INTERVIEW: by William DalrympleNews Weekly
Cross-fertilisation the key to a vibrant world
, July 12, 2003
British writer William Dalrymple recently visited Australia to promote his latest book
White Mughals which examines the British experience in India. His earlier books, particularly
From The Holy Mountain, which recorded the current condition of Christianity in the Middle East, have been popular for their elegant style and perceptive observations. While in Melbourne he was interviewed by
News Weekly.News Weekly: From the Holy Mountain is a terrific book. In some ways it is a personal history. Was this what set you on your journey, a relative who was involved in "pilfering" Byzantine manuscripts?
Yes. I come from a very Catholic background. I have a brother who is a priest and an uncle who was a famous religious writer who was also a priest, but I personally am not enormously religious. I am certainly not an enthusiastically orthodox Catholic.
I suspect that some will become very Freudian and look for what the roots of that book are and probably something will come out of it that suggests my fascination of being a non-religious member of a very, very religious family.
You can look at it intellectually rather than necessarily spiritually - although I am very interested in the mystical tradition.
If you were to start looking for personal motivations behind that journey, more immediately, they came as a sensation travelling as a journalist through the Middle East.
Wherever I went, one came across these Christian minorities. Armenia, Pakistan, Egypt.
Places where once the Christian presence was a quarter of the population now have very fractional minorities. These were not just a series of isolated incidents. This was part of a general movement.
The Ottoman Empire, which had once been a place of enormous pluralism, this great area from Venice right down to southern Egypt; right across the Balkans, through Greece, through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Egypt had once been enormously pluralistic.
There had been this fabulous mix of Jews, Armenians, Sunni, Shia, all these different kinds, and they had succeeded in living together - if not in a perfect peace, at least in a pluralistic equilibrium.
Compare this to Europe, where Christians had massacred Muslims and succeeded in 1945 in more or less wiping out the Jews too.
One was always brought up with the idea that Europe was the home of democracy, freedom and liberalism and yet we have a history of genocide against these minorities.NW: Was this pluralism possible because the Ottomans provided an overarching authority?
No, I don't think it is. I think it is due to the traditional pluralism of Islam, ironically, in view of what we see today, of a very virulent, unpluralistic form of Islam and Wahhabism.
To make a comparison with Christianity, it is as if you had the brethren, who while remaining a tiny minority succeeded in achieving dominance over the majority.
You have that in Islam. The Wahhabi are a tiny, tiny minority yet they now control, through Saudi Arabia, ninety per cent of Islamic publishing. Seventy-five per cent of mosques in America are Wahhabi financed.
So you have this extreme yet tiny sect, which has succeeded in spreading extremely virulent and unpluralistic forms of religion over a massive area.
Yet, historically, there can be no discussion about it. Islam traditionally has been far more pluralistic, far more tolerant of minorities than Christianity. Christianity as expressed in Western European history has been uniquely a total society, which did not admit to minorities within its midst.
If you look in the eighteenth century you have Huguenots who are fleeing persecution in France, arriving in the Ottoman Empire and saying that there is no place on earth where the exercise of religion is more free than in Turkey.NW: We have almost the reverse now. What brought that about?
On one hand, you have the death of influence of the church in Europe and on the other you have the rise of these extremely virulent minority forms of Islam which are stamping out traditional Islam.
For example in Egypt, Copts and the Muslims would interact most closely as worshippers at the same shrines and at religious festivals. It doesn't matter whether the saint is a Muslim Sufi you always found Muslims, Christians, and Jews, it made no difference.
The Wahhabis don't like this and you find these very nasty forms of religion spreading and you now find people attacking Christians who visit these sites: something that's only happened within the last twenty years. So it is a reverse.
I think it comes also from the fact that since September 11th, the West now sees itself as coming under attack by Muslim fundamentalism.
There's long been a perception in the Muslim world that it has been under assault by the West, for which there is much concrete evidence. So you have not the clash of civilisation but of perceptions and the theme, which unites these two books, is the relationship between Christianity and Islam. From The Holy Mountain
is looking at the Christian roots of Islam and the degree to which the two have succeeded in living side by side, which is ironic because the book sets out to record the persecution of Christians and it ended up being the opposite in a sense.
My new book White Mughals
is, if you like, a clarion call against the notion of that civilisation. It shows that as recently as 1800 you had a period of history when large numbers of Britons were attracted to Islam, establishing themselves in a new society and assimilating themselves into Islamic rituals.
So why do we have clashes of civilisations? They need not happen and you equally have periods of great coexistence and peace - eight centuries where you had Christian and Jews living under Muslim rule in Spain and in twelfth century Sicily where under the Christian Norman kings you had Christian, Muslims and Jews coexisting incredibility fruitfully.
I think that the periods of greatest achievement have come at these moments when cultures interact.
A society which is monolithic and has nothing challenging it, grows flaccid and loses its drive. A civilisation which is challenged by new ideas, by different groups coming in and questioning and throwing in influences, cross-fertilises itself and becomes dynamic.
So you'll find for example throughout history, either under the Byzantine Empire or the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul is a place of terrific dynamism.
You have Jews, Muslims, Armenian Christians, all these different peoples living in adjacent quarters challenging each other, cross fertilising their ideas and the result is a place which is rich, intellectually vibrant and, artistically, incredibly vibrant.
Today Istanbul is monolithically 99 per cent Muslim Turkish. Nothing happens in that country.
Ironically, the idea of the "clash of civilisations" comes out of America and yet a city like New York is evidence of dynamism where you have huge numbers of ethnic groups coexisting.
New York is like the new Istanbul.
I think the clash of civilisations is fundamentally flawed as a concept. There is a wonderful quote by Steven Runciman saying that Western civilisation grows out of the interpenetration of east and west.
Everything that is new and dynamic in the West has tended to come from moments when the two have come together. Obviously Christianity itself is eastern.
People just don't know about it. It is amazing just how much the eastern half of Christianity has been edited out of the record.
People are not even aware there are Christians in the Middle East.NW: What of the future?
We assume liberalism, multiculturalism and tolerance are virtues which are stable and society is moving in a direction, we're moving from a period of monoculturalism to multiculturalism but again the experience of British and India show these things are reversible.
You have this rise, up to the period of about 1780, when one in three Brits were married to Indian women in India and you have two societies completely separate by the 1850s.
There are assumptions that multiculturalism is here to stay, but there are no indications that that is necessarily the case.
There are fashions in the race you marry and attitudes to other cultures, as there are the trouser length you wear.
- William Dalrymple's books (published by Harper Collins) are available from News Weekly Books (03) 9326 5757 or email firstname.lastname@example.org