POLEMICS: SECULAR, ORIENTALIST AND CHRISTIAN

 

Parvez Manzoor
 
 

 In the world of Realpolitik, order and hegemony are synonymous. Every bid for power masks itself as a quest for order and no imperialist ever strives to dominate others, he merely seeks peace! Alas, the world of the intellect is no different. It is beset by the same cognitive ambivalence (and moral duplicity!) that prevails in the realm of power-politics. The notorious conundrum of history and theory is a case in point: every attempt at historiography is an exercise in politics, just as every political design is enunciated through a re-writing of history. The intertwinement of the political and the historical discourses is thus indispensable to every ideological struggle and forms an ineluctable trait of every ideational debate. Little wonder that the interface of history and theory, which is the distinguishing mark of the intellectual climate of our times, provides ample evidence of the hegemonic ambitions of the West. An ill-disguised attempt to masquerade an imperialist, political, design as an empirical, historical, theory is Samuel Huntington's notorious thesis about the 'Clash of Civilizations' that has now been laboriously elaborated from a humble article in Foreign Affairs to an overbearing tome. And yet the cruel paradox is that for all its trust in the power of the civilization in command, it is an apprehensive tract that displays an acute, almost apocalyptic, sense of crisis, just as its realistic vision is informed by a nihilism of reason and values which is, in the final analysis, morally and politically irredeemable.

 The architect of the controversial theory of the 'clash of civilisation', Samuel Huntington, it is well worth recalling, was a theoretician of the Cold War whom the collapse of the Communist regime robbed of a vocation, if not of a career. His bid to carve out a new role for himself has now given us a cavalier scheme of a future world order that is spared the spectacle of ideological strife and political struggle but which is haunted by the spectre of civilisational strife. It is a world where people are willing to die neither for economic rewards nor for political laurels but for cultural solidarity. Here are the principal claims of Huntington's theory: 1) The Enlightenment's project to create a universal civilisation must be scraped. The West is unable to unify an increasingly recalcitrant world either by the power of its arms, or by the lure of it ideology and gadgetry; 2) Modernization is distinct from Westernisation and has, paradoxically, been instrumental in undermining Western hegemony; 3) A civilisation-based world order is emerging in which the West increasingly finds itself at loggerhead with ‘the Rest’. The principal threat to the supremacy, nay survival, of the West, however, comes from the emerging confederacy of arms between the Confucian and the Islamic civilisations; 4) 'The survival of the West depends an Americans reaffirming their Western identity and Westerners accepting their civilisation as unique not universal, and uniting to renew and preserve it against challenges from non-Western societies.'
 

Works Discussed in the Essay:


THE CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS AND THE MAKING OF A NEW WORLD ORDER. By Samuel P Huntington. Simon & Schuster, Rockefeller Centre, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020, 1996. Pp 367. $26.00. ISBN 0-684-81164-2.

WESTERN REPUBLICANISM AND THE ORIENTAL PRINCE. By Patricia Springborg. University of Texas Press, Box 7819, Austin, TX 78713-7819, USA, 1992. Pp 350. ISBN 0-292-77664-0.

EMPIRE TO COMMONWEALTH: Consequences of monotheism in late antiquity. By Garth Fowden. Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA, 1993. Pp 205. ISBN 0-691-01545-7.

Leaving aside the depressing fact that this is a nakedly xenophobic tract that unwittingly (or perhaps not so unwittingly!) comes close to sanctioning, in the name of civilisational struggle, the politics of genocide and ethnic cleansing, Huntington's morally crippled vision cannot even be empirically redeemed in a politically real world. A civilisation, defined by Huntington as ''the biggest 'we' within which we feel culturally at home as distinguished from all the other 'thems' out there'', it should be clear to everyone, is not necessarily 'the strongest we'. It lacks both the stronger emotional appeal of a Gemeinschaft such as a tribe or a nation, and the coercive power of a Gesellschaft such as a state or a party. Islam is a case in point: it is a civilisation without a 'core state', a sacred community without the semblance of  a single attribute of a world-polity. Or, as another reviewer of Huntington’s book chidingly reminds us:

