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Interview with Dr. Nur Yalman
October 19, 2010

[The following is taken from an interview with Dr. Nur Yalman, Professor Emeritus of Social Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, conducted by Masao Yokota, advisor to the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue.]

Masao Yokota: You recently remarked on “the immense work SGI President Daisaku Ikeda has taken for creating more understanding among people all around the world.” Would you elaborate?

Dr. Nur Yalman

Nur Yalman: Yes, this is easy to explain. I have been reading G. M. Trevelyan’s [1876-1962] famous book. He was a historian who was the master of Trinity College of Cambridge at that critical time between World War I and World War II. Today, reading the history about Europe by a great historian, one can get extremely agitated and depressed. Many leaders have made tremendous mistakes in connection with war. So many people have died as a result of leaders’ insane preoccupation with national glory or quest in beating or downgrading the enemy.


I am struck by that extraordinary far-sightedness on the part of Daisaku Ikeda when he invited a great man, Sir Joseph Rotblat [1908-2005] to have a dialogue with him, which was published in book form as A Quest for Global Peace. That was absolutely a brilliant move. Sir Joseph Rotblat after all was the one who created in 1957 the Pugwash Conferences on Sciences and World Affairs and as a result of this, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

Sir Rotblat had been involved in the creation of the nuclear weapons program. So he knew what these terrible instruments of destruction could do to humankind. And we are still living in the shadow of a most terrible nuclear apocalypse. There are many countries with nuclear weapons. These countries erroneously think they can dominate the world. They will not be able to do so and a simple mistake can lead us into the most deadly situation.


The problem of war is still with us. It is absolutely brilliant on the part of Daisaku Ikeda to describe the way forward in pacifist Buddhist terms. He has been trying all through his life to foster peace in connection with many countries, but in particular in Japan with China.

I find this absolutely admirable as a life’s work for the sake of the future. This is not the only thing that Daisaku Ikeda has done. Everything else he has done, the institutes of education, institutes of culture, and all the many books he has written have been very impressive. He has always shown a deep sense of humanity, which is beyond all applause and appreciation.

The Soka Gakkai’s 80 years have been very dramatic and have had extraordinary achievements on the world’s stage. One hopes that these efforts in the United Nations and also in China will bear fruit. We shall see.

The world is still dominated by military powers. In all countries, military expenditures are increasing.

[As he left office in 1952, US President] Eisenhower was drawing attention to this military industrial complex in many European and Asian countries, not just in the United States. It leads to a complacent attitude towards the ever-growing influence of the military on public affairs. This is extremely dangerous, because the military is essentially in the business of killing people in one way or another. This leads to arrangements that are far from peaceful.

Every killing involves some sort of vengeance on the other side. The more you kill, the more you have enemies. The only way to get out of that cycle is exactly what Shakyamuni advocated--to stop this mad rush in the direction of more aggression and violence and move in the direction of peace and pacifism. On these subjects, Mr. Ikeda and I have seen absolutely eye-to-eye.

Yokota: In the affairs of power, and especially with super powers, fear is often a motivating factor. Mr. Ikeda emphasizes trust, which is built through dialogue. One needs courage to trust.

Yes, he is absolutely right. We must be able to trust our fellow man and generate that spark of empathy and kindness that we find in people’s hearts. Unless we can do that then the future is very bleak.

The way forward must be through greater understanding of other people and other cultures in a world in which the nations are evermore frightened and closed. To trust in others so that you can open yourself up to other people and their cultures and contributions is of immense preciousness. Mr. Ikeda represents this consummately.

Recently, we have the great nations in Northern Europe becoming fearful, terrified of these [supposedly] poor people, whom they call Muslims, coming to live among them. But, of course, these are people from many different backgrounds. The word Muslim cannot begin to cover the variety of people from North Africa, Pakistan, Indonesia, and elsewhere who come to these Northern European countries. We have seen both in Sweden and Denmark and the most extraordinary turn around in Holland, the extreme right parties are beginning to gain a foothold and get more traction.

This is a problem of fear, and it is an entirely irrational fear. This fear is essentially the result of manipulation by politicians, but it can lead to disastrous directions. This is why with my reading of Trevelyan on English and European history, it was so striking to see the degree to which great countries make great mistakes and lead their people to war for national glory or for other reasons but in the end lots of people get killed.

Yokota: One of the biggest fears for human beings is the fear of differences. Such difference is something central to your discipline of anthropology, where knowledge is gained by emersion in other cultures. This has parallels with the efforts for cultural exchange and understanding that Mr. Ikeda has been striving to promote.

Yalman: Yes, absolutely so. For example, the best work done by Claude Levi-Strauss was in Brazil and that of my dear friend David Maybury-Lewis, was also done in Brazil; Edmund Leach, master of King’s College Cambridge, worked in Burma. These people all did their best work in countries and among people that were not their own. They opened themselves up to these people, living among them, trying to understand them, trying to be sympathetic to them.

This is the way forward. Mr. Ikeda has made an immense contribution with his efforts to foster good understanding between different peoples. Eighty years is a good time to be able to celebrate this idea of trust and dialogue.

Yokota: Would you talk about your dialogue with Pres. Ikeda?

Yalman: I was so delighted to be involved in the dialogue because he was extremely knowledgeable about all the subjects we raised. We spoke about many things: Japanese culture, Turkish culture, Islam and Buddhism also and of course, Western Europe, the United States and other matters. It was delightful to know the degree to which he had read and understood the significance of key elements in these different cultures. The dialogue went very smoothly as you can read in our book, A Passage to Peace.


A native of Istanbul, Turkey, Nur Yalman is Professor Emeritus of Social Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His major work is the classic anthropological text Under the Bo Tree: Studies in Caste, Kinship and Marriage in the Interior of Ceylon (1967). He and Mr. Ikeda conducted a dialogue comparing the religious cultures of Islam and Buddhism, published by I. B. Taurus in 2009 in English, under the title A Passage to Peace: Global Solutions from East and West.


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