Monday, March 24, 2008

Worlds at War by Anthony Pagden

Excerpt of review by Dominic Sandbrook

"Almost a decade after the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II's armies had stormed the walls of Constantinople, the last relic of the Roman Empire, "the Conqueror" made a trip to the site of ancient Troy. There, on the shore where Agamemnon, Achilles and the rest had supposedly disembarked thousands of years before, he announced that Troy had at last been avenged.

A conflict deeper than rape and pillage?
A conflict deeper than rape and pillage

The heirs of the Greeks, he said, had been forced to pay "the right penalty, after a long period of years, for their injustice to us Asiatics at that time and so often in subsequent times".

The notion of the Turks as the heirs to Hector, Priam and the Trojans sounds a bit odd today, but it was not uncommon in the 15th century. One rather far-fetched Latin account of the fall of Constantinople even had Mehmed triumphantly raping a virgin in the centre of Hagia Sophia, yelling as he did so that he was avenging the Greeks' violation of Cassandra, Priam's gloomy daughter.

This theme runs through Anthony Pagden's learned, fluent and thoroughly entertaining account of what he sees as a long struggle between East and West, which takes in everything from the Persian wars to Napoleon's expedition to Egypt, T E Lawrence's rather murky adventures in Syria, and the dramatic collapse of the Shah's regime in Iran..."

"...An eminent historian at UCLA, he is clearly no friend to religion, but he is a good enough scholar to write sensitively and intelligently about the nuances of European and Asian belief from the classical period to the present.

Like other historians before him, notably the great Ernest Renan, he argues that the crucial difference between the Christian and Islamic worlds is that in the former, religion has never been allowed to govern all civil and religious life (rendering unto Caesar and all that).

But in the Islamic world, he suggests, law, politics and culture have been grounded on religious faith, and so innovation and enterprise are unavoidably stifled - as is the vigorous secular debate necessary for democracy to take root.

This is, then, a strikingly Whiggish book, a narrative of the triumph of western reason and science over oriental superstition and idolatry, with Pagden reserving special praise for the Enlightenment. Paradoxically, though, perhaps the most impressive thing about this book is that Pagden is a good enough historian to see the limits of his own thesis.

Both in Islamic Spain and during the golden age of the Abbasid caliphate, as he acknowledges, there was a genuine tolerance of humanist ideas; indeed, it was here that the classical intellectual legacy was kept alive.

And he admits, too, that Islam and modernism are not complete strangers: during the 19th century, for instance, liberal theologians such as Muhammad Abduh, the chief mufti of Egypt, tried to argue that revelation and reason were compatible after all, and that there was even room for a secular law governing marriage and divorce - although his efforts are largely forgotten today.

One obvious way in which the story could be complicated further, meanwhile, is to consider the Byzantine Empire, which, for all the sweep of Pagden's book, is largely absent. Byzantium, after all, was a pretty theocratic, militantly Christian state, and given its longevity and extraordinary artistic influence, it was much more than a footnote in European history.

At the same time, however, it was both a bulwark against Islam and an interface with it. The layout of the typical mosque, for example, is modelled on the Byzantine basilica of the Near East, while Byzantine iconoclasm - a preview of what was to happen in, say, English parish churches during the Civil War - seems to have been inspired by Islamic attitudes to images.

One of the pleasures of Pagden's splendid book, in other words, is that it is perfectly possible to enjoy and learn from it while disagreeing with its thesis."