Still blind to western arrogance 1

October 17, 2003

Even if 9/11 was the catalyst that finally precipitated Terry Eagleton's return to earth from the realms of High Theory ("Bin Laden sure didn't read any beer mats", THES , October 3), he does not seem to have learnt much during his excursion, or even to be aware of the changes that took place while he was away. Perhaps he was too busy reading theorists such as Daniel Pipes ("Why don't scholars admit that holy war means war?", THES , October 3). It is worth remembering that although Osama Bin Laden's bloody "jihad" - aimed, incidentally, at least as much at the Saudi guardians of the Two Holy Places as at the commanders of the global economic order - is in many respects a novel development and, in that sense at odds with the greater part of the Islamic heritage. The causes of that deviation can be traced back to the West. In the first place, Bin Laden's enterprise is grounded in, and gains succour from, feelings of outrage throughout the Islamic world caused by Muslim experience of western colonial arrogance.

Second, the tactics and the ideologies of contemporary Islamic resistance movements turn out, on close inspection, to have been significantly inspired by the ideological visions deployed by 19th-century Protestants as they sought to introduce the wonders of Judaeo-Christian civilisation to their barbarian subjects. We can hardly be surprised if we find ourselves being paid back in our own coin.

Unfortunately, such a possibility appears to be far beyond the ken of our two luminaries:

they may have heard the 9/11 wake-up call, but their contributions to the current debate serve only to underline how far they are still entrapoed by a blinkered Eurocentric conceptual vision.

Having returned from the realms of High Theory, where do Eagleton's feet touch ground? Why, to the JudaeoChristian tradition running from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas through to Hegel and Karl Marx. He displays no sign of interest in - or even an awareness of the existence of - the work of Ibn 'Arabi and Ibn Khaldun, let alone of Confucius, Kautilya and indeed a legion of thoughtful barbarians. They remain beyond the pale.

But if Eagleton raises the flag for the Enlightenment canon, Pipes' arguments have yet deeper historical roots. Just as the scholars of western Christianity went out of their way to suppress all formal acknowledgement of the intellectual sophistication of the Islamic world (even as they plagiarised its achievements), and instead presented Muslims as uncivilised iconoclasts whose religion legitimated an addiction to violence, Pipes appears to be setting out on a similar crusade. Hence his vituperative attack on all those who have the temerity to suggest that those who stand on the far side of a fence that the West has itself constructed bear little or no resemblance to the vicious devils that our own righteousness drives us to conclude that they must surely be. Just who is talking about holy war?

Roger Ballard
Director, Centre for Applied South Asian Studies
University of Manchester

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments