In his review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book Tim Winter makes a number of very salient points about some aspects of European politics.
- The increase in anti-Muslim political groups
- The wide spread use of a caricature of Islam
- The wide spread use of a caricature of the West
- An increase in simplistic attacks on Islamic faith and life.
He then goes on to describe Hirsi Ali’s latest work, which reflects both these sentiments and practices:
Nomad is a morality play about the evils of Islam, portrayed as a dark Other in the author’s struggle for happiness and enlightenment… In general this autobiography rings true; still, there remains something formulaic about her pilgrimage from Muslim to atheist certainty, in a book in which everything seems crafted by a steady teleology, to show “why I chose America”… One sign of the probable genuineness of her story is the tone of her polemic, in which she effectively exchanges one fundamentalism for another.
Islam is reduced to a single extremist cult. The European Enlightenment has become a Disney remake, financed and produced by the institutes and columnists of the American Right. It is reason against faith, and where all the good guys on our side; even if some of them are fundamentalist Christians - Hirsi Ali tried to get the old Pope to support her holy war.
All very curious. And shows how little any of this has to do with the actual Enlightenment; many of its defenders apparently ignorant of the very thing they worship and would have us believe. For in the 18th century it was the Catholic Church, certainly not Christianity or religion per se (Voltaire himself was a Deist), that was the great enemy for most of the French intellectuals. So imagine if someone had told Voltaire that the Pope was a friend of reason and progress! Yet in the strange and imaginary world of the Neo-conservatives and fundamentalist liberals it is, bizarrely, not the head of the Catholic Church that is the great Christian villain but the Archbishop of Canterbury who, because he is rational and reasonable, and wants a peaceful accommodation between the major monotheistic faiths, is condemned as “a cultural and moral relativist”; the worst kind of abuse for the upholders of this (very) peculiar Enlightenment faith.[i] Better it seems to exterminate the brutes than to talk to them as men and women;[ii] just the opposite of purportedly civilised behaviour;[iii] and the culture of the Philosophes themselves, where rational conversation and sociability were extolled over extremism and enthusiasm.[iv]
Winter then describes a number of solutions that Hirsi Ali proposes to deal with her (Islamic) enemies.
- Religious specific immigration tests
- New immigrants on arrival must articulate Enlightenment values
- European triumphalism to replace Multi-culturalism: we must show “the evident inferiority of Muslim beliefs and social practices.”[v]
She has faith that a person’s views can be changed by verbal bullying, rather than by reasoning; and that this approach will integrate Muslims into the host society. It is a view of humanity that suggests individuals are merely passive receivers of messages from outside authorities; a strand of thought that does indeed come out of the Enlightenment, and which reached its peak in the middle of the last century, when it seemed to dominate the social sciences; behaviourism taking the empiricism of the 18th century to its logical extreme.[vi] For the Enlightenment had itself simplified the views of John Locke and David Hume, who both emphasized the role of the senses and experience in acquiring knowledge but who did not deny the internal workings of the mind; they put it the background because it was too complex to understand; preferring to concentrate on what they believed they could investigate. However, it was a view that accorded well with anti-democratic and elitist though progressive views of the time;[vii] and which in later centuries became the inspiration for both social reform and authoritarian control – the plasticity of people could create opportunities for improvements in their living conditions and be a means of securing their obedience.[viii]
Hirsi Ali’s geo-political analysis is equally enlightening:
- Israel-Palestine is not about territory but about “a holy war in the name of Allah”.[ix]
Winter ends his piece by saying, surely correctly, that the West is not best served by this kind of simple-minded rhetoric.
The West’s faltering effort to win in Afghanistan requires the winning of hearts and minds, and gestures such as the Swiss minaret ban (which Hirsi Ali supports) are likely to intensify Muslim disdain for Western hypocrisy and Islamophobia… [genocidal remarks by Ernest Renan are then quoted]… Such rhetoric in the end strengthened the backlash that ended the imperial dream. America should take note, and choose its friends according to its better instincts.
The review seems reasonable, and highlights that curious phenomena, the secular fundamentalists, and their ignorance of what they propound – the Enlightenment.[x] They take one aspect of 18th French century thought, its attacks on the Catholic Church, and which arose out of its influence, its repression and its political reaction, and make it represent the whole.[xi] The result? We end up with a terrible caricature; that even if substantially true would have to be modified to take into account later historical events; which ultimately would transform them.[xii] The most obvious example is the rise of nationalism and the state during the last three centuries; and which have replaced Catholicism and the Catholic Church as the focus of reaction and blind faith.
The review seems to have captured the Neo-conservative essence of Hirsan Ali’s views; while Winter’s concluding remarks are instructive in a different way, revealing some of his own assumptions about the West: a more liberal approach is justified on instrumental grounds; with words replacing actions as the determiner of political change (how often do we see this!) and America is treated as somewhat benign – if only it would act on its “better instincts”. Yet it seems likely that anti-Westernism would greatly reduce, possibly to zero if we discount the lunatic fringe, if we stopped invading the countries of the Middle and Near East, and removed our support for the region’s dictators. Thus in Afghanistan the best way to win “hearts and minds” is not to change the rhetoric but to simply stop killing people, and leave the country; providing reparations and the support so it can be rebuilt[xiii] (although the longer NATO stays, building up its client regime, the harsher the potential conflict when they finally do pull out. How to achieve a withdrawal while controlling the violence that it in turn will generate is surely the most important issue in the Afghan war, at least for its inhabitants.)[xiv] Thus the problem not is some cultural misunderstanding based on intellectual arrogance, but an urge to conquest, which has remained remarkably consistent over the last three hundred years; with only the material interests changing – fossil fuels replacing the protection of the British empire at the main imperial concern in the region.[xv]
Two weeks later the TLS receives a letter:
Sir, - In the issue for January 21 I was glad to find that by an accident of layout a poem of mine had been printed next to a photograph of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but the shine of juxtaposition was rather dulled by Tim Winter’s review of her new book. Personally I can’t see why she thinks that all the religious Islamic men who behave murderously towards women would behave less murderously if they became atheists, but surely it isn’t hard to see why she would hope so. If “there remains something formulaic about her pilgrimage from Muslim to atheist certainty”, wouldn’t that be because there was something even more formulaic about the determination of men in her religion – or in her local branch of that religion, if you wish – to mutilate their female children? Just such a dreadful thing happened to her, yet she wishes for her assailants nothing worse than a change of mind, while they, for her, wish death.
