Not a Clash of Civilisations

Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle between East and West by Anthony Pagden

Books History International Islam Literature Middle East The West

This is a big book on a huge subject ­­­— so huge, in fact, that one has to wonder whether it is a subject at all. According to the subtitle, it is about “the 2,500-year struggle between East and West”; according to the blurb, “when the Persian emperor Xerxes tried to conquer Greece, a struggle began which has never ceased”. The selling-point of the book is that it claims to explain the deep historical background to the present-day conflict between the West and Islamist terrorism. But would Osama bin Laden really accept the idea that he is keeping up a “struggle” initiated by a pagan Persian?

Anthony Pagden, a British historian who teaches at the University of California in Los Angeles, enjoys a high reputation. He made it as an expert on the theory of Western imperialism in the early modern period — above all, the Spanish conquest of the New World (a struggle between the West, so to speak, and the even further West). But this book is a very different enterprise: a broad-brush survey of a great span of history, most of which he has never written about before. Although it is full of incidental interest, it manages to sustain its overall argument only by dint of tremendous simplification; and it is also, unfortunately, riddled with misprints and odd errors (with, for example, Justinian’s law-book The Institutes called “The Intuitions”, the siege of Vienna happening in 1699, not 1683,and Iceland placed in the North Sea).

The big argument goes roughly as follows. The most distinctive thing about the Christian West is that Christianity carried with it, right from the start, a separation of Church and State. This meant that political power was secularised from a very early stage; and the conflicts between different varieties of Christianity, from the Reformation onwards, had the effect of turning people towards a secularised culture too. Islam, on the other hand, has always been a religion that claims full authority over politics, society and culture. That is the reason for the fundamental struggle, which still persists, between Islamic values and Western ones.

That most Christian theologians have adapted to secularisation in a way that most Islamic ones have not is obviously true; but Pagden is saying more than that. His claim is that there has been a more or less permanent difference between the two worlds. In the world of Christianity, law has been seen as merely human, and the Church has not claimed “social or political authority as such”; in the world of Islam, the very idea of a man-made secular law, not derived directly from Sharia law, has been regarded as almost “senseless”.

This is a huge over-simplification. The Christian Churches have claimed many varieties of social and political authority — whether the “indirect power” of the Pope over Christian kings, as defended by Jesuit theorists, or the direct control of moral life, as exercised in Calvin’s Geneva (and in ecclesiastical courts, Europe-wide). For many centuries, Christians believed that law was founded on morality, and that morality was founded on religion; many Christians still do.

As for Muslims finding the idea of a secular law unthinkable: Pagden ignores here the legal system of one of the greatest Muslim states of all time, the Ottoman Empire, which was never simply dependent on sharia law. The Sultan’s kanun or law-code included also his own (man-made) decrees, and elements of what was known as adat, the customary laws of his various peoples. To airbrush such details out of the picture is to create an unhistorical account, in which the rise of radical Islamism, instead of being a historical development that needs to be explained, is made to seem like an expression of an Islam that is timeless and unchanging.

In any case, the reader may be wondering, what has all this got to do with Xerxes? Pagden’s justification for beginning in the fifth century BC is a rather convoluted one. It depends partly on a familiar argument about the Greek origins of Western democracy, but also partly on an argument about the origins of Western rhetoric about the East — the East as barbaric, despotic, lascivious and so on.

Sometimes it is hard to tell whether he is talking about the rhetoric or the reality; his claim that all Greeks were committed to individualism hardly squares with the reality of life in Sparta, for example. Modern Europ­eans, framing their own rhetoric against the Islamic world, did indeed turn to ancient Greek sources for useful material; but that is another historical development which gets blurred when it is folded into an age-old story of permanent “struggle”. And the same is even more true of modern Islamic rhetoric against the West: Pagden all too easily assumes that when Islamists inveigh against the Crusades, they are part of a revenge-seeking complaint that has continued since the Middle Ages.

In the end, the reader is left with the feeling that what needs to be explained is not a permanent East-West struggle, but two separate and only partly coordinated things: the unique development of West European soc­iety and technology (unique vis-à-vis all parts of the world, not just the East); and the recent rise of a radical movement within the Islamic world (a movement directed against internal enemies or rivals as well as against external ones). Neither, in the end, is adequately explained by this book.