Daniel Pipes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Militant Islam: Conversation with Daniel Pipes, Director, Middle East Forum, 2/10/04 by Harry Kreisler

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Mr. Pipes, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts.

And looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

My parents were immigrants, both of them from Poland in the 1940s. They deeply appreciated the United States and what it had achieved in the 1940s, and what it offered them. Beyond that, my father was a professor of Russian history. So, an intense interest in questions related to history, politics, current affairs.

And also how ideas can change the world. Your father, Richard Pipes, we should mention to our audience, was involved in the last stages of the U.S. Cold War policy.

That's right. Most of his career was in the university, but in the early eighties he was in government. He was connected to government from 1970 on.

What led you to history?

I began, actually, as a mathematician. I did well in mathematics, enjoyed it in high school, and was very ambitious in college. I got to the point where I could get reasonably decent grades, but had no idea what I was doing, and I figured the time had come to find something else. I had traveled quite a bit, was interested in the world. I was interested in learning about the world, and history seemed to me a very useful, interesting approach to understand the world.

Why Islam? You are the author of, I believe I counted fourteen books all told, and many of the earlier ones are substantial works of history.

Islam, because I traveled in the Muslim world a bit as a college student, and I was fascinated by this religion and, in particular, by its impact on life, public life most especially. How does a religion affect the way people live? How does it shape cultures and shape societies?

One of the things that comes out -- and you've written so much that, obviously, I can only read bits and pieces -- is that there was a great misunderstanding of Islam in the West. This is a theme that recurs. Especially in the United States, where for example our emphasis on a materialist view of history made us less sensitive to the spiritual quality of Islam and the importance of ideas in that faith.

That's interestingly a problem of twenty and twenty-five years ago. I don't think it's a problem today. At the time of the Iranian Revolution, 1978, '79, and then the hostage crises in Iran, 1980, '81, it was the first time that Islam appeared on the public stage in the United States in a central way. Back then there was a tendency to dismiss the Islamic element and try and find materialist, say, economic causes. Today, especially since 9/11, one doesn't see that [view]. If anything, it's AWOL; it's just not there at all. Maybe it should be a little bit there.

There are other problems as well. It's a complicated subject. I can sympathize with the difficulty that people have when I think about, say, Buddhism or Hinduism -- subjects I don't know well, and they're vast subjects to understand.

For example, there's a reputation that Islam has of imbuing fatalism. I don't think it's accurate. An even more specific [example] is the tendency to translate the phrase la ilaha il-Allah as "There is no God but Allah," whereas I would translate it as "There is no deity but God." These are very different meanings.

What enables you to comprehend these distinctions that, at least back then, were not in the public domain? Is quite a bit of scholarship and study required?

Well, on my part it's thirty-five years of immersion in this field. I've other interests, do other things but, fundamentally, my work life has been centered around the Middle East and reading endlessly from medieval history to the current newspaper. Over a period of time like that, you get a depth that that the general public doesn't have.

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