March 24, 2008
Divided and Conquered—A Book Review by Amy Chua
The following book review was published in The New York Times on March 23, 2008.
Divided and Conquered
By Amy Chua
WORLDS AT WAR
The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West.
By Anthony Pagden.
625 pp. Random House. $35.
When Napoleon Bonaparte led his army into Egypt in 1798, he had more than military conquest on his mind. Along with 30,000 soldiers, his entourage included what amounted to a mobile university, complete with economists and poets, architects and astronomers, a balloonist, and a baritone from the Paris Opera. They carried with them a library of a thousand books, featuring Montesquieu and Rousseau, Montaigne and Voltaire, and other classics of the Western canon.
Almost two centuries later, in 1971, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, held a lavish, weeklong fete for foreign dignitaries on the grounds of an ancient Persian palace. Over peacock stuffed with foie gras and 25,000 bottles of Champagne, he declared himself heir to the great Achaemenid kings Darius and Xerxes. The claimed price tag: $200 million.
For Anthony Pagden, a professor of political science and history at the University of California, Los Angeles, the shah and Napoleon are archetypes, respectively, of East and West, each seeing himself as heir to a glorious civilization. But as Pagden points out, each man also had his own fascinating ambiguities. The Swiss-educated shah was a highly secular supporter of modernization (and the Champagne for his party came from Maxim’s of Paris). Napoleon proclaimed to the Egyptians that he revered the Prophet Muhammad and “the glorious Koran,” if only to win over the local clerics.
Pagden has a keen eye for the striking detail (a helpful attribute for someone plowing through 2,500 years of history in 12 chapters), and “Worlds at War,” like Pagden’s earlier work “Peoples and Empires,” is bold, panoramic and highly readable, at times a page turner.
Through a combination of legend, anecdote and evocative writing, Pagden brings alive the ancient Greco-Persian wars, the rise of Islam and the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman emperor Mehmed II. And he turns what might otherwise be dry history about the Investiture Controversy of the 11th century into almost a thriller, with an “outmaneuvered” Henry IV standing outside the castle of Canossa “in a hair shirt and robes of a penitent, barefoot on the ice for three days,” seeking an audience with Pope Gregory VII, who had excommunicated him. Having obtained Gregory’s forgiveness, Henry promptly “descended on Rome with an army.” Gregory called on the Normans to defend him, and they defeated Henry. But unfortunately they “sacked the city themselves,” causing the Pope “to flee south, where he died of fever in Salerno.”
But if “Worlds at War” is hard to put down, it’s also hard to pin down; almost to the end, its thesis is something of a moving target. For starters, Pagden casts his book as an exploration of the “perpetual enmity,” as Herodotus called it, between East and West. Yet he excludes from his account China, Japan and the rest of the Far East and, for the most part, India. So his “East” consists almost entirely of Islamic societies: Persia/Iran, the Ottoman Empire/Turkey, Egypt and today’s Arab world.
Moreover, Pagden is frequently cagey about whether he thinks fundamental differences actually exist between East and West. In his preface, he says the East-West division is “often illusory, always metaphorical.” Elsewhere, he suggests that the West is in many ways rooted in the East. (“Like so much else that became a defining part of the Western world,” Christianity had also “begun in the East”; Christ was “a typical Eastern holy man,” and “the slain god, the virgin birth, the incarnation” of Christianity were “more Asian still.”) When he does draw out cultural differences, some of them stereotypical, Pagden tends to distance himself through attribution. He cites Herodotus for the contrast between Asian slavishness and Western individuality and love of freedom; Ernest Renan for Islam’s hostility to science; Montesquieu and Hegel for “Oriental despotism.”
In the end, however, “Worlds at War” is another book about the clash between the Enlightenment and religion, and its central target is Islam, which, Pagden argues, is incompatible with the Western principle of separation between church and state. The “fundamental theological difference between Islam and Christianity,” he tells us, lies in “the association between religion and the law.” Unlike Christianity, Islam supports “the complete identification of the secular realm with the sacred and the corresponding elevation of the ruler.” Christianity recognizes both the Kingdom of Heaven and the governments of earth. In Islam, by contrast, “there can be only one law”: the Shariah, which is God’s law and thus “eternal” and “unchanging.” According to Pagden, the history of Islam is unified “by a continuous and still unfulfilled narrative, the story of the struggle against the ‘Infidel’ for the ultimate Muslim conquest of the entire world.”
In Pagden’s Islam there is an odd echo of the Islam offered by the bearded mullahs who espouse violence from their mosques or caves. Indeed, Pagden quotes Osama bin Laden at length for the view that the greatest crime of the United States — for which 9/11 was punishment — was that “you separate religion from your politics, contradicting the pure nature which affirms Absolute Authority to the Lord your Creator.” Pagden adds that “most Muslim theologians and jurists would have to agree” with bin Laden.
Such passages are bound to infuriate many, including those Muslims who see themselves as reaffirming a well-rooted Islamic tradition of diversity in opinion against a rising trend of rigid fanaticism. Pagden tends to treat Islam as a monolith; at one point he describes Islam as intellectually “simple.” Given Islam’s long and variegated history, not to mention its abstruse jurisprudence, many will disagree. It’s a good bet that “Worlds at War” will appeal more to admirers of Samuel Huntington’s thesis about the clash of civilizations, which Pagden calls “a crude but useful phrase,” than to fans of Edward Said’s book “Orientalism.”
To be fair, Pagden also tends to treat Christianity monolithically (although more favorably). For example, some historians of the church will surely take issue with Pagden’s assertion that Christianity separated the secular from the sacred, emphasizing “the ultimate freedom of the individual.” How exactly do the crusades and the Inquisition fit into this picture, not to mention the many Christian doctrines of predestination?
The real value of “Worlds at War” may lie in a secondary theme: the West’s long, tragicomic history of trying to civilize and modernize the East. In the first century B.C., Octavian’s defeat of Antony and Egypt was portrayed by the Romans as the triumph of “a free and virtuous West” over “a tyrannical and corrupt East.” Almost 2,000 years later, in 1920, Shiites and Sunnis were killing each other in Mesopotamia, British officers were dying, and The Times of London wrote, “How much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavor to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?”
And then there was Napoleon. The most ambitious of Western conquerors in that region, he set about to impress the Egyptians with a demonstration of French technology: an elaborate launching of his hot air balloon, painted in red, white and blue. Unfortunately, it crashed and burst into flames. The Egyptians, no doubt, were shocked and awed.
Amy Chua, a professor of law at Yale University, is the author of “World on Fire” and “Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — and Why They Fall.”