And why shouldn’t Ayaan Hirsi Ali, no matter how enslaved to the American Enterprise Unit [sic], find the Archbishop of Canterbury one of the “accomplices of jihad” and “a cultural relativist” (her phrase each time, and each time quoted scornfully by her reviewer), if the Archbishop is so keen to open a window, be it ever so small, for sharia to make its way into British law? You don’t have to be an atheist to decide that the Archbishop, one of the most learned men of his calling, is, on this issue, as dense as plutonium. When Ayaan Hirsi Ali hears about sharia getting within a hundred miles of any democratic legal system, she feels it like a knife, or a razor. Is that so hard to understand?
Apparently it is. At a time when British police have truly distinguished themselves by at last asking potential victims of honour crimes to report death threats, we have a piquant state of affairs in which Tim Winter, a lecturer in Islamic studies at Cambridge, thinks that the first thing we have to understand is the “twentieth-century Muslim debate on Islamic law and modernity”. But surely, while we wait for the results of that debate to come in, the first thing to understand is that the men of the Islamic minorities in the democratic countries should be prevailed upon to honour the law of the land before they concern themselves with the supposed honour of their families. They simply must be induced, if not by persuasion then by punishment, to stop cutting up and killing their women. Otherwise there will little hope for Islam within democratic borders.
Nominally concerned with how Islam is being provoked by “this mobilization for a… kulturkampf”, Winter seems reluctant to face just how provoking Islam itself can be. He was explicit enough when he condemned terrorism. “”Targeting civilians,” he said, “is a negation of every possible school of Sunni Islam.” That left in the air the question about all the schools of Islam that weren’t Sunni, but at least he seemed aware that the matter could be decided on principle, in conformity with the law of any free country, and was not up for a protracted learned discussion within the religion. With regard to genital mutilation and honour crimes, he seems harder to pin down. The “debate on Islamic law and modernity” is all very well, but we want is something better than the silence of the majority on the subject: we want a clear condemnation, and especially from the intellectuals. Notoriously, Tariq Ramadan, when pressed, was unable to give this. It’s Tim Winter’s turn, and I hope he won’t complain that he has been put on the spot. He was on the spot from the moment he picked up Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book. She outranks him. She might know less than he does, but what she does know, she has felt on her skin.
Tim Winter’s response: there was no reference to female genital mutilation in the book.
The illiberal liberal. There are so many around these days; they fill up our newspapers and the heavyweight glossies…[xvi] All those guys and gals we thought were our mates in the early days of the 1970s – remember how we felt about Amis, Hitchins, Melanie Phillips, and even Clive James back then – we now discover are old bigots. Have they changed, become sclerotic with age; or where they always like that, just that we didn’t notice? Their illiberalism camouflaged by other things, and our own innocence; for we were young then, and they were not that much older, with all the glamour of literary success; stars that brightened our own dull universe; in Telford or Merthyr Tydfil. The local librarian the nearest we ever got to literary fame.
Right from its origins there has been a tension within liberalism. We see it with John Locke who, whilst he supported freedom of worship for the individual – he didn’t think people should be coerced into changing their faith, an attempt that he thought was anyway doomed to fail: it could only achieve an appearance of obedience, though the performance of the outwards forms but with no internal belief -, was wary about it on political grounds. Here he made exceptions to Catholicism, Islam and atheism. The former two because the religion was tied to an external political power; the latter because it was linked to no supernatural authority; and was thus free from societal control: contracts could not be enforced because oaths were meaningless.
Locke, to his credit, was writing just after a time of religious fanaticism, which saw the rise of the protestant sects in the Civil War, and during an extended political crisis where the Crown was looking to impose Catholicism on the country; with its attendant threat of absolutist rule. His knowledge of Islam would have been poor; a justifiable ignorance then. Within the sectarian narrowness of the time his ideas were radical, and remarkably tolerant. Far more so than the liberals of today; which says something of the ideology’s decline over the last two centuries. It would need a history to investigate this properly but my suspicion is that this decline is linked to the Western conquests of the globe, and particularly the reaction to those conquests, especially since the Second World War, where the tension between a liberalism at home and an authoritarianism overseas has become evermore acute.[xvii] Since the fall of the Berlin Wall this tension has intensified, as the violent reaction to Western imperialism has been transformed, hitting the home shores for the first time. Islamic terrorism is a threat in a way Communism never was (the Soviet Union was an essentially conservative state), and this is reflected in the attitudes of many of our most prominent liberals; who in many cases offer simply reflexive opinion, based on fear and prejudice – we hate them because they might hurt us. The letter is a good example, and why I quoted it full: it is the tone more than its content that gives it away.
James seems to be writing about a different book, although it is one, unlike Tim Winter, he has not read. According to James we should be easy on the author because of what she has gone through. He thus reduces her work to a sort of self-help therapy; which strangely confirms Winter’s views: its lack of intellectual content. On this reckoning we shouldn’t criticise anybody that has gone through terrible ordeals, even when they write books and propound views with which we disagree or find obnoxious. One wonders what the right approach to reviewing Mein Kampf would be, if it were written today. Would we make allowances because the writer served valiantly in a bloody war, and was clearly mentally affected by its cruel barbarism? Would its anti-Semitism and historical distortions be dismissed because Hitler had felt the war on his skin...[xviii] It is an odd critique, unable to separate the work from the person, and which, if applied consistently, would insist on the complete subjectivity of all political and cultural commentary[xix] – because this woman has suffered her opinions must have validity; and we must treat them with a revered respect; or even ignore them completely and emote in sympathetic unison (surely a valid human response, but the correct one for a critic?). It is part of a much wider trend,[xx] but one that is ultimately anti-intellectual; as well as self-contradictory. It is also, curiously, given Hirsan Ali’s and James’s own dislike of it, an extreme form of relativism; for in effect it means anybody who has suffered is entitled to their point of view, which we must not criticise. Thus James’ vociferous attack on a professor who disagrees with her views; and which is more like a character assassination than reasoned argument. He’s got to shut Winter up. He is so angry he doesn’t know what he is doing.[xxi] Or perhaps he does: for it is a wonderful device to stop criticism.
The first paragraph already contains many errors – he couldn’t see his sentences for the flames raging around them. Female genital mutilation appears less a religious practice than a cultural one. In North East Africa it is common amongst Muslims and Christians, and other religious groups. While there are other regions of the world where Islam is the dominant religion but Muslims do not perform this rite. The WHO, which is opposed to the practice, believes the best way to eradicate it is to work with the individual societies, rather than just attacking them, which they believe counter-productive. They are surely right.[xxii] However, this is hard work, which involves difficult choices as one works through the complexities on the ground; one constantly having to make allowances, because of the pressure of tradition, patriarchal power and superstition; and the normal defensive reactions of communities to external interference. Such work, which if the WHO is right is preparatory to the final eradication of this practice, usually takes a long time. Much easier to ignore all this and spill out invective from the pulpit. Does James really think such harsh words will transform themselves into benign actions… It suggests he believes in magic and abracadabra.
