Interview with Ahmet Kuru on his new award winning book: Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment

    Professor Kuru's book was the recent co-winner of APSA's International History and Politics Section book award.

    Kuru Book

    How did you become interested in the intersection between international history and politics?

    I became interested in that intersection when I wrote my PhD dissertation, which was later published as a book, Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2009). While writing it, I was trying to understand why American state policies were more tolerant toward public visibility of religious symbols in comparison to French and Turkish states.

    My analysis reveals that this policy difference was based on two different secular ideologies—passive secularism in the United States, and assertive secularism in France and Turkey. But I did not stop there and asked, what makes passive secularism dominant in the United States, and assertive secularism in France and Turkey? This question brings me to the analysis of international history.

    My book shows that the presence of an old regime based on the marriage between the monarchy and hegemonic religion made republicans in Turkey and France assertive secularist, whereas the absence of such an old regime made the founding fathers passive secularist in the United States. In short, this is how I became interested in combining international history and politics, and how I used that approach in my first book.


    What led you to undertake this particularly broad ranging historical book that links developments in the Muslim world to both contemporary politics and a comparative account with Western Europe?

    A similar causal explanation emerges in my new Islam book, which received this IHAP award. I initially asked, why do 49 Muslim-majority countries exhibit low levels of democracy and socioeconomic development in comparison to world averages? My historical research makes this question more puzzling, because Muslim countries were philosophically and economically more developed than Western Christian countries between the ninth and twelfth centuries. Hence, I examined the reasons for this reversal of fortunes.

    My analysis reveals that the relations between four (religious, political, economic, and intellectual) classes explain this transformation from history to the present.  During their “Golden Age” between the ninth and twelfth centuries Muslim countries had dynamic intellectual and merchant classes, which support each other, whereas Western Europe was dominated by the alliance between the Catholic Church and the military aristocracy. Later, however, class relations changed.

    In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there emerged an alliance between the ulema and state authorities in the Muslim world, and this alliance eventually marginalized intellectuals and merchants. Western Europe, however, experienced the opposite trend—dynamic classes of merchants and intellectuals emerged in European cities during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and these two classes led to the long-term process called “the rise of the West.”


    Are there any scholars that you look to as role models? Or pieces of scholarship that you view as being templates for excellent research?

    Joel Migdal was my PhD advisor at the University of Washington, and I worked closely with the late Alfred Stepan during my postdoc at Columbia University. I learnt many things from both of them.

    In terms of books, my classics include Plato’s Republic, Ibn Rushd’s Decisive Treatise, Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, Max Weber’s Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work.


    How do you navigate the tension between detailed historical research and macro theoretical claims; between contingency and generalizability?

    My writings always try to bring together the detailed information about certain cases and the generalizable results. Documenting a generalizable argument requires substantial amount of data about the details of the cases. Therefore, I see them complementary, rather than contradictory.


    What was the most challenging aspect of working with the historical material used in the project?

    In my new Islam book, the most challenging aspect was reading a great number of books about not only histories, but also ideas of historical authors. My university librarians were shocked by the number of books I checked out. In fact, they did not know that I was also buying many books and reading many articles, in addition to the books from the library. 


    What was the most unexpected thing you found in conducting your historical research?

    It was clearly traceable how the early Muslims’ books on political philosophy, written between the tenth and the fourteenth centuries, were intellectually deeper than the later Muslims’ books on that subject, written between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries, with very few exceptions. This was unexpected.


    What do you think are the major differences in how political scientists and historians “do” history?

    Political scientists can ask big questions and make historical analysis more relevant to current events. Unfortunately, political scientists are generally discouraged from conducting historical analysis given the fact that our discipline has been dominated by quantitative methods and rational choice theory.


    What would you like to see more of in terms of research into international history and politics, either methodologically or substantively?

    The new editorial board of American Political Science Review has recently written a letter which declares that political science is "becoming irrelevant" because “our discipline operates with an overly narrow view of what counts as political science.” I support this letter as a step forward, but it does not mention "the cause" of the problem.

    The hegemony of quantitative methods and rational choice theory have imposed "an overly narrow view" and made our discipline "irrelevant." This hegemony should end. We need more scholars conducting qualitative and historical methods.


    What do you think are the biggest lessons that publics and/or governments should take from your work?

    Three lessons. First, all countries should appreciate intellectuals and economic entrepreneurs. Even in the United States, intellectuals are challenged today by anti-intellectual politicians and religious conservativism. The clergy-state alliance that has led to stagnation in the Muslim world is not unique to Muslims. It can happen anywhere, including in the United States.

    Second, Islamophobia is normatively wrong and factually inaccurate. Islam was historically perfectly compatible with philosophical and economic progress. Certain anti-intellectual and anti-bourgeois interpretations of post-eleventh century ulema reflect this class’s interests, rather than Islamic principles.

    Finally, Muslims need a critical self-reflection. It is enough to label any critical mind as an “Orientalist.” Without promoting critical thinking, Muslim societies cannot solve their problems of authoritarianism and socioeconomic underdevelopment.


    What tips would you give graduate students or junior scholars interested in historical methods?

    They should write on subjects they really love. Dissertations and books cannot be written simply for earning money or finding a job. One should have an intellectual curiosity on a subject he/she writes on.

    This interview was first published in APSA IHAP Section’s newsletter.



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