Misreading History with Richard Bulliet

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Event Name: Misreading History with Richard Bulliet
Transcription Date:Transcription Modified Date: 5/24/2019
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to be here with you this evening see so

many familiar faces and some many new


I am honored to have been invited to

moderate this discussion and I wonder

what journalist wouldn't be thrilled to

have a chance to sit and pick the brains

of dr. Richard bullit and Sheikh Hamza

Yusuf I think this is a rather

appropriate room for us to be in to

discuss miss reading history Altschul in

German or Yiddish means old synagogue

and a synagogue is a place for worship

for wrestling with the soul and for

becoming educated and I look forward to

doing that with you and our guests this

evening now in my time at Columbia

University where I studied at the

journalism school I did not have a

chance either to study with or interview

dr. dr. Richard bullet so I'm going to

make up for some of that lost time

tonight I can say this that for the past

thirty some years he has taught in

Columbia University's history department

almost non-stop since 84 he's been

director of the Middle East Institute

here at Columbia University his

geographical expertise of the what we

call the Middle East goes from North

Africa into Southwest Asia southern

Europe and of course over to Iran his

spiritual expertise extends through the

Abrahamic traditions Judaism

Christianity and Islam although I don't

quite know to which one he ascribes yet

he is a time traveler his expertise is

also in Medieval Studies so from the

Middle Ages to today dr. bullet is also

a novelist

and I'm intending to read some of those

books his gradient critically acclaimed

non-fiction book I present to you here

the case for Islam Oh Christian

civilization well this is Islamic

Christian civilization and he argues

that civilizations of the Middle East

and the West should be viewed as sharing

common cultural traditions and I see

that as a rather daring

counter establishment counterculture

type of view and thesis and I'll bet

that you've got some stories to tell

about how people reacted to this

outlandish notion of an Islamic

Christian civilization and I hope we'll

hear some of those tonight ladies and

gentlemen please help me welcome dr.

