Michael Barry has lectured in the Near Eastern Studies department since 2004, teaching courses on Medieval and modern Islamic Culture in Spain, India, Pakistan and, in particular, Afghanistan. Dr. Barry lived and worked in Afghanistan for several decades after completing his A.B. at Princeton in 1970. He initially studied Medieval Afghan culture but soon began a distinguished career in humanitarian work with the International Federation for Human Rights, Médecins du Monde, and the United Nations.
Dr. Barry’s humanitarian worked spanned the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-89) and the ensuing civil war, which saw the country first controlled by the Mujahideen, and then by the Taliban. He has experienced the invasion of an Islamic nation by a non-Islamic superpower and the internal fallout from this violence, which sparked a new brand of radical Islam. Dr. Barry’s proximity to events that share certain characteristics with the recent rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria means that he has a deep personal understanding of how we, in America and the West, learn and think about such conflict in the Islamic world.
I sat down with Dr. Barry to learn about his perspective on ISIS: his experiences in Afghanistan are so different to those of the many writers and commentators whose focus on ISIS has dramatically increased since the tragic attacks in Paris in November. In spite of having witnessed over two decades of conflict in Afghanistan, Dr. Barry’s compassion for humanity shines through in his teaching of the high culture and tolerance of Islamic societies. He urges that our perception of this group does not distort our understanding and appreciation of the Islamic world and its histories and cultures.
Guy Johnston: You grew up in Paris but spent time in Afghanistan throughout your childhood. Would you mind explaining how that happened?
Michael Barry: One of my mother’s best friends married an Afghan prince; they invited me to visit and so I discovered the country. Afghanistan is the country I’ve known best. I was first there in 1963—it is terrifying when I say that date because it’s so long ago now. Afghanistan, to somebody growing up in France in the 60s and 70s, was the wild west. It was the country to which you could go and live with a tribe in conditions that had not changed since the 15th century. It meant that if you could master the language and integrate with the people, being able live on horseback, completely outside. I found it extremely exciting so I faked all sorts of academic reasons for doing it, like looking for 12th-century ruins, but then I was increasingly attracted to the literary expression of the language that I was learning with the Afghans. There was a tremendous amount of romanticism to the idea of living with nomads and everything I had was my horse, my saddle and my saddle bags, which I thought was tremendous freedom.
GJ: What made you stay there for so long, amidst all of the violence caused by the Soviet War and the Mujahideen? There must have been times when you could have returned to France or America to continue your academic work outside of a conflict zone.
MB: As I matured, I became perforce increasingly aware of the geopolitical catastrophe that was impending, and when you live with people who are on the receiving end of a geopolitical catastrophe, you learn to develop a geopolitical sense. Once Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviets and crushed down in what was Afghanistan’s real introduction to the 20th century—the hard way, basically—I underwent a spiritual and intellectual metamorphosis in which I interrupted what I thought was going to be an academic career centered around my interest in Medieval literature and art. I devoted two decades to humanitarian work in defense of the human rights of the Afghan people. This was not with any particular stress on Afghans as being the only people worthy of attention, but a sense of human responsibility whereby, if you know a people and you know their language and you are aware of their pain, if you don’t do what you can to alleviate that pain there, then you’re not a worthy member of the human family. Not for a moment would I say that the sufferings of Afghans were worse than the sufferings of the Cambodian or Tibetan people, its just I don’t speak Khmer or Tibetan, but I speak Afghan Persian like an Afghan. I remember talking to the first Afghans to emerge from one of the periodic amnesties that opened up the concentration camps set up by the Soviets. I saw in their eyes the kind of unfathomable suffering that I associated with people of my parents’ generation who went through the Holocaust. So, with the Afghans themselves, I was catapulted out of a sort of Medieval dreamland into the worst of 20th century geopolitics, out of which has come the worst of 21st century geopolitics.
GJ: How have these experiences influenced your work as a teacher?
MB: I returned to academia after going through twenty years of Afghan War. I was hoping by 2002 that the country would settle down enough so that I could go back and research aspects of medieval culture, but that did not happen. I am challenged by the study of Islamic culture in conjunction or comparison with Judaic or Christian culture, not studying Islamic culture as though it were a unique thing unconnected from any other. A lot of what influenced me to think this way was to live in what were literally medieval Afghan conditions, and then, returning to France and looking at the monuments of the French Middle Ages, recognizing with a sense of extraordinary intimate shock how close this was to what I actually lived through, among traditional Afghans living in a kind of sacred rural atmosphere.