James, so angry he didn’t read Winter properly, didn’t notice that Hirsi Ali wants to do more than change people’s minds: she wants to torture them too. You think I exaggerate? Imagine arriving in Holland, and your application to stay is to be determined by your religious views and your espousal of “enlightenment” values, though your grasp of Dutch is limited, and your knowledge of European history restricted to its invasions and its mass killings in your own country. All your chances of a new life dependent on a series of questions you are almost certain to get wrong; unless you are very bright and cynical. What kind of tension would that cause… Your kids next to you crying and screaming…
Then there is Israel-Palestine, a conflict where the West is complicit; America providing most of the resources for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its imprisonment of Gaza. To reduce the conflict to an ideological one is to ignore the actual occupation and repression; and connive in the torture, violence and killings that are a daily occurrence there.[xxiii] Not a word about this from James, instead he wants us to accept her views without comment. Perhaps he doesn’t think they are important enough to write about. You should not criticise a person who has suffered; even if their views are outrageous, is, after all, the assumption of this letter. But let us take a plane to Lebanon. What if he was to meet a woman living in South Beirut who has written a polemic which attacks the “fascist” Israelis, and exhibits the worst anti-Semitism; quoting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as her source for a world conspiracy. Would James support her right to say these things, because her two sons were shredded by the IDF’s cluster bombs, when they were two and four years old? One wonders, but I find it hard to believe he would be so generous. Sympathy only extends so far – to the tip of our own prejudices.
He hates Islam so much! Not a smidgen must exist in this our beloved country. James’s reference to the Archbishop shows this clearly. It refers to the manufactured controversy over a speech where the Archbishop talked a little about sharia law. These remarks were mundane, and reflected practices that have been current in Britain for over thirty years; and are an attempt to help people in real life situations, by recognising some provisions in a community’s own religious law.[xxiv] But no, for James sharia law is a dangerous disease, and it must quarantined at our borders. Although, along with his ignorance he suffers from amnesia: he has forgotten that Rowan Williams in that speech also discussed Jewish religious law. Is this too to be repressed, as it contains much that is ugly and intolerant; indeed misogynist and authoritarian?[xxv]
Clive James prides himself on his culture, he wrote a whole book about it. Unfortunately, while his memory might be first class his reasoning powers are weak. So in the third paragraph he brings in the police and their response to honour killings to make a general attack on Islam. This is nonsensical. Although we can see where he is coming from: he doesn’t like Winter’s assertion that there are many different strands in Islamic faith; and as you would expect in any major religion.[xxvi] This truth is just a little too difficult to accept, it seems.[xxvii] To do so one must at least at some understanding and sympathy for the culture you criticise; clearly James has none. Instead: all Muslims hate their women, and will kill them if the patriarchal honour is besmirched. It is a wonder he doesn’t see how racist and prejudiced he has become: all Muslims are violently misogynistic, if we are to believe this view. Of course he is right that women should not be killed or mutilated. Easier in this country: murder is against the law, while this culture may facilitate the eradication of female genial mutilation. In Egypt and the Sudan it will not be so easy.[xxviii]
For actual enlightenment compare these fundamentalist views with Peter Brown’s recent review of Islamic art. For him it is clearly evident that Islam is a mosaic of different cultural nuances, held together by a few central ideas; those differences between regions and centuries often determined by the pre-Islamic history:
…what we call “Islamic art” marks the culmination of a process and not the abrupt beginning of a new age… To look at the glassware, the carved wooden panels, the exquisite stucco work and the silver dishes associated with Syria, Iraq, and Iran… is to look at an artistic landscape still bathed in the late afternoon sun of antiquity, whether this is the antiquity of the Eastern Roman Empire or the ever-present, proud memory of the Sasanian Empire of Iran. (On the Magic Carpet of the Met)[xxix]
It is a view he expounds at length and with much insight in his great The Rise of Western Christendom; showing how religions change, adapting themselves to different cultures and political regimes. Only the fundamentalists, believers and critics, ever think that a religion remains eternally the same; a rock that no amount of water can erode.
James’ confusion carries over to the last paragraph. As we have seen Tim Winter didn’t deal with genital mutilation because it wasn’t in the book. However, let’s assume it was. Why does James think an outright condemnation is the most effective approach? If an Egyptian or Ethiopian intellectual was to present a hard line attitude on this practice he may lose all influence within his country, which may delay its end; if he is campaigning against it. Think about our society. When some foreign dictator or party hack criticises our bad practices - teenage pregnancies, binge drinking etc - do we welcome it? Isn’t it more likely that we react violently against such criticism? Changing cultural attitudes, in part through economic development, which may give women more independence, might in the long run be a more effective strategy; especially if it comes from within the society, and is part of a sustained and reasonable transformation of the culture. James seems to think that issuing jeremiads from the cathedral floor is enough to change the world. It is the armchair politics of an angry old man. All that self-righteousness! What a buzz it must give him. It gives me a headache.
[i] It shows not only their ignorance about the Enlightenment, but also their lack of feel for it. One of the prime motors for this movement was its absorption of the implications arising from out of the extra-European voyages of discovery over the previous centuries, which were to radically alter the intellectuals understanding of Europe’s place in the globe, by showing the relative nature of many (all?) of European customs and systems of thought. How such changes take place is a complex process, but as JH Elliott argues it can take a long time for new discoveries to transform the intellectual culture.
