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September 26, 2005

Historian challenges assumptions about religious conflicts

By Scott Rappaport

Associate professor of history Brian Catlos has spent years researching how Christians, Muslims, and Jews interact.

Brian Catlos
Brian Catlos

Although his main focus has been on studying ethnic and religious minorities in the Mediterranean during medieval times, Catlos has inadvertently discovered a pattern running throughout history that applies directly to present-day political and social realities.

"Where my research and data leads, though not intentionally, is to debunk the notion of a conflict of civilizations--a conflict between groups of people who identify themselves as Christians, Jews, or Muslims and who articulate their struggle as a result of ideology and national identity," said Catlos. "Rather what's really behind history and contemporary human affairs is the interest of relatively small groups who often interact without regard to ideologies, national, or religious boundaries."

"Social stability, particularly between members of different cultural groups, seems to be related to the degree to which people depend on each other and fulfill each other’s needs," Catlos added. "When you have that situation, individuals cease to identify themselves primarily or exclusively as Christians, Muslims, and Jews."

Catlos noted that while the Middle Ages were certainly very different from today, he has found that the same basic social principles still operate.

"When groups engage in hostilities, we tend to categorize it as a struggle between religions," said Catlos. "For example, the struggle between the United States and Al-Queda--we're told it's a struggle between Western culture and Islamic culture. Yet if you look in the New York Times, you can see a photo of George Bush and Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia holding hands at Crawford Ranch. It's a misguided analysis and much more complicated than that. What we have in the world today--as in the medieval era--is a situation where individuals prefer to identify themselves as members of cultural communities, for example, as Christians, Muslims, and Jews, when they are in fact pursuing economic and political interests related to their own ambitions."

The author of a recent book titled The Victors and the Vanquished: Christians and Muslims in Catalonia and Aragon, 1050-1300 (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Catlos came to UCSC in 2002 after spending six years in Barcelona where he was a research fellow at the Spanish National Research Council and held a postdoctoral fellowship through Boston University. He has just been granted advance tenure and awarded a $25,000 grant from the UC President's Research Fellowships in the Humanities to continue his work in the coming academic year.

"I'm looking at empirical data gathered in the archives and developing a theory to apply outside the Middle Ages and the Mediterranean--to come up with a model for understanding under what circumstances members of different religious and political groups bring their religion into the forefront," said Catlos. "For example, Bosnia and Kosovo have become the poster children for ethno-religious intolerance. Yet in the years prior to the war there, the same area was remarkable for political, religious, and ethnic integration. I'm interested in looking at why and under what circumstances we get that shift from social stability to instability."

Catlos observed that engaging in this type of historical research is his way of testing common assertions that there is a fundamental and irresolvable conflict between Christian and Muslim, or Jewish and Muslim, cultures. He points out that throughout history, there has been a widespread phenomenon of elites interacting with whoever will serve them best.

"Ethnicity and religion becomes the language with which we speak about our aims and politics, but I don't think it's what's actually behind them," said Catlos. "We have to critically analyze the present in the same way that we critically analyze the past."

"The message is for us to keep focused on what's happening and read beyond the official histories--whether we're talking about the Middle Ages or the present," said Catlos. "We should not accept at face value those appealing, simplistic analyses. They are ultimately wrong, but we tend to be attached to them because they're so self-affirming of our beliefs," he added.


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