Richard bullit


well thank you very much it's a

particular pleasure to be able to share

a platform with Sheikh Hamza and to see

this auditorium filled more than I think

I've ever seen it before I feel like a

I'm opening for the Rolling Stones or

something but in fact this is a

conversation and the format is that we

will begin the conversation with to

hopefully not too long-winded monologues

and then we'll move on to having a more

a more formal conversation so I got to

talk to you for about for about 20

minutes miss reading history is is not

the right title you can't miss read

history until it's miss written and I

think that the the crucial thing here is

the miss writing of history now I say

you can't miss read it because where do

you get your history you get your

history from ultimately from written

sources you may get it at first hand or

may hear stories from your parents or

friends something like that but it but

at some point somebody wrote down the

history and history is structured

according to master narratives master

narratives are those things about

history that have been repeated so often

and so confidently with so little

variation that they are taken to be true

and yet none of them are master

narratives are the the triumphs of the

historian everybody would like to invent

the particular story that then gets told

in every history book for the next for

the next five thousand years but the the

fact the matter is the master narratives

are invented by historians and the more

successful they are the less

people are inclined to question them and

yet they're continually being questioned

and they're being questioned in ways

that are effective so that if I can give

a very obvious example if you read a

history of Europe written before let us

say 1950 you'll read the standard

history of Europe - the women oh there

were no women in Europe before 1950 then

you go you move along and you get a

generation of really formatively

talented feminist scholars who are

historians they find the sources they

read the sources they write the stories

they publish the stories you cannot read

a history of Europe now that is not

teeming with women we need this in the

Middle East though frankly but the fact

of the matter is someone has to do it so

we have rewritten the master narratives

so the European history is now

co-educational European history is I

mean history my hometown Rockford

Illinois where I grew up in a Methodist

household just to I yeah so set your

mind at ease

in my own town I grew up and I knew that

there were two people who founded

Rockford Illinois one was named captain

wasn't one his name Blake I recently

went to the homepage of my town and I

found out that three people founded

Rockford Kent Blake and the slave of one

of them and suddenly black people

appeared because that's a new master

narrative at one time there were no

black people in American history now

there are so when I talk about the idea

of reshaping master narratives I'm not

talking about something that is that's

purely fanciful I'm talking about

something that is that is the bread and

butter of what historians strive to do

and right now there is a contest going

on to some degree in the question of

rewriting the master narratives of of a

history that engages the Muslim Middle

East and North Africa if not the entire

Islamic world and Europe primarily North

Western Europe in that contest on the

one hand you have a book like this bad

book just just published by Anthony pag

den of UCLA or USC UCLA

it's called worlds at war the 25 year

2500 year struggle between east and west

there's a book that the noted

but not very good historian Ephriam

Karsch describes as if you are going to

read only one book on the manichaean

struggle between this and what east and

west this is the book but that's the

master narrative it is to say not that

there is a history of Europe a cruft

Christendom and there's a history of

Islam but rather there's a history of

good and evil and you know don't be

surprised if I tell you that the good

happens to be the Christians and the

tradition that they established in

Europe and the evil the manikyam I mean

the whole note and I wouldn't have

quoted Karsch

using the word Manichean because i don't

think he's very good a storyand but in

fact pegged in himself describes Islam

as a Manichaean religion he doesn't

explain what he means this is part of

his singular style but the but the fact

of the matter is what he could he talks

about he says that his book had the

Genesis because he has a wife who's a

classicist and she saw a picture of

Iranians bowing down in prayer and it

brought back to mind the fact that

Herodotus had commented that the

Iranians bow down before the king she

didn't seem to be able to distinguish

between god and the persian king and she

said you know here we have something

that's been continuous since the days of

Herodotus namely the bowing down and she

said to her husband why don't you write

a book about the perpetual enmity

between Europe and Asia puts the words

perpetual enman enmity in quotes

specifically Herodotus's idea of the

perpetual enmity between Europe and Asia

what Herodotus meant was the Trojan War

you had Athens fan or the Achaeans in

general and right across the aisle

Aegean Sea you had Troy Troy was in Asia

the Achaeans were in Europe that was a

perpetual end when he he was talking

about but somehow it's now transformed

into Herodotus the time traveler who can

coin a phrase that will be true for the

for the succeeding 2500 years which he

did not live to see this is the sort of

effort to to recalibrate master

narratives so what this book is it's not

a history of worlds at war it's a

history of the European imagining of its

enemies there's nothing here

actually about the other side and in

fact the author and the publisher both

felt that it was unnecessary to have

anyone proofread the book who actually

knew any Middle Eastern languages so he

has this you know you every tiny Dutch

village name is correctly spelled and he

has a real tough time with virtually any

name from the Middle East but the but

the point of the matter is it's it's

it's taking the the broad narrative of

European history and recasting it as one

of perpetual war with the east now we

saw you know this is up not a big


Edward Sade my you know admired

colleague here at Columbia wrote about

this but he wrote about it in the

context of imperialism in which you

either had people who were acting as

agents of imperialism who are

unconsciously abetting imperialism but

here you have something I think that is

somewhat more more tenacious in other

words what this book tries to do is to

say that everything in the European

