May 2, 2013 § 11 Comments
Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, has stirred up controversy with his claim, on Iran’s Press TV, that behind the Boston bombings lay anger about Western foreign policy and its attitudes to Islam:
There was such ignorance in the Bush White House about Islam and about the history of so many disputes that exist in the Middle East. People get angry. They lash out. It’s the whole squalid intervention that has disfigured the record of the Western democracies. I think this fuels the anger of the young men, who as we saw in Boston went out, and, out of anger and demand for revenge, claimed lives in the West.
Livingstone may have expressed his argument in a particularly crass fashion, but it is the kind of explanation that many have proffered over the past few weeks. Ever since Tamerlan Tsarnaev was shot dead and his brother Dzhokar captured, there has been a frantic search through their back history to discover the motivations of the alleged bombers and the reasons for their homicidal act. Their Chechen family origins, their attraction to Islam, their radicalization through jihadist sites – all have become part of the narrative of why the brothers could commit such horror. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 27, 2013 § 3 Comments
This is the last extract from my book in progress on the history of moral thought. The book is now, in fact, no longer in progress, as I have completed it. This might be the final extract, but it is not from the final chapter, but the penultimate one, Chapter 19 (I have already run an extract from chapter 20). Chapter 19 explores moral debate in modern China, particularly after the fall of the dynastic system, and the creation, first of a republic in 1911, and subsequently, after four decades of conflict and chaos, of Mao Zedong’s communist regime in 1949. This extract is about the problems of moral thinking in post-1949 China, and the fraught relationship between communism and Confucianism.
For more than two millennia, the identity of China, and the character of its social order, was defined primarily in ethical terms, and given philosophical shape largely by Confucianism. When that tradition, and the social order and dynastic structure it sustained, broke in the twentieth century, inevitably there was chaos, a chaos made more turbulent by the distinctive role of ethics in Chinese society.
In Western Europe, Christianity had provided, for more than a millennium, a shared identity for peoples otherwise divided by language, nation or tribe, and a crucible within which all philosophical, political and moral discussion took place. The Church was the continent’s common voice and its moral guardian. Religion, certainly as it was understood in Europe, barely developed in China. The state, in the form of imperial bureaucracy, performed many of the roles and duties historically taken by the European Church, providing moral instruction, constructing a collective identity, and creating a sense of shared values. Not only was the social role of the state different in China, so was its relationship to the ruling class. In Europe, different sections of the elite – nobles, clerics, merchants, the landed aristocracy, the urban bourgeoisie – had vied with each other for the reins of power, and had fought to control and constrain the authority of the state. Through these struggles the space was cleared for what we now know as civil society, a space that became central to the development of moral debate. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 13, 2013 § 2 Comments
My book on the history of moral thought is all but complete (yay!). Hopefully, blogging will be back to normal next week. In the meantime, here is another old book review plucked from the vaults, this one of Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on a Revolution in Europe. It was first published in New Humanist in July 2009. For more discussion of the myths about immigration, multiculturalism and Islam, see my Milton K Wong lecture, which is in two parts.
In his classic 1920 book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, the American historian, political theorist and anti-immigration activist Theodore Lothrop Stoddard warned of the coming collapse of white civilization under a ‘swarm’ of ‘colored’ people. Whites had already been driven out of their ancestral homeland in the Caucasus. The land ‘which in the dawn of history was predominantly white man’s country, is today racially brown man’s land in which white blood survives only as vestigial traces of vanishing significance’. And ‘If this portion of Asia, the former seat of mighty white empires and possibly the very homeland of the white race itself, should have so entirely changed its ethnic character’, Stoddard asked, ‘what assurance can the most impressive political panorama give us that the present world order may not swiftly and utterly pass away?’