 No doubt the triumphalist logic of the post-Cold War era creates its own momentum for the continuation of the West's civilizational crusade against Islam. Nonetheless Huntington's effort to capitalise on this vulgar sentiment and turn it into a respectable doctrine smacks of pure expediency. For nothing can hide the miserable fact that Islam is the only logical anomaly in his theoretical scheme. Indeed, every other entity that is designated as 'civilisation' is a super-state (USA (The West); China (Confucian); Russia (Orthodox); India (Hindu) Japan (Japanese) etc.) and partakes in the 'clash of civilisations' as a state. The only outsider in this league of super-powers and the only non-actor in the game of global politics is Islam. It is the only civilisation that is being threatened by everyone and which is in no position to threaten anyone!

As an exercise in serious strategic analysis, then, Huntington's thesis does not pass muster. It fails to describe with sufficient clarity what motivates states, what makes them rally or not around a cultural axis, or what set limits to their politics of civilizational identity. Nor is it clear what cognitive gain is there in replacing the economic determinism of Marx by the cultural determinism of Huntington? Notwithstanding the notoriety of this work, then, the significance of the civilisational factor in global politics remains a question mark. In fact, Huntington's book is a sleazy piece of polemics that is far more xenophobic in tone, and far less inhibited in its pursuit of primal passions, than anything produced during the Cold War. None of its spurious statistics or specious arguments can turn it into a respectable work of scholarship.

If politically Huntington's thesis is expedient and jingoistic, morally it is bankrupt and devoid of all humanistic pretensions. There is no inkling of a universal humanity; no common 'we' that redeems the cultural and religious karma, no utopian peace which abrogates the 'clash of civilisations'. In a civilisational world-order, no person simply belongs to the whole of humanity; s/he is always a civilizational being belonging to the West, Orthodoxy, Islam and the rest! True enough, the notion of common humanity conveys nothing but utopian babble to modern political science which prides itself for its 'realistic' temper. Hence, as a Machiavellian theorist, Huntington is not expected to defer to any utopian morality. That may be so, but could Islam abdicate its right to envision and cherish a universal humanity for the sake of political realism? Could it claim any right to founding a 'civilisation' without having any faith in human unity?
 
 The 'clash of civilisation', if indeed there is any justification for giving currency to this apocalyptic phrase, is meaningful only if it is not construed as a quest for political scrambles, if it does not allude exclusively to this-worldly pursuits. For whatever the nature of the contest between Islam and the West in the future, the real discord, according to a Muslim, is between an Islam that is a project for the realisation of human unity and a West that is not loathe to sacrificing universal humanity for the sake of preserving its hegemony. Unlike the West, Islam is not self-referential and the raison d’être of its civilisation is not self-perpetuation but the realisation of certain higher goals, the most salient of which being the moral unity of mankind. Without this unnegotiable moral commitment, 'Islam' would be a indistinguishable from other earthly empires; it would accept any kind of compromise in the name of political 'realism' and rejoice in being 'unique' rather than strive for a universal humanity. That Huntington's vision rids Islam of its transcendental mission and reduces it to a 'warring tribe' is another reason why the Muslim cannot comply with its stipulations. Whatever the lure of the Western model of power, recognised as morally vacuous even by Huntington who believes that 'the West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilisations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence', the Muslim cannot accept it without betraying the Islamic commitment.

