Sunday, August 21, 2011

World History Through Islamic Eyes

Ansary, Tamim. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. New York: PublicAffairs, 2009.

As Americans moved past the initial shock of September 11, 2001, we began to ask a number of searching questions: Who were those people? What motivated them to give their lives for something so terrible? Who supported their senseless violence? And why do they hate us?

We soon learned that those nineteen men who hijacked four airliners and destroyed the lives of thousands were self-proclaimed Muslims. They did not represent any one nation. Their common bond was the culture of radical Islam. Upon learning that, Americans then wanted to know what it was about the terrorists' religion that led them to believe that their actions were justified. Did they represent only the lunatic fringe? Or were their convictions and deeds much closer to the heart of Islam?

President George W. Bush gave his answer when he told Americans, "These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith." But not everyone was so sure. In a 1996 book titled The Clash of Civilizations, Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington had claimed that the cultures of the Muslim world and of the West were inherently at odds with each other, and that the lines between them were what he called "the battle lines of the future." In the post-9/11 discussion, many observers suggested that the Huntingdon thesis anticipated those unspeakable events that had now come to pass. So who was right?

Enter the latest book by Tamim Ansary, Destiny Disrupted. As it is with so many non-fiction books these days, once the title catches your attention, it's the subtitle that tells you what the book is actually about: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. Ansary might just be the very best person to write a book like this. He was born in 1948 in Kabul, Afghanistan, his father an Afghan and his mother an American. At age sixteen, he came to the United States where he graduated from Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, in 1970. Later, he traveled extensively in the Islamic world before settling on the American west coast where he has lived and worked as a writer ever since. Not only does he know both hemispheres, he describes himself as "resolutely secular" from a very early age.

Ansary's basic argument suggests that the relationship between the Islamic East and the Christian West is never going to be simple. Why? Because their back stories are long and complicated and now tangled. As the author explains,

Throughout much of history, the West and the core of what is now the Islamic world have been like two separate universes, each preoccupied with its own internal affairs, each assuming itself to be the center of human history, each living out a different narrative—until the late seventeenth century when the two narratives began to intersect. At that point, one or the other had to give way because the two narratives were crosscurrents to each other. The West being more powerful, its current prevailed and churned the other one under.

But the superseded history never really ended. It kept on flowing beneath the surface, like a riptide, and it is flowing down there still. When you chart the hot spots of the world—Kashmir, Iraq, Chechnya, the Balkans, Israel and Palestine, Iraq—you’re staking out the borders of some entity that has vanished from the maps but still thrashes and flails in its effort not to die
(pp. xx-xxi).

As you might have guessed, Ansary gives no easy answers to the question I raised at first. What he does, however, is much more significant. Starting with the civilization that flourished in ancient Mesopotamia and bringing the reader right up to September 11, 2001, the author provides a masterful, engaging overview of Islamic history. He includes, of course, the story of the life of Mohammed, the careers of his successors, the Crusades of Christians from the west and invasions of Mongols from from the east, the complex Ottoman Empire which eventually crumbled, and the rise of modern, secular Islamic states, followed by a conservative reaction, the evidence of which we see today. But beyond that, he explains how the Muslim story impacts and fits into the larger picture called world history. Here and there, Ansary takes the time to explicitly state what his storytelling implies. Here are a few of his most significant points:

First, any credible account of world history will give appropriate space to the story of Islam. And as the author reveals, not only is that story significant, it is also fascinating. Most Westerners would never guess, for example, that in the 13th century Muslims were able make a stand against the invading Mongols by using a prototype gun they called a "hand cannon"; or that when William Shakespeare was writing his plays, the superpowers of the world were three Muslim empires; or that the steam engine was invented in the Islamic world three centuries before its development in the West.

Second, although the West has traditionally ignored Islam, quite often a knowledge of Muslim history sheds light on our well-known western version of world history. A good example of this is the anti-philosophy project taken up by the great Muslim scholar Ghazali. Ansary tells how this man, by all accounts a towering academic, wrote a book explaining the Greek philosophical tradition, giving special attention to Aristotle. In a second book, according to his plan Ghazali set out to dismantle the system he had described in the first book. But, as fate would have it, the first one traveled far and wide, sometimes unaccompanied by the all-important refutation contained in the second. Consequently, and ironically, Ghazali's excellent description of Aristotelian thought led to a boom in its popularity most everywhere the first book was read. Fast forward to more than a century later, when an Italian Dominican priest named Thomas Aquinas set out to square the Church's teaching with Aristotle's philosophy. How many westerners realize that that influential work of Aquinas, which runs to dozens of volumes, owed so much of its inspiration to a Muslim?

Third, the common American notion that Islamic terrorists hate the freedom of the United States is just plain wrong. Contrary to the rhetoric of George W. Bush, for example, those who plan to carry out a literal jihad against the U.S. do not resent the liberty of America. Instead, their rage is directed against what they regard as the boundless decadence and imperialism of the West, especially the United States. Along this line, Ansary relates what has to be one of the great geo-political tragedies of the twentieth century. In August 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency funded the violent ousting of Mohammed Mosaddeq, the recently-elected prime minister of Iran. Mosaddeq, who took a secular modernist approach to governing, looked to be the ideal Muslim leader. However, upon coming to power, he canceled Iran's lease with British Petroleum and announced that Iran would take control of its oil. As Ansary remarks, "Nice try." Eventually, the world learned that the United States actually sponsored the bloody coup that toppled Mosaddeq. Ansary observes that it would be hard to overstate "the shudder of anger it sent through the Muslim world" (p. 334). Since the end of World War II, the memory of a handful of events like the one just described has convinced a large percentage of the world's Muslims that the United States is, again, not only morally decadent, but hopelessly imperialistic.

