Autumn-winter 2004


  Autumn-winter 2004

  An interview with Dr. Oliver Leaman by Nevad Kahteran
Nevad Kahteran: Professor Leaman, I am delighted, after meeting you in London and Washington, to have this opportunity to act as co-host with the staff of the British Council for your first visit to the University of Sarajevo (the Faculties of Philosophy and Political Sciences, the Franciscan Theological College, the Faculty of Islamic Studies) as well as a reception by the Jewish Community and a guest appearance at a meeting of Circle 99. I should make it clear that our university is in the process of higher education reform, and opening up in this way to certain elements that, regrettably, have previously been absent from the curriculum is of great importance to us. However, let us primarily consider philosophy: and my question is, where it is going in the twenty-first century? What can it resort to, and what kind of a future has it in this age of globalization?

Oliver Leaman: Even Hegel would find it difficult to predict the direction of philosophy! Globalization does not necessarily make everything the same, it often makes diversity more widely known. The various different philosophical traditions around the world will no doubt continue to flourish. If we really believed that globalization would obscure differences then baseball would be the world's most popular sport, since it is the most popular sport in the USA. Yet outside of the USA hardly anyone plays the game. Globalization is helpful to philosophy in that it teaches us that ideas and arguments which we might think specific to a particular culture in fact often occur in widely different places at different times. Very rarely are philosophy courses sufficiently representative of what is often now called world philosophy. We all tend to concentrate on a specific number of thinkers and leave it at that. It seems to me that anyone who studies philosophy ought to know at least something not only about his or her own philosophical tradition but also about Chinese, Indian, Japanese philosophy, and many more traditions also. Obviously one could not know a lot about everything, but even a little global awareness would bring home the fact that we live in a wide world full of ideas and possibilities.

Nevad Kahteran: Although you may not be all that familiar with Bosnia's problems, your opting to talk about Levinas' philosophy at our Faculty of Philosophy has gone right to the heart of the difficulties facing Bosnia and Herzegovina's society. Instead of the folly of proportionality in one's behaviour towards others, Levinas proposes infinite responsibility for the Other, the supremacy of the ethical over the ontological. So how can one reconcile Levinas' views with the conflicts along national lines that still persist in Bosnia?

Oliver Leaman: Levinas saw no difficulty in reconciling nationalism with ethics, provided that nationalism is not narrow. He was, for example, undoubtedly a Zionist. He writes a lot on the importance of recognizing the other's face, since unless we recognize that the other has a face we shall depersonalize him or her. It is interesting how we often try to ignore the face of those with whom we are in conflict, as though we can ritually make them vanish before we try to make them vanish in reality. What often happens in conflicts between ethnic and religious groups is that the individual is regarded not really as an individual, but primarily as a member of a group, and a dangerous group at that, and so may be destroyed. Levinas thinks we should really question the ways in which we do this, since that would make our eventual actions much more honest. The more likely we are to recognize another's face, the more likely we are to tolerate the other. I suppose a question that religions like Christianity and Islam have to ask themsleves, since they are in many parts of the world in competition for converts, is how far they can recognize the importance of the other if the other is not a part of their faith community. If extra ecclesiam nulla sanctus (outside of the Church there is no salvation) then it is difficult perhaps to see the other as having the same rights and opportunities as those who are saved.

Nevad Kahteran: Bosnia and Herzegovina is well known today for resembling Frankenstein's monster I am thinking, of course, of the Dayton Accord, which did stop the war, true, but which grievously mutilated the traditional Bosnian beauty of unity in diversity for which Bosnia was and remains unique in the world, that meeting place of different cultures and civilizations. Knowing as you do not only Judaeo-Christian and Islamic philosophy but also the eastern philosophical traditions, I should like to ask you what we can do to reinforce that inseparable syntagmatic term Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, given the centuries long experience of co-existence, of convivencia, between all three here in Bosnia, with due regard, of course, to both the western and eastern forms of Christianity both Catholicism and Orthodoxy?