“Yet even by the mid-seventeenth century the explosive potentialities already glimpsed in the early sixteenth had scarcely begun to be realized. In spite of the problems raised by the growing knowledge of America, no sustained attack had yet been mounted on the historical and chronological accuracy of the Biblical story of the creation of man and his dispersion following the flood. European political and social philosophy was still almost untouched by the results of ethnographical observation and inquiry. The possibilities of relativism as a weapon for challenging long established religious, political and social assumptions had as yet barely been grasped” (The Old World and the New, 1492-1650)
Robert Goldwater in another classic book suggests a similar process: the ethnographic material that was to excite Picasso and the artists of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter had been available for study in European museums for at least a century, yet it wasn’t until a new sensibility had been created that they could be incorporated in what amounted to a total transformation of Western art. A metamorphosis that was dependent on a previous intellectual reassessment of the material:
“… a complete revaluation of primitive art, gradual in its stages, yet completed in the span of fifty years. It is a change in taste – from an initial neglect through an interest that pre-supposed little worth in the objects with which it dealt, to the admiration of the last several decades – which is all the more interesting because it is found in the work of men who are supposed to have the unbiased, objective attitude of the scientist, but who in the course of a century have completely revised their aesthetic opinions.”(Primitivism in Modern Art)
For Paul Hazard, in his classic, The European Mind 1680-1715 (Jonathan Israel in his important Radical Enlightenment says that its thesis, of a profound intellectual break in the 17th century is correct, providing the dates are pushed back to around 1650), it was this growing knowledge of the external world, particularly that of China, that was the prime reason for the swift destruction of Christianity’s foundations – the age of its civilisation clearly undermining biblical chronology. During these centuries one of the major interests of European writers was the intellectual discovery of different traditions, which in turn fuelled a dissatisfaction or a curiosity about their own; and which was to lead to the great flowering of Western Orientalism, later to be somewhat crudely caricatured by Edward Said.
Montesquieu in his Persian Letters used two Persian travellers to comment and satirize European customs; of course they are depicted as rational Enlightenment intellectuals, but the point is to try to see (essentially) French life and customs through an outsider’s eyes. Implicit in such an approach is respect for a different culture and an uneasiness with one’s own. It was part of the wider scientific revolution which was to look at the world afresh, and which was,
“…permeated through and through by the experimental method, that is to say, by attention to ‘irreducible and stubborn facts,’ and by the inductive method of eliciting general laws.” (A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World)
At some point the discoveries cast severe doubt on Europe’s intellectual system. The foundations were weakened; the bricks began to fall – would the building collapse? First they tried to fix it; and then they had to replace it completely…
It was this doubt that led to the concentration on facts: get the facts right, and align our (new) ideas with them, and European man would once again acquire a secure worldview. With doubt embedded in the culture, facts became both the guarantor of a new certainty (facts would prove our theories right) and the origin of new doubt: new ones could constantly be found to undermine even the newest systems of thought (Jonathan Israel is very good on this, showing the uneasy balance of the time, as three overlapping intellectual systems completed for supremacy: the Cartesian, the Locke-Newtonian and the Leibnizian). And with each passing year new discoveries where made about the facts themselves. Thus even a fact became an object of uncertainty, a potential field of vast inquiry.
Intellectually, it was, as J.H. Elliott implies in the quotation above, the discovery of relativism, the realisation that Europe was simply one of a number of different cultures, that stimulated the scientific outlook, the core of the French Enlightenment; a movement which transformed a method into an ideology, to create a worldview of its very own. That is, the Enlightenment is both the apotheosis of this new way of looking at the world, of doubt and careful investigation, and the beginning of its end: the start of a Modern (often European) triumphalism that sanctifies the scientific process, and turns it into a new religion. A brilliant example of the results of this transformation was seen during the French Revolution:
“… a festival was held in Notre Dame, débaptisée, the Temple of Reason. In the interior a gimcrack Greco-Roman structure had been erected beneath the Gothic vaulting. A mountain made of painted linen and papier-mâché was built at the end of the nave where Liberty (played by a singer from the Opéra), dressed in white, wearing the Phrygian bonnet and holding a pike, bowed to the flame of Reason and seated herself on a bank of flowers and plants…
“[another] fête de Raison was held in the Cathedral of Saint-Jean, at which republican officials bowed before a statue of Liberty and sang an antihymn to words by Fouché celebrating “Reason as the Supreme Being.” (Simon Schama, Citizens)
Ernest Gellner, hardly someone on the Left, and who called himself an Enlightenment Puritan, wrote that while be believes that intellectual inquiry need not be essentially relative (science in particular shows it is not) the same cannot be said of morality: there will always be competing moral systems (Postmodernism, Reason and Religion). For Gellner science, growing out of an initial cultural (and epistemological) relativism, has become a universal method for understanding the world; its universalism underwritten by its success – all cultures want to become modern and scientific; it is the only way to prevent their disappearance. The problem is that this method of acquiring such high quality knowledge may be limited to a quite narrow field of intellectual inquiry: the hard sciences. Other subject areas, like history or the anthropology, can approach these levels of universalism, but they cannot equal them. One of the reasons for the rapidly changing fashions in disciplines like philosophy and literature, he argued, is that their knowledge is even more superficial and contingent; and is thus even more exposed to the prevailing winds of fashionable ideas. (See his essay in Crisis in the Humanities.) Once outside these fields, when we come to morals and to aesthetic taste, scientific method may no longer be appropriate at all. It will be almost impossible to find universal norms in these subject areas, or in many aspects of our lives - relativism will often be the correct and inevitable response.
Although such a view needs a strong qualification: we must make a distinction between objects and activities within a culture, where value judgements can be applied, and between different cultures, where they cannot. With artistic taste, for example, it may be impossible to differentiate between two cultures, between the Greek and the Indian, but within Greek and Indian art people can judge between the good and the bad; although this often requires a particular kind of experience – of the craftsman and connoisseur. It is just this experience that the post-modernist academic will deny, although crucially they are usually neither connoisseurs nor craftsmen, reducing taste to some rational standard; which doesn’t apply to the object at hand (or tell us every much about it). An extraordinarily interesting discussion about these two ways of looking at the world, through standardised tests and professional experience, can be found in Richard Sennett’s marvellous The Culture of the New Capitalism. He is writing about work, not art; although his analysis can apply to both.
One can’t help thinking that of the two meanings of the Enlightenment, as scientific investigation and religious certainty, is it the latter that attracts today’s liberal and Neo-conservative intellectuals. Moreover, one wonders if it is not the Enlightenment but the French Revolution that they really admire, that moment when the rarefied ideas of a relatively small band of intellectuals were turned into popular demagogy.
[ii] A trustee of CUNY, who objected to Tony Kushner’s honorary degree because he was critical of Israel, said to the New York Times that the Palestinians were sub-human, unlike anything in human history – because they worship the cult of death. The racism is extraordinary. Even more extraordinary is that this is not some illiterate fanatic of a Southern Baptist church, but a member of the New York liberal establishment, giving a supposedly sensible rationale for his decision to the leading liberal newspaper in the country.
[iii] Bertrand Russell, probably the 20th century’s greatest heir to the European Enlightenment, made this point over and over again in his campaigns against the Atomic and Hydrogen bombs. It was one of reasons so many establishment liberals hated him. Better to kill our enemies than to talk to them tended to be their view (in an interview with Russell Eleanor Roosevelt said that it would be better if the European population was all dead than communist). As he wrote in his Autobiography, during a time in his life when he feared he had become respectable (he has just been awarded the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature), he often equated respectability with wickedness.
