A fundamental change of mindsets

The two Allianz Visiting Professors for Islamic and Jewish Sciences at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Sussan Babaie and Benny Morris, talk about their professional careers, their expectations - and the problems in the Middle East.

Sussan, how and where did you grow up?

Sussan Babaie: I was born in 1954, in Iran. My family lived in Abadan, at the tip of the Persian Gulf and across from the waterway that stood as the Iran-Iraq border.  My father worked in the oil industry. In my early childhood, I grew up in an environment where Persian and Arabic were often intermixed. When I was 12, my family moved to Teheran where I also went to college at the University of Teheran's Faculty of Fine Arts. I was still in college when by the end of 1978 street demonstrations became an all out revolution leading to the February 1979 departure of the Shah and the rise of the Islamic Republic. I must have gotten one of the last student visas issued by the US Embassy in Teheran before it was stormed in November 1979.  I left to pursue my graduate education but in the midst of the upheavals it was my brother, who was then attending college in the US, who chose art history as my field!  For a Master's degree, I studies Italian Renaissance and American Arts in Washington, DC, followed by a PhD at New York University when I focused on the arts of Islam.

Sussan Babaie

Did your life change in New York?

Sussan Babaie: It was quite an experience - being an Iranian woman living in New York! Eventually, I got married there and had my child.  And my husband and I moved a lot. We lived in Boston, in Michigan, in Los Angeles and then in Cairo. We like the idea of moving around. And now we are staying in Munich for one year and we love it!

Benny, your life must have been quite different compared to Sussan's...

Benny Morris: I was born in Israel, 1948. My father was a diplomat - so I grew up partly in Israel. partly in the US. I was always interested in history. I did my BA in European History in Jerusalem, then my PhD in Modern European History, in Cambridge.  Then I worked 13 years as a journalist  in Jerusalem. Since 1997 I work as a Professor for Middle East History at Ben-Gurion University.

Benny Morris

What do you expect from being an Allianz Visiting Professor here in Munich?

Benny Morris: I hope  the students benefit from my teaching. My visiting professorship will last for one term - until February 2011. The focus for the students will be the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Talking about this conflict - will there ever be hope for peace?

Benny Morris: If I had a guess - I would say no. Not in my lifetime. The Israelis are ready for peace. The Arabs are seeing the state of Israel as a blasphemy. They think the Middle East should be Islamic.

Sussan, what's your opinion there?

Sussan Babaie: I think the modern history of the Middle East, especially in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (ca. 1300 - 1923, editor's note), and the arbitrary division of the region into countries by European colonial powers has a great deal to do with the current instabilities. This is of course one among many other issues ailing the region. There has to be a fundamental change of mindsets. I'm more optimistic - I hope this will change in my lifetime - also for my son's sake.

There's a lot of discussion in European countries as well as in the US about the Islamic danger  ...

Sussan Babaie: A lot of people don't know enough about Islam and its diverse cultural practices. The key is in better education helping us to understand the complexities of the cultures of Islam. I also think both sides – people in the Islamic world and those in Europe and America – hold onto a lot of negative stereotyping and misinformation about one another.

Do you see your teaching as a contribution to more information about Islam?

Sussan Babaie: Yes, I have to teach about Islam. You can't teach art history of Islam without the cultural background. I don't want to sugarcoat it. But Islam is not a single phenomenon - its history is not unchanging and uniform across the vast regions where Islam is the dominant religion. It's very complex.

Does the Israeli-Arab conflict affect your teaching?

Sussan Babaie: No - I teach the history of the arts of Islam. I don't see the point of getting into the Arab-Israeli conflict when I am dealing with the past.

Does art connect people?

Benny Morris:  Art can also divide people  - if you think of contemporary art, like "Guernica" of Picasso.

Sussan Babaie: A positive example of art connecting people is the new Islamic art exhibition in Munich, the "Future of Tradition - The Tradition of Future" at the Haus der Kunst, and the programming of the "Changing Views" in Munich. I will use this exhibition in my teachings.

Allianz wants to support the dialogue between cultures - with Visiting Professors. What do you think of this effort  to connect people?

Sussan Babaie: I would really like to thank Allianz for giving us the opportunity to teach students here. These are important ways to bring people to understand each other. It may appear as if we reach only a few people (may be a hundred students) but these students will carry their learning to their families and circles of friends. So this will go a lot further and one hopes it will contribute to alleviating some of the tensions that come from fear of not knowing other cultures.

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