Oliver Leaman: It is difficult to know whether the periods of coexistence should be treated as the norm or whether conflict should be, I suppose, when looking at the ways in which different religious and cultural communities have lived together. When a powerful central authority disappears, there seems to be a tendency for the individual communities to tear each other apart, and that suggests that it is only the authority which prevents them from always acting in this way. In the Talmud this is referred to by the rabbis, when referring to the Roman state that spent so much of its time trying to wipe out Judaism: 'Obey the government, for if it were not for the government people would eat each other alive'. Even an evil state is better than no state at all. I am sure that thought has occurred to many people in post-Saddam Iraq.
Many parts of the world are today witnessing a very complex social makeup of different ethnic and religious groups. All the diversity you mention in Bosnia occurs in my town in the USA, and more. We even have a Bosnian community in addition to the Somali, Palestinian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Mexican, Russian and so on communities. We have every kind of religion and indeed every variety of Christianity, some so weird that it is difficult to describe them as Christian at all. We even have pagans who worship together in organized ways. This all takes place in a small Southern town in rural Kentucky. It is possible for people to get on together while all doing very different religious and non-religious things, and perhaps the key to this is being convinced of the desirability of diversity. That is why in the US the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, will take energetic legal measures to preserve the rights of fascists and racists to march and demonstrate. In Britain also there is a strong notion of the importance of the private as compared with the public sphere, and of the need to get on with people one might not necessarily actually like, or agree with. These are useful ideas in a modern multicultural society.

Nevad Kahteran: This is a question I would prefer to avoid, but it is one that nags at us constantly, and that makes it unavoidable. I am thinking here of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which inevitably impacts on other regions. To my mind, this wretched, this tragic conflict has caused both Jews and Muslims to lose many valuable links of understanding. I am sure you will agree that it is absolutely vital to differentiate between Judaism, in the sense of Jewish philosophy and theology, and the radical expression of the Zionist movement and indeed, to perceive the differences within the Zionist movement itself. Would you agree with this?

Oliver Leaman: Well, there are Jews who are not Zionists and there are Zionists who are not Jews, so in that sense Zionism is not central to Jewish philosophy. On the other hand, most Jews today are supporters of Israel and the question of Israel's right to exist is generally championed by Jews around the world. One reason for this is that many of Israel's enemies clearly wish to kill and/or expel the Jewish population in the Middle East, and in rather recent memory of the Holocaust in Europe that is not a tempting option for Jews. For example, in Morocco and Turkey Jews were only a few months ago killed solely for the reason that they were Jews. Similarly, attempts are made on an almost daily basis in Israel itself to kill anyone who is Jewish. Children on a bus going to school are killed not because they are Zionists but because they are Jews, and so it is natural for Israel to be a central issue today in Jewish thought and culture.
As I suggested before, there were periods when Jews and Muslims worked closely together and lived in harmony with each other. There are many periods in which they did not. This year is the 800th anniversary of the death of Moses Maimonides, the great Jewish thinker, who wrote most of his work in Arabic. He was expelled with the rest of the Jewish community from Cordoba, al-Andalus, by the local Muslims, and emigrated to Fez in Morocco, where it is said that he was forcibly converted to Islam. So that looks like the Muslims had bad relations with the Jews. But after he left Fez he moved to Fustat, near Cairo where he became a prominent physician to the Islamic leaderhip in Egypt and he and his family obviously flourished there. So that looks as though there were good relations. While he was in Cairo he received an enquiry from the Jews in the Yemen as to whether they should convert to Islam if the alternative was death, a policy that was then being carried out in that part of the world. So there have been a whole variety of links between Jews and Muslims, some positive and some negative, and the fighting between Israel and its enemies should be seen within this context. There was not a golden age of toleration broken by the existence of the State of Israel.

Nevad Kahteran: Our good friend a friend in spirit and more Professor James Winston Morris, who also visited Sarajevo a few years ago, said that if by some miracle Ibn 'Arabi were to be alive today, he would surely be a film producer. Given that cinematography in Bosnia is well on the way to acquiring an enviable reputation for itself in the world at large in addition to Oscar-winning Danis Tanović, we also have Ademir Kenović, Abdulah Sidran, Srđan Vuletić, Pjer Žalica and others what is your reaction to his remark, given that you yourself are no stranger to the world of films?

Oliver Leaman: It is an interesting idea, and I do not think we spend enough time thinking about the links between religion, philosophy and art. In fact, I have just finished writing a book called 'Islamic Aesthetics' which looks at some of those links. A film can be so effective in making a view more widely known, or communicating an emotion. There is a saying in English that a picture can say more than a thousand words, and the moving pictures are even more effective in that sense. There is this great divide in religion between those who would emphasize the emotions and those who favour the intellect, and I suppose films would fit in better with the emotional side of our lives.
To develop this point in a way that many people would perhaps be surprised to hear, President Bush is very impressed with a recent Afghan film called 'Osama' about a young Afghan. He has asked his staff to watch it and it clearly plays a leading role in providing a rationale for Nato action in Afghanistan. One might worry about that, since there are other films which take an entirely different approach, and from a rational point of view we ought, I suppose,to sample a variety of opinions and a variety of films. But then who has time, especially a president? So communicating by film often means affecting the emotions by strengthening a view one already has. In that sense it is not a very useful mechanism in philosophy, but a highly significant one in religion and politics.

