An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Saturday, March 22, 2003
On Friday, Bernard Lewis' new book The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror arrived, and I've been making my way through it. I've always enjoyed Lewis' work, something not immediately apparent when I've written about him before, or when I've nitpicked at him, for example here:
something struck me as not quite right about Lewis invoking the Barbary Corsairs as evidence of the prowess of Islamic naval power and aptitude. I can't remember if I'd read the same somewhere else, but I came across this in Patrick Pringle's Jolly Roger: Story of the Great Age of Piracy. Pringle is writing about the the first decade of the 17th century, when King James wanted peace with Spain and so suppressed the privateers, many of whom "turned pirate":In Crisis, I was gratified to come across this passage:The main advantage of the Barbary coast to English pirates was that it afforded them protection in harbour and immunity on land. Pirates could usually look after themselves at sea, but they had to have shore refuges with facilities for disposing of their loot and cleaning and refitting their ships. Such facilities had almost ceased to exist in England since the decline of the west-country syndicates, and King James, in pursuit of his policy of friendship with Spain, took steps to see that they did not reappear.Now, I wouldn't necessarily argue that spreading the technology of piracy was an achievement in which the West should take pride, but it seems to me that it indicates that technology was flowing from Europe to the Ottomans, and not the other way around, and that this sharing of technology goes a long way toward explaining the military prowess of the Ottoman Empire.
As late as the seventeenth century, Turkish pashas still ruled in Budapest and Belgrade, Turkish armies were besieging Vienna, and Barbary corsairs were raiding both shipping and seashores as far away as England, Ireland, and, on occasion, even Madeira and Iceland. The corsairs were greatly helped in their work by Europeans who, for one reason and another, settled in North Africa and showed them how to build, man, and operate oceangoing vessels in the North Sea and even in the Atlantic.Lewis also provides some interesting information on one of Ideofact's perennial subjects, Sayyid Qutb, which I'll write about later...
Friday, March 21, 2003
There's a fog outside as thick as pea soup. Standing on my front steps, I can't make out the familiar outlines of the house next door to the one directly opposite ours. Given the coverage of the war so far, it's fitting weather.
A letter arrived in the mail today from Gunston Hall. It's George Mason's home, not far from Mount Vernon. I like to take my son there on weekends; we look at the farm animals (they have sheep, geese, turkeys, an odd assortment of chickens, and a steer), walk through the garden, wander the trails -- very peaceful. Mason was the author of America's "First Bill of Rights" (it says so on the letter); I joined the Friends of Gunston Hall. The letter thanks me sincerely for my generosity, and adds
Through your donation you have acknowledged that the place that inspired the words "that all men are equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights" is important to our country. Your dedication to telling this meaningful story in United States history is appreciated. Others will benefit from your patriotism.Ah, the contradictions. Mason was a slaveholder; I read in a bio of his that he opposed the Constitution because he feared a strong central government, and accused one of the Northern delagates (who was opposed to slavery) of strengthening the peculiar institution. It's hard to imagine Mason wandering past his slave quarters and being so inspired by the place to write those words. Yet he did, and Jefferson read them, and shortened them to "all men are created equal, and endowed with certain inalienable rights..."
Just an observation, but I've noticed that Islam is hardly the issue it was with Afghanistan. I meant to mention this in last night's post, but didn't quite get around to it. I have noticed, though, that some commentators on the cable stations have furrowed their brows and noted gravely that Sunnis and Shi'ites have wanted to kill one another for centuries, and that the Kurds hate both groups, and (I think Wesley Clark said this on CNN last night) Iraq might become another Yugoslavia (he said something to the effect that in both Iraq and Yugoslavia, dictators have served the beneficial role of keeping the "ethnic" groups from one anothers throats, apparently preferring to maintain a monopoly on slaughter). I don't know enough about the Iraqi context to comment on his claims, but I suspect that it's not much different to claiming that Protestants can't live alongside Catholics.
But meanwhile, there's the war. Via Little Green Footballs, I came across this story (Charles Johnson labelled it "Surrender Tales," but I think that's missing the point):
IRAQI conscripts shot their own officers in the chest yesterday to avoid a fruitless fight over the oil terminals at al-Faw. British soldiers from 40 Commando’s Charlie Company found a bunker full of the dead officers, with spent shells from an AK47 rifle around them.This wasn't a surrender. It was a fight by ordinary Iraqis--the conscripts, Saddam's cannon fodder--for their own freedom. To shoot officers requires a conspiracy, some initiative, some guts. They refused to follow orders. They chose. And that is the definition of freedom.
