I recently sat down with Dr. Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer in Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at U.C. Berkeley, for a quick interview about his educational development, and the possibility of religion providing legitimacy to protest movements. What began as a quick and narrow scoped interview quickly became a discussion on the roles of higher education, and an enlightening view on the restrictive function religion should play on the application of power.
Dr Bazian has also served as an adjunct Professor of Law at the Boalt Hall School of Law at U.C. Berkeley and is also a visiting Professor in Religious studies at St. Marys College. Professor Bazian also serves as my thesis advisor. I have taken many classes with Prof. Bazian on a variety of topics including Islam and the Muslim experience in America.
Corey Hashimoto: The paper that I am writing is on the Muslim Brotherhood operating in Egypt, however a major component of my argument is the Muslim brotherhood's relationship to Palestine as well as the question of Israel. That being said, I feel that I'm in a good position having you as a thesis advisor primarily due to your Palestinian heritage as well as the fact you have written extensively on this issue. So my first question, which is actually quite personal, having been born in Palestine and educated here in the U.S., how much do you think your upbringing has affected your education in the sense that your experiences as a child has directly influenced your ideas as an adult having been educated in the U.S?
Hatem Bazian: Your environment and where you grew up and your background influences your worldview and your positionality in general. So as such, being Palestinian, and being born "outside", and having lived my formative years in a Palestinian community, in essence I lived in Jordan; so that influences your perspective on a number of things. One, your classified at the time as part of the Third World. So geography and location is very important, vis a vis Palestine and Palestinians, and then the rest of the world. So as you come into what is defined as the first world, even though those terms are constructed terms, definitely it influences how you see things, and how you experience things. For example, race and racism is definitely embedded in these classifications. "Heartland", or "center' and "periphery" are also embedded. So as you come from the periphery, epistemologically to the center, you also begin to understand this conceptualization of the periphery and the center and how policies and decisions are made at the center, that impact the periphery without the periphery having the ability to speak for itself. So in essence, where I was brought up influences how I see things and my ability to analyze it from a different perspective.
CH: When you received your education here in the US, specifically in the Bay Area, how did you deal with the traditional view of Palestinian/Israeli relations, and how did you challenge that if at all?
HB: Well I believe experience is one of the most elicited aspects of education, meaning that being at the University is not necessarily by itself a sign of education. Gaining a degree, or certification, is not necessarily indicative of education. Often as I say, the University produces cubical inhabitants. Meaning that we are no longer interested, at the core of it, in education which is to produce ethical, principled, and good people. Our function now is to create "replacement parts" for the economy. Our students are now the product that we send to companies to fill the many layers of cubicles that are being produced, and then you move up and you have a cubicle with a window, and so on. So as such, my experience before entering the University was as critical and as important to providing my theoretical grounding before coming to the University, where you might become more sophisticated, where you might be able to put more language to it, where you might be able to say things without being perceived as being part of the outside because you develop the academic language. So the University experience in essence is learning the language to express what is already known or what is already experienced. Experiential knowledge isfar more demonstrative of your knowledge level, in a similar way an African-American on the street does not need a PhD to express the feeling of racism. His experience of being stopped every time, driving while black, is more experiential knowledge than the individual skilled in academia who might write a thesis about it, but the thesis once again is external to the experience.
CH: So what you're saying is that the University experience only gives you the tools to explain what you already know?
HB: Yes, it gives you the ability to explain, and possibly also the ability to contextualize and create comparative paradigms to the experience that you have gone through. Where prior to that, you were trying to explain an experience but do not have the array of tools to be able to actually shape the discourse around Palestine and around the Palestinian experience. So in essence, some corners of the university, not all, are able to articulate and able to develop these tools. Some corners are actually used to crush your ability to utilize the tools. If anything, it's to try to shape you into a particular epistemology and a particular paradigm, and you are here to fit in as opposed to challenge the existing paradigm.
CH: when exactly did you come to the United States?
HB: December, 1982. I was 18 years old.
CH: In your adolescence, do you remember coming into contact with any social/political/religious groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine?