The study of the Islamic world is no longer an exoticism and it is no longer a luxury. When I was first interested in this world and when I was first living in Afghanistan, its study was antiquarian. Now, knowledge of Islamic culture is as much a part of our necessary cultural baggage as knowledge of Japanese culture or of Russian culture. It’s the world in which we live and so I’m very happy to share what I have learned in the field. But, as you probably know, I am insistent on maintaining a standard of study of the high classical civilization and not just the modern horrors. By modern horrors, I most explicitly label the demented philosophy of the Saudi Arabian state and its Wahhabism, I really mean that. To look at Islamic culture solely through that prism is to falsify it. That does not mean that there is not a strain of Islamic culture, as in Christian or Jewish culture, that has that. But, it is not the only aspect and to look only at the most violent and perverse elements of Islamic culture is to encourage in those studying it, not an attitude of dispassionate examination, but something much more dangerous, which is one of contempt. Not only are we falsifying the object that we study if we neglect the classical standard, but we instill an attitude of ‘these are peculiar people’ that we look upon from high above and ‘how can we manage them down there?’
When I give courses on, say, Ibn Arabi, one of the Spanish Islamic geniuses of the early 13th century, suddenly we are confronted not with an exotic medieval specimen that we can dissect from our cultural height, but with an intellectual genius so eminent that we find ourselves in the presence of some of the best that a human mind can come up with. So, we look at Ibn Arabi like we look at Mozart, or Shakespeare, or Bach, or Einstein. We say, this is what humanity can do, this is what we look up to, and suddenly what we call Orientalism disappears and that is very good. Ibn Arabi is an important part of the history of Medieval Spain, which is one of a high Islamic culture that is European.
But I don’t think people really are aware of this, that, as you explain in your class on Spanish Islam, 10th century Cordova is considered a sort of Golden Age of Semitic culture. I think that a lot of people who have not studied the Islamic world would have a vague geopolitical sense of its history, including this history in Europe, but would have even less of a sense of the amazing variation of culture and civilization that is such an important part of this history.
That’s why I’ve always balanced my work on geopolitical issues with attention to higher culture, which is only a way of stressing humanity. I don’t consider geopolitics, to tell you the truth, to be amusing or gratifying. I look at it as a way to show important realities. We cannot turn away from it, but at least we can counterbalance it with the high traditions. Can you imagine if, in departments of East Asian studies, we should have so exclusively concentrated on Maoism that knowledge of Tong poetry and Sung painting should have become so completely neglected? That people no longer knew what Chinese civilization meant, so that when Maoism finally passes away, we are left with a void because we do not understand these higher parts of Chinese identity and culture? To go even further, someone who is dealing with the Japanese or the French, politically or in business, but who shows true knowledge of their classical culture, commands the kind of respect from the interlocutor that comes from the feeling of “oh, you recognize my true worth as a human being,” and bonds are established. If, in our dealings with the Islamic world, we ignore Cordova or Ibn Arabi to concentrate solely on Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, we are basically belittling the entire culture and were fooling ourselves too because were ignoring what we should know.
GJ: How can we understand the way a group like ISIS has ignored much of this history?
MB: Just seeing ISIS’s Salafist Islam as the distortion of doctrine would be an easy way out.
We have to face squarely that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all harbor the apocalyptic, or millenarian, or messianic streak and this comes to the fore in moments of social disintegration and despair. A movement that I find very close to what the ISIS people are doing now was the extreme Protestant commonwealth in Germany of the early 16th by Thomas Munster, who established a dictatorship of the just, expelling the poor and the infirm and putting to death anyone who didn’t think like he did to hasten the return of Christ. He was so extreme that even Luther turned against him and allied with the German princes to crush his movement.
We find that messianic movements, which are often extremely revolutionary in terms of calling for the annihilation of the infidels, are looked upon with great fear by established powers. In the history of millenarian movements, which includes the Puritans of New England, often these movements tend to compromise with the outside world and jettison their founding puritanical principles one after another. They basically fade into ordinariness, but this can take three or four generations. Otherwise, such movements present what seems to be such an intolerable challenge to the surrounding powers that the surrounding powers usually coalesce to crush them out of existence. This is what the Romans did to the Messianic Jews of the first century AD, to quote a horrendous case of an imperial power stamping out the messianic challenge. Or, Luther and the German princes stamping out Munster’s movement.
GJ: Isn’t there inevitably some selectivity in the way every society views the relationship between its own past and present, and the past and present of other societies?
