Prof. Jaakko Markus Hämeen-Anttila, a prominent Finnish Expert of Eastern Studies, has not only conducted numerous researches on the Muslim societies of Europe and the Middle East, but he also has administered various projects on Islam, the intellectual heritage of the Middle East and dialog among religions. Prof. Anttila, however, is known as an Iranologist and translator of great Iranian works such as Shahnameh (Book of Kings). On the sideline of his trip to Iran, we found the chance to have an interview with him, although Prof Antilla deemed some topics as not to detail on according to his own reasons.
Exclusive Interview with Prof. Jaakko Markus Hämeen-Anttila,
Head of the EU Department for Arabic Language and Islamic Studies
What differences do you spot between the radical and moderate versions of Islam?
They are two completely different things, and, reading Western media, one often forgets this. One should remember, though, that the vast majority of world’s Muslims are moderate and they represent standard Islam.
What factors have led to the prevalence of extremist orientations in today’s world in comparison to the past?
I do not think the extremists are prevalent, except in the media. But the growth of their numbers is, unfortunately, real, which largely depends on the social, economic, and political circumstances in, e.g., Iraq and Syria.
Some analysts are on the belief that the Middle East is what gives life to extremism in the international arena. Do you agree with that? Why?
No, I do not. It is true that there are a lot of problems in the Middle East and these add fuel to extremism, but it is an over-simplification to derive all forms of extremism from the Middle East. Other areas have their own problems and cause extremisms of other kinds.
Your research resources are widely published all through Europe and are referred to on a regular basis. What has prompted your approach in your publications?
I have always been interested in culture, especially literature, and have endeavored to show what is good, sound, and interesting in the Islamic and Iranian culture. For me, it is a waste of time to study the marginal extremist thought, whereas, e.g., Persian literature gives one food for deep study and thought.
Is there a monolithic point of view toward Muslims and their religious orientations in Europe?
Yes and no. There are Westerners who receive their view on Muslims from the media, and they are sometimes monolithic in their thought, but there are huge numbers of Westerners who share my deeper interest in the other aspects of Islam, too, such as the philosophical tradition of Islam (Avicenna and Suhrawardi among the most interesting philosophers) and Arabic and Persian literature. Hence, e.g., my translations of Rumi or Hafez have found their audiences.
How much have the immigrations after the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and esp. Syria exacerbated the concept of Islamophobia in Europe?
To a large extent, but they have also brought Islam to the everyday life in the West, and many people have been interested in understanding Islam after getting in contact with Muslims in their everyday life.
Considering that some Saudi-backed Salafis were involved in the 9/11 tragedies, how do you view the approach of the US and some European countries in facing such groups?
There is a clear double standard in, e.g., US policy towards Islam: while supporting the Saudi government, US has been very hostile to Iran, despite the fact that Saudis have supported groups that have been involved in acts of terrorism in the West (as well as in other countries).
Some political analysts inside Iran reckon that some European countries and the US are backing the outbreak of extremism to accomplish their own objectives. What is your take on this?
I do not quite think so, but it is true that, e.g., the attack on Iraq did create a hotbed of fundamentalist terrorism in Iraq and later also in Syria. But this hardly was the aim of the attack, though it was easy to see that such consequences were probable.
Are we bound to bear witness to an increase in the penetration of extremism and terrorist bloodsheds into Europe and America?
I do not believe that extremism will grow but, on the other hand, I am afraid that it will not lessen, either, for some time.
Why do some European analysts see the immigration of Muslims to Europe as the intensification of the Islamic influence all across the continent? Is Europe alarmed by this trend?
Some people are, but the majority are not, in my opinion.
Can the ISIS exploit the Muslim influence in Europe?
Only to a marginal extent.
Can one place distinction between radical religious groups such as Al-Qaeda and the ISIS?
Of course, they are not identical but they are very much fueled by similar ideas.
Why did the IS factions manage to rule the roost majorly in Iraq and Syria but not in other Middle-Eastern states?
The ultimate reason is the confusion in both countries. The Iraqi war created instability in Iraq and this has partly found its way to Syria, too.
What needs did inspire you to pen the Encyclopedia of Islam? Did the previous books fail to respond to modern needs?
[This question I will skip, as I have only contributed some articles to this Encyclopaedia.]
Do you foresee the outbreak of new wars in the Middle East?
I hope not. I do not think it inevitable that new wars will break out, but it is a possibility one should keep in mind, and it would be important to create stability in the area. The new openings in Iran are a good case of developments that will, hopefully, help to create this stability.
How influential do you find Iran in marking the waves of development in the Middle East?
Iran is a local superpower and what happens in Iran will undoubtedly have its influence on what happens in Iraq, Syria, and probably other countries in the area. The present policy of Iran, led by Prsident Rouhani may well be crucial in the future.
Your translated version of “Shahnameh” to Finnish was unveiled at your own presence in Tehran. Why did you choose “Shahnameh” to work on in the first place?
Earlier, I have translated Rumi, Sa’di, Hafez and many others, but the Shahnameh has always fascinated me. I think it is a window through which we can see into the soul of the Iranian nation. And it makes great reading by itself.
Which contemporary Iranian poet drew your attention the most? And why was that so?
I have always read with delight the works of, among others, Forugh Farrokhzad, Sohrab Sepehri, and Abbas Kiarostami, who is better known as a film director, but his two collections of poetry are equally worthy of attention. Each of these represents a fruitful combination of modernity and tradition. Thus, e.g., Sepehri’s poetry reminds one of the poems of Hafez.
Who of the Iranian officials did you meet on your trip to Iran recently? What topics were discussed?
I was happy to meet several influential Iranian cultural characters at the universities and the National Library and the Library of the Parliament. We discussed the Shahnameh and its translation in a series of very interesting talk.
Taking into account your friendship with Mr. Araghchi, how do you evaluate the approach of Iran’s Diplomatic Team in the realm of foreign policy?
Mr. Araghchi, whom I know since almost two decades, has done a great job in Iran’s foreign policy and I believe that persons like he will in the future continue building bridges between Iran and the West. My personal respect for Mr. Araghchi is enormous and I have been happy to learn that he is also widely respected among Iranians.
How did you find the Iranian society on your visit here? Which behavioral aspects you ran into do you think followed a religious or national pattern?
I have always been in love with Iran and the present visit made me even more an “Iran-dust” (friend of Iran): I hope I can renew my visit as soon as possible. All people around the world are, in the end, like to each other, but there is something fascinating in Iranian culture, which combines religion with a well-based proudness in their own culture.