Associate Professor John Turner teaches Islamic and Middle East history in courses that cover the formation of Islamic Law through the Crusades to modern Middle East history. His most recent book is Inquisition in Early Islam: The Competition for Political and Religious Authority in the Abbasid Empire. Turner has studied in Tehran and Damascus. He arrived at Colby in 2006.
Who takes your courses on Islam?
I have a wide range. I have students from all of the divisions, all majors. It really is a representative sample of the student body.
What do they know coming in?
Unlike students of my colleagues who teach say European or U.S. history, most of my students enter with a blank slate. They know what they’ve heard in the news and they know that there are very large gaps, and they want to understand and know why certain things happen the way that they do.
Is this a recent phenomenon?
This has been pretty much the case since I’ve been here, although there is distinct fluctuation in response to the news cycle. When something is happening when registration happens, my classes fill up immediately and I have a long wait list.
But many of these things in the news cycle aren’t positive.
As someone who has a career-long interest in Islam, does that bother you?
I long for the day when people think that what I do is esoteric and not really that applicable.
But that’s not anytime soon.
Not likely. I defended my dissertation ten days after September 11th. And my first teaching experience post-graduation was at Swarthmore, because I happened to be right there. They said, “Please come teach for us.”
What drove your interest in Islam and the Middle East?
January 16th, 1991, the U.S. started dropping bombs in Iraq for the first Gulf War, Desert Storm. I was in my second year [at Furman University] and I wanted to know why. I couldn’t get any good solid answers, so I started exploring. Why did Saddam invade Kuwait? Why did the United States feel it necessary to defend Saudi Arabia and push Saddam out of Kuwait?
So contemporary events drove you to the origins of Islam?
And back again?
Well, it’s a connected journey in the sense that when Desert Storm started I started asking questions, and every time I found an almost-answer it actually raised more questions. I kept going back in time. What motivates people to engage in certain actions with certain groups of people? Why do groups split or form in the ways that they do? And how does religion play into that? Or does it?
That led you all the way back to the beginning of Islam?
As I followed these threads back in time, I kept finding new things that answered questions that helped me understand now. Even though what happened in the ninth and tenth century in Baghdad in a real sense has very little to do with what’s happening now, it helped inform enough of a context.
When Muqtada al-Sadr in 2003 raises the black banners in East Baghdad and Sadr City and says, “We’re in revolution,” the black banners are a direct allusion to the eighth-century rise of the Abbasids, who founded Baghdad. … I often tell my students—and this is something they’re quite shocked to hear from a historian—what is more important is how people remember the past and what they think happened in the past, because that is what informs their choices and their decisions.
You must wish that people in general had a more informed view of both current events and historical events.
I wish that the American public had much greater access to more-reliable information. There are huge and profound gaps
In 2003 reporters were baffled by this mass migration of two million people who all of sudden were going to Karbala and Najaf. Some said it has something to do with Shi’ism. They didn’t understand that this was a pilgrimage, a holiday that is celebrated every year in commemoration of events that happened in 680. This was a mass movement that had deep religious meaning, but it was also a very political statement about the state of relations in Iraq at the time. That was completely missed in the reporting, because the reporters weren’t equipped.
The broader context.
I wish sincerely that we could expand the knowledge base. That’s one of the things that actually drives my one-hundred-level courses. They’re designed to counter that. They’re designed to allow students to read the news intelligently and fill in the gaps.
So they emerge with a strong base of knowledge?
That’s the hope. The course is designed so that when you’re watching the news and something happens you can turn to the person next to you and say, “Here’s what’s missing from that story. Here’s why this makes sense when you know this.”
Many Americans are puzzled by the divisions within Islam. How do you explain to a Western audience that Islam is not just one big thing?
In Islam there is not a “pope” or a similar authority to dictate what is dogma. The question that drove me in writing the book was “Why not?” One of the things that came out of seeking the answer was that up until the middle of the ninth century they had one. Or at least the Caliph could have been one. But that changed for a variety of reasons (read the book for more) and when they end up where they don’t have one sole authority figure a tremendous diversity of voices within Islam emerges much like after the Protestant Reformation in Western Christianity. There is not one predominant voice. As an important side note, the media often reports on fatwas as if they were like papal edicts. They are not. This idea that a fatwa has been issued and it should worry us, well, that might be the case and it might say something quite scary to us, but it only applies to people who follow the person who issued it. There are lots of fatwas issued. And Fred Phelps, of the Westboro Baptist Church, says lots of things “in the name of Christ,” but that doesn’t mean he speaks for all Christians or even a minority.
Knowing that would change your perception of the climate in the Middle East.
People have this idea that people are more militantly religious in the Middle East. The reality is that, in terms of practice and beliefs, people in the Middle East are no more religious than in the United States. There are outliers who happen to be highly motivated and sometimes highly armed, and sometimes they express those beliefs violently, but that doesn’t make it any more so than other places. That doesn’t mean the religion is in itself any more violent.
And the Shia and the Sunni?
One of the things that I find frustrating and interesting and hard to get around is that because people are talking and speaking in the vocabulary of religion in places like Iraq, or Syria, people understand it as a religious conflict. In Iraq it’s not really a religious conflict. It’s not about Shia versus Sunni in a religious sense, although there is that division. For most people it’s about resource allocation. The structure of society and power dynamics. Distribution of wealth.
You don’t see that much in the news. Why not?
Because it’s very easy to talk about Islam as a thing. And Islam as one thing. There has been some acknowledgment that there is this Sunni and Shia difference, but it’s easy to lump together the stereotype. And to say things that you would never see said about Christians. You would never see, “Well, Christians do this.” Because the immediate response from the public would be, “Well, some Christians do that. That’s not what this version of Christianity does.” Because the audience is uninformed, it’s easier and simpler to deploy the stereotype. I saw a great tweet. A Muslim woman (Yasira Jaan) tweeted, “Muslims view ‘Islamic’ terrorists the same way most Christians view the Westboro Baptist Church.” Yes, there’s a small group that does things that are very extreme and violent, and I don’t want to discount that. And they do it in the name of their religion. That doesn’t make them representative or even a large contingent.
We’ve mistaken al-Qaeda for a big thing. Al-Qaeda is actually quite small. Some people think that this threat is equivalent to Islam. It’s not.