An ideofact is an artifact imbued with meanings other than its technical function.
Thursday, March 27, 2003
State sponsored terrorism, 1914
Michael Howard's book, The First World War arrived the other day, and has provided a welcome distraction (if an odd one) from the war coverage. It's a brisk, quick and sobering read.
I was particularly struck by his passage on the fuse that started the Great War:
The Balkan state that the Austrians most feared was Serbia, especially since their protectorate over Bosnia-Herzegovina had placed many Serbs under Austrian control. In 1903 a coup d'etat in Belgrade had overthrown the Obrenovic dynasty that had pursued a course of conciliation towards the Dual Monarchy, and replaced it with a regime dedicated to the expansion of Serbia through the liberation of Serbs under foreign rule -- especially those in Bosnia. [sound familiar?] Five years later Austria formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina to facilitate her control of those provinces. The Serb government responded by creating an open 'liberation movement' for Bosnian Serbs with a covert terrorist wing, 'the Black Hand', trained and supported by elements in the Serb army.Howard traces the series of Balkan wars that followed, and that greatly expanded Serbia's territory and population.
...in Vienna the reigning emotions were fear and frustration: fear at the apparently unstoppable march of Serbia, with all the encouragement this gave to Slav dissidents in both halves of the Monarchy; and frustration at their inability to do anything about it. Then on 28 July 1914 the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, by Gavril Princip, a teenage terrorist trained and armed by the Serb-sponsored Black Hand.It is almost a cliche to say so, but the two shots Princip fired touched off a chain of events that didn't really end until the Berlin Wall fell. The Austrians got their blank check from the Germans, issued an ultimatum to Serbia that no government could accept; the Russians supported the Serbs and mobilized, soon the Germans were sweeping through Belgium, and the slaughters at Ypres, the Marne, Gallipoli, Verdun, the Somme would claim not tens or thousands but tens and hundreds of thousands of men. The war ended with the Soviets in power and about to embark on their own program of mass murder, the Germans embittered by the harsh peace terms, ultimately turned to Hitler and Naziism, the democracies too horrified by the Great War to contemplate another.
It is interesting to note then the subesequent reputation of the man who, for relatively parochial reasons (using terror to drive the Austrians out of Bosnia), set off the conflagration. Princip had been hailed in Yugoslavia as a national hero until the Balkan wars of the early 90s. There was a museum devoted to him in Sarajevo that closed during the war. The place he stood when he fired the fatal shots was marked with a monument, until in a perhaps fitting turn of events shelling by other Bosnian Serb nationalists during the siege of Sarajevo destroyed it.
In January 2003, according to this story, Sarajevo -- which was spared the fate of becoming a provincial city in a greater Serbia thanks to American arms -- decided to restore the monument.
Sarajevo is preparing to put history ahead of ethnic divisions and reinstate a memorial recalling the shots that carried the city's name around the world, long before its ordeal in the Bosnian war of the 1990s.Not everyone is pleased.
To some, Princip was a Serbian patriot. But to others, he was a terrorist who does not deserve to be remembered -- and certainly not when the West has declared a "war on terror" against individuals who kill for their ideals.One may think it's a stretch to compare a political assassination -- the Archduke was not an office worker, after all, but the heir to the throne -- to Sept. 11, but the following passage makes me think there's something in it, that Howard's use of the term terrorist is accurate. But to digress a moment, I have heard some apologists for Islamist terror argue that there is an inevitability about such attacks, that given the circumstances the only rational, even predictable, thing to do for an otherwise intelligent young man (or woman) is to strap on an explosive belt or plot the bombing of an embassy or a ship or the destruction of the World Trade Center. That these acts, deplorable out of context, are understandable given the provocations of the oppressors. I think the following quote from the same article is a sterling example of such thinking, even if it is applied to an Orthodox Bosnian Serb rather than, say, a Palestinian:
Goran Kapor of the Democratic Initiative of Sarajevo Serbs, a non-government organisation, said everyone had the right to an opinion but no right to change historic facts.Now, let's leave aside the fact that Austria formally annexed Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1908 (after ruling it rather well since occupying it in 1878), and the Franz Ferdinand was in Sarajevo to oversee military exercises. How natural was it? Consider this account of one of Princip's conspirators:
They were conived [sic] in Sarajevo all the twenty-two conspirators were in their allotted positions, armed and ready. They were distributed five hundred yards apart over the whole route along which the Archduke must travel from the railroad station to the town hall.Yes, a perfectly natural thing to do.
