Magnús Þorkell Bernharðsson is a professor of history at Williams College, visiting his native country to teach a course at the University of Iceland. Debates rage worldwide on political events unfolding in the Middle East and Bernharðsson is here to lend his expertise to interested students. He made some time to sit down with the Grapevine and address a few of the “big questions” concerning Islam and the Middle East. In times of political and religious strife like these, it was nice to find that he knows both a former classmate of mine and two previous professors. Perhaps it is, indeed, a small world.
/// What is the topic of the course you are teaching here?
– It’s a master’s level course in the international relations program. It’s on the relationship between religion and politics. We’re focusing specifically on Islam and the Middle East. I teach full time in the United States at a liberal arts college called Williams in northwestern Massachusetts, but I’m here basically on sabbatical. I’m only going to be spending two weeks, so this is an intensive course. We’ll meet intensely for two weeks and then the students will work on their projects until the end of the term. This is a new course of study here at the University of Iceland. In international relations there are several lines: international law, international business, and multiculturalism; that’s where this course fits in.
/// What are some of the main ideas that you want to communicate to your students here as opposed to in the States?
– You mean how is it different to teach here? Well [besides] teaching on the master’s level, the atmosphere is different here in Iceland than it is in the United States. [In the U.S.] there is a political atmosphere. [In Iceland] people are not as emotionally attached to the Middle East as people in the United States. [Their interest in courses] is not for religious or ethnic or political reasons. In Iceland, I could say that there is more freedom or more flexibility to discuss ideas on an intellectual basis. Because Icelanders do not have any [vested] interest in the Middle East, it’s not directly related to anything that the government is doing, so students don’t see it as a critique on their government.
/// In your research and teaching are you more concerned with historical and political contexts or with identifying concepts of faith and religion?
– I’m a historian, so what I’m really trying to do in this course, and in most of my teaching, is to [explore] to what extent contemporary debates and discussions are rooted in the past and in perceptions of the past. I think that many of the debates that we are seeing today are not new, but have been taking place for the last hundred or two hundred years. [Ours] is a changing society with new venues of mass communications, new media and so on. [Information between] people may be circulating more freely.
In the last 50 years there has been relative peace and stability in Europe and North America, whereas there has not been peace and stability in the Middle East. [This is] largely as a result of European and American interference. In the first part of the 20th century Europeans and North Americans were at war constantly; for the first 50 years of the 20th century there was peace and stability in the Middle East. So, I want to point out that the situation right now is not a natural state of affairs, but a relatively new historical phenomenon, and I want people to view it in that way. [In my class] we do address the “clash of civilisations” theory and I stress to students that this is a theory and not a reality or something that is based on actual events. This is a theory that has taken on significance in many peoples minds and I think you could argue that policy is now being based on this theory.
/// Do you see the violence in the Middle East right now as more of a cultural and religious clash, or one resultant of political problems built into the region through outside parties dictating national boundaries, and the corruption that has come with outside influence on the creation of governments therein?
– In some places there’s a huge debate over identities and the role of religion in the public sphere and what are the most feasible methods to implement more religion and respect for the holy in [that arena]. Then, in others, the debates, violence, conflicts are directly related to economic stress or foreign intervention, so I think it’s a combination of both [internal clashes and outside influence]. However, I try to stress with all of my students, especially here, that one should not be seeking monocausal explanations. That is very easy to do and in many ways it can be very gratifying, but instead of trying to find simple categorisations one should acknowledge the complexity of the situation. Therefore, one’s attitude or policy or approach to the region should take [into account] the diversity and complexity as the reality, rather than [taking] a monolithic unity kind of approach.
/// Do you think that tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites are as much “to blame” as Muslim vs. Judeo-Christian ‘clashes of civilisation’?
– That is one thing that is more obvious [now] than 50 some years ago. There has been a remarkable rise in tensions among certain Sunni governments, and [between] Sunnis and Shi’a, and there are many Sunnis who do worry about what they perceive as the rise of Shi’ism and Shi’ite identity. [This is happening] in Iran, southern Iraq, western Saudi Arabia, [with] Hezbollah, and in Lebanon. But this is also possibly related to internal power struggles and there are other factors than just the Sunni-Shi’ite identity [clash]. It is interesting that the Shi’a identity, since the Iranian revolution, has been more ‘on the rise’ so to speak. Shi’a have been more in the driver’s seat than they have ever been before, politically. I think that naturally worries some Sunnis, some – not all, who take a negative view of what the Shi’ites are up to. But again, this is a relatively new phenomenon and there have always been tensions. Now it seems like it’s quite evident in some quarters. Certain radical groups, in fact do try to take advantage of that to mobilise their supporters, but generally speaking Sunnis and Shi’ites are living in peace and harmony with each other and are not at each other’s necks, though [this trend is] something that should be followed.
/// What impact do you think Sufis are having on current politics in the Middle East?
– They’re such a small minority and not, given their nature, really obvious. But Sufis have been at the forefront of reform in the past. It just so happens, right now, that they are not. Part of that is that some of the groups that are dominant and very active and vocal [now] do not have a very positive view of Sufis. So, it’s in their best interest right now to keep their heads low. But, if you travel, you see Sufi lodges and you see Sufis. You might wonder if, indeed, the more that Islam comes to [be a part of] public discourse and [certain speakers] are in the media more, perhaps more people will be drawn to Sufism: looking inward instead of to an outward expression.
/// Are Icelanders experiencing the impact of problems in the Middle East?
– I’ve been lecturing about the Middle East and Islam in Iceland on a regular basis, both in a formal academic environment and more informally, for the last seven or eight years. I would say that there has been an explosion of interest and people are much more aware of the Middle East and Islam. I’m always surprised at how much Icelanders have travelled in the region. This is in stark contrast to American students who, well, there are very few.
/// I think most Americans would be totally disinterested. Or afraid?
– Yes, exactly the case. There is a growing interest and people are studying more; however, there are very few opportunities currently offered here at the university level and even fewer at the high school level. I think there’s now greater interest and Icelanders follow these events very closely. [This is] as opposed to some Americans who perhaps feel that their government is to blame. There’s not that kind of a connection here. I would say it is more of an intellectual/ideological political interest, rather than a [livelihood] interest.
///Where would you like the discussion of Islam and the Middle East to be going in Iceland?
– I think Icelanders have always viewed the Middle East and other peoples as not their business and neither important nor necessary, but [just] as interesting. Now Icelanders are beginning to realise that, not only are they interesting, but also important. These events in the Middle East do affect our daily lives and, with Icelanders going abroad more and Icelandic companies doing more businesses abroad, we have to figure out how to be part of the world in a meaningful way and to be more aware of the various cultural differences that exist between societies. We should be aware that we are part of the international community and I think more and more Icelanders are becoming aware [of that], especially of the Islamic people… A tremendous conscious decision because it is a challenge. Young Icelanders are trying to develop an educated and sophisticated outlook on the world.