[iv] “The age might more accurately described as one of reasonableness than of reason. It valued good-natured sociability rather than the rigorous pursuit of logic to extreme conclusions”. Earlier the author had described how one of the major changes of the age was the tolerance of religious differences, “which appeared particularly offensive to many Christians…” (Norman Hampson, The Enlightenment.)
Although very different in tone and scope, it concentrates on Britain, Roy Porter’s Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World comes to a similar view: “I find enlightened minds congenial: I savour their pithy prose, and feel more in tune with those warm, witty, clubbable men than with, say, the aggrieved Puritans…”
[v] Of course this is all nonsense, once you think about it:
· How would you compare a Pakistani liberal intellectual who calls himself a Moslem, the religion effectively the residue of his culture, with a German Jesus Freak; newly convinced that salvation is due in 2025? And how would a customs officer decide between this intellectual’s deep understanding of John Locke and his sincere protestation of his faith…
· What exactly are Enlightenment Values? Rousseau’s The General Will? Or Hume’s belief that reason is at base irrational, and that we acquire new knowledge from the passions?
· Should football hooliganism and Friday night binge drinking be exported to Abu Dhabi and Afghanistan…
The problem with simple formulas is that they can be easily caricatured, in large part because they already exist as cartoons.
[vii] Jonathan Israel qualifies this traditional picture. For him there was the mainstream, or moderate, Enlightenment, and the radical fringe, centred around the writings of Spinoza. The former intent on domesticating the revolutionary potential of these new doctrines; accommodating them to the ideologies, practices, and culture of the court, church and state. Roy Porter’s book offers a very different perspective, but his conclusion on this point is very similar: the British Enlightenment was used to legitimate the new Whig regime that came to power in the decades after the Glorious Revolution.
[viii] This was one of the reasons that the work of people like Ivan Pavlov and B.F.Skinner were both attacked and lauded in the wider intellectual culture: depending upon one’s temperament would could see their work as progressive or totalitarian.
The power of behaviourism was its ability to acquire a lot of information about our reflexes and perceptions; a close study of minute aspects of our behaviour elucidating both how animals react to stimuli and how they adapt to them. Its mistake, and we see the same thing today with evolutionary biology and neuroscience, was to expand that understanding from the simple reflexes into an explanatory framework to account for the workings of the human mind. In behaviourism’s case it was to reduce the mind to its behaviour; turning an essentially descriptive exercise into an explanatory model. It is as this point that it begun to ape the methods of the hard sciences, or what are taken to be the methods, but lost their content - experiments and acute observation are only part, although an extremely important part, of science’s success; for the great (and small) creative breakthroughs often require insight, informed guesses, the forcing of material, and the creation of theories massively undetermined by evidence. Intuition seems to play a large role too:
“Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my return to Caen, for conscience’s sake, I verified the result at my leisure.”(Henri Poincaré quoted in Jim Holt’s Smarter, Happier, More Productive).
In a lengthy review of B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity Noam Chomsky argues that many of the assertions in that book are essentially trivial; and are really little more than attempts to replace a richer more profound language (of everyday use) with an attenuated (and a supposedly hard and scientific) one; and that says more or less the same thing, but in an impoverished and often banal way. (The Chomsky Reader)
The moment it leaves its own field and tries to investigate the wider issues is the moment a theory or intellectual movement is transformed into something else; the pressures of the social, political and industrial worlds which may have impinged on the laboratory work (framing some of the background assumptions, directing some of the working methods; paying for particular kinds of experiments) now floods it. Reading back on behaviourism, and its attempts to reduce learning to a model of stimulus and response, one can’t help but think that what is being described isn’t learning but training; the turning of humans (and animals) into machines; measuring (and encouraging) our ability to respond quickly and accurately to the regulated production line of an American or German corporation. The origins were already there in Pavlov’s time, for in order to get a conditioned reflex from his dogs he had to remove all extraneous phenomena:
“[for] every sound, be it ever so small, appearing in the midst of habitual sounds and noises which surround the dog, each weakening or reinforcement of these constant sounds, each change in the intensity of the room illumination… the appearance of a new odour in the room, a warm or cold current of air… a falling speck of plaster from the ceiling…” disturbed the dogs. (Pavlov, by Jeffrey A. Gray)
Interestingly, by the 1950s the limitations of the behaviourist theories were already becoming apparent: even a simple response to an electric shock showed that there more was going on than simple reflex – other mental functions also influenced the reaction (George A. Miller Psychology; The Science of Life). Noam Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s book on Verbal Behaviour is often seen as the end of behaviourism; although he himself argues that it fell apart later, and from within: a number of Skinner’s students went on to become animal trainers, and they discovered that these theories only worked up to a point, after which the animal reverted to their natural instincts. It appeared that the scientists had stopped their experiments once they had confirmed their theories. Jeffrey Gray’s book seems to support this view, although the author committed to the behaviourist approach (note his reference to “mentalism”):
“We must clearly allow for a rather complex analysis in an animal taking part in a conditioning experiment. This process apparently enables the animal to compute the probability that the UCS [Unconditioned stimulus – food] will follow the CS [Conditioned Stimulus - bell] and compare this with the probability that the UCS will occur anyway; only if the former probability is higher than the latter does the animal bother to take account of the CS. To those familiar with the complexity of the brain, this is not an undue amount of computational ability with which to endow animals; and to those familiar with the achievements of modern computers, it does not necessarily smack of mentalism to do so. But to an earlier generation of behaviourists, these conclusions would have been unwelcome; for they indicate that what was once regarded as a very simple kind of learning, one which could serve as the unit of analysis for complex kinds, is itself very complex indeed. (Pavlov. My emphasis)
Later in the book Gray notes that experiments show that when pain is associated with a stimulus there are two distinct responses in the animal: it reacts quicker when the Conditioned Stimulus is with the Unconditioned Stimulus (eg a red light with an electric shock), but freezes when it only receives the CS (the red light). His response, like in the passage above, is curiously blasé – this happens “for some reason.” The fact that the same CS can produce diametrically different responses suggests that there are different processes in the animal’s mind/body that are operating upon it; as does the passage above – it appears the animal’s mind can differentiate between the same CS depending upon whether it is linked to a UCS or not. It suggests that behaviour is only a partial guide to how that mind/brain operates. (For more on how our even simple perceptions are not pure reflexes, but require the operation of the mind see M.D. Vernon’s The Psychology of Perception.)