...to Tacitus, whose running commentary on the war is consistently measured and insightful. Well worth a daily read. I found this postespecially thought provoking, by the way.
Wednesday, March 26, 2003
Camassia writes (or actually wrote -- sorry I missed the post last week):
We've all been wondering if Iraq can last as a coherent state, given the Sunni/Shiite and Arab/Kurd divisions. Saudi Arabia is basically all Arab and Sunni, but it comprises three distinct regions (west, east and middle) that weren't historically part of one political unit until Ibn Saud conquered them in the 1930s. As the name suggests, the whole national identity comes from the House of Saud. If it loses the Sauds, what will it be?She mentions that, since I'm reading (actually finished, finally) a history of the country, I might have a better idea about it. She adds that she doesn't know what separates a Hijazi from a Nejdi.
Two paragraphs from Madawi Al-Rasheed's book A History of Saudi Arabia make the point Camassia stressed about the national identity coming from the House of Saud (and I think Camassia made the point far more succinctly):
The Sa'udi state of the twentieth century was a conquest state. It was successful in consolidating authority on the basis of military might and the rhetoric of spreading true Islam. Military expansion progressed together with a robust programme to 'Islamise' [read 'Wahhabize'] the population. The people of Najd, Hasa, Hijaz and 'Asir were subjected to this programme under the auspices of the mutawwa'a [Najdi religious specialists; i.e., Wahhabis]. The latter's efforts were crucial. Their teachings and instruction among both the sedentary people of the oases and the tribal confederations created favorable conditions for the rule of the Al Sa'ud. The mutawwa'a were behind the consolidation of the ikhwan [non-religious specialist Wahhabis, i.e. -- warriors who were Wahhabist but not clerics] tribal force with which Ibn Sa'ud conquered Arabia. Their instruction to obey the leader of the Muslim community, to respond to his call for holy war and to pay him Islamic tax provided the conditions for state formation under Sa'udi leadership.The official Saudi historical narrative argues that the penninsula existed in a state of jahiliyya, or ignorance (that's one reading, decadence is another, I believe chaos is a third -- it's the term Sayyid Qutb uses to describe the West); the Wahhabis and the Sa'udis put the region back on the path of true Islam. (One interesting note: Saudi textbooks, according to Al-Rasheed, begin with the Prophet; run through the early Caliphate through the Ottomans; interestingly, one episode of that history is strangely omitted -- Karbala and the schism of the Shi'ites. Saudi textbooks don't mention the event, according to Al-Rasheed.)
There are counter-narratives coming from the various regions other than Najd asserting their old identities, but between the centralization that took place in the 1930s and the enforcement of Wahhabi orthodoxy, these haven't taken hold. Al-Rasheed sees the Islamists as being far more likely to cause trouble for the ruling family than, say, Hijazi nationalists. It's also hard to say whether regional identity would reassert itself if the House of Saud fell. Oil wealth has changed the society dramatically, as have the methods by which the regime has centralized power. The old tribal alliances and identities might exist beneath the surface, but they certainly don't operate as they once did. I would suspect that the Shi'ite-traditional Sunni-Wahhabi fault lines might be far more powerful than the old regional identities.
Monday, March 24, 2003
Immediately below, I wrote
I fully confess that I have far less knowledge of Qutb than either of them [Lewis or Berman], but my impression of him is that he's primarily an advocate of totalitarianism....I thought it might be worth expanding on this a little.
