Commencement Address by Nur Yulman: "On Civil Society and the Dialogue of Civilizations: Humanism and Human Rights"

May 25, 2012


Value and wealth … [are] created by imaginative individuals taking risks, starting new companies with new ideas.

Mr. President, Trustees, Faculty, Students, and Families.

It is a great pleasure to be addressing the 2012 graduates of this remarkable institution. I am fully aware that this university is dedicated to the highest hopes of mankind. Its founder, Mr. Daisaku Ikeda, has demonstrated through innumerable works and publications his passion for peace, for understanding, for international dialogue, for a higher humanism without dogma. His enlightened leadership of the Soka Gakkai movement in order to ban nuclear weapons–the scourge of mankind–his tireless work with world leaders, with the UN, with UNESCO for better understanding between peoples, is legendary.


We live in unusual times. It is not such a long time ago, say in May 1912, only 100 years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine what we take for granted: that I could dial up my friends in Tokyo from Aliso Viejo, face to face, and that they could be talking to a friend in London at the same time.

One hundred years ago, in 1912, England, France, and Germany were still on good terms. The unspeakable horrors of WW I and WW II could hardly have been imagined.

In the First World War the armies still moved around with the help of horses.

The stunning contrast with warfare managed from computer screens in Arizona, controlling unmanned missile-carrying aircraft over the skies of Afghanistan could not have been imagined even by science fiction writers of the time.

But 1912 is a near date. Mankind has come a very long way from those amazing times far off in ancient history which our brilliant archaeologists have been unearthing and reimagining for us.

The pyramids of Egypt, and their astonishingly rich, touching mythology, the all-seeing Falcon God, Horus, the Goddess Isis and Osiris, son or brother, are circa 2600 BC.

The mysterious circle of Stonehenge is about 6000 BC. Another even more mysterious ancient temple with concentric circles, with large human and animal figures is at Gobekli Tepe, near Urfa–the ancient Ur of the Chaldeesin–eastern Turkey. It is said to be the very first temple of mankind, dating from 11,000 BC.

I mention our long adventure with myth, ritual and belief since our religions have been attempting to civilize us wild homo sapiens since those very early days of mankind. It has taken a long time to come finally to a rational understanding of comparative religions, and arrive at a modern, open minded, secular humanism. The rational effort is of course still under threat in many quarters.

The critical element behind all these myths, rituals, and philosophy is the search for meaning in our existence. All ancient speculations point in the direction of the place of individuals in the cosmos. In modern parlance, I would speak of this quest as ultimately a search for fundamental human rights and dignity. All these efforts point towards humanism: an attitude of openness to the human condition. This is really what I want to speak to you about today.


Our religions have two basic functions: on the one hand they are involved in bringing order out of chaos. In so doing, they instruct the community in the direction of morality. The maintenance of a decent ethical life, peace and order within the community, the control of passions, is one of their civic functions. They allay fear, provide hope for the future as well as for the after-life. On the other hand, they also serve as sources of identity. They define their communities in contrast, often in opposition, to others not of their faith. It is this second aspect of identity formation that has always led to misunderstandings, trouble, and violence throughout history.

In fact, neither religions, nor their civilizations are monolithic. The attempt to define identity as if the community or the civilization were unitary and monolithic gives these ideas a false sense of concreteness. When generalized to civilizations one speaks of Christian, or Buddhist, or Muslim, or Jewish civilization knowing full well that such vast communities cannot be single entities.

We can speak of “civilizations” in the abstract, but it is such totalizing, monolithic generalization–the fallacy of misplaced concreteness–which we are so fond of that in turn leads to xenophobia–fear of the “others.” The media makes full use of this shorthand description of “others.” It may render the world easier to comprehend, but “fear” is a very powerful emotion. And fear of the unknown, of strangers, is easily exaggerated and very easily manipulated.

In a recent article my colleague Amartya Sen, a brilliant Bengali philosopher, economist, professor at Harvard, and Nobel Prize winner from India, has recently argued that this totalized matter of identity can be very misleading.