Gray’s book is fascinating because it accepts all the tenets of behaviourism: that science is a method (although he notes that great scientists like Pavlov have to go beyond them – to revisit the fundamentals), that everything has to be broken down into the smallest unit of analysis, that there must be laws and principles, that everything must be observed; and the mind must be reduced to matter as currently understood – as a physico-chemical process. No subjectivism! No mentalism! There are scientists in the house! It is British empiricism updated to the 20th century and made more vigorous, but in the process the complexity of the original theories are lost: concepts and thought itself are reduced to sensations and reflexes; while the mind is replaced by behaviour, because only that can be analysed in any great depth. As the vocabulary changes, and gets more rigorous, and as the experiments become more ingenious and accurate, so much of the mind and its activity is filtered out. Of course, problems then occur (as noted by Pavlov in the passage above), but they are dealt with by not offering a new explanatory theory, but by developing an even better filtering techniques. Interestingly, Gray shows how behaviourism as it later developed, particularly in America, changed from originally investigating the connection between the Conditioned Stimulus (a bell) the Unconditioned Stimulus (food) and the Response (saliva production) to one of looking solely at the links between a stimulus (to get food) and the actions needed to acquire it (a cat to escape a box). Here nature was filtered out altogether.
Even more tellingly Gray continually refers to all of this work as investigations into learning; but yet it is really training; an important but nevertheless secondary element to how both animals and humans learn. A chapter on ethology on Miller’s book gives some indication of the complexities involved in animal learning; showing in particular the unconscious ways animals learn from a wide variety of stimuli.
[ix] One should turn this formulation around. For Neo-conservatives this is a holy war, but for Palestinians it is a battle of the crudest materialism – the daily loss of their land and resources. What Hirsi Ali doesn’t seem to realise is that these ideas are symbols of another fundamentalist religion – Neo-Conservatism is her new faith.
Interestingly Richard Dawkins made the same mistake in his TV programme on religion; downplaying the political causes of the conflict and concentrating on its religious nature. To explain the historical dispute he interviewed someone who seemed like a lunatic: brought up as an orthodox Jew he later converted to Islam and became an Islamic fundamentalist. Both the selection of the interviewer, his belief that this would be the best way of getting insight into the conflict, and his disregard of the real world highlighted Dawkins’ astonishing ignorance; a mirror image of the people he attacks, for their lack of interest in evolutionary biology.
[xi] The roots of this intellectual battle also seem particularly French, going back at least a century to the rise and then destruction of Jansenism and the revival of Gallicanism, two movements that in their (very) different ways sought a measure of national independence from the Roman Catholic Church. The intellectual, political and social causes that created and drove these movements were at some point transformed into secular ones; the battle of the Crown against the Parlement of Paris; the Jesuits against the Jansenists and Gallicans (whose interests were increasingly secularised); and the Philosophes against the increasingly outmoded cosmology of the Catholic religion.
“It was a feature of the eighteenth century that it steadily secularized movements which had originally been inspired by genuinely religious motives.” (G.R. Cragg The Church and the Age of Reason 1648-1789).
This both suggests the plastic nature of much religious thought (and life) and highlights the fallaciousness of the now fashionable view of the Enlightenment as atheism against religion: the origins of much of this movement were Christian. Cragg’s analysis also supports the view that intellectual systems tend to collapse from within; external evidence used critically (and perhaps terminally) only when the system is too weak to defend itself:
“Different generations of observers will see, or not see, in accordance with the nature of their mental systems and… it is the discovery of the internal incoherence of a system, rather than the impact upon it of some external ‘reality’, which leads to the discarding of a fixed idea.” (J.H. Ellliott, The Old World and the New, 1492-1650)
Jansenism was an initial attempt at reform from within; its collapse weakening the intellectual foundations even more, leading to a more radical, secular attack in the 18th century; and thus following the pattern of Protestantism previously… if Islamic fundamentalism were to follow the same trajectory, we should see this attempt at a renewal from within replaced, if it is not successful, by some other modernizing tendency, which could be more radical and destructive of the original doctrines. (Although as RW Southern shows in his classic, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, prior to the Reformation there are had been a series of Protestant type movements; mostly transitory and unsuccessful. The scientific revolution in the 17th century was odd, and possibly fortuitous.)
[xii] That people believe you can extract Enlightenment values wholesale from the 18th century also suggests the religious nature of the whole enterprise: it is the faith in the pure idea, eternal and infinite. In this they are very modern, just like the monotheistic literalists they so despise.
Helen Armstrong’s The Battle for God shows how religious fundamentalism has grown out of modernity; with religious texts and ideas turned into empirical facts, rather than used, as previously, as metaphors and myths. It is an important book for it underlines the essentially rationalist nature of modern fundamentalism, and thus why Dawkins and an America evangelist preacher can seem so intellectually close to the outside observer. (For more comment on the link between reason and faith see the discussion across the footnotes of my Dropout Boogie. Ernest Gellner’s Muslim Society has an excellent discussion of the modern nature of fundamentalist Islam – it is an attempt to purify the religion of its superstitions and folk elements, to return to its fundamental doctrines in order to renew itself to compete in the scientific and industrial worlds.).
[xiii] Although even this may be going too far:
“According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project… only 8 percent [of Pakistanis] would like to see US troops ‘stay in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilised.’” (Mohsin Hamid, Why They Get Pakistan Wrong)
[xiv] Although one assumes the actual lives of the resident population is the last thing the NATO planners care about. When the Soviet Union decided to pull out of Afghanistan Reagan’s government completely disregarded the resident population, keen only to kill as many Russians as possible. The idea of trying to reduce the violence to reconstruct the country as peacefully as possible wasn’t on their mental radar. (See the quotations in my Silly Billy.)
[xv] I suspect Winter knows this, but as always it is the emphasis that is important; the nuances and tones of discourse giving us clues to a person’s values and background assumptions. In this case, the idea of the essential benignancy of America that is led astray by mistakes and cultural blindness; and the occasional loose cannon – Dick Cheney over the last decade? However, compare Michele Dunn’s more realistic view of American action in the area: when the US government normalises relations with an authoritarian country it tends to strengthen the repressive regime. Clearly this is an institutional factor, and it determines policy; and consistently over time. When we talk about the British or American interventions in other countries it is the working practices of these particular state and corporate institutions that we must consider; not the cultural outlook or personal qualities of its leaders and CEOs; some of whom Winter may have taught. They may well have all the best intentions, but they work for organisations that follow their own rules, and expect obedience to their own modes of operation (For more comment, and for the Michele Dunn quote, see my Looking in the Mirror, Parts I and II).