Behind Huntington's opportune political theory lies of course the polemical enterprise of Orientalism, whose tendentious and overwrought sources he has skilfully, if somewhat disingenuously, exploited. Needles to say, Orientalism's epistemological and moral pretensions have been effectively deconstructed by Edward Said whose insights are indispensable to any discussion on Huntington's theory. Another work which may prove out to be equally indispensable and seminal in this regard is, I believe, Patricia Springborg's Western Republicanism and the Oriental Prince. A feat of monumental scholarship and formidable analytical acumen, Springborg's study demasks the Western discourse of power, of the construction of Western identity and Oriental difference, in a masterly fashion and by so doing hammers the last nail in the coffin of Orientalism. Though in the revisionist tradition of Edward Said, as a scholarly work it is far bolder, far more ambitious in scope and far more imaginative in its handling of the immense historical sources that it probes, be these ancient and Greek or medieval and Latin or modern and European, than anything known previously. It brings to surface the submerged mass, the protohistoric subconscious, of the iceberg of Western self whose visible tip was displayed by Said in his Orientalism. A highly demanding though extremely rewarding work which no serious scholar of world-history can afford to miss.

Though Springborg presents a polemical argument and challenges the West's comfortable view of its evolution, her work belongs to the best in the tradition of critical historiography. It both overwhelms by the sheer weight of its facts and persuades by the chaste logic of its argument. Just as myth-making provides greatest incentive to the writing of history, the author confesses, myth-unmasking lies at the heart of her critical enterprise. And the myth she unmasks is that of Western republicanism and the oriental prince, of the contractual Rechtsstaat and the autocratic despotism, that shapes the East-West divide which is as old as history itself. This myth poses for us boundaries, she claims, 'some of which are self-erected walls, others ancient lines of demarcation between conceptual systems, and yet others are like mirrors through which Alice in Wonderland can step - they reflect distortions which disappear under examination and sometimes reverse images.' What Springborg's study tries to accomplish is, by her own standards, 'an appraisal of these boundaries, their historical basis and the purpose they serve.'

The surprising finding of Springborg's investigation is that the ideological 'Berlin Wall' between the East and the West was not erected until after the Reformation. Prior to that, from Antiquity to Renaissance, the boundaries between the two, intellectual as well as civilizational, were quite fluid. Only with the rise of the early modern European states in the post-Reformation times does the East become a constant reference point for the West and acquires its characteristically 'despotic' physiognomy. And yet the roots of this 'Orientalism' - Islamophobia and anti-Semitism - go far back into ancient times. From seemingly innocent, archaic, quaint and apparently arbitrary elements in the writings of the ancient sages, she discovers prototypes for later racial and cultural stereotypes. For instance, Aristotle's defence of slavery, which in her opinion was 'treated more benignly than it deserves by conventional commentators', shows upon scrutiny to contain thinly veiled 'racial imperatives' to treat "Greeks like brothers, barbarians like plants and animals". The slave by nature, Springborg makes no bones about the meaning of the Aristotelian text, 'was quite simply an Asiatic.'

The 'self-assumed identities' of the modern Western European states, insists Springborg, were theorised in a specific historiographical tradition, that of republicanism. It was out of the struggle between weak, concession-dispensing monarchies and the economically dominant classes - a contest that was ultimately decided in favour of the Bourgeoisie - that the specifically ideological theory of the modern European state was generated. The Bourgeoisie laid claims to inheriting the mantle of the ancient polis and managed in the process to create oriental despotism as a foil for classical republican theory. Yet the irony is, notes Springborg, that all the evidence suggests that 'the ancient Middle East may well have pioneered city-republican forms, of which the Greek polis was only an example.' The list of borrowed institutions included: 'the bicameral legislature, eligibility to which was decided on property qualification and birth to free citizens; rule of law, an independent judiciary, procedures for holding magistrates to account and trial by jury; the rotation of magistracies among an isonomous elite; voting by ballot and by lot; private laws of contract and commercial law.'

