call ‘our rights.’ So we are preoccupied mostly with fixing the wrong past or getting our fair share of goods and honors in the present.
In short we are all engaged with ethics of getting and forgetting. This may serve our individualistic nature to an extent, but it needs a balance by ethics of giving and forgiving, which is what we mean by friendship. Friendship is the realm of justice-plus where bounty, magnanimity, mercy, generosity and forgiveness rule. It is a moral realm that has no room for zero-sum game perspectives. Here, the existence is not limited and the creation has no hollow spots. This is where religion and friendship come close.
Modern consumerism is a byproduct of a culture that is going to the extreme side of ‘rights.’ Modern man over-encouraged by the justice and fair-share discourses, is tending to believe and act upon the following motto: ‘I have rights over my fair share, therefore I consume.’ This attitude is not only towards the nature, which has resulted in environmental deterioration, but much worse towards all levels of human relations. As a result, we feel totally justified to think, ‘It is my right to have all what I desire without feeling any responsibility to do what makes you happy.’ And ‘you’ here could be the environment, a person, or a human entity in the present or future. This is the root cause of extreme legalism in the West, which counters legal extremism in the East. We are indeed caught up between two distinct trends of extremism that live on the moral ground floor and abuse the notion of ‘justice,’ each in their own way. The Friendship Initiative is an endeavor to counter these extremisms by producing justice-plus discourses that can help human relations at all levels.
Although the fall of Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 celebrated the end of Cold War, the world is still struggling with sporadic wars and, at best, with the Cold Peace. Cold Peace is based on negative tolerance and distrust among individuals, institutions and nations. This is a state of international relationship far below what the humanity of 21st century deserves. It is our understanding that there are many individual thinkers and institutions in the world who aim to address this shortcoming and elevate quality relations between nations by reminding them of their common roots, aspirations and shared grounds of their civilizational backgrounds. I think it is exactly friendship as superior moral space that can help our present international relations to go beyond what I call the Cold Peace.