I apologize for the impressionistic nature of this post and the last one -- I'm feeling my way through all this rather than thinking my way through it. Which of course means that anything I write is of limited value. But hey, you get what you pay for...
Thursday, March 20, 2003
And so, of course, it's begun. Actually, it began last night, but I fell asleep on the couch somewhere between the time that Peter Arnett announced air raid sirens and flak in Baghdad (around 9:30, I think) and the 10:15 address from the Oval Office.
I'm more interested in reading than in writing right now -- newspapers and websites and blogs -- and listening to the radio and watching the television. But my daily rides on the metro are always spent with books, and today was no exception, as I continued with Madawi Al-Rasheed's work A History of Saudi Arabia. In a chapter entitled The Gulf War and its aftermath, 1990-2000, she describes the Saudi response to rising discontent following the war (most of it, it should be noted, coming from Islamists), which included the issuance of the "Basic Law of Government":
After stating that Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state, the Basic Law proceeds to specify the system of government as a monarchy. According to article five, rule passes to the sons of the founding king, 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn 'Abd al-Rahman Al Sa'ud, and to his children's children. The most upright among them is to receive allegiance in accordance with the principles of the Holy Qur'an and the tradition of the Prophet. The King chooses the Crown Prince [the king's successor] and can relieve him of his duties by royal order. The Crown Prince takes over the powers of the King on the latter's death, until the oath of allegiance has been given. Article six states that citizens are to pay allegiance to the King in submission and obedience, in times of ease and difficulty, fortune and adversity. This is a clear response to the Gulf crisis and the opposition that followed. The focus on the Sa'udi royal family is interpreted here as a reinforcement of the right of the Al Sa'ud to rule at a time when the voices of opposition had succeeded in creating an atmospher in which this could no longer be taken for granted.Among my many unfulfilled promises, I said ages ago that I'd write something on Islam and Tom Paine, in response to a thought-provoking post by Aziz Poonawalla which compared Wahhabism to the Protestant Reformation. I was thinking particularly of a passage in Paine's Common Sense, in which he argues, from Old Testament sources, that monarchy is a sin. The Israelites, as I recall (I think it's all in Samuel), ask God if they can have a king, so they're the equal of other nations. God responds that it's a bad idea, since the king will come between them and him. There's more to it than that, obviously -- and the books that follow Samuel (Kings and Chronicles, I believe, although I might have that backwards) suggest that God had a pretty good idea of what He was talking about -- sure, there's the occasional good king, but for the most part they're corrupt or weak or unjust. Paine, that committed atheist, used the Biblical stories to undo the damage done by Eusebius (an early Church historian who, I believe, was responsible for the idea of the divine right of kings), and argued that monarchy was incompatible with the Christian faith of his readers.
Prior to the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty (the first hereditary system of government in the Muslim world), the Caliph was chosen by an acclamation of the faithful. Three of the first four "Rightly Guided Caliphs" were assassinated, a point that is not addressed by Saudi history books. Again, from Al-Rasheed:
The celebration of Islamic history is interspersed with a discussion of a number of factors that led to weakness. First, historical texts emphasise that the issue of succession to the caliphate plagued Islamic history. According to the texts, the problem of succession resulted in the proliferation of religious sectarianism.Succession wasn't a problem -- the faithful could choose; the problem was what to do with a Caliph who abused his office. An obvious solution would be term limits, but we are, after all, talking about the 7th Century.
Now let me change gears a bit, and note a few facts. In Syria, the son of a secular Ba'athist tyrant succeeded his father. In Iraq, Saddam has two sons (well, there are rumors to the contrary, but they haven't been confirmed) one of whom he most likely would anoint his successor. In Egypt, rumor has it that Hosni Mubarrak is paving the way for his son to replace him as ruler. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, as is the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and a host of other smaller states. In other words, as the Basic Law states, "rule passes to the sons of the founding king...and to his children's children." (It should be noted that this phenomenon is not limited to the Arab world; see North Korea, for example.)
