Encountering International Relations Theory


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I am learning the disputes within International Relations theory for the first time in my class Islam in Global Affairs. I find myself agreeing strongly with my professor Muqtedar Khan’s positions, which makes me suspicious of my own conclusions since following the first line of thinking one encounters is a classic tendency when in a new field. With this proviso, what follows are my first ideas on IR theory as presented by Professor Khan in the opening chapter of his book Jihad for Jerusalem.

Pursuing the academic study of religion in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the United States, I encountered a primarily postmodern approach. The observation of Michel Foucault, that all thinkers were shaped by their relation to forms of power and powerlessness, was popular. I studied from what I believe our current readings describe as a sociological perspective. Authors I recall, and I may be wrong about how I am categorizing them, include William James, Thorsten Veblen, Clifford Geertz, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Mary Douglass. When contemporary politics did arise as a topic, we often made the point that political leaders did not take an understanding of peoples’ faith commitments sufficiently seriously. Teachers and students also often agreed that if there ever were a time when societies were clearly bounded, that time had long past. “They” not only live among “us” and “we” among “them,” they are now us and we are now them. I do not recall encountering rational choice theory of international relations except by implication of its weakness and failure. Later, while reading behavioral economics for fun, I did come across “homo economicus,” the rational actor who always make choices to maximize his own gains. Behavioral economists also presented this concept as the previous paradigm that we needed to overturn.

As someone who moves quickly because of my academic interests to the religious dimension when considering international politics, I agree with my intellectual upbringing –  I am highly skeptical of the rationalist narrative that claims people only act from positions of narrow, especially strictly economic, self-interest. At the same time, I have always been and continue to be suspicious of assertions that our choices are totally subjective. This links in my mind to complete cultural relativism, which implies a pessimism about improving our lot as humans. If no approach to life is better than another, then we cannot find ways to improve and become more fulfilled. I want to believe that different societies in different ways have hit upon political, cultural, economic, philosophical and spiritual approaches to living, among others, that lead to greater happiness overall and can be copied successfully by other societies.

I am finding many of the terms used in our Voll reading and in Jihad for Jerusalem extremely helpful. The idea of agency in this context I find appealing – especially seeing the agent as interacting with his society in mutually influencing turns. As Khan writes, “Agents are to some extent rational and their rationality is circumscribed by their identity and structural constraints.” (Khan, Ch 1, Constructivism: A Middle Path, para. 14) Thus I find myself persuaded by Khan’s claim that “Constructivist approaches (as understood in the IR discipline) recognize the essential role of identity and normative/cultural values in the constitution of society, the individual subject, and in the decision processes that shape interactions.” (Preface, para. 3)

Toward the end of chapter 1, I was surprised to find the two terms frequently used in religion pop up: “moral” and “symbolic”. Khan contrasts the idea of morally motivated action to the concept of structurally motivated action. Khan argues that there are several responses an individual can make to structural forces: she can go along with the hegemony, thus following the rational actor model, she can challenge the hegemony because of her identities (moral action), or she can challenge the power in order to gain power – which he calls being counter-hegemonic. He uses the term symbol in a similar way. When political actors are not behaving strategically (in line with their material self-interest) they are behaving symbolically. Khan opens Jihad for Jerusalem by giving us language by which religious interests, among others, can be considered in the realm of international relations.


…and learning

There is much travel and teaching reflection I need to do from this summer – I took 17 students and two fellow teachers to Israel and Palestine, and I also vacationed in Germany with my family. For the moment, though, I will use this blog (also?) to reflect on a course I am currently taking: Islam in Global Affairs with Muqtedar Khan. Thus the next entry…

Along the bulwarks of Christiandom


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20130806-114458.jpgVenetian arch into Zadar

Ljubljana, Lake Bled Castle, Zadar, Sibinik, Split, Korcula, and more to come…as one travels in Slovenia and Croatia one hears the same story repeated about the castles and city walls. “These were built in the fifteenth century to defend against the ‘Turks’.” The Venetians funded many of these defenses – they controlled many of these Dalmatian towns at that time. From their point of view, it seems, they were fighting their primary enemy. From the Ottoman view, however, this was one of many fronts. They were simultaneously pursuing the Arabs, the Russians, the Poles-Hungarians, and they were looking toward the Persians.

