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Interview: Professor Carole Hillenbrand – winner of the 2016 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize

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Nominations for the 2018 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding are now open. The prize, worth £25,000, is awarded annually for outstanding scholarly contribution to global cultural understanding and is designed to illuminate the interconnections and divisions of culture and identity in world civilization.

Here, the 2016 Al-Rodhan Prize-winner Professor Carole Hillenbrand FBA speaks about her book Islam: A New Historical Introduction (for which she won the prize) and the need for greater transcultural understanding between the West and the Islamic world.

Hi Carole. Can you explain the development of Islam: A New Historical Introduction?

This was a book that I wrote slowly and deliberately. It took four years and in that time I drew continuously on the knowledge I had acquired in the course of some fifty years of engagement with the Muslim world, through three of its major languages, through long-term research into its religion and history, through a professional lifetime of teaching at university level, through visiting nearly all the Muslim-majority countries and through living in some of them for a time. 

My publishers, Thames and Hudson, took inordinate pains to ensure that the text and illustrations of my book provided the best possible introduction to that world for undergraduates, since they envisioned that its primary use would be as a college textbook. For my part, I wanted it equally to be readable and accessible for people in search of an accurate, reliable and non-partisan guide to the beliefs and practices of Islam in a context that was both historical and contemporary.

What did winning the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize mean to you?

The Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize meant a great deal to me because it provided validation that my book – at least in the view of the judges – could indeed serve as a bridge between two cultures that are becoming increasingly estranged from each other, even though they both share a religious foundation that is similar in many ways. Time will tell whether the book will have the reach and impact that I planned and hoped for, but translations into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian, Hungarian and Czech testify to its growing reputation.

Why do you think the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for global understanding is important?

I think that the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for transcultural understanding is an encouragement to tackle head-on some of the most urgent problems facing Western society in an increasingly globalised world in which we all simply have to get on with each other much better than we currently do. 

To stay for the moment within my own professional field of interest, Islamophobia peddles pernicious lies of every stripe. It simplifies and it misrepresents and it thrives on ignorance, hatred and fear. The best defence against it is solid, accurate information. We need reminding that the faith of Islam is no longer just ‘out there’ but also right here – the Muslim presence is increasing in almost every European country and we all need to know our neighbours better. And as the number of migrants moving to the West from the East and the South mounts, so too does the need for cultural understanding become ever more pressing. Most long-term projections forecast that such large-scale migration, whether triggered by poverty, political turmoil, climate change, or simply the search for a better life, is here to stay.

What do you make of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of right wing and far right parties across Europe? Do you think these events symbolise a regression? If so, how dangerous is that regression and if not, why not?

The recent political turn to the right in the West has consistently found expression in targeting and even demonising the foreigners in our midst. But that is a short-sighted and short-term policy that is destined to fail. Tolerance and understanding offer much better options, and it is knowledge – accurate information, rather than propaganda and the rants of demagogues – that will change the mindset of the misinformed and the prejudiced.

We in the West make the cardinal mistake of confusing the extremist diatribes of a noisy headline-grabbing but tiny minority with the settled beliefs and practices of the quiet but overwhelming majority of Muslims. In short, we are listening to the wrong people, people who proclaim and practice a perversion of a faith that comforts and sustains more than a billion and a half people worldwide.

What do you think we get wrong in the West about the Islamic world? And to what extent does our ability to tackle the problem of Islamic extremism depend on our understanding of Islamic history and culture?

The briefest acquaintance with Islamic history reveals how very often regime change is achieved and justified by movements of religious reform, as if political change were a mere side-effect. The best counter to so-called Islamic extremism is to highlight how un-Islamic it is, even though it proclaims its Islamic orthodoxy at every turn. The kind of Islamic law that extremists like Isis or Boko Haram or the Taliban impose is not a version but a simplistic perversion of a legal framework laboriously built up over a millennium and more by the patient hard work of generations of Muslim legists working right across the vast Islamic world. And in every Muslim country to date, that legal framework has adopted and integrated certain elements of Western law as a sensible and considered response to the demands of modern society.

Nayef Al-Rodhan has claimed that “man is an emotional, amoral egoist” and that “structural frameworks at a society level are the only things preventing us from going astray”. What do you make of these sentiments?

Dr Nayef Al-Rodhan’s comments are timely and wise. A well-regulated society is the best way forward in our turbulent times. Individual ambition, greed and bigotry must be restrained and controlled for the sake of us all.

What three steps could we take in the UK to help improve transcultural understanding?

A good start would be for the UK government to introduce three policies with all possible vigour: make citizenship conditional on the acquisition of a decent standard of written and spoken English within a set time, and make the study of at least one religion other than Christianity a compulsory element of every school curriculum and relevant questions should be set in national examinations. Finally, efforts should be made by Muslim community leaders to help all Muslim women to realise their full potential in UK society. After all, cultural understanding, we should remind ourselves, is a two-way street which calls for efforts on both sides.

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