HB: At the time, I grew up in a period where Arab nationalism was the predominant outlook. In the 1970s, Islamic organizations were not really the focal point. The beginning of the articulation of Islam as a identity and a source of organizing doesn't take place until the mid-1980s. And then at the end of the Cold War, you see the shift-taking place. No longer do you have the Communist versus capitalist, East versus West framing, and Arab nationalism has essentially collapsed in 1992. Now you have a brand-new articulation, having developed a few years before, I would say between 1985 and 1987, and leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, you could see the shift taking place. So prior to that it wasn't really a part of the social, cultural, political norms within the society.
CH: We've spoken before on the possibility of protest movements finding legitimacy in religion, and I'd like to touch upon that again if we can. My question is how do you see protest movements and religion playing off of one another, and do you see anywhere religion can be used as a form of legitimacy for protesting corrupt governments? I ask this in the context of the Muslim Brotherhood operating as a religious group in Egypt.
HB: The thing is, we have to realize that the human being is a spiritual being. So the experience and the role of religion, and spirituality, are central to the human experience. Even though that sociologically they say that the human being developed religion in order to explain the unexplainable, I'm of the opinion that spirituality is part and parcel of the human experience. Religion at its core is an ethical calling. Meaning, if we think of all the religious figures that are present in the Bible, the Quran, in Buddhism, and Hinduism, you'll find at its core a call to an ethical engagement of the world from the human being. And as such, religion has a corrective force for society. Meaning that if we think about the excesses of power, power assumes itself the divine attribute for its ability to conduct itself without any restraint. And therefore, religion correctly understood and correctly articulated, should play a restraining role on the excesses of power. However, religion also tends to have the possibility of being incorporated into power, and that's where we get this concept of Imperial religion. Impure religion has the role of providing a garb of sanctity for the un-sanctified power. And as such, the wrong will be not in religion itself but in the utilization of religion for Imperial projects. And that's the dilemma we have, whenever religion moves into an Imperial relationship it actually undermines its ability to restrain power.
CH: So keeping this Imperial relationship in mind, do you see the Muslim Brotherhood's program of instituting Sharia law as broaching into Imperial Power?
HB: Well that's where we have to see, if it becomes an Imperial construct, where God is sanctioning an imperial project, then that is highly highly problematic. Then I will say time will eventually come to prove the thesis wrong that religion's role is to restrain power not to play with power or become a partner in power. And early on in Islam there is an articulation that power and religion in the Quran will separate, and the Prophet counseled to go after the Quran, meaning go after the ethical or that which is higher in magnitude and do not go after the power. Every society has to have a power structure that reflects its value, but if you are given the choice between taking power or developing the ethical paradigm then you should choose to develop the ethical paradigm. And as such, there is a concern that there is a possibility that taking power directly and attributing to it a religious outlook would lead to that the religious outlook being at fault, for the failures of secularly constructed paradigms. Meaning that fixing the streets is not a religious undertaking, it is a secular undertaking. What you want is an ethical person, to counsel the people who are fixing the streets to fix them to the best of their ability. But if you are saying that religion itself is the one that is responsible for fixing the streets, then you have basically not understood the separation between the ethical and the practical.
CH: So what would you say to the notion that religion teaches ethics and morals, that therefore religion would be indirectly responsible for fixing the street or other secular endeavors?
HB: It is involved, by being the watcher over power in a counseling ability. But not to say, "I will take the power because I'm the most qualified" essentially attributing into yourself divine purpose. You have to say, "this is my understanding of religion", not "this is religion". So it is an interpretive power, not an exclusive power. That's the danger in here. That's not to say that religious organizations or groups do not have the right to strive to take power, or strived to work with power, but at least to distinguish between saying that "this is the singularity" versus "this is the plurality" of our understanding. Meaning that once you say this is the only way that religion is to be expressed, then that's a problem, because essentially you've taken on divine purpose. A singular understanding, versus saying "this is our understanding and all other understandings have equal standing, and lets just discuss and debate about what is the best understanding to emerge".