The Croatian walls were a primary seed of the concept of “antemurale Christianitatis” – that Croatia (or another area, like Austria-Hungary later) is the bulwark against the non-Christians. Some scholars consider this the “antemurale myth” – that a certain nation serves the special purpose of defending against the infidel.

This idea, interestingly, can co-exist with another idea I have encountered as still alive in this region: the habit of one people to define the people just to their east as the beginning of the East. Thus the Italians would see the Slavic (though Catholic) Croats as the East, and themselves as antemurale Christianitatis. The Croats would see the Orthodox Serbs as the East, and the Serbs would see the Turks as the East. Professor Milica Bakić-Hayden of the University of Pittsburgh defines this tendency as “nesting orientalisms,” working off of Edward Said’s concept of orientalism. I have heard Croats explain that they are more Western in their attitudes, and the Serbs more eastern – so this idea is alive and well.

Crossing borders in the northern Balkans


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20130801-181301.jpgNo longer needed: checkpoint building between Italy and Slovenia

As we drove from one part of Slovenia to another, we crossed briefly through a slice of Italy. The border is marked by a sign and several abandoned checkpoint buildings. For those not used to thinking historically, this may seem like old news – after all, the EU has been a fact for a while, and recently has been more criticized than praised. Just 70 years ago, however, Italy was running brutal concentration camps in Slovenia. This open border without occupation is both unprecedented and a great boon for the well-being of all in the region.

Meanwhile, Croatia has recently been admitted to the European Union, though it has not yet become a member of the “Schengen” customs union, as Slovenia has. Thus the crossing between the two requires a (fairly gestural) stop, which will disappear in 2015 or so, when Croatia is admitted to Schengen. While a young Croatian I spoke with is worried that EU membership will turn them into Greece, again my bias is that less nationalism is better.

20130801-225019.jpgThe EU circle of stars is the latest flag to fly over Zadar

Reinforcing my belief in the need to transcend nationalism are the various stories of the siege of Zadar by Serb forces in the 1991-95 war. It is strange to live in and walk these streets and imagine this beautiful seaside town without electricity or sufficient food and medical supplies, intermittently shelled.

Ottoman Cultures: A Remarkable NEH Summer Institute


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As I fly out from Istanbul, I cannot overstate the benefits the Ottoman Cultures institute run by Primary Source will have on my teaching. The lectures on Ottoman history combined with the visits to the actual sites brought home the realities of the empire far more than either alone. Our visits to Safranbolu and Edirne especially, as well as the major mosque complexes of the capital, helped me understand the mechanisms of religion in the Empire.

In my teaching of History of the Middle East, and I have always struggled to get the right “debatable question” for the Ottoman Empire. “Why it declined” always seemed too formulaic. Now my new approach will be centered around pluralism, nationalism and multi-culturalism. I have many specific readings I will use. I also am working with Professor Sajdi to visit my school and speak about these questions. In my Introduction to Abrahamic Religious Traditions class I will include my new understandings of Sufism, saints, and the use of tombs in Islam. I can ask many new effective questions about comparing Judaism, Christianity and Islam in terms of use of mysticism.

We were divided into study groups by theme (religion, military, gender, etc.) and I learned a great amount from the presentations of the other groups. Many of the best presentations focused on bridging from what we were learning to how we can apply them to our curricula.

I perhaps learned the most from several sites we visited: Yoruk Koyu, a small village outside of Safranbolu, a waqf complex outside of Edirne, the Ulu Camii (the oldest mosque in Bursa), and living in and among the grand mosques in Istanbul during Ramazan. The most helpful lectures were with our own teachers, especially Barbara Petzen and Dana Sajdi. Also, I learned an immense amount from casual conversations with Prof. Sajdi.

