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Bridging Cultures: NEH and the Muslim World

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Carnegie Corporation of New York
437 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10022
United States

September 29, 2009

Good morning. It is an honor to be charged with opening the discussion today on the challenges of civic engagement with Muslim communities inside and outside the United States.

First, let me begin by thanking our hosts—the Carnegie Corporation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art—for gathering us together and, more consequentially, for the leadership role they have played for decades on the topic at hand.

In this context I want to stress a theme that might seem self-evident but is seldom given the attention it deserves. To wit, relations between countries are only in part a dialogue of one government with another. Actually, it is businessmen and women, unelected people of good will, be they artists, scholars or students, who are more integral to defining the tone of relations between states than public officials.

Government is a part of culture, not vice-versa. Accordingly, government-to-government relations are only one kind of diplomacy. In the literature of political science, official interchanges are sometimes referred to as track 1 diplomacy. Broadly speaking there are two other kinds. Track 2 is diplomacy involving non-government officials attempting to advance, often at the behest of a government, policies consistent with the views of the government. A subset of this track is free lance diplomacy: private citizens advancing perspectives that, while perhaps well-intended, may be objectionable to a government in power. The third track is cultural diplomacy, which encompasses all private contacts and relationships—social, professional, business, artistic, and educational—that take place unrelated to specific political issues of the day. Cultural diplomacy generally precedes and increasingly supersedes government-to-government relations.

Just as government is a part of culture and not vice-versa, cultural relations are often more consequential than political ones. Public officials and their views come and go; culture may evolve but it is a weighty constant. If peoples of a country or set of countries don’t like each other, don’t understand or respect another’s way of life, fail to sense good will, or can’t see any common interests, there is little chance for the development of constructive government-to-government relations.

If this premise has validity, the national interest suggests that whatever the politics of the moment in nation-state relations, citizen effort, consistent with law, should be undertaken to reach out to those societies with which tension is highest. While such an endeavor may be facilitated by government, it is disproportionately a private-sector responsibility.

At the turn of the last century, two controversial political sociologists from Italy, Mosca and Pareto, attempted to update an undertaking of Aristotle and chronicle the types of governments then in existence. One of their observations that seems trite but carries profound implications is that whatever kind of government is in place, it is impressive how at key moments powerful elites are empowered to make decisions of a kind that impact multitudes. Our founders thought a lot about this democratic dilemma. In these trying times, we are obligated to reflect anew on this problem.

At the time of our founding, one of the principal concerns of our first citizens was to limit the capacity of a single person—in this case a presidency shorn of kingly authority—to initiate war. Today the challenge for citizens is to help make the need for government officials to instigate war less likely.

Democracy is no guarantee of good judgment of public officials, but it is the best system to allow publics to insist on course corrections. We all recognize that the last election produced a candidate who prevailed in no small measure because he suggested that new approaches were called for in international relations. That doesn’t mean that if implemented these new approaches will prove popular or effective. No-win situations abound. The bad news is that some events may simply be beyond management and the actions of others may be impervious to civil logic. The good news is that the President has a mandate to rethink policies in place and appears to have chosen first class professionals with open minds to advise him.

In this circumstance there is an indispensible role for cultural diplomacy to help create a social environment where disagreements between peoples are more likely to be resolved in a civil way. As the President suggested in one of the great humanist speeches of our time, the development of cultural understanding requires that a young person in Kansas be able to communicate with a young person in Cairo.

Government-to-government relations implicitly reflect national power contrasts whether or not military power is being asserted. But any study of the human condition—the humanities—in any century, including the last one in which man experimented with the most coercive dogmas of hate, finds that military power alone can not for long hold populations in check or control the mind and soul of a people.

People want to have a say in their own destinies. There is something about the human condition that prefers governing decisions, even seemingly irrational ones, to be made at socially cohesive levels. A lot is written today about globalism, but this century is also about localism. To adapt to a fast changing world, one must understand both of these phenomena: the fact, as Tip O’Neill repeatedly noted, that all politics are local and the corollary, as we have learned again with the financial crisis, that all local decisions are affected by international events.

Whether violence is an integral element of the human condition or a learned response is a matter of conjecture. But non-violence is almost certainly a practice that must be learned. And the most effective form of social education is human contact. It is the humanization rather than the demonization of individuals from different cultures that is so critical if non-violent approaches to problem solving are to be institutionalized. Without humanization—hand shakes of understanding—there can be no trust and hence no family or national security.

In a fundamental sense, the issue of the times is not simply Muslim-Western discord; it is also the philosophical paradigm with which our founders grappled. At issue was and somewhat surprisingly remains the contrast with a state of nature, which Hobbes defined as a jungle where life was “nasty, brutish and short,” and civil society, which Locke described as a circumstance where rules governed disputes and third party arbitration could be called upon. For Hobbes, self-centered man could never escape the jungle because he lacked the capacity to put himself in the shoes of others. For Jefferson and his Lockean cohorts in Philadelphia, individuals were not only born with rights no legitimate state could take away, but with a rational nature capable of developing institutional arrangements to advance common interests.