I raise all of this for several reasons. First, it seems to me that one of gambles of the war is the peace to follow: that the Iraqi people can build a democratic society. As I have long argued, Islam shares with the Judeo-Christian tradition the prerequisites for democracy -- the belief that all souls are equal before God (which is the wellspring of the concept of Natural Rights). It appears that the war is aimed toward putting this notion to the test. Second, the war strategy to this point (no shock and awe; instead decapitation strikes couples with appeals to the Iraqi people) seems designed to give the Iraqi people a window to participate in their own liberation -- by refusing to honor military orders, by rejecting the orders of the regime, perhaps even by rising against Saddam. It will remain to be seen whether this strategy succeeds.
Tuesday, March 18, 2003
I still haven't finished A History of Saudi Arabia by Madawi Al-Rasheed; I have to say that after a strong start, it drops the anthropological approach in the middle chapters, so that there's very little effort expended on explaining Saudi culture, the role of religion or kinship in society, and instead we're treated to a series of kings and dates. What little analysis there is lacks much in the way of insight -- for example this gem, about the discontents of Saudi society in the 1980s:
Some young Sa'udis found that degrees in the humanities and from religious universities did not prepare them to seek employment in the highly specialized oil industries or services.Just like I was shocked to learn that my major in anthropology didn't qualify me to be a safety engineer at a nuclear power plant.
I haven't given up on it yet, and perhaps the later chapters -- some of which address Islamists and Saudi historiography -- will prove more substantive. But after the first three chapters, it's really a let down.
Zack Ajmal of Procrastination has a post that responds to and elaborates on my earlier effort (but note the clarification I posted) on the practice of marrying first cousins in the Islamic world. Zack says it's a tribal practice, but offers more (including a reference to one writer I've added to the list of people I should be reading). Also note that in the comments, Razib K. of Gene Expression offers a contradictory view. I admit I'm out of my depth here, and can't say who's right.
I don't say enough good things about Zack's blog, though, which offers an eclectic mix of posts (photos from an auto show, capsule movie reviews, and his insights into Islam). I drop a name like Ibn Taymiyyah, and Zack provides links to online translations of his works. Well worth reading him on a daily basis.
Monday, March 17, 2003
When books attack
Some friends and I once joked what it would be like if the Fox network took over C-Span; I suggested that the Booknotes program would be renamed "When books attack." (At the time, Fox was running its series of programs, "When animals attack.") I began to think that a series with that title could be made with little difficulty, although the episodes would be far grimmer than anything Fox used to show.
One of the first installments, I imagine, would deal with a passage from a favorite writer of mine whom I haven't mentioned before on this blog, Norman Cohn, who's written about Christian apocalyptic cults in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages); creation myths and their implications (Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come) and the European witch craze (Europe's Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom). I like Cohn because he recognizes threads in history -- for example, he rather artfully compares the fanatacism of the Christian millenarians to that of the 20th century followers of Marxism; in placing the onus for the witch craze on Europe's intellectuals, he neatly proves Orwell's aphorism that only an intellectual could believe such a thing -- no ordinary man could believe something so foolish.