Stoddard was worried, too, by the prospect of a resurgent Islam. ‘In so far as he is Christianized, the negro’s savage instincts will be restrained and he will be predisposed to acquiesce in white tutelage’, he wrote. ‘In so far as he is Islamized, the negro’s warlike propensities will be inflamed, and he will be used as the tool of Arab Pan-Islamism seeking to drive the white man from Africa and make the continent its very own.’ To protect Europe and America from a similar fate, Western nations had to ensure that ‘the rising tide of color finds itself walled in by white dikes debarring it from many a promised land which it would fain deluge with its dusky waves.’ « Read the rest of this entry »
January 3, 2013 § 4 Comments
If 2011 brought the promise of democracy to the Arab world, in 2012 democratic change appeared to founder on political reality. In Egypt, democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi has tried to gather into his own hands powers far greater that that held previously by Hosni Mubarak, and is railroading through a constitution that many fear will undermine the gains of the revolution. In Libya and Tunisia Islamist-influenced governments are promoting laws restricting rights, constraining speech, and maintaining social inequality. In Bahrain a movement for democratic change has been brutally suppressed by the government. In Syria, the struggle for democracy has degenerated into a bloodbath, and one to which there appears to be no end.
From the beginnings of the so-called Arab Spring many people worried that democratic change would bring about the ‘wrong’ kind of governments to power, and would create social instability and entrench political reaction, fears that in many ways have materialized. So, how do those who advocate democracy respond?
October 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
On Monday I chaired an illuminating discussion called ‘Inside the Mind of the Taliban’ with Alex Strick van Linschoten, Felix Kuehn and Jason Elliot. Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn, who until recently lived in Kandahar, have written a series of outstanding books on Afghanistan, including An Enemy We Created, which tells the story of how the American insistence that al Qaeda and the Taliban were in effect a single, unified enemy, and Washington’s view of the Taliban as just another jihadist group, helped conjure up that very mythical enemy that the West so feared. Earlier this year their anthology, Poetry of the Taliban, was published both to considerable acclaim and considerable controversy. Elliot is a travel writer whose book An Unexpected Light has become a classic and is one of the most influential recent works on Afghanistan.
Given that few people who talk about Afghanistan possess more than the briefest acquaintance with the country, it was good to have the kind of public conversation that so very rarely takes place, led by three people passionate, informed and articulate. But while it was refreshing to have a nuanced discussion on the issue, nuance carries its own baggage. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 14, 2012 § 11 Comments
One thing should be clear. The violence across the Muslim world in response to an American anti-Islamic film has nothing to do with that film. Yes, The Innocence of Muslims is a risibly crude diatribe against Islam. But this obscure film that barely anyone had seen till last week is no more the source of the current violence than God is the source of the Qur’an.
The details of the rioting in Benghazi that killed the US ambassador and sparked the current crisis still remain unclear. What is clear, however, is that the violence is being driven less by religious fury than by political calculation. In Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, the crisis is being fostered by hardline Islamists in an attempt to seize the political initiative in a period of transition and turmoil. The film is almost incidental to this process. The real struggle is not between Muslims and non-Muslims, but between different shades of Islamists, between hardline factions and more mainstream ones. The insurrections that transformed much the Arab world over the past year have created a new terrain for the battle between Muslim factions for political supremacy. But the struggle itself is nothing new. The same tensions fuelled the confrontations over The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons. I have long argued that both were primarily political rather than religious conflicts. I am publishing here two edited extracts from my book From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy which describes the development of both conflicts. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 3, 2012 § 33 Comments
Judith Butler is a queen, perhaps the queen, of poststructuralist philosophy. A pioneer of queer theory and one of the world’s leading feminist philosophers, she made her name with her 1990 book, Gender Trouble, which dismisses the idea of sex and gender as fixed categories, viewing them instead as forms of social artifice. Butler introduced in the book the concept of gender as ‘performativity’: by behaving as if there were male and female ‘natures’ we create the social fiction that these natures exist.
Next week Butler is due to receive the prestigious Adorno Prize. Awarded by the city of Frankfurt to honour its most celebrated philosophical son, Theodor Adorno, the triennial award is given for ‘outstanding work in the fields of philosophy, music, theatre and film’. Previous winners have included such luminaries as Jurgen Habermas, Zygmunt Bauman, Norbert Elias, Pierre Boulez, Jean-Luc Goddard and György Ligeti.
This year’s award has caused a major controversy. Critics have described the award of the prize to Butler as ‘monstrous’, a ‘scandal’, and ‘morally corrupt’. « Read the rest of this entry »