My contention is based on a few passages of Sayyid Qutb's work Social Justice in Islam. Qutb devotes a sizeable percentage of his work to both the ideal Islamic community based on his reading of the Qur'an and various Hadith, and to the history of the actual Islamic community, which never quite seemed to live up to Qutb's expectations. Of the first four rightly guided Caliphs, for example, Qutb seems fond of only two. That doesn't stop him, however, from quoting approvingly a line from one of the two who earn his disapproval:
As 'Uthmann ibn 'Affan said: "Allah restrains man more by means of the ruler than by means of the Qur'an."Now, Qutb rails against quite a few rulers through the course of his text, some by name (he's not fond of too many of the Umayyads or the Abassids), some merely by ethnicity or linguistic group (he regards the Turks -- presumably both the Seljuk and the Ottomans -- as one of the disasters that befell Islam). A constant refrain through the book is that when Mongols and Europeans and infidels of every description weren't overrunning the faithful, the Caliphs were running the whole operation into the ground. One would think that he might address this -- that he might find in Islamic practice a solution to the problem of lousy autocrats or improvise one. Instead, he writes,
As for the suggestion that the Islamic system does not proved by nature adequate safeguards against disruption, for one thing we must bear in mind that this system was assailed by disruption before it had properly struck roots;I'll interrupt here to point out that Qutb is referring to the second and third of the four Rightly guided Caliphs, and the Umayyads who murdered the fourth and established a hereditary dynasty. Perhaps the instability of the system was responsible for the failure to strike roots. Qutb doesn't address this, but continues
...and for another thing we must remember that in practice no system has any real such safeguards. Where, for example, are the safeguards of democracy in Europe? This is a strongly entrenched system, which has achieved a definite form, and which has had time to establish itself and to spread its influence over a long period into every quarter of life. Yet where were its safeguards at the time of the Nazi coup d'etat, or the Fascist, or the Spanish?The Nazis came to power in a state where the Kaiser had abdicated a scant 15 years before. I don't think Germany in the 20th Century was one of the European countries in which democracy had "acheived a definite form, and...had time to establish itself and to spread its influence over a long period into every quarter of life." Beyond that, Naziism is one of the horrors of the democratic experiment -- a regime popularly elected, achieving power through constitutional means, and then dismantling the democratic apparatus of government. In his new book, Bernard Lewis quotes the telling phrase describing the Islamist view of democracy: One man, one vote, once.
But beyond that, it seems to me, Qutb is willing to run the risk of the horrors of Naziism (or Italian or Spanish Fascism) in his perfect Islamic utopia. He's simply not interested in devising a system that can weather disruptions (like, say, the standoff between Jefferson and Burr after the election of 1800); rather, he wants a system in which the ruler has a free hand to restrain men, the Qur'an be damned.
Sunday, March 23, 2003
I finished Lewis' book today; it was disturbing, to say the least. Reading it at the same as the Times piece by Paul Berman linked below (the Lewis book is two posts down from that -- sorry, I'm too wiped out to add hyperlinks) has left me rather depressed and feeling burnt out. Not to mention the war coverage and the day's events.
Berman seems to discount Qutb's experience of American culture as a factor in his thinking; Lewis, in a brief section (four or five pages) devoted to Qutb, seems lend credence to it. I fully confess that I have far less knowledge of Qutb than either of them, but my impression of him is that he's primarily an advocate of totalitarianism; had he been born a Christian, then Savanarola and the Inquisition would have been his role models. I tend to credit the idea that his experience of the West and Western institutions was an important factor in his thinking; it's also worth noting his misreadings of the West. Berman, for example, notes that he regarded the Christian concept of a split between secular and sacred, temporal and eternal power, as the root of modernity's failings. In Qutb's conception, according to Berman, Christianity was inoperative in the secular world, and retreated to monasteries. I think I mentioned something along these lines before -- although not as eloquently as Berman defined it (I should really provide a link and a quote -- okay, okay, here it is:
In the fourth century of the Christian era, Emperor Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity. But Constantine, in Qutb's interpretation, did this in a spirit of pagan hypocrisy, dominated by scenes of wantonness, half-naked girls, gems and precious metals. Christianity, having abandoned the Mosaic code, could put up no defense. And so, in their horror at Roman morals, the Christians did as best they could and countered the imperial debaucheries with a cult of monastic asceticism.Now, just as a matter of history, Cistercian monasteries in the 12th and 13th centuries were the industrial parks of their day, with water-driven mills, tanneries, breweries, sawmills, and a host of other industrial activity. And there were plenty of Christian monarchs willing to take up the sword on crusades against heretics -- Cathars, Bogomils, Paulicians and the like -- killing them or dying trying. In the same way that Qutb saw the Church social as the complete corruption of religion, he misunderstood the history, theology, and practice of Christianity. And as for Islam, ultimately he didn't much care for it either -- he approvingly quoted one of the less rightly guided of the Four Rightly Caliphs who said something along the lines of "The whip is more useful for ensuring morality than the Qur'an" (I'm paraphrasing; the exact quote is elsewhere on this blog). I do agree with Berman (and Lewis for that matter) that Qutb's main enemy was the liberal project, the tolerant society, the freedom of men (see Armed Liberal's post on the always engaging Winds of Change blog for a rather stirring take on all this; all I'd add is that while we quote it and don't much think about it, when Voltaire said, "I disagree with everything you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it," he might very well have been called on it -- and we should be prepared to do the same).
A reader pointed out this New York Times magazine piece on Sayyid Qutb. Written by Paul Berman, it's called The Philosopher of Islamic Terror. I'd comment, but I just got the email and haven't had a chance to read it yet, and it's about time for me to get some sleep.
