Thursday, 31 May 2012

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam book review in Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis, 36:2, 337-338
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them Beyond Orientalism, Hurst and Company, London, 2011, $45, 338 pp., ISBN 978-184904-097-6
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is Reader in Comparative Politics and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Born to Iranian parents in Istanbul, he grew up in Hamburg. He later obtained his doctorate from Cambridge University. His personal and academic background are recounted here to show that he has a deep knowledge of the two civilisations that are supposedly in ‘clash’. The book takes off from perhaps the most cited article by Huntington (‘The Clash ofCivilisations’,ForeignAffairs,72(3),1993,pp.22–49),whichwaslaterpublishedas The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order (Simon and Schuster, London, 1997). Dr Adib-Moghaddam’s book is not just another book that supports or contradicts Huntington. Instead, it is a tour de force demolition of the Huntington thesis. The thesis has acquired notoriety because it was put into practice in the Bush years by the neo-cons committed to it, against equally committed adherents to the thesis, the Al Qaeda. The author eminently succeeds in exposing that the ‘clash’ has been created by the ‘engineers of the clash regime’ who are engaged in ‘creation and legitimisation of war and conflict’ (p. xvi). His contention is that several influential scholars and politicians have dominated the discourse to condition people into accepting the ‘normality of conflict between us and them’. He begins by soundly critiquing the concept of a clash. He discusses the signification of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in Christian and Islamic invention. His second chapter delves into the exclusionary dictums and grammatical structure of the clash regime. Chapter 3 would undoubtedly be of interest to most readers since it brings the book up to contemporary times in which the agenda set after 9/11 shows little sign of exhaustion a decade down the line. The last chapter is the most significant as it signposts a counter-regime that suggests alternative ways of thinking about the ‘other’. This does not mean that he favours instead a ‘dialogue of civilisations’, since to him this too is ‘dependent on the myth of undisturbed civilisational entities’ (p. 25). The author traces the origin of the idea of a clash to the discord between the Greeks and Xerxes, Cyrus and Darius, legendary monarchs of pre-Islamic Persia. To him it was this imperial rivalry that created the historical archive of the clash regime. This contention was reinforced in the age of the Crusades. History got ‘increasingly framed in terms of an inevitable and continuous struggle between Christianity and Islam, good versus evil’ (p. 44). The author’s attempt at dissecting the discourse is one of the highlights of this book. He relies on his multi-cultural background and familiarity with Persian and Arabic to recount the theological and intellectual debates between the two Semitic religions. That Islam considered Jesus a prophet did not help, since in the same breath it tended to devalue Christianity which had arrived at the doctrine of Trinity on institutionalisation of the Church. The presence of Islam at both ends of Europe in the middle ages followed by the colonising of the Middle East in modern times has reinforced the conceptions of the Islamic ‘other’ in Western imagination. FollowingEdwardSaid,theauthorisparticularlysevereontheOrientalistsforcreating
a hegemonic discourse based on the distinction between the racially superior Occident and the ‘eloquent, cunning, excitable, and cowardly (Mark Sykes)’ Orient. Adib-Moghaddam puts his knowledge of Persian and Arabic to good use in giving the readers a sense of the thinking of classical philosophers on Islam, such as Farabi and Ibn Sina. The Farabian/Avicennian discourse did not lend itself to ‘the making of a coherent “Islam” and an equally coherent evil “other”’ (p. 76), even as Islam expanded into becoming a world empire in their times. The advent of literalist Islam was marked by the writings of ibn Taymiya, in the wake of the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols. The distinction between the two traditions is attributed to the timing, the former born in stable times and the latter when Islam was undergoing an existential crisis. He highlights the manner in which revivalists such as Maududi, Qutb, al Banna and Khomeini have attempted later to appropriate Islam for their anti-colonial political purposes. Political Islam or Islamism thus emerged, firstly, to ward off the internal pressure over the meaning of Islam, and secondly, to deflect the pressures of Western modernityfromapositionofweakness.SinceIslamismisakeycontemporaryresearch area, the discussion on the thought and work of the likes of Wahhab, Afghani and Abduh is illuminating. Theauthorchallengestheotherpopularthesisbasedonthe‘endofhistory’(Francis Fukuyama). He notes that since nation-states are the carriers of the myth of the clash in respective nationalisms, inter-group conflicts can only persist. The inter-state arena has been taken as being anarchical in International Relations theory ever since its institutionalisation early in the last century. The foundational distinction is between the internal and external, ‘us’ and ‘them’. This can only perpetuate the clash thesis, particularly since a critical discourse has not emerged on the ‘likes’, such as ‘Ibn Khaldun, Sun Tsu or Simon Bolivar’ and others more readily recognisable to readers of this publication, Kabir and Nanak. It is no wonder, then, that the just war tradition is mobilised in legal terms to make the ‘war on terror’ a legal one. The author aims a compelling broadside at Western scholars who take war making to be legitimate state policy,intendedtocivilisethe‘other’.TheconceptofAmericanexceptionalismisbuilt up in such a manner as to further an America-centric world order and violence against ‘terror’. It bears recall that Operation Enduring Freedom, which endures at the time of writing, was initially termed Operation Infinite Justice. Of equal if not more interest to readers would be the author’s analysis of the debate between the Avicennian tradition and the Qutbian Islamists. He notes that Islamists have adopted a revolutionary reading of Islam. They are engaged in a resistance instigated by the neo-colonial domination of their homelands by theUS through their client regimes. Their argument mirrors that of their antagonists. The author’s treatment of their argument makes rewarding reading since the literature on Islamism available to Indian readers is somewhat monocular and lacks depth, primarily because it is mediated by the West and packaged by politically motivated commentators contriving to place India on the side of the West. While Adib-Moghaddam is enlightening in what he sets out to do, his unintended impact is to provoke a debate on how the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ concept is formed and articulated. The process can be discerned in any conflict setting, including the India– Pakistan one. Therefore, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam’s book is valuable in more ways than the obvious. His next book will hopefully build a counter-narrative as a necessary antidote to the hegemonic discourse he has so spectacularly succeeded in busting.