The state in the East, then, was 'essentially pluralistic, aggregating the institutions of civil society in a classical Hegelian manner.' Needless to say, this is true of the classical Muslim empires as well. In fact, the Islamic East experiences the authoritarian state in its pure form only with the coming of the Western colonialism. Following Hannah Batatu's lead (The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, Princeton, 1978) Springborg convincingly asserts that 'nineteenth-century European colonisers were the first with the technological capacity and the long experience of authoritarian rule to have both the ability and the will to smash the institutions of civil society, destroy the old social order, and create the vacuum into which first the colonial power, then its stooges (transplanted and faked-up kings, shahs, etc.) and finally the revolutionary one-party state could step up.' Compared to the pluralistic East, the state in the West, according to Springborg, was 'classically authoritarian' and 'rested on the absence of participatory structures.' The ubiquity of autocracies in the Muslim world, then, is not due to any inherently despotic disposition of the Oriental mind, but a gift of Western colonialism and modernity.

Among other potent myths whom Springborg squarely lays to rest in this exciting study is Marx Weber's claim (advanced in the Preface to his celebrated work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) of the 'rational' - administrative, technical and scientific - superiority of the West over the East. For all his advocacy of separating 'facts' from 'values', she shows with a summoning of formidable historical data, the great sociologist was surprisingly lax in checking out his own facts! (A similar charge against Weber has been made by Bryan Turner: Weber and Islam. London, 1978.) To the favourite Orientalist query - or taunt - as to why, despite a finally graduated division of labour, capitalism did not emerge in the East, Springborg, following Goitein, retorts that 'it was because business generated a specific professional form, the partnership, neither based on division between owners and non-owners, nor giving rise to employer-employee relation.' Centuries of small business organised in partnership, 'in which some partners contributed capital, others labour, but all were happily "owners"', simply shut out large-scale industrialist as a dominant type. Not surprisingly, the emerging discipline of Islamic economics takes 'partnership' as the pivotal idea of its entrepreneurial system.

It is obvious from the above discussion that this is a very learned work which deals principally with the modern West's appropriation of the ancient East, while at the same time creating the myth of its backwardness and despotism. (Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Machiavelli and others form the focus of its investigation. Islam, by contrast, is restricted to a brief discussion of the traditional 'Mirror of Princes' and Ibn Khaldun. In other words, this is not a work that addresses the specialised Islamic scholar, though obviously anyone with an interest in the history of ideas and politics, Islamist included, ought to find it extremely stimulating.) The five basic categories of this myth which tells the deep origins of Orientalism and anti-Semitism, according to Springborg are: race, property, oligarchy, aetieology and economy. The greatest of the ironies, Springborg remarks further, is that 'property, among the liberties on which "freedom of the Greeks" was said to depend, should have the jealously guarded ruling oligarchies within Graeco-Roman systems. Freedom for the many was defined politically, for the ruling few it was defined politically and economically.' As to the bigger question about the nature of the relationship between myth and reality, or the distortion of historical truth in historiography, Springborg believes, that 'such historic inversions are due less to malice or a predilection for untruth than they are due to the ideological status of the claims involved - as provisional truths staking out territory and hoping, thereby, to create facts. They are also to the nature of stereotyping: the characterisation of the East as the "other", or merely as the negation of all that was being claimed for the West, by polemicists knowing, in fact very little about it.'
 
A different historical exposition of the genesis of universal empires, the ancient roots of the present 'clash of civilisation' if you please, is offered by Garth Fowden in his: Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of monotheism in the antiquity.  Notwithstanding the logical and ideational transparency of its title, Fowden's study comes to an ambiguous conclusion regarding the relationship of universal religions and universal empires. Contrary to the commonly held belief of the late antiquity that allegiance to one God both justifies the exercise of imperial power and makes it more effective, Fowden's historical inquiry shows that monotheism does not merely abet imperial ambitions it also undermines them. Though antecedents of the idea of the religious and political unity of the state, he shows, can be traced in the polytheistic world of Greece and Rome, it was Constantine who placed religion at the centre of Roman political ideology with the consequence that 'by Leo's day, one could not become emperor if one was not a Christian.'