But the Cohn book that led to this post (and I admit my introduction is too light for the serious, awful passage which is to follow) is Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and this passage in particular, on the nature of the Nazi regime, is trenchant:
It has sometimes been argued tghat Hitler was simply a super-Machiavellian, a man without convictions or loyalties, an utter cynic for whom the whole aim and value of life consisted in power and more power. There certainly was such a Hitler -- but the other Hitler, the haunted man obsessed by fantasies about the Jewish world-conspiracy, was just as real. What one would like to know is just how far the near-lunatic drive was active even in the calculating opportunist. How much of the dynamism behind that astonishing career -- from the creation of the Nazi party, through the struggle for power and the establishment of the dictatorship and the terror -- how much all this came from a secret dream of overthrowing the Jewish world-conspiracy by exterminating the Jews? An unanswerable question, no doubt -- but one that occurred even to some important Nazis, though of course they put it differently. 'For what else,' aksed the supreme judge of the party, Walter Buch, writing in the party's legal journal during the war,Horrible to think that a book -- a phony book at that -- could give rise to such horror.for what else did we struggle, take upon us want and deprivation, for what else did the courageous men of the SA and the SS, the boys of the Hitler Youth fall, if not for the possibility that one day the German people might start its struggle for liberation against the Jewish oppressors? In this struggle we are now involved...victory will be attained by Adolf Hitler.And again: to what extent did Hitler and his immediate associates model themselves on the Elders of Zion? According to Rauschning he took the Protocols as his primer for politics; and in the 1930s three whole books were written to show how in almost every particular Nazi policy followed the plan laid down there. The argument can be pushed too far, but that does not mean it is wholly false. It is worth reflecting on two more recent judgments. 'The Nazis,' writes Hannah Arendt, 'started out with the fiction of a conspiracy and modelled themselves, more or less consciously, after the secret society of the Elders of Zion...'; while Leon Poliakov comments that Nazi leaders began by drugging themselves with senstaional sub-literature of the type of the Protocols and ended by translating these morbid fantasies into a reality terrible beyond imagining. There is a good deal in this. The ruthless struggle of a band of conspirators to achieve world-domination -- a world-empire based on a small but highly organized and regimented people -- utter contempt for humanity at large -- a glorying in destruction and mass misery -- all these things are to be found in the Protocols, and they were of the very essence of the Nazi regime. To put it with all due caution: in this preposterous fabrication from the days of the Russian pogroms Hitler heard the call of a kindred spirit, and he responded to it with all his being.
I've been unhappy with the Ideofact motto for some time (a rather lame definition of what an ideofact is, which doesn't really make any sense -- hey, the blogger setup page said I could change it any time I wanted, so I wasn't too careful when I typed it in). So I'm thinking of changing it to this:
A man will turn over half a library to make one blog....which is a bastardization of a Samuel Johnson quote.
Sunday, March 16, 2003
I caught the tail end of Michael Howard's appearance on Booknotes tonight, and was reminded of why I usually don't watch the show: I end up wanting to go out and buy immediately the book under discussion. (Okay, there are other reasons I don't watch it as well -- by the time I've gotten the four year old to bed, the program's usually over or I'm too worn out to pay attention to it). Howard is the author of The First World War (Very Short Introductions). I remember telling a teacher in high school that World War One was my favorite war, which elicited an odd look followed by a bit of a lecture; of course, I had merely expressed myself poorly -- it was the conflict that I found most interesting. (Incidentally, for whatever reason I was reminded of a fine collection of short stories by Somerset Maugham, based on his experiences as a secret agent during the war.) (My favorite thing about John Weidner's otherwise excellent Random Jottings blog are his posts on the American involvement in the First World War.) So, after two parantheticals in a row, let me add what is surely a third: Since college, I've read far more about the Civil War and World War Two, and so buying Howard's book (which I intend to do at lunch tomorrow) will provide me with a welcome diversion.
At the end of the program, Brian Lamb asked Howard what he's doing now. Howard replied that he's at the Library of Congress, and is trying to answer the famed post-9/11 question, "Why do they hate us?" The line he's taken to answer the question intrigued me, and I am very curious to see the results of his research, although I'm not entirely sure that it will be relevant (I will explain why in subsequent posts). Howard said something to the effect that he was looking at 18th Century Germany and Russia, both of which rejected the liberalization and emphasis on human rights in America and Western Europe as a bad thing. (The transcript is not yet available; hopefully, by the time you, valued reader, click on this link, it will be...).
I'm eager to see Howard's work, because I'm curious to see if those 18th Century German and Russian intellectuals wrote pieces like this one in the Arab News that argues that while America has made great contributions, its time has past, and it has nothing but military power to fall back on:
The Americans have to realize that their contribution to human progress will never be forgotten. As every previous civilization, from the Pharaohs to the present, has enriched humanity, so the wealth of the American civilization will be added to it. America has given us the Bill of Rights, high-rise buildings, Hollywood, walking on the moon and more. It may still enjoy economic superiority and military dominance, but these elements don’t constitute a healthy culture.That sentence -- "It is a sign of health, not of barbarism, when writers are persecuted for what they write and philosophers cause riots, for this means that in such a culture ideas still matter and thinkers can still change the course of history" -- has bothered me since I read it on Friday. I don't think anything is healthier than Voltaire's statement -- "I disagree with everything you say but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." But the suggestion that the sentiment from Arab News, that persecution equals health, is part of a pattern, with European antecedents, is intriguing nonetheless, and I'm curious to see what Howard comes up with.