Fourth, when the West and the Muslim world address each other, their messages almost always miss the target. The two sides often speak past, rather than with each other. Ansary explains: One side charges "You are decadent." The other side retorts, "We are free." These are not opposing contentions; they're nonsequiters. Each side identifies the other as a character in its own narrative. In the 1980s, Khomeini called America "the Great Satan," and other Islamist revolutionaries have echoed his rhetoric. In 2008, Jeffrey Herf, a history professor at the University of Maryland, suggested that radical Islamists are the Nazis reborn, motivated at core by anti-Semitism and hatred of women. It's a common analysis. (p. 350).

Fifth, although Islam certainly is a religion, comparable to other religions like Hinduism and Christianity, it is many more things than that. Ansary says that Islam is also "a social project," belonging to the same category as communism, parliamentary democracy, and fascism. One can also think of Islam as a civilization, in the same class as Chinese, Indian, or Western civilization. And, Islam can also be seen "as one world history among many that are unfolding simultaneously, each in some way incorporating all the others" (p. 356).

To summarize, in Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary has presented the English-speaking world with an understanding of the sweep of history--and, therefore, an understanding of the way things are--from an Islamic point of view. By doing that, he has opened up a door that can lead at least "our side" towards a much-needed mutual tolerance. Anyone who wants to understand Islam and how it relates to world history and the present situation should read this book.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Theology "On the Beach" (1959)

Stanley Kramer’s haunting film On the Beach takes place in the aftermath of a world-wide nuclear war. It is early 1964, and the superpowers have unloaded their atomic arsenals against each other. For reasons that the film partially explains, only Australia has been spared. But the experts who understand global wind currents predict that deadly fallout will arrive within a few short months. The movie tells a story about life lived out under conditions that are, to say the least, historically unique: humanity’s complete self-destruction.

The first sequence of the film introduces its American main character, Captain Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck). The U.S.S. Sawfish, a submarine, has survived the war. The ship was at sea during the attacks and has now made its way to the only known safe spot in the world. Captain Towers has brought the Sawfish into port and soon places the ship and its crew under the command of the Royal Australian Navy. There is no more U.S. Navy.

The captain’s Australian liaison is Lieutenant Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins), a young married man with an infant daughter. Holmes and his pretty wife, Mary (Donna Anderson), decide to introduce Captain Towers to Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), a beautiful rich girl who spends most of her time going from one party to the next, always drinking too much. Who better to entertain the captain and help him to not dwell on his lost wife and children? A romantic relationship begins to develop. Nonetheless, Towers continues to speak of his family as though they are still alive and that he has a future with them.

Soon an Australian admiral decides that the Sawfish should go on a mission to the North Pacific to visit the West Coast of the United States. At least some scientists are convinced that the Arctic region may be a safe environment. Only a trip there will tell. But the expedition finds that radiation levels in the Arctic Ocean are extremely high. San Francisco shows no sign of life. And a random beeping in San Diego turns out to be nothing more than a telegraph machine attached to a string on a window shade blowing in the deadly breeze. There's not one reason for hope.

Utterly dejected, the crew returns to Australia to live out their last few days. One of them, a scientist named Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire), competes in a deadly car race and takes the checkered flag. Dwight, who now accepts the loss of his family, takes Moira to a fishing resort where they spend a romantic night together. Within days, people begin to experience radiation sickness, and the public lines up outside of hospitals to receive government-issue suicide pills.

Back at home, the Australian lieutenant finds his wife beside herself. Once he is able to calm her down, the two of them share a tender moment. The crew of the Sawfish votes to return to the United States. Captain Towers would prefer to stay in Australia and die in Moira’s arms. But following the path of duty to the bitter end, he sails away with his homesick men, going down with the ship as it were.


To the extent that it takes up religious questions, On the Beach does so in an interesting way. There's a scene near the end—which, in this movie, means the conclusion of human history—that ironically portrays listless members of the Salvation Army conducting what amounts to an End-of-the-World service. (I'm guessing they didn't take up a collection). As if to suggest that humanity will never tire of its militaristic impulse, the band is heard to play “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Above the stage, strung between two poles is a huge banner that reads, “There is Still Time . . . Brother.” But the movie takes this appeal to prepare for the hereafter, and dramatically reinterprets it.

Before he boards the Sawfish for the last time, Captain Towers stands on the dock and holds Moira who tearfully says him, “There isn’t time. No time to love . . . nothing to remember . . . nothing worth remembering.” The message is clear: the Salvation Army’s banner appeals to a traditional religious understanding of reality that no longer commands assent. To temporal, sensual, truly-alive humanity, represented by all of the main characters, there’s no time for things like making love, sharing a meal, and delighting in children. Life, which means racing cars, going to the beach, drinking port, and growing old together, is no more. The emphatic ending of the movie shows the banner once more. This time the viewer knows its true meaning. Until a nuclear war breaks out, citizens of the world still have time to do whatever they can to try to prevent it. The unmistakable message of the film is that full-scale nuclear war will unspeakably and forever end the wonder of living. This, and not God, represents the good that human beings should treat as their ultimate concern. With the arrival of nuclear technology that has the potential to destroy human life, God has been upstaged. He no longer has the whole world in his hands. We do. And your brother? That's not your co-religionist, but every other person on the planet. Because of its unique dangers, the nuclear age requires the utmost in devotion and vigilance.