For students of Western political theory, Hobbesian thought has for long been considered to involve an interesting but abstract set of propositions. But with the globalization for the first time in history of anarchistic strategies, it is suddenly becoming clear that not only have we not entirely escaped the jungle, but that the more modern and centralized a society, the greater its vulnerability to terrorist acts. In this circumstance, the case for a strong military and expanded intelligence capacity is self-evident. But the only long-term answer would appear also to require: a) a commitment to advancing mutual understanding and the framework of law; and b) an understanding that military intervention, even if employed by a democratic power without a goal of Empire, can have unforeseen, counter-productive consequences.

In this setting I have suggested to the students I used to teach at Princeton and Harvard that the most important geo-political tract of the last century was that of a family of novels—the Alexandria Quartet by the British author, Lawrence Durrell. Set between the first and second world wars in the ancient library center, Alexandria, Durrell wrote four books about the same set of events, each a first-person perspective from the eyes of a different participant. One wonders why read about the same events more than once. It ends up that each story is profoundly different. The moral is that to get a sense of reality, it is necessary to see things from more than one pair of eyes. This may apply to interactions in a community, a court room, or in international relations where what America does may seem reasonable from our perspective but look very different from the eyes of a European or African, a Middle Easterner or an Asian.

As everyone in this room knows, over the past several decades two Harvard political theorists, Samuel Huntington and Joseph Nye, have written about the dangers of a clash of civilizations and of the role of “soft” (recently relabeled “smart”) power as contrasted with “hard” power in international relations. These are important frameworks of thought, but I would add to such considerations the contrasting model of realism vs. pseudo-realism in policy development. Realists look to effect, not to bluster. But what should a citizen think of ideological arguments advanced in recent years by a small cohort of ideological insiders that arms control agreements are to be avoided and diplomacy, particularly multi-lateral diplomacy, is soft-headed? Should we not ask whether this is pseudo-realism? What is more realistic and more consistent with the American heritage than attempting to advance the rule of law? Americans prefer to work in alliances. It is nonsense, realism inverted, to press a foreign policy rooted in snubbing the concerns of others.

One of the myths of our time is that realism is principally about might. Actually realism is about the human condition. Nations that are ill-led, ill-fed, and ill-respected are breeding grounds for radicalism.

America at its best combines principle and idealism with Yankee pragmatism. One without the other is a prescription for disaster.

In this context, NEH is launching a “Bridging Cultures” initiative. The analogy to a “bridge” and use of the word as a verb is hardly novel. Nor is what we have in mind a radical departure from prior NEH initiatives or the long-term efforts of many individuals and NGOs represented in this room. Our effort is simply to burrow “in” more deeply at the domestic level and press “out” more broadly internationally.

Hence we plan, in partnership with our state humanities councils, to hold colloquiums, large and small, throughout the country on the issue of “hate speech and civility”; to commence what we intend to label “academies” on American history and the Constitution; and to hold conferences on the importance of Muslim contributions to American society. We are also open to partnering with other government departments and non-governmental organizations in any number of ways.

International violence, economic insecurity, and the chaotic nature of accelerating change have produced a crisis of perspective as well as values. Citizens of various philosophical persuasions are reflecting increased disrespect for fellow citizens and thus for modern day democratic governance.

We have all followed the outburst of a congressman from South Carolina during the President’s recent address to Congress. Less noted, and vastly more significant, than the much publicized congressional utterance is the fact that significant political figures and many citizens have over the course of the last year charged our current President with advancing policies that were either “communist,” or “fascist” or both, and suggested that members of his party in Congress should be investigated for “un-American” activities. Several in public life have even toyed with history-blind radicalism—the notion of “secession.”

Words matter, for they reflect emotion as well as thought. The ones cited above are politically and personally charged. In a legal sense they are, of course, protected by free speech, but the question is whether they nonetheless are part of a vocabulary of hate, jeopardizing social cohesion and even public safety.

In the public humanities we are fortunate to have a network of humanities councils in every state and territorial jurisdiction. Each is composed of independent humanities leaders with a sensitive sense for what works in their areas. Most have already put outreach programs in place that are truly impressive. Illinois, for instance, has a strategy of reaching out to citizens in unexpected places in a program they call “Café Society.” Meetings are held in coffee houses, even barber shops. Oregon has a comparable program called “Think and Drink,” presumably involving places that don’t just serve coffee. Montana, for its part, is emphasizing what it calls “gracious” dialogue.

NEH is a kind of domestic State Department with state-wide embassies and consulates. We are proud of the professional staff and appointed board members who have proven so innovative.

We are also proud of the scholarship we have supported in the past. In recent years, for instance, utilizing a rigorous peer review process in a manner similar to decision-making at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, we have funded nearly a hundred projects relating to the Islamic world.

We have supported seminars for teachers on “The Arabic Novel in Translation,” in which the works of the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and Ibraham al-Kuni and other modern writers are explored, and provided research for books on topics that initially seemed abstractly academic but later turned out to be essential reading material for American policymakers. For example, we supported the publication of Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad, which was completed only weeks before 9/11. Its publication made Professor David B. Edwards of Williams College a principal source of scholarly knowledge when the United States went to war in 2001.