MB: We must definitely look at this present as this shows us what can result from trends in the past. But, at the same time, you look at the present as the result of things that stem from the past and the various choices that are made. You can make a comparison to the view from a ship. As you recede from the shore, you see more and more different elements and as we move the past itself changes. Ultimately, we are constantly making choices in the cupboard of our own past and what we choose in our past reveals a lot about who we are and what our options are. I can say that a Christian of the temper of Pope Francis obviously is choosing in the Christian past the figure of St Francis of Assisi—tolerance, kindness, universal compassion—rather than the figure of St Dominic, the first grand master of the Inquisition. You could argue that both of these figures are in the cupboard of the Christian past, but it’s what Francis today makes of this that orients our view of the culture. I would argue that to study exclusively Christianity in its worst aspects, like the Inquisition, is to falsify the picture. But to deny the Inquisition is to also falsify the picture. We must learn to balance both. Where I see a danger in terms of Islamic culture is if our exclusive focus on the current worse blinds us to the potential of what was the best. Not to deny the worst, to do this is intellectually dishonest and ethically treading a very dangerous path. You must denounce groups like ISIS and understand what past elements they thrive on, like Cargo Cults.
GJ: What is a Cargo Cult?
MB: We find that, in the course of human experience, culture groups that are shattered by an alien force that seems invincible, culture groups that are reduced to utter despair, can go into almost pre-mortem convulsions in which they try to find some formula to recover the glory of their own ancestors. In Melanesia, Papua New Guinea, in the 20s and 30s, the traditional way of life was disintegrating under the impact of white colonization along the coasts. The goods brought by cargo seemed to endow the whites with enduring superiority and, as the native culture collapsed, cults arose in which prophets called for restoring the ancestral rites in their absolute purity in order to secure once again the favor of the divine ancestors to wipe out the whites and restore the cargo to people of Melanesia.
In other words, ISIS is the lashing out of a small part of a culture that, as late as 1800, still thought of itself as the summit of the human venture. ISIS, in its extraordinary brutality, resembles many of these messianic cults that call on their ancient ancestors to restore their former glory. They even call themselves Salafist and Salafist in Arabic means the ancestors, ancestral. They are openly invoking the ancestors. All these words that we use, apocalyptic, millenarian, messianic are of course from Judaic tradition. These traits are visible at various moments of Jewish and Christian civilization. Messianism is the forlorn, despairing Jewish hope after conquest by the Babylonians, Macedonians, Romans, that a messiah will come, a descendant of David, to restore the ancestral glory of Israel and annihilate all the enemies and return to the ancestral golden age of the first and second temple.
GJ: So how do you see other countries reacting to ISIS’s violence, particularly in light of the tragic events that took place in Paris on November 13th?
MB: There is no doubt that ISIS is a movement which has made itself intolerable to the majority of today’s civilization. As such, it will attract a reaction of defense and finally it may very well provoke the coalition that will crush it. If so, it won’t disappear in one great blow.
Strategically, I think ISIS has capitalized on the discontent of the disenfranchised Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria. It reaches its limits when it butts against Shia society in southern Iraq or Kurdish society in northern Iraq. It cannot penetrate except by killing a lot of people but it cannot hold anything there. What ISIS is capable of doing is in securing the allegiance of many likeminded groups throughout northwest Africa and central Asia. The more it is hit in Iraq and Syria, the more such groups will lash out elsewhere.
Also, we are going to have to zero in on the original focus of all this, which is Saudi determination to isolate Iran because it regards Iran as an enemy that once upon a time called for the overthrow of the Saudi state in 1979. It is part of a propaganda machine which wants to neutralize Iran’s appeal to Muslims by stressing that Shias are not Muslims and encouraging Sunni hatred for Shias. The only way Sunnis will hate Shias to the extent that Saudi Arabia wants them to is by turning them into Wahhabis. If they are moderate or traditional Sufis for example, they are not going to work themselves up into a Shiite bashing fit. But, Wahhabism, which is rabidly anti Shia, is a geopolitical ploy used by Saudi and, to our woe, endorsed by the US between 1979 and 2001 because we thought it was a great way of isolating Iran.
Also, what Saudi Arabia was able to sell to the US in those years was that Wahhabism was an inoculation against Marxist-Leninism. So, if you promote Wahhabism, you neutralize Shias and you neutralize Marxist-Leninists, which, in the 1980s, sounded like a good idea. Now, America is dealing with the consequences of an ideology that openly calls for the restoral of slavery. If that is not a far right wing ideology, I do not know what is. I also urge for the general clearing of the ideological air that we use more comfortably terms like right wing extreme, rather than Islamist. By doing so, those not of Islamic culture feel let off the ideological hook and can simply say this is an extreme right wing movement which we would condemn if it was a Christian movement, and so we should condemn it in the same way as an Islamic movement.
ISIS is the extreme right wing-ism of the 20th century plus millenarianism. You know the title of the online magazine of the Islamic state? Dabiq, which refers to a mythical battle field where the forces of Islam and the forces of Rome, meaning the infidels, will meet in the final battle which will see the triumph of the good and the annihilation of the evil.