tradition has always been and forever

will be good and everything in the East

whether it's the ancient Persian Empire

or the Muslims of today will be bad this

happens to be one of the better books I

mean it's a good read piece of crap but

it's a good read in terms of style and

it's been well reviewed in the New York

Times in The New Yorker it will get a

bad review in The Washington Post if

they publish my review but I'm waiting

to see whether they actually publish it

now your trap contrast this with another

effort to to recast master narratives

which is my own book case for Islamic

Christian civilization the argument of

that book is that you know we don't have

two civilizations clashing we actually

have one civilization arising

ideologically and religiously out of the

Abrahamic tradition but also sharing

enormous similarities in peril

over the last 14 centuries and it could

and it should be written as a single

history and that that's that was my

master narrative I call it Islamic

Christian civilization

nobody would review that book it wasn't

reviewed by any newspaper in the United

States it's been translated into other

languages it always gets reviewed

outside the United States but in this

country it was not reviewed there were

reasons for this one of them was that it

struck me that there is nothing

absolutely anathema about people engaged

in in democratic or electoral politics

taking their religion as a guide in

those politics within the secular

establishment in this country there is a

self deluded belief that religion plays

no role whatsoever in the American

democracy even at the same time they

know that religion plays a powerful role

in American democracy but the idea that

somebody would say it's okay for a

person of faith to also be engaged in

the political arena with their faith

relevant to their politics that was

something that was considered

unacceptable and of course the other

thing was that Islamic Christian

civilization does not include Islamic

Christian Judeo civilization and I

actually wait I think all the way to

page 2 before explaining why I don't

include Jewish civilization is because

I'm not talking about the shared

scriptural basis in which of course I

would have included Judaism but rather

I'm talking about other aspects of

history largely having to do with the

institutions with you know

interrelationships with the issues of

cohabitation or a non cohabitation and

so forth and so on now book like that

instead of taking the existing master

narrative and tweaking it in a post-911

Manichaean direction proposes a

different master narrative in which we

say why don't we look at all this


and what would happen if you did that

and isn't really ridiculous the way so

many of my detractors seem to think well

in the first place if you read the

history the master narratives of the

history of the West the Middle East is

all over it after all Jesus came from

the Middle East the whole religious

tradition of the West comes from the

Middle East I mean so many ways Greeks

and Romans yes but also Mesopotamians

and Egyptians so how how is that handled

by historians well one thing they could

do of course is to say well you could

you could divide the Mediterranean Sea

with a vertical line in which you would

have to the east of the line all the

text would be in Greek and to the west

of the line the text would be in Latin

then you could say you have two

civilizations and they're clashing you

have the Latin civilization versus the

Greek civilization and you could show

that the Latin civilization regularly

and successfully beat up the Greek

civilization because the Romans

conquered everybody but they didn't

successfully impose their language Greek

continued to be the the intellectual

language in the East but nobody draws

that vertical line even though everyone

recognizes it why don't they draw the

vertical line that's because they say

we're talking about greco-roman

antiquity and so you hyphenate something

and you say okay if you put that - in

there hey it makes it all one and so

greco-roman antiquity antiquity it is

until the Arab conquests then suddenly

there's a horizontal line that divides

the north side of the Mediterranean from

from southern Spain and Sicily on the

south side met rhenium and that line is

considered to be definitive and yet it

is no more definitive than the

hypothetical vertical line that would

divide the Greeks from the Latins

what I mean by no more definitive well

first I mean that most of the people on

the south side of that line most of the

people living in the early Caliphate

were Christians

the majority of all the Christians alive

at the time of the prophets death ended

up under Muslim rule and over a period

of three to four hundred years their

descendants for the most part became

Muslims now it's understandable that

Christians at the time viewed this as a

absolute catastrophe because their faith

communities were taken over by someone

else and some of them became isolated

like the Armenians or the Georgians or

the or the Ethiopians others became a an

embattled remnant such as the remaining

parts of the Byzantine Umbra Empire

others embarked on a huge new campaign

to to Christianize parts of Europe that

had not previously been Christian namely

Germany Scandinavia Poland British Isles

etc Islam and Latin Christendom expand

at the same time that's true

Christianity six centuries older but in

their particular territories are

expanding at the same time and the

reason for the institutional

similarities between them is that they

share this great this great experience

of having massive populations over

several centuries join the new religion

whether it's Latin Catholic Christianity

or whether it's Islam so they have a

shared history of of expansion but in

the in Europe the expansion is at the

expense of polytheists in the Middle

East it's at the expense of Jews and

Christians and in fact you have a much

more peaceful expansion of Islam then

you have of Christianity although now

the opposing master narrative argues

that is

has always been militant and violent and

warlike where you know you don't want to

go back to early Christian history in

the West and ask who was being militant

and violent warfare and who are like and

for that matter there is no part of the

world bar none

that has as as intense a history of

almost continual warfare as Europe from

the time of the peace of August's in the

first century AD down to the current EU

era and European history in between

there's almost two thousand years of

nearly constant warfare by comparison

the Islamic world is a haven of peace

most of the time but nobody wants to

hear that that's not part of the master