“The civilizational explanation of global violence is largely moored on a solitarist approach to human identity–it sees human beings as members of just one group, defined solely by their native civilization or religion. But a solitarist approach is, in fact, an excellent way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world. In our normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups–we belong to all of them. The same person can be, without contradiction, a South African citizen, of Asian origin, with Indian ancestry, a Christian, a socialist, a woman, a vegetarian, a jazz musician, a doctor, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, and one who believes that the most important problem to address today is how to make South Africa the cricket champion of the world.”

To single out and underscore only one element of these multiple identities, say that he or she is a “Hindu” simply because that is the largest important category in India, leads to facile and misleading “profiling.” That is one step removed from xenophobia. It is doubly misleading since she or he may well claim to be an Indian “atheist” and not “Hindu” in any ordinary sense at all.

It is the fact that we carry many identities that makes us uniquely individual. Each individual, even identical twins, have particular life experiences that make their own memories precious for them and for those who care for them. Hence the profound sorrow when we lose a good friend, knowing that he or she can never, ever be replaced. As André Gide once wrote: “the individual person is the most irreplaceable of beings.”


I have just spent a few fascinating days in southern Spain, around Andalucia.

Medieval Spain is a good example of the immense creative force of complexity. It draws attention to the one of the most distinctive periods of efflorescence in European history. Islam had arrived in Spain in the early centuries of its expansion. Gibraltar still carries the name of the commander who crossed the straits from North Africa to Iberia–Jeb el Tarik in 711 CE. There followed the long duration of eight centuries of what the historians call Convivencia–living together–between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in a great flowering of civilized existence. Literature, music, poetry, architecture, gardens flourished in Andalucia. Their magnificent traces are still to be seen in the legendary cities of Cordova, Granada, and Seville in southern Spain.

In the ensuing 800 years the vast corpus of ancient Hellenistic and Middle Eastern philosophy and literature that had been preserved in Muslim universities was translated into Latin. The names of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Averroes (Ibn Rust), Maimonidies (Jewish) and many others who wrote commentaries on the preserved works of Plato (Eflatun) and Aristotle became familiar to Western scholars. It is certainly justified to call it a “Golden Age” of cohabitation for these three important faiths, but it came to an end. The gentle sophisticated open society was replaced by bigotry, intolerance, and the infamous Spanish inquisition.

On the 27th of November 1095 in Clermont (France), Pope Urban II pronounced the ill-fated two words (Deus vult) “God wills it”: with this he inaugurated one of the most violent and turbulent periods in world history. The eight successive Crusades went on for four centuries with the hope of taking Jerusalem in the East. They ended with the “reconquista” of Spain and the final destruction of Muslim Granada in 1492, the very year Christopher Columbus set foot on the New World.

These long centuries of close contacts between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Spain allowed one absolutely vital invention to be transferred from Asia to Europe. This is the idea of the “zero” in mathematics.

Europeans had been using Roman numerals since the Roman Empire. Have you ever tried multiplication or division with Roman numerals? They were still in use in the 12th century in Western Europe. The story is told of the German nobleman who wanted his son to be instructed in mathematics; they said, fine, he can go to Gottingen and Heidelberg Universities to learn “addition” and “subtraction,” but he will have to have specialized teaching in Italy, in Bologna and Padova, for “division” and “multiplication.”

It is the concept of the zero which has made modern mathematics, therefore, our modern technological wizardry possible. The zero was apparently “invented” by Tamil mathematicians in South India no doubt thinking about “nirvana.” Arab traders picked it up for their own calculations and took it to Spain in the eighth century. It took another 400 years before it was adopted in Germany, so that Arabic numerals–so called–became the universal mode of calculation.


Empathy, acceptance of the unfamiliar, respect for the ideas of others are critical aspects of the civilizing process. The use of denigrating labels, profiling, suspicions towards the unfamiliar, fear of “strangers” in our midst, all prevent us from seeing the richness of the interchange of ideas.