The focus of the study is 'monotheism on the theological level and universalism on the historical level (both secular and religious)' (emphasis supplied). Not surprisingly, the author is forced to enunciate his stance on the nature of polytheism ('the divine realm is populated by a plurality of gods of broadly comparable status, not fully subordinated to or comprehended within a single god of higher status'); henotheism ('affirmative belief in one God, without the sharply-defined exclusive line which makes a belief in Him as the only God') and monotheism ('one unique god to the exclusion of all others') even if, as an afterthought, he adds that 'monotheism is much more ambiguous as a reality than its definition might lead one to expect.' Another claim is that though monotheism has been associated with certain world religions, 'it does not necessarily give rise to personal proselytism or organised mission, much less to political expansionism.' For monotheism is not ineluctably universalist: it may be 'ethnically based (Judaism)'; or merely 'receptive to converts (early Islam)' 'rather than actively proselytising (Christianity)'. Needless to say that all these theoretical assumptions are manifestly polemical, not to speak of the slanted typology which historicises Islam ('early Islam') but shields Judaism and Christianity from any such reductionism!

Whether it is the ambiguity of Fowden's theo-political vision that renders his historical reflection more of a personal Confessio than a theoretical dissertation may be a moot point, what is incontrovertible is however that his intermingling of religious sensibilities and historical insights is quite intimate and deliberate. And yet, the study has all the trappings of an academic tome: an impersonal, academic, style; an articulate and well-researched presentation of historical sources; a meticulously executed apparatus of footnotes and bibliography'; indeed, a general absence of emotion and scurrility. Only the Epilogue, lovingly crafted in the style and form of a Scriptural sermon, belies its academic pretensions. True enough, nobody need to haggle with the personal piety of the author or question his deeply-held religious convictions, even when these leaven a professedly secular discourse. Nevertheless, a Muslim is entitled to respond to some of Fowden's theological prejudices which inform his historical insights, and especially so when these insights have a definite bearing on the faith of Islam itself.

The most flagrant of Fowden's theological prejudices, which are given full reign within the world-historical, ostensibly secular, framework, concern of course the Prophet of Islam. He is presented as an ambitious empire-builder whose mission and call are irrelevant, or at best incidental, to his achievements. He founded an 'empire' and 'religion' was a by-product of his imperial ambitions or merely a means to achieving this-worldly goals. Cf: 'Besides a secular order Muhammad also proclaimed a new revelation from the One God, and in doing so created (whether or not this was fully understood at the time) a new religion, as well as giving impetus to the emergence of a new culture.' At an other occasion, Fowden outdoes himself by claiming that 'on the political level he (the Prophet) was able to set in motion a sequence of conquests that resulted in world empire. And on the cultural level he did not merely choose one religion rather than another and then rewrite history accordingly. Instead he gave history new impetus by proclaiming a new revelation and a new religion, while cleverly drawing on the momentum built by earlier monotheist prophets. Muhammad's career was a product of conjunction of opportunities, but also of his personal ability to recognise that conjecture and communicate it to others.' Islam, in short, is a gift of the political genius of the Prophet who, paradoxically, is both a passive tool in the hands of time and a clever schemer riding on the crest of history! The only thing missing in this historical non-drama is the will of God.
 
 Far more problematic than the glib display of theological polemics is the author's propensity to psychologize. Far too often does Fowden rejoice in the exposition of the facile relationship between the psychological motive and the historical happening. Writing centuries after the events, and with the balance-sheets of history firmly in his hands, he is able to affirm that he has discovered the only possible historical world, that he has fathomed the unambiguous and infallible internal logic of history which he is only too willing to share with his reader. Nowhere is there an inkling that the logic of history may be less than unambiguous or that psychology and history are basically irreconcilable within the same mode of explanation. Here are some examples of his uninhibited determinism: 'The Islamic empire owes its stupendous success and power to a combination of Cyrus's geopolitical achievement with a universalist (though not, to begin with, actively missionary) monotheism - Constantine's dream come true.'; or, by the death of Uthman 'the geopolitical preconditions of world empire had now been met.'; or, 'The obvious late antique cultural or, more specifically religious universalisms, those of Christ and Mani, were universalism from birth.' (Circularity thy name is historic causality!) What is missing this time is the will of man.