Nevad Kahteran: As we approach the end of this conversation, and given the venue where these questions are being raised, it is vitally important for religious traditions, not only here in Bosnia but in the world as a whole, to do what they can to give the process of globalization a human face. Or is our modern world view to remain torn between secularism and the religious image of the world, unable to achieve a closer reconciliation between the two? What is your view of these contradictions in the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which I genuinely believe still represents a happy blend of traditional and modern culture and civilization?

Oliver Leaman: I don't think that secularism and religion are in some kind of eternal struggle so it should be possible for people to get on with each other regardless of their views on these topics. On the other hand, I doubt whether the messianic age is about to blossom, despite what some of my Christian friends say when they observe the conflict in the Middle East. This part of the world used to be run, rather inefficiently, by a variety of empires, the Austrians, the Ottomans and the Russians, and once they left all the cracks in society were allowed to widen and conflict break out. The trick will be to establish a society in which people will tolerate differences and respect diversity. Very easy to say but very difficult to do when the other is seen as a mortal foe. But it can be done. The Pakistanis and the Indians are seriously negotiating now, as are the Greeks and Turks in Cyprus. It seems to be economics, not ideology, that is leading this sudden interest in peace, and perhaps Adam Smith was right when he suggested that people are never so innocently engaged as when trying to make money.

Nevad Kahteran: And finally, but no less important, knowing as I do that you are steeped in the spirit of comparativism and the comparative study of philosophical traditions, would you really be willing to help us introduce a chair of Hebrew and Jewish studies at our Faculty of Philosophy in Sarajevo, which the Bosnian Sephardi Jews have for centuries described as Jerusalem in little? I have in mind your world-wide reputation as a scholar, but I must ask this whatever your response may be for it seems to me that instead of our being seated on the branches of one and the same tree of Abraham and bearing witness to the one God, nowadays and not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina we are being asked to choose between the worm-eaten fruits that long since fell from the tree, and that even if we are able to climb back into the three, we are again being invited to take our seats on branches that have long since split and cracked, are we not?

Oliver Leaman: I think such a post would be an excellent idea. I do know that Sarajevo was in the past an important centre of Jewish culture. In fact, on the cover of my most recent book which I edited with my colleague Dan Frank, the Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, I selected an image from the Sarajevo Passover Haggadah. Unfortunately recent conflicts have decreased a lot the diversity of much of the world. Jews have been expelled from most of the Islamic world, except for Israel at the moment, and there has been a big exodus of Christians also. I think countries become culturally much poorer when they become more uniform. One the great things about cities like New York and London is the sheer diversity of their populations, to such an extent that if you go into the West End of London today you are unlikely to hear English spoken by anyone in the street.
I know that the way in which the parts of the old Yugoslavia has been patched up seems to go against the promotion of diversity, but perhaps it is the best that can be done at the moment. There is an English saying that high fences make good neighbours, and perhaps in due course when the different communities feel more self-confident and relaxed they will return to a practice of cooperation and contact across ethnic boundaries. With this as an eventual aim, it would be good to celebrate diversity by creating an academic post in Sarajevo in Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and I would be happy to do what I could to promote such a project.

OLIVER LEAMAN has written recently on Islamic and Jewish philosophy including Averroes and his Philosophy (1997), Moses Maimonides (1997), Evil and Suffering in Jewish Philosophy (1995), Eastern Philosophy: Key Readings (2000), Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy (1999), A Brief Introduction to Islamic Philosophy (1999) and Introduction to classical Islamic philosophy (2001). He is the editor of Friendship East and West: Philosophical Perspectives (1996), The Future of Philosophy (1998), and co-editor of the History of Islamic Philosophy (1996) and the History of Jewish Philosophy (1996). He edited the section on Islamic philosophy in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998) and has contributed on the topic in many other works of reference. His recent books include the editing of the Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy (2001) and the Companion Encyclopedia of Film in the Middle East and North Africa (2001), the co-editing of the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying (2001) and of the Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy (2003). In the spring of 2004 his Islamic Aesthetics: An Introduction is due to be published.
He has been Zantker Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky since 2000. Before that he taught in the United Kingdom and the Middle East.