A very suggestive example of the “schizophrenic” nature organisations can induce is Frank Costigliola’s review of a recent biography of George Kennan, an immensely important policy figure in the immediate post-war period. The review shows the different attitudes of Kennan between when he was in and out of power; a hard aggressive stance when he was a policy advisor but later, as a public intellectual, advocating a rapprochement with the USSR, when he had a more critical distance from the American government. It suggests the strong influence of the bureaucracy upon him (as well as changes within both countries). Kennan is a complex figure for he was slowly squeezed out of the administration from 1949, when there was a change in policy, and the American government shifted from containment of the Soviet Union to rollback, at which point he was seen as too closely connected with the previous strategy. See Bruce Cuming’s magisterial The Origins of the Korean War (two volumes) for the background. His description of Kennan as an “engineer” is suggestive, for it implies the technician, a person destined to put themselves at the service of a company or government department:
“If Acheson was the architect of containment, Kennan was the engineer. He articulated ideas and developed plans that gathered under and filled Acheson’s architectonic vision. Kennan could never look after the whole, he could never substitute for Acheson, for he lacked the latter’s skills at statecraft, his Wall Street experience, and at bottom, a hegemonic conception of the political economy of America’s world position. But he was a master of placing the parts, at engineering the blocks in Acheson’s world city.” (Vol II. For a discussion of the technician see my Russian Climate.)
[xvi] Although it is useful to read older autobiographies like Russell’s, or the correspondence of outsiders like Flaubert: in mainstream public life there has always been a limit to the tolerance of dissent and the expression of unfashionable views. Russell believes intolerance increased after 1914; the logic of war and big business, with its pressures of gigantism and conformity, reducing the civility of mainstream opinion; that ability to disagree with someone without shouting them down. A good recent example is the attempt by the reputedly über-liberal Guardian to eradicate dissenting opinion on Srebrenica and Rwanda. (See my Careless George for analysis.) For the reasons why it does this see Jonathan Cook’s excellent The Dangerous Cult of the Guardian; although he overplays the ideological reasons for the paper’s censorship and character assassinations. The Guardian is increasingly important in the United States, and one would expect, as a natural consequence, the content of the newspaper to gradually conform to the political consensus in the dominant country. The inevitable result of market forces which leads to the conformity of globalization, and where the most powerful country will have the greatest effects; copied by most everyone else.
[xvii] In Britain it is also related to the collapse of the old ruling order, essentially Whig in outlook, that lasted from around 1720 to about the 1960s. Since the 1960s we have seen the formation of a new establishment with a new ideology; the reason for its febrile and aggressive stance – it is a “hot” religion, and has all the arrogance, extremism and fanaticism of any newly empowered faith.
It would be interesting to do a comparative study of the decades between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Whig Supremacy in the 1720s and the last fifty years; both times of ideological stress as one ruling system and its values is defeated and replaced by another.
[xviii] See Richard J. Evans review of a recent book on the First World War, where Hitler’s later views are associated with his experiences in the trenches; and his sense of the worthlessness of the sacrifice in the final defeat; which seemed to come from nowhere; and was inexplicable – and thus someone had to be blamed. The review is excellent in showing just how complex an historical event is, and how limited is each individual’s understanding of it; and which leads to judgements that are erroneous, though strongly held.
[xix] Or not quite all: those that have not suffered could be criticised. This, of course, is where the fun would start: how exactly would you define suffering? Inevitably the definition would be expanded to include everyone; though valiant efforts would be made to exclude our enemies: because their suffering is self-induced it is right to criticise it, for by doing so we correct their mistakes, and thus will heal them, could be one line of argument. Just listen to us! We would say. Get yourself a representative assembly that supports our governments and you too will suffer only ordinary pain; with which we can empathise.
And in the recent past we have come very close to this: with the rise of feminist, queer and ethnocentric theory in the academy it was suddenly de rigueur in some literature departments to criticise white male authors, while leaving everyone else critically untouched. (Robert Hughes’ The Culture of Complaint is an entertaining overview.)
[xxi] The letter is certainly incoherent: its main thrust equates Islam with violence towards women. Yet it begins by saying that violent religious men are unlikely to change their behaviour if they become atheists. Either these men are violent by nature, and their actions are independent of religious practice, which contradicts the rest of the letter, or the behaviour is inextricably linked to a specific religion; that is, the essence of Islam is misogynistic violence. If the latter position is true then Islam is the same as violent misogyny and there can be no hope; it must be erased if we want a tolerant society.
Surely, the reasonable position is abhor honour killings and female genital mutilation; arresting the murderers and their instigators if they live in Britain, while trying to change the culture so that the latter practice disappears. We must make a distinction between them. Murder is murder, no matter what the justification (even though, as Mohsin Hamid argues in a footnote below, honour killing is more a cultural practice in Pakistan than a religious one). Genital mutilation is nasty but is a significant part of some cultures. The response will have to be less draconian, although the intention should be the same – to eventually remove it.
Smoking kills, but I know of no one that has ever suggested that all those who sell, manufacture, and advertise cigarettes should be sent to prison. Why criminalise a cultural practice? It suggests prejudice. For you are not targeting bad individuals but a community; who accept the practice as a natural given (once smoking stopped being an almost universal cultural practice in the West, and became one of individual decision, the law did step in; criminalising certain smoking behaviours – a distinction could now be made between a culture and the individuals in it). I doubt that James, Winter or myself, disagree about the moral ugliness of female genital mutilation; and that we would all prefer that it stopped. However, only James, I think, believes that there is a simple fix to end it. That he believes so, indicates his ignorance and lack of sympathy with the cultures he so blithely attacks.
In the New York Review of Books there is an exchange of letters between Daniel Mendelssohn and Galen Strawson, the latter unhappy with what he believes is an anti-Semitic slur on the novelist Alan Hollinghurst. Mendelssohn’s comments reminds me of Anthony Julius, who also seems to conflate anti-Semitism with social mores and snobbery; and, as Strawson himself notes, the lived actuality: to depict a Welsh character who is a miner, who likes rugby, drinks a lot and talks about socialism, is not necessarily false or unjust, given a particular context (see my Prejudice for more comment). However, more interesting than who is right or wrong is the discussion itself: if there is some prejudice on show it is extraordinary small – you need a magnifying glass to find it. Compare with Clive James here. He is not blackballed from the liberal club, even though he makes the most outlandish generalizations; nearly all of which are against the poor and oppressed, and who cannot respond in the pages of the TLS. That is, he can display the most vitriolic prejudice, and yet he remains unscathed; still a respectable member of the liberal establishment.
