Saturday, September 22, 2007

Plus ça change, plus ça change

John Derbyshire recently had a debate with Robert Spencer on Pajamas Media after his review of Spencer's Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t. In part, it was the old divergence between the indifferent and the committed. In the latter corner, Spencer is convinced that Islam, and not just Jidadism, is a present and increasing threat to the West. In the other corner, Derbyshire is no friend of Islam, but will not condemn it root and branch. It just doesn't make sense to do so.

This is mostly because, for him who belongs to none, it is not that different to any other religion, so he hasn't got the energy to enter into fierce debate about which is better, Christianity or Islam. He doesn't believe that all religions are equally good, or equally bad. But I suspect he would rather they were all like the Church of England: there for those who need that sort of thing, but not getting in the way of everyone else.

More than this, there is the historical record, and here I entirely agree with him.

It is none the less true that Islam, whatever its failings, is an ancient and respectable religion that comforts and sustains hundreds of millions of souls, and has provided one of the organizing principles for numerous substantial civilizations. Possibly those civilizations weren’t to your taste. They probably wouldn’t have been to mine, either. If you have ever thought seriously and imaginatively about what life is like in a state of barbarism, though, you will acknowledge that even not-to-your-taste civilizations are a vast improvement on the other thing.

But then he moves onto another point, one that makes me pause. Islam is accused of being culturally "arid", of being static and unable to develop. That may be true, but if so, it is true of almost every civilisation.

The ancient Egyptians and Persians, the Maurya and Gupta dynasties of India; the Japanese; the Mesoamerican civilizations, the old Mesopotamian empires — there was not a lick of progress in any of them across their entire existences, compared with what happened in any hundred years of European civilization.

[All right, a slight exaggeration - there were leaps forward in all of these that I know anything about (the old Mesopotamian empires created the city, the first written laws that we know about, writing), but they were flashes in a long half-light.]

The exceptions, the strangest ones, are us, the post-Renaissance West picking up from the Greeks and Romans. It is we who expect change, who egg it on, demand it when faced with even the smallest dissatisfaction, all the while whingeing about what we've left behind. The old are bores about the Old Days in the West precisely because the Old Days were different. In Ancient Egypt, the Old Days were the same as today and indistinguishable from tomorrow.

Yet the quasi-universality of static cultures make it unsurprising that people still long for something similar. Not just in the traditional cultures that Modern life undermines and then destroys, but even in the vanguard of this creative distruction we call 'modern life', the nostalgia for what has been lost never goes away. I wonder if that partly accounts for the guilt that Westerners feel and the cultural self-hate that possesses some of them: the knowledge of change desired, achieved and irrevocable, and the certainty that, even if there could be another moment of decision, a second forking of the ways, we would make exactly the same choice, and feel exacly the same regret.

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Hazar Nesimi said...

I do actually strongly object on the first comment. The smearing of civilization as culturally arid, and not in the state of change, is only possible from an "arrogant" position of a Western expert who expects change to mean what post-Renessainse Civiliation achieved, which ofn course enormous. I actually liken it to domination of a species. When humans developed into a dominant biosphere inhabitant, they suppressed the evolution of rival species, so is with Civilizations - the growth of the West impeded development of other societies.
In Islamic case I can compare Umayyad Khalifate period (so called Early Islamic) and )Ottoman state of 16-17century with its exceptionally elaborate system of government. I would actually say the Ottoman empire is the last pinnacle of the Eastern Despotism developed from Old Persian times. (Moghul Empire is another example) Grand architecture, road building,postal service and improvents in agriculture,success dwarves anything conceived the Early Period. Ottomans also perfected cannons and invented artillery lines (not a pretty example but anyway)

NoolaBeulah said...

You've actually chosen the very sentence I hesitated to reproduce. Why did I hesitate? Because I disagree with it? Well, not really.

You see, this is the problem. Once upon a time, people here used to dismiss most non-Europeans as 'unimportant' - they could be safely ignored - they didn't really count. After all, what did they give us that we couldn't get elsewhere or make ourselves.

The Japanese really put paid to that idea. Yet it didn't seem possible. They spoke an incomprehensible tongue, behaved in an incomprehensible way, had a different-coloured skin and bowed and smiled all the time. But, economically, they were wiping the floor with us. It didn't seem right.

However, the effect was that everybody started writing books to explain the Japanese. We needed to understand them. Not just because they were beating us, but because they were giving us stuff (after a while) that we couldn't make ourselves. There were ideas and styles that were unique to the Japanese and suddenly everyone wanted to acquire them. They were 'cool' (have you seen Kill Bill?). It's an economic force that becomes a cultural one.

However, contrast that with the Arab world, or even the Islamic one. Historically, they did do a lot for us, but, as it seems now, their gift was merely to pass on stuff that we used better. (I'm not saying that's the truth, but that's how it seems.) And for several hundred years, they have given very little indeed. Economically, the Middle East is important for one thing only: petroleum, a raw material made valuable only by Western technology. Culturally, what is there that has been exported to enrich the lives of others? Nothing that I can think of. There's the problem.

It's not a very charitable way to look at things, but, in the end, people only really value what they need and the other people that provide it. We can't see the culture of others from the inside; its richness is obscured by the fact that we live within our own little bubble. We will force ourselves to try to see it if there is an overpowering reason, such as they do something that we can't but that we need. Otherwise, no.

I acknowledge the point you made about the dominant biosphere; it makes sense. But it also backs up the original point.

So why did I hesitate to reproduce the word "arid"? Basically because these grand cultural points I've been making disappear, and have litle importance, at an individual level. No individual can claim that, because they come from a dominant culture, they are more valuable or wise or better in any way than someone from a rival culture. It's neither logical nor backed up by experience.

I hesitated because I knew that you would read it and I feared how it would sound in your ears.

Hazar Nesimi said...

Not at all, you do not sound condescending. It is good that you recognize that possiblity of having a culture having intrinsic worth quite a part from its material development even though you from the outside may not see it. I see it even in Aboriginal culture of Australia.

Coming back to material progress see my noew post.