I learned a tremendous amount from my colleagues on this trip. Everyone was willing to mix and match and have conversations about curriculum, our travels, school politics, and more. Teachers came from all over the country, were of different ages, experiences, and disciplines, and shared those differences in a professional and friendly way. The opportunities and encouragement for such interactions were many.

I am deeply grateful to Deborah Cunningham and Susan Zeiger for the immense amount of time they put in, over years in fact, organizing this summer institute. They should feel enormously proud of the outcome of these efforts. Their efforts have greatly enriched my teaching, and I am confident this enrichment is multiplied by all 34 participants.

The Short and Long Possibilities of Occupy Gezi, and a surprising perspective on Syria


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20130725-183418.jpgPhoto: Observant women getting holy water from the mosque of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari

I had the opportunity to hear Didem Danish, a professor of urban sociology, speak about the current events in Turkey. Like my friend I spoke to at the beginning of my trip, she is extremely excited about the recent activity. This is despite the fact that she does not think it will change the electoral balance. “It is very difficult to disrupt the right wing – 50%-60% of Turks are right wing. The only thing that would do it, and I don’t think this will happen, is the rise of another right wing party to split the vote.” She thinks long term, however, that the engagement of youth in the political process and the higher profile of issues of freedom of the press, protection of urban public spaces, freedom of assembly, etc., will be good for Turkey.

Professor Danish also made an interesting distinction. She argued, “I don’t see the Occupy Gezi movement as related to the Arab uprisings. Turkey is not Egypt. Tayyip Erdogan has authoritarian tendencies, but he is not Mubarak.”

Speaking of the Arab uprisings, I had an unexpected conversation with an acquaintance who goes to Syria quite a bit. A friend who goes to Syria quite a bit. “At first I was very sympathetic to the Syrian rebellion. But now, and I am embarrassed to admit this, I am almost privately in favor of the regime. The rebellion is so divided and is made of so many different people. 50% of the Syrians favor the regime. At least under the regime there was order. Also, whenever external groups get involved I get suspicious. Especially the American Republicans. They ruined Iraq, absolutely ruined it. So when John McCain wants to come in, I figure I likely should be opposed to it.”

Plural neighborhoods in Ottoman Istanbul, and a sour note at the Military Museum


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20130722-183301.jpgDetail from an old house in a Jewish area of Ottoman Istanbul

20130722-183512.jpgA lintel of a building in a Greek area of Ottoman Istanbul

The neighborhoods of Ottoman Istanbul sound like they were similar to parts of Queens, New York, if on a smaller scale. As one traveled through the city one would move from Jewish to Greek to Armenian to Turkish concentrations. These were not ghettos – people lived amongst one another – but religio-ethnicities tended to gather around their mosques, churches and synagogues, as well as their work. As described by Professor Sajdi as we walked through them, relations were not a model of post-modern post-nationalism, but there was certainly the co-existence frequently missing from the current Middle East. Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis make a similar point in the introduction to their Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, speaking about “two opposing myths on the question of Muslim tolerance and intolerance.” They argue, “One depicts Islam and the Muslims as bigoted, intolerant, and oppressive; its best-known image is Gibbon’s legendary figure of a fanatical warrior riding out of the desert, with the Quran in one hand and the sword in the other, offering his victims a choice between the two. The other myth is of an interfaith, interracial utopia in which Muslims, Christians and Jews worked together in equality and harmony in a golden age of free intellectual endeavor. Both myths are sadly distorted, relatively recent, and products of European, not Islamic, history.” Still, they conclude, “Remarkably, this polyethnic and multi-religious society worked.”

In contrast, turn into one room in the Istanbul Military Museum, and one goes back in time – but not far enough, and not in a good way. The room’s title, “The Armenian Issue,” gives some false hope. “Issue” sounds like one might be presented differing viewpoints. Instead, one reads and views pictures only of horrors the Armenians perpetrated on the Turks. A sign speaks of the “so-called genocide.” There is no gesture towards modern museum standards, much less true scholarly efforts to bring the most accurate information into the displays. It reminded me of Eastern European museums under the communists.