I remember an interview in the 1980s, which I think was with Martin Amis, about what would happen if ant-Semitism returned to Europe. Would the liberal classes resist more strongly now than then? Of course, the whole debate was wrongly framed – the anti-Semitism of the 1930s grew of out a particular historical situation, and was linked to both the instability of the German state, and the increased mobility of both capital and people; and where successful Jews became both facts and symbols of modern industrial capitalism (There is a good discussion in Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide, and in Hannah Arendt’s The Jewish Writings, the latter clearly identifying a new type of anti-Semitism, created by modern industry and commerce. J.P. Stern’s Hitler: the Führer and the People has an insightful analysis of the German cultural background). And because it was wrongly articulated the causes and nature of the anti-Semitism were conflated with the history of a particular ethnic group; rather with the nature and causes of prejudice more generally; and which can lead to the murder of any minority race or tribe, if the circumstances are propitious. The discussion thus becomes sentimental, as we pride ourselves on our tolerance and enlightenment, patronising the historical actors from the mountain peak of contemporary life (Michael Burleigh is a classic example of such a technique – read his The Third Reich: A New History). Rather than condescending posterity, masturbating over our moral courage, if we actually tried to understand the past we may discover the same causes and prejudices occurring today; but in a different guise; the context and actors changed by the changing times. Thus now the new anti-Semitism is Islamophobia, which people like James and Amis, and Michelle Phillips, advocate in the popular press. These liberals, at least, seem never to have changed.
[xxii] “Research shows that, if practising communities themselves decide to abandon FGM, the practice can be eliminated very rapidly.” (From the WHO’s website.)
[xxiii] See the reporting of Amira Haas and the excellent Lords of the Land, by Edith Zertal and Akiva Elder. An older book, Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle, gives a detailed account of the violence and intimidation in the occupied territories; mostly in the period up to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
[xxiv] The main purpose of the speech, which seemed a defence for the Anglican faith as a minority religion in the country, was missed entirely. The philosophic arguments within which this defence was couched, making communities individuals, and thus overcoming the modern tension between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, was interesting and provocative, but ultimately unconvincing. Of course, the press were not interested in this. Fully armoured with their own prejudices, and sensing an opportunity both to raise controversy (a necessity in the newspaper trade – their need readers) and to exert power, for about a month they went after Dr. Williams. What the episode showed was not only the irresponsible power of the press, but its limits; a strong institution behind him the Archbishop was able to withstand the media campaign.
There may have also been some background reasons for this attack. According to David Marquand since the 1980s the only British institution that has not succumbed to the neo-liberal agenda is the Church of England; one of the reasons Margaret Thatcher so hated it. (The Strange Career of British Democracy). Such resentment may be part of the climate of opinion that influences and drives our corporate press, at very least they feel the resistance of a competing power; which they then seek to destroy. That such power is so openly displayed, and little criticised is shocking. It suggests Dan Hind is right: the corporate press is our modern day l’infâme.
[xxv]See Israel Shahak’s Jewish History, Jewish Religion for a long list of intolerant pronouncements and harsh religious laws of orthodox Judaism; as one would expect given the similar character of all three monotheistic religions, arising from the same region and source. But few would condemn all practising religious Jews because of the intolerance of some of its canonical texts, and the extremism of the faith’s fanatics. But this is precisely what James does here – our enemies are always different, unique, incomparable in their evil.
For a wonderful fictional statement about the oppressively patriarchal nature of Orthodox Judaism read the scene when the hero first encounters his mother in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda.
[xxvi] And we should say life. All cultures, except during their puritan phases, see a relaxation of their strict religious and cultural rules. Eventually they submit to the power of familial sympathy; as well as the comforts of sex and alcohol. It is worth noting that Edward Said’s Orientalism, written in the 1970s, and before the rise of faith based terrorism, covers in some detail the older European views of the Middle East: sensual, morally lax, and a playground for the Western libertine.
[xxvii] It clearly illustrates both his anger and his prejudice. Anger because the criticism is as an obvious non sequitur. They are writing about different things: Winter about the Islamic life and faith as a whole; James about a particular practice and specific individuals. Prejudice, because he has reduced all of Islam to a single idea – violence against women. If is as if a Pashtun tribesman, after witnessing the destruction of his village by an American bomber, was to define the whole of Western civilisation by that one act (and others like them across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border). Although surely there we would make allowances, like Robert Fisk in a brilliant passage in his The Great War for Civilisation, where he refuses to condemn the people who are beating him up; because he understands their motivation, and has sympathy for their own suffering; caused mostly by the West, of which he appears a representative. Clive James simply does not have that humanity. Like many intellectuals and academics he turns life into very simple abstractions, which he then gets very passionate about.
[xxviii] Because they are deeply embedded within a culture these practices, because they are tangled up with both social mores and politics, can be difficult (and dangerous) to remove. Also, and as a new book makes clear, these practices often have little to do with religion.
“At the heart of Lieven’s account of Pakistan is kinship, pervasive networks of clans and biradiris (groups of extended kin) that he identifies as “the most important force in society,” usually far stronger than any competing religious, ethnic, or political cause. Several millennia of invasions, occupations, colonizations, and rule by self-interested states resulted in a “collective solidarity for interest and defense” based on kinship becoming paramount in the area that is Pakistan. It now, as Lieven points out, “is a cultural system so strong that it can persuade a father to kill a much-loved daughter, not even for having an affair or becoming pregnant, but for marrying outside her kinship group without permission.”” (Mohsin Hamid, Why They Get Pakistan Wrong)
[xxix] And of course there can be wide differences, even within a single country:
“As Lieven points out: “the Islam of the Pakistani masses contains very different traditions.” Moreover, unlike in Saudi Arabia or Iran, where an oil-bankrolled state has tried to impose one monolithic version of Islam, “the Pakistani state is too weak to achieve this even if it wanted to.” Lieven describes the theological divisions among Sunnis sustained by Pakistan’s clan and kinship diversity. The Ahl-e-Hadith, heavily influenced by Wahabism, loathe saintly traditions. The Deobandis may praise saints but object to worshiping them. The Barelvis, Pakistan’s most numerous (and “fissiparous”) school, tend to embrace the intercession of saints with God. Veneration of saints is also central to Pakistan’s Shias. Because saintliness can be inherited, the heads of Pakistan’s powerful landowning “pir families remain of immense political importance.” They can actively create bridges among religious groups and they serve as major bosses in several mainstream political parties, especially the “secular” PPP.” (Mohsin Hamid, Why They Get Pakistan Wrong)