A tragicomic history of the clash of civilisations

Sunday, March 23, 2008

WHEN Napoleon Bonaparte led his army into Egypt in 1798, he had more than military conquest on his mind. Along with 30,000 soldiers, his entourage included what amounted to a mobile university, complete with economists and poets, architects and astronomers, a balloonist, and a baritone from the Paris Opera. They carried with them a library of a thousand books, featuring Montesquieu and Rousseau, Montaigne and Voltaire, and other classics of the Western canon.

Almost two centuries later, in 1971, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, held a lavish, weeklong fete for foreign dignitaries on the grounds of an ancient Persian palace. Over peacock stuffed with foie gras and 25,000 bottles of Champagne, he declared himself heir to the great Achaemenid kings Darius and Xerxes. The claimed price tag: US$200 million ($277 million).

For Anthony Pagden, a professor of political science and history at the University of California, Los Angeles, the shah and Napoleon are archetypes, respectively, of East and West, each seeing himself as heir to a glorious civilisation. But as Pagden points out, each man also had his own fascinating ambiguities. The Swiss-educated shah was a highly secular supporter of modernisation. Napoleon proclaimed to the Egyptians that he "revered the Prophet Muhammad and the glorious Quran", if only to win over the local authorities.

Pagden has a keen eye for the striking detail (a helpful attribute for someone plowing through 2,500 years of history in 12 chapters), and Worlds at War, like Pagden's earlier work Peoples and Empires, is bold, panoramic and highly readable, at times a page turner.

Through a combination of legend, anecdote and evocative writing, Pagden brings alive the ancient Greco-Persian wars, the rise of Islam and the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman emperor Mehmed II. And he turns what might otherwise be dry history about the Investiture Controversy of the 11th century into almost a thriller, with an "outmaneuvered" Henry IV standing outside the castle of Canossa "in a hair shirt and robes of a penitent, barefoot on the ice for three days", seeking an audience with Pope Gregory VII, who had excommunicated him. Having obtained Gregory's forgiveness, Henry promptly "descended on Rome with an army". Gregory called on the Normans to defend him, and they defeated Henry. But unfortunately they "sacked the city themselves", causing the Pope "to flee south, where he died of fever in Salerno".

But if Worlds at War is hard to put down, it's also hard to pin down; almost to the end, its thesis is something of a moving target. For starters, Pagden casts his book as an exploration of the "perpetual enmity", as Herodotus called it, between East and West. Yet he excludes from his account China, Japan and the rest of the Far East and, for the most part, India. So his "East" consists almost entirely of Islamic societies: Persia/Iran, the Ottoman Empire/Turkey, Egypt and today's Arab world.

Moreover, Pagden is frequently cagey about whether he thinks fundamental differences actually exist between East and West. In his preface, he says the East-West division is "often illusory, always metaphorical". Elsewhere, he suggests that the West is in many ways rooted in the East. When he does draw out cultural differences, some of them stereotypical, Pagden tends to distance himself through attribution. He cites Herodotus for the contrast between Asian slavishness and Western individuality and love of freedom; Ernest Renan for Islam's (claimed) hostility to science; Montesquieu and Hegel for "Oriental despotism".

In the end, however, Worlds at War is another book about the clash between the Enlightenment and religion, and its central target is Islam, which, Pagden argues, is incompatible with the Western principle of separation between church and state. The "fundamental theological difference between Islam and Christianity", he tells us, lies in "the association between religion and the law".

Pagden tends to treat Islam as a monolith; at one point he describes Islam as intellectually "simple". Given Islam's long and variegated history, not to mention its abstruse jurisprudence, many will disagree. It's a good bet that Worlds at War will appeal more to admirers of Samuel Huntington's thesis about the clash of civilisations, which Pagden calls "a crude but useful phrase", than to fans of Edward Said's book Orientalism.

To be fair, Pagden also tends to treat Christianity monolithically (although more favourably). For example, some historians of the church will surely take issue with Pagden's assertion that Christianity separated the secular from the sacred, emphasising "the ultimate freedom of the individual". How exactly do the crusades and the Inquisition fit into this picture, not to mention the many Christian doctrines of predestination?

The real value of Worlds at War may lie in a secondary theme: the West's long, tragicomic history of trying to civilise and modernise the East. In the first century BC, Octavian's defeat of Antony and Egypt was portrayed by the Romans as the triumph of "a free and virtuous West" over "a tyrannical and corrupt East". Almost 2,000 years later, in 1920, Shi'ites and Sunnis were killing each other in Mesopotamia, British officers were dying, and The Times of London wrote, "How much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavour to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?"

And then there was Napoleon. The most ambitious of Western conquerors in that region, he set about to impress the Egyptians with a demonstration of French technology: an elaborate launching of his hot air balloon, painted in red, white and blue. Unfortunately, it crashed and burst into flames. The Egyptians, no doubt, were shocked and awed.

Amy Chua, a professor of law at Yale University, is the author of "World on Fire" and "Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — and Why They Fall".

New York Times

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