I wonder who today makes the decision to leave this display in place. Who is the head of the Turkish museum authority, for example? Does he come under pressure in international conferences? Are there other Turkish museums that handle the “Armenian issue” with a greater range of evidence, and is this a result of this being a military museum? The museum does not look recently updated – do they have changes in the works? Of course, Turkish resistance to the international consensus on the “Armenian issue” is well known, but I was surprised at the lack of subtlety and rhetorical care taken in this museum’s display.

Another angle on religion in Turkish schools


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20130721-172412.jpgSufi and other graves at the Sulemaniye Mosque complex

To complicate the narrative of religion in Turkish schools even further, I heard today about the Gülen schools. Founded by mystical leader (though he claims not to be a Sufi) Fetullah Gülen, these schools are advertised as a fascinating mix of cutting edge education in science, technology, engineering and math, as well as spiritually-inspired service education. Its critics, primarily the secularists, are worried it is a Trojan horse to introduce religion into the schools. More broadly, they claim the Gülen movement, which goes far beyond school, has many attributes of a cult. They argue it is strictly hierarchical, secretive, requires large “donations,” demands obedience, and expects members to favor each other in business and government.

A visitor to Gülen schools told me that though they claim to be ecumenical and modern, there is pressure for women to wear hijab, and that men and women do not sit together in the faculty lounge.

The movement is too complicated for me to explore in depth, but if you are interested check out the Wikipedia article. They have been founding schools around the world, including in the United States.

Pictures of an idealized past (future?)


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In the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, one encounters beautiful art shops. There one can find many idealized visions of a Jewish Jerusalem. One that especially struck me was a painting of the Western Wall, from a perspective that in real life would have to include prominently the Dome of the Rock. Yet there is no Dome – only a small copse of trees. There are also paintings of the Second Temple, which could be interpreted as historical paintings and not references to a hoped-for future – or both.

20130720-150341.jpgSomething’s missing…

I was fascinated yesterday to come across a painting of Hagia Sophia in an art shop near the church/mosque/museum. The painting showed the church without the minarets. Superimposed in the sky to one side was the image of Jesus from one of the mosaics inside. Who is the market for this image, I wonder? Greek Orthodox visitors, or simply any Christian?

Professor Kafadar on religion and the Ottoman state


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20130719-194851.jpgReligion and state at the center of the Empire: the Sultanahmet Mosque

Today I had the privilege of hearing a lecture from Professor Cemal Kafadar, one of the leading scholars of Turkish Studies. His talk ranged far and wide, but I focused on his discussion on religion in the Ottoman Empire. His primary theme: the Empire was more deeply involved in the organization of religious practice than any prior Islamic regime.

The basic roles of the professional religious were the same as in much of the Islamic world. The graduates from the madrases, the ulama, were, as they still are, religio-legal scholars. They followed three career paths: professor, mufti or qadi. Professors in the madrases, like today, would teach and write commentaries on books. Muftis were jurisconsults, very similar to rabbis giving responsa. Individual muftis’ rulings, or fatwas, would be followed to the extent these scholars were respected by their community. Thus they were not court rulings. Qadis were judges who offered binding court rulings, registered business relationships, marriages and divorces, and regulated the weights and measures in the marketplaces.

The Ottoman state revealed its influence in how it ranked the madrases in three ranks of competitiveness and quality. They also created a pyramidal hierarchy of muftis and qadis, all the way from the local level to the Sheik al-Islam. They frequently used the phrase “religion and state.” Professor Kafadar gave the example, “We must do such-and-so, for the good of religion and state.” Thus the two were explicitly tied both in practice and in rhetoric.

Professor Kafadar’s did not have time to discuss Sufism much, but I have seen much about Sufism in the Empire in my time in Turkey. I suspect that the Ottoman government’s heavy intervention in the official religion pushed those who wanted more religious flexibility into the alternative path of the mystical masters.


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