Michael Barry, lecturer in Islamic Culture in Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, brings more than the usual academic credentials to the lecture hall.
Born to American parents living in Paris, Barry was invited by a family friend, who married an Afghan prince, to visit Afghanistan in the early 1960s, while he was still in high school. “Afghanistan, to somebody growing up in France in the 1960s and ’70s, was the wild west,” Barry says. “It was the country to which you could go and live with a tribe in conditions that had not changed since the 15th century. There was a tremendous amount of romanticism to the idea of living with nomads — when everything I had was my horse, my saddle, and my saddle bags.”
After majoring in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, Class of 1970, Barry was drawn back to Afghanistan. “I found it extremely exciting so I faked all sorts of academic reasons for doing it, like looking for 12th-century ruins, but then I was increasingly attracted to the literary expression of the language that I was learning with the Afghans.”
Barry learned the language so well that he now speaks it with an accent that convinces native Afghans that he is one of them. After the Russian invasion in 1979, Barry had another reason to remain. “Once Afghanistan was crushed, I underwent a spiritual and intellectual metamorphosis in which I interrupted what I thought was going to be an academic career centered around medieval literature and art.” His work in defense of the human rights of the Afghan people “devoured two decades of my life.”
In 2004 he returned to Princeton as a lecturer — a popular lecturer. More than 250 students are enrolled in his classes on Later Sufism and Medieval Islamic Spain. His class on Afghanistan & the Great Powers, 1747-2001 has been one of the most popular classes in the Near Eastern Studies department. His class on Granada and the Fall of Spanish Islam currently has 118 students. Barry’s Introduction to Later Sufism has 172 students.
“Students know that the professor not only has dug into the archives of his subject matter, but also has walked the land, been shot at, and become acquainted with everyone from Karzai to Osama bin Laden’s lieutenants,” says Barry.
The university has taken a different view. In the spring semester, 2016, the Department of Near Eastern Studies has indicated it will not renew the appointment of Barry, who does not have tenure at the university.
While students and alumni have protested the university’s action, Barry has taken the opportunity to speak out not against the tenure system but rather a “dangerous intellectual drift.” He describes “a rising and almost exclusive focus in Islamic studies today on the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and the sinister Wahhabi theology that feeds their thought, while neglecting almost completely to train our students in even the classic basics of older Islamic civilization, its philosophy, literature, and art.” Says Barry: “We owe it to ourselves to see that high standards of the classical tradition are preserved.”
The following exchange is excerpted from a prior interview (before the tenure controversy became public) conducted by Guy Johnston, a senior history major at Princeton, for the Nassau Weekly, a cultural and political review:
Nassau Weekly: How has your background influenced your teaching?
Michael Barry: I returned to academia after going through 20 years of Afghan War. I was hoping by 2002 that the country would settle down enough so that I could go back and research aspects of medieval culture, but that did not happen. I am challenged by the study of Islamic culture in conjunction or comparison with Judaic or Christian culture, not studying Islamic culture as though it were a unique thing unconnected from any other. A lot of what influenced me to think this way was to live in what were literally medieval Afghan conditions, and then, returning to France and looking at the monuments of the French Middle Ages, recognizing with a sense of extraordinary intimate shock how close this was to what I actually lived through, among traditional Afghans living in a kind of sacred rural atmosphere.
The study of the Islamic world is no longer an exoticism and it is no longer a luxury. When I was first interested in this world and when I was first living in Afghanistan, its study was antiquarian. Now knowledge of Islamic culture is as much a part of our necessary cultural baggage as knowledge of Japanese culture or of Russian culture. It’s the world in which we live and so I’m very happy to share what I have learned in the field.
But I am insistent on maintaining a standard of study of the high classical civilization and not just the modern horrors. By modern horrors, I most explicitly label the demented philosophy of the Saudi Arabian state and its Wahhabism, I really mean that. To look at Islamic culture solely through that prism is to falsify it. That does not mean that there is not a strain of Islamic culture, as in Christian or Jewish culture, that has that.
But it is not the only aspect and to look only at the most violent and perverse elements of Islamic culture is to encourage in those studying it, not an attitude of dispassionate examination, but something much more dangerous, which is one of contempt. Not only are we falsifying the object that we study if we neglect the classical standard, but we instill an attitude of ‘these are peculiar people’ that we look upon from high above and ‘how can we manage them down there?’
When I give courses on, say, Ibn Arabi, one of the Spanish Islamic geniuses of the early 13th century, suddenly we are confronted not with an exotic medieval specimen that we can dissect from our cultural height, but with an intellectual genius so eminent that we find ourselves in the presence of some of the best that a human mind can come up with. So, we look at Ibn Arabi like we look at Mozart, or Shakespeare, or Bach, or Einstein. We say, this is what humanity can do, this is what we look up to, and suddenly what we call Orientalism disappears and that is very good. Ibn Arabi is an important part of the history of Medieval Spain, which is one of a high Islamic culture that was in fact geographically European.
Nassau Weekly: But I don’t think people really are aware of this, even though, as you explain in your class on Spanish Islam, 10th century Cordova is considered a sort of Golden Age of Semitic culture: both for Jews and Arabs under the enlightened rule of the Cordovan caliphs (who fully tolerated Christianity as well). I think that a lot of people who have not studied the Islamic world would have only a vague geopolitical sense of its history, including this extraordinary part of its history rooted in southwestern Europe, and would have even less of a sense of the amazing variations of culture and civilization that play such an important role in this history.
Michael Barry: That’s why I’ve always balanced my work on geopolitical issues with attention to higher culture, which is only a way of stressing humanity. I don’t consider geopolitics, to tell you the truth, to be amusing or gratifying. I look at it as a way to show important realities. We cannot turn away from it, but at least we can counterbalance it with the high traditions.
Can you imagine if, in departments of East Asian studies, we should have so exclusively concentrated on Maoism that knowledge of Tang poetry and Sung painting should have become so completely neglected? That people no longer knew what Chinese civilization meant, so that when Maoism finally passes away, we are left with a void because we do not understand these higher parts of Chinese identity and culture? To go even further, someone who is dealing with the Japanese or the French, politically or in business, but who shows true knowledge of their classical culture, commands the kind of respect from the interlocutor that comes from the feeling of “oh, you recognize my true worth as a human being,” and bonds are established.
If, in our dealings with the Islamic world, we ignore Cordova or Ibn Arabi to concentrate solely on Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, we are basically belittling the entire culture and we are fooling ourselves too because we are ignoring what we should know.