They undermine the unexpected potentialities of creativity. These widespread sentiments of what one would call “cultural paranoia”–a very widespread affliction in Europe these days–place a veil before our eyes. In seeing only the “category,” they prevent us from appreciating the precious “individual” behind the category. (Witness the tragic events in Norway.)

With easier travel and communications, there has been a immense increase in migration all around the world. The combination of economic crises, the presence of illegal immigrants, the scarcity of ordinary jobs, the immense shift in wealth from West to East as represented by the billions flowing into China, as well as into the oil producing regions, has created an incendiary political atmosphere. It renders rational discussion of relative cultural values more heated, and more suspect, more paranoid.

We must not allow fear of the unknown and unfamiliar to detract from human liberties.

We are beginning to see the development of elaborate “security” establishments in many countries. None however are as ambitious as those of the United States and United Kingdom. According recent news a huge technology center is being built at rapid pace near Salt Lake City. It is expected to have the capacity to collect and retain all information on all data traffic–voice, video, or text–all around the world. There is a lively debate on National Public Radio whether such vast capacity can be legally accessed without express court warrants, but the writing is on the wall. Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World, and George Orwell in 1984 had already warned us of the trend for totalitarian “thought control” in modern society.

There has already been a great outcry in the UK where a similar development is underway. Here is the BBC reporting on a debate on the plans held at the London School of Economics on Thursday. (April 19, 2012):

   The former shadow home secretary, member of Parliament, Mr. David Davis, said the government    should be restricting surveillance, not trying to extend it… . Government proposals to extend powers to watch what people do online would create a ‘nation of suspects’ … Such plans were a ‘snooper’s charter.’ He said they were a product of ministerial ignorance about both technology and the scale of the terrorist threat facing the UK. He said the government proposals would put everyone under suspicion and should be ‘resisted completely.’


The reason it is worth mentioning these matters here in California is because the United States is one of the most fortunate countries in the world today. All the features which made the tolerant and creative civil society in medieval Spain such an inviting place are also present here.

All the religions, most of the cultures and almost all the peoples of the world have found their way one way or another into the United States.

The sense of freedom and liberty is still alive and well. But you as educated men and women have great responsibilities. You must remain vigilant to the threats to individual liberties. It is your responsibility to remain well informed about such events in the world. There have been regrettable inroads concerning human rights in many countries in recent years, but, despite serious shortcomings in the past, the United States remains a highly creative cauldron–beyond the melting pot.

California is especially open to languages and peoples. It is also vulnerable. We can certainly think of many challenges in the past: the scandal of the loyalty oath in the universities, the racism around Rodney King, the LA riots, and similar matters are vivid reminders that complacency is unacceptable. But we also know that California, earthly paradise that it can be, is open to extraordinary talent. Note all those Indian computer wizards in the Silicone valley, and all the new entrepreneurs from all over the world.

We know how value and wealth is created. It is created by imaginative individuals taking risks, starting new companies with new ideas. Even those who start up at Harvard end up in California–and we can think of a few!

Such openness to talent remains rare and precious. In all these respects the United States is, and is likely to remain, the role model for the world.

There have been terrible periods of bigotry and racism that have marred this admirable record in our recent history.

You, as educated graduates, have an obligation to make sure that we can maintain the open society, with free human rights, with generous access to all cultures, with freedom of thought and liberty, and, the will to make a vibrant civil life possible together.

The pessimists will be proven wrong. The United States is still an admirably creative society. All the others, including the Russians and the Chinese, will inevitably continue to measure themselves against the achievements of the United States. This is even true of Brazil, another vibrant country with a varied population open to talent and immigrants (many of Japanese background) with great promise.

In closing, allow me to express once more my profound appreciation for the life work of Mr. Daisaku Ikeda whose passion for education, for peace and rational humanism has engendered this great institution with an international reach in the heart of California. May his vital ideas for nuclear disarmament, for freedom of thought, for liberty and for individual human rights long flourish. And may the graduates of 2012 take those ideas far and wide.

Nur Yalman
Istanbul, May 12, 2012
Professor of Social Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies, emeritus.
Department of Anthropology and senior Fellow, Harvard Society of Fellows, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.