What use is history? Here’s a little fable to answer that question.
Once upon a time there was a civilisation. It controlled the world, and its citizens were wealthy and had considerable freedom, protected by laws and customs built up over centuries. This civilisation had survived assaults by great war machines, had survived, just, the creation of a weapon that could have destroyed the very planet on which it stood; it faced a world with no serious military threat. But then a few men got together and decided to destroy the civilisation. And they trumpeted this plan to the world. And they killed a few of its citizens. And their very resolution led the leaders of the safe, comfortable and all-powerful civilisation to decide that they were under threat. They were small men, of little history, and they’d forgotten, or didn’t want to remember, that the civilisation had endured far greater threats – that its very existence inevitably caused some to push and flail against it. And so all that the civilisation stood for – all of the freedoms and rights its people had achieved – was destroyed from within, cut away, sometimes in small steps, sometimes in big – all for the want of a bit of history and a little perspective.
Sound familiar? If George Bush and Tony Blair were even slightly better men, better thinkers, then my prescription for the current state of affairs would be for them to read Occidentalism: A Short History of Anti-Westernism, by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit.
Failing that, everyone else should. It is as its says on the cover short, and its is accessible, and it makes the obvious but curiously little understood point that there is absolutely nothing historically unique, or even unusual, about the intellectual framework, or personnel, or aims, of al-Qa’ida.
At its most basic, they say, its doctrine goes back to one of the oldest stories in the world – the Tower of Babel. Men and women feared the city, feared its complexities and challenges, hated the destruction of old simple rural certainties. And so they described with glee and hatred its destruction, and blamed it on the worst thing they could imagine – out-of-control female sexuality, the “city as whore”. Buruma and Margalit find similar hatred in T.S. Elliot, in Richard Wagner, in classic movie Westerns, and in Mohammed Atta.
And yet the men (and I can’t think of any women – unless you go back to Bouddicca) who want to destroy the city are part of it, rather than villagers or outsiders. Buruma and Margalit cite the case of Nikola Koljevic, a Shakespeare scholar from Sarajevo who had lived in the UK and US. Yet he ordered the shelling of the city – the centre of the regions culture – in the name of the “resurrection of Serbdom”, a medieval reality. So too was Mohammed Atta, by trade a (Western-trained) engineer.
And there’s the profoundly medieval idea of the crusading knight. German thinking behind World War One and World War Two, and Japanese too, were based on scorn for “Komfortismus” – the comfortable, safe, commercially focused democratic life. “It is by definition unheroic, and thus, in the eyes of its detractors, despicably wishy-washy, mediocre and corrupt.” So too said a Taliban fighter in the first week of the Afghan war, for, he believed, Americans “love Pepsi-Cola, but we love death”. The reverse of the comfortable merchant-citizen is the kamikaze pilot, or the al-Qa’ida suicide bomber. There is, it seems a certain sort of human pathology, male pathology, to which this appeals, just as serial killers get a kick from their power over the powerless.
And this sort of extremist thinking tends to come from places lacking in freedom, where ideas cannot be played out and kicked around in the intellectual marketplace, but must be nurtured in secret, in hiding, and get their power from their very forbiddenness. So it was in Germany under Napoleon and Russia under the Tsars. The Germans “contrasted their own deep inner life of the spirit, the poetry of their national soul, the simplicity and nobility of their character, to the empty, heartless sophistication of the French”. For Dostoyevsky, “even the most boorish peasant … is better than the most sophisticated intellectual. For at least the God-fearing peasant knows whom to ask for forgiveness.” So too does al-Qa’ida’s ideology emerge from Egypt, from Saudi Arabia, from those repressive regimes that the West continues to fund.
So this is the picture that Buruma and Margalit leave us with, with al-Qa’ida and its ideologues not as something strange and new, but something entirely explicable by historical models, something based indeed on ideas and techniques evolved in “the West”, indeed perhaps inevitable as a reaction against it.
But I’d take it on from that. “The West” took on German nationalism and beat it, it took on imperialist Japan an beat it, it took on and (economically) defeated the Slavic nationalism that lay behind much of Russian communism. Those were powerful enemies indeed, armed with then modern weapons, with massed forces, with great economic power behind them. And they were beaten – with much struggle and much bloodshed – but they were beaten.
Why now are we so afraid of a few men in a few caves, spouting a new variation on this old ideology? Why are we prepared to destroy our societies’ freedoms from within because of the “danger” from them?