Timothy R. Furnish, the author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden (Praeger, 2005), teaches history at Georgia Perimeter College in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody, GA. He was interviewed by email by Rick Shenkman, the editor of HNN.
I was surprised to learn that before you were a historian you served in the military. What's your military background?
4 1/2 years enlisted in Army Intelligence (Arabic linguist/interrogator), following college (it paid off my student loans) in the mid-80s. In the late-90s I was commissioned as a chaplain candidate in the Army while I was doing my doctorate at Ohio State, since I had also obtained an M.A. from Concordia Seminary. But when it came to finishing my dissertation or doing chaplaincy full-time, I opted for the former and in fact I was just discharged as an O-3 (Captain) a few months ago.
Has your military experience shaped the way you do history?
Probably not all that much, other than determining my specialization.
How did you decide to choose Islamic history?
Well, partly out of interest and partly out of utilitarian motives. Having joined the Army in 1983 hoping to learn Russian, I knew little of Islam or the Middle East when I wound up in Arabic training at the Defense Language Institute. But it sparked my interest in that religion and region, and when my enlistment was up I decided to go into graduate school in Islamic history, since I already had the primary research language under my belt.
Has 9/11 affected your scholarly work? That is, has it caused you to change the focus of your studies?
Not all that much. I was already working on Mahdism and the nexus between it and Islamic fundamentalism, and in all honesty 9/11 was not a big surprise to me.
Do you find that Americans have serious misperceptions about Islamic history?
One big one in particular: that the Islamic world has always been a victim at the hands of the West. I find this particularly prominent among the intelligentsia in the country, whose knowledge of Islamic/Middle Eastern history goes back, at best, to the early 20th c. Very few, in my experience, know of the imperial reach and power of, say, the Abbasids, Fatimids, Mughals or even Ottomans.
Conservatives like David Horowitz claim that Middle East Studies programs in the United States are dominated by anti-Israel liberals. Do you agree?
Liberals, yes; but anti-Israel ones, not necessarily. I do think that the field can be defined, largely, in terms of Saidians (devotees of Edward Said's "Orientalism" thesis, which sees the Arab world as victim of the West) and Lewisians (devotees of Bernard Lewis, who disagree). I fall into the latter camp. As mentioned earlier, I think the tendency (sometimes, insistence) to see the Arab, or even the entire Muslim, world as victimized by the West is rampant in the field, and insofar as Israel is seen as, if you will, the "tip of the spear," many academics dislike Israel.
Why did you write your book, Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden? And please tell us what a Mahdi is.
"al-Mahdi" is "the rightly-guided one" who, according to Islamic hadiths (traditions), will come before the End of Time to make the entire world Muslim (with a little help from the returned prophet Jesus). I did my doctoral dissertation on Mahdist movements throughout history and that book is the expansion thereof. I was asked to write the book by Greenwood/Praeger after an article I'd published, not long after 9/11, speculating on whether Usama bin Ladin might attempt to claim the Mahdiyah for himself.
It's hard to write about Islamic history without getting caught up in current controversies, I would think. Have you found it difficult to maintain proper historical perspective in your work?
Sometimes. Any discussion of Islam and the violence done in its name today is fraught with danger (so far, only rhetorical). If I had any hair left, I'd pull it out with frustration over the extremists of both the Left and Right who see only the aspects of Islam which they wish to: the former just parrot, over and over, "Islam is a religion of peace" without, it seems, ever having bothered to read the Qur'an or study Islamic history; the latter, on the other hand, fall off the horse on the other side and emphasize nothing but the undeniably real violent strain in Islam, but never seem to notice (or admit) that moderate Islam (Sufism) and moderate Islamic states (the Ottoman Empire) can exist. However, at this juncture in history, I do think that the Left's denial of the undeniably violent, albeit minority, strain of Islam is the greater threat.
If you had five minutes with President Bush what would you tell him he needs to remember about Islamic history?
That the Muslim proponents of moderate Islam as a "religion of peace" will not gain the upper hand until the Islamic world undergoes its own "enlightenment" and, like the predominantly-Christian West, officially abandons its dream of a one world religious state. Admittedly, this took Western civilization centuries to do, and it had one major advantage the Islamic world does not: the tradition, going back to Jesus himself, of separation of church and state ("give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's," Matthew 22:21).
Islam has been, almost since its inception, as much a political as a religious movement. And a military one. Islam will have to be reconfigured such that it can co-exist in minority status without having to seize the reins of power. That will be difficult to do, and it will have to be done primarily by Muslims themselves, but quite frankly the global community cannot allow one belief system to demand obeisance from the others. We in the West can, and should, help moderate Islam to win out over the jihadists, but in the final analysis Muslims themselves must do the heavy lifting there.