To the degree all war has antecedents or analogies to prior conflicts, the studies we have encouraged of the French colonial experience in places as distant from each other as Algeria and Indochina may also inform our decisions on war and its conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Of more cultural relevance, we have awarded research grants for the study of the Maimonides Code in the medieval Islamic world; on the history of cross-cultural trade under Islamic law; on the influence of the story of Job on Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Middle Ages; and, more contemporaneously, we have shared the science of museum preservation with Afghan and Iraqi curators. In addition, our staff recognized the importance of the “Bactrian gold,” which was hidden for twenty years in the basement of the presidential palace in Kabul. We paid for the collection to be catalogued and helped it to tour museums around the world to illuminate the national culture we were attempting to protect on the battlefield.

Because our support of these projects and many others like them is based on peer reviewed scholarly criteria, they send an implicit message to Muslims in our country and in other parts of the world that we deeply value the contributions of their diverse and fascinating cultures. Unfortunately our knowledge deficit is large. The need to expand American understanding of Muslim history and traditions has been extensively elucidated in the work of one of our Carnegie hosts, Dr. Gregorian, who has been preaching for decades about how woefully under-educated Americans are about the 1.2 billion Muslims with whom we share this globe.

Much attention has properly been directed to the question of whether we had valid information about alleged WMD development in Iraq. But this kind of precise intelligence probing has allowed a glossing over of how little policymakers knew about the culture of a country we had been at war with a decade before and were giving serious consideration to invading in the wake of 9/11; of how sparse our knowledge was of the basic tenets of the Muslim faith; of how limited our understanding of the differences between Sunnis and Shi’a and the likely effects Western military intervention would have on the historic tensions between and within various faith systems.

At a cultural level it is also unfortunate how little respect we have exhibited for Muslim history, particularly the Golden Age of Islam which was coterminous with what are frequently referred to as the Dark Ages in pre-Renaissance Europe. This was a time when Islamic intellectual life was thriving in centers of learning like Cordoba in Muslim-ruled Spain. Said to have had 70 libraries, with over 400,000 volumes, Cordoba was a center for scholars to translate the classic world of antiquity into Arabic. Without Muslim intellectual leadership, works of Aristotle and many others would likely have been lost forever. Importantly, Muslim intellectuals worked in collaboration with rather than isolation from Christian and Jewish scholars.

When Europe went Dark, Muslims led in “bridging cultures.”

Our founders proved more prescient and more impressed with Muslim history and culture than citizens today. Jefferson, for instance, read widely in the area of comparative religion and was convinced that what mattered most was not where faith systems differed but where they conjoined. A century and a half later, presumably on the assumption that in the field of ideas and enlightened thought no country had ever received more foreign aid than the United States, Congress authorized a series of marble relief portraits of law makers through history to be placed on the walls of the House of Representatives. Thus, in the people’s House are inspirational wall sculptures of Moses, Hammurabi, Maimonides, and Suleiman the Magnificent, as well as such figures as Solon, Justinian, and Jefferson.

Yet, exacerbated by the acts of a score of Muslim terrorists on 9/11, poll after poll indicates that American attitudes toward Muslims are exceptionally disrespectful.

As a former Member of Congress, I was fortunate to represent the oldest mosque in America in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After 9/11 I often met with the elders of the mosque and was impressed with how much they understood about attitudes in every corner of the Muslim world. Likewise, I am confident that Muslims outside the United States hear regularly about social difficulties faced by Muslims in America. It would therefore seem logical that a critical element in developing a more sympathetic attitude toward America and our foreign policy concerns in Muslim nations would be a neighborly commitment to see that Muslim citizens are welcome in every American community. Cultural diplomacy begins at home.

Finally on a personal note, I chose as a Republican to endorse Barack Obama for President because I was convinced that never in American history was the case for a course change more compelling in international relations and because I had become convinced that seldom had a more natural humanist been chosen to represent his party for national office. I had not intended to return to government and, in fact, turned down several initial offers. But when I was called about this job, I could not decline.

No one should underestimate the importance of the public humanities or the need to address the temper and the integrity of the political dialogue. America cannot revive its infectious leadership until it revives its sense of self and reaches out respectfully instead of shunning, or, worse yet, name calling those with whom we differ.

In the profoundest political observation of the last century, Einstein noted that splitting the atom had changed everything except our way of thinking. Now civilization is jeopardized both by weapons of mass destruction and by the brutal acts of people armed with machetes in deepest Africa and terrorists with suicide bombs in Western societies. In this jungle of man-made weapons instead of tigers, all the world’s peoples have no choice except to think through the meaning of humanity itself.

In this context, the President couldn’t have chosen wiser words when in Cairo he called for “a new beginning between the U.S. and Muslims around the world” based on “mutual interest and mutual respect.”

Governmental policy is shifting. We at NEH, like so many in the non-profit community represented here, are prepared to re-center attention and underpin a new Muslim-American relationship. This President has articulated a call to action that none of us can ignore.

Thank you.