Update on Qutbdate: The essay is excellent. I'll comment on it tomorrow, if I have time (if staying up so late reading it doesn't exhaust me entirely).
Qutb and the Temple of Love
When I was in my early 20s, I once went to a Church singles mixer -- a weekend night opportunity to hang out in a Church recreation room and meet members of the opposite sex without benefit of alcohol, strobe lights, and ridiculous pick-up lines (an art that I never quite mastered, I should add). The room was about what you'd expect -- sturdy metal folding chairs (and a rack on the wall to stack them on); posters announcing potluck suppers and charity drives and upcoming concerts of religious music; I think the walls were painted offwhite, perhaps made of cinderblock; a big table off to one side that had an urn for coffee, another for decaf, two-liter bottles of various soft drinks, and a large bowl of red liquid that turned out to be water spiked with powdered fruit-punch flavor (and nothing else). There was a tape deck, and they did play music. I remember a lot of Linda Ronstadt, country, something that might have been Christian Rock, and at one point they got pretty deviant and played someone's home-made compilation tape of new wave music (the only song I can positively recall was Devo's "Whip It," which was probably six years old at the time).
A few people danced, but most talked -- about the upcoming white river rafting trip, about the summer softball schedule, about the latest couple who had met at these functions and gone on to get married. Getting married seemed to be a hot topic, and I think most of the people were there to meet that special someone, although there was more than enough talk about jobs and family and movies and such stuff that it never got too uncomfortable for me.
I got into one lengthy discussion with a guy who'd just starting teaching middle school English; he'd done his senior thesis on Nathaniel Hawthorne, and he, a young lady who was with him and I had a nice discussion about American literature for 45 minutes or so. Towards the end I found out that this was their first official date, and while I felt like a jerk for having wasted so much of it on the merits of F. Scott Fitzgerald, they didn't seem perturbed in the least.
I also had a brief chat with a nice guy who turned out to be the Church's assistant pastor; he arranged all the mixers and some of the other activities for the young single members of the congregation. He told me at one point that his little gatherings were responsible for 15 happy marraiges, which I suppose isn't a bad legacy at all for someone who was only a few years older than I was at the time. I should probably add that I wasn't a member of the church, but that didn't seemed to bother anyone. The whole thing was relaxed and casual. Probably half of the people had been regulars for a few years; some came from other churches, and a few were even oddballs like me who had been invited by friends and figured, what the heck, they'd try anything once. I didn't have a terrible time, but I think the fact that I never went back speaks for itself. Not my cup of tea.
I bring this up because of something I read in Bernard Lewis' new book, The Crisis in Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, about Sayyid Qutb, about whom I last wrote here. Lewis raises Qutb when writing of why Islamists despise America. While he notes Qutb's influence (as I've written now probably 30 times, Qutb has been described as the "brain of bin Laden"), Lewis doesn't blame Qutb so much as make him emblematic of the process by which America went from being barely noticed by the Islamic realms to becoming the Great Satan. Lewis notes that Qutb had visited America, and relates his view of American culture:
Sayyid Qutb took as a given the contrast between Eastern spirtuality and Western materialism, and described America as a particularly extreme form of the latter. Everything in America, he wrote, even religion, is measured in material terms. He observed that there were many churches but warned his readers that their number should not be misunderstood as an expression of real religious or spiritual feeling. Churches in America, he said, operate like businesses, competing for clients and for publicity, and using the same methods as stores and theaters to attract customers and audiences. For the minister of a church, as for the manager of a business or a theater, success is what matters, and success is measured by size -- bigness, numbers. To attract clientele, churches advertise shamelessly and offer what Americans most seek -- "a good time" or "fun" (he cited the English words in his Arabic text). The result is that church recreation halls, with the blessing of the priesthood, hold dances where people of both sexes meet, mix, and touch. The ministers go so far as to dim the lights in order to facilitate the fury of the dance. "The dance is inflamed by the notes of the gramophone," he noted with evident disgust, "the dance-hall becomes a whirl of heels and thighs, arms enfold hips, lips and breasts meet, and the air is full of lust."Admittedly, my experience is entirely anecdotal, but I can assure my readers that if lips were meeting breasts amidst a whirl of heels and thighs, I would have noticed it. Maybe I just happened on the wrong denomination, or the wrong night. Or maybe Qutb was a complete wacko, who didn't understand that a gathering of young people at a Church rec hall for dancing and conversation and the off chance that they might meet Mr. or Mrs. Right doesn't represent the end of civilization as we know it.