No doubt that while reviewing Fowden's book, the Muslim critic is not expected to invoke the Transcendent as a cause of the historical phenomena, just as Fawden cannot be indicted for eschewing the para-historical as an explanation of the historical. Nevertheless, the question remains, what is 'historical' and what is 'theoretical' in Fowden'a account; what are his 'facts' and what are his 'values'? Aren't the two hopelessly mingled; isn't his language more evaluative than descriptive; isn't his history, in short, a fact of his imagination? By what token is the Prophet of Islam an empire builder? (Even from the canons of secular history, the Caliph Umar, or the monarch Mu'awiya, or in fact the emperor Walid I, possesses more of a claim to the founding of the 'empire' than the Prophet. Of course, the Prophetic regime had the responsibility of creating, and defending, the umma, and that the task entailed a political and military struggle. It is also undeniable that towards the end of the Prophet's mission, the Muslim community did achieve some measure of 'success'. But to confound the existential vicissitudes of the pristine religious community with the worldly glory and ambitions of the Ummayad and Abbasid Empire is an act of sheer bigotry and malice. Sure enough, the Muslim is not ashamed of the might of Islam's 'classical' empires, but s/he has never conceived 'Islam', of which the Prophetic regime was the existential embodiment, as a 'secular project'! What was essential, and what has proved enduring, in the Prophet's legacy is the faith and the community of faith he founded, not the body-politic but body-Islamic. The perception of the Prophet as a, mere, 'statesman' is a fact of the secular, Islamophobic, imagination. How one hears the echoes of the Orientalist refrain!

Were Fowden's 'historicism' consistent and even-handed, were his perception of the world bereft of all Transcendence, one may have found his secularism less galling. This, however, is far from the case: his is not a nihilistic tract but a deeply Christian one. For the final paragraph of his work reads: 'The ambition to produce on earth God's heavenly monarchy - whether in the guise of theocracy or of a more secular autocracy - has always proved an illusion. Even where partially realised, the ideal has been subject to the corruption of power. Not only in his dialogue with Satan in the wilderness, Christ rejected both earthly power and its accompanying illusions and corruptions. Instead, he addressed to the innumerable individuals who make up mankind, and within them to the mortal soul that is our only truly individual and indivisible attribute.' So this whole exercise in historiography is merely for the sake of dethroning history and discrediting every historical project! The irony is that among the historical projects, there is also Christianity; its church, its empires, its princes, its art, indeed its theology, liturgy, ethics and everything else that bears the Christian stamp. These too have been enterprises of power and corruption. To reject them would be to reject the Christian existence altogether. How come that Christian sensibility is so fundamentalist and fanatic that it can only pay testimony to the Christian faith by renouncing Christian existence?

Unfortunately, despite a fair degree of accord on the absoluteness of Divine transcendence, on the ultimate futility and inadequacy of human effort and on the primacy of the individual being and his/her moral responsibility, the Muslim cannot fully share the anti-historical and anti-existential sentiment of the Christian author. Nor can he agree with the Christian polemicist that every human enterprise, since it lacks perfection, is foredoomed to perdition. Indeed, the most perceptive Muslim mind of this century, Muhammad Iqbal, has responded to this kind of squeamish spirituality in these lyrical words:
'The great point in Christianity is the search for an independent content for spiritual life which, according to the insight of its founder, could be elevated by the forces of a world external to the soul of man, but by the revelation of a new world within its soul. Islam fully agrees with the insight and supplements it by the further insight that the illumination of the thus world revealed is not something foreign to the world of matter but permeates it through and through.'

The above discussion amply demonstrates that the scholarly literature on Islam contains a fair amount of polemics and that secularists, orientalists and Christians equally partake of this enterprise. Plus ca change......

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