December 16, 2006

Is there an Islamic Centre? A Cautious Thought offered.

One of the problems in analysing developments within the Middle East has been separating out the strands of political ideologies that we are looking at. Looked at from afar an easy division between good secularist and bad islamist movements is possible but as soon as you get closer the divisions cease to work as well as a tool to understand what is happening in the Middle East. I am no expert and this article is as much a call for knowledge as it is a statement of fact, but one of the crucial issues that seems forgotten in most discussion of political Islam is the way that politics and other religions have fused and sustained democracy. Unless Islam is significantly and crucially different then it too may have the potential, indeed may be realising the potential as I write, of doing precisely that.

The Middle East in this sense is a place in which only the extremely acute outside observer should make quick judgements- and I claim no such status. But there are some factors that we ought to consider in our analysis of the region that are worthy of at least thinking through. The Middle East is filled with regimes which with notable exceptions are dictatorial- they are founded upon military power and they maintain themselves through the classic instruments of torture, oppression and propaganda. Such regimes as Syria's or Saudi Arabia's might fall easily into this category. Others like Turkey have an imperfect democracy and between the Turkish imperfection and the Syrian despotism lie all sorts of controlled democracies or even franchise enriched dictatorships (a lovely euphemism) from Iran's experiment with theocratically vetted elections to Jordan's with monarchically controlled elections. That background is indispensible to understanding the complexity of the Islamic movements that we face within the region.

But it also leads to distortion, because if we assume that all Islamic oppositions are the same, then we may fall into the trap of thinking that either they are all benign movements of liberation or that they are all fundamentalist movements of obscurantism. According this article from Al Ahram Weekly, we should complicate this vision. Khalil El-Anani argues that there is an emergeant Islamic centre if you like which whilst it bows to the politics of Allah also worships the deities of impartial law and democratic elections. In some sense what he describes is not a million miles away from the view that Tariq Ramadan offers western European Muslims, that Islamic engagement in the modern world is to be conceptualised as within the domain of a witness to timeless truths and is therefore compatible with secular democracy. Ramadan's argument about witness attacks a view like Said Qutb's that there are no alternatives between a fully Islamic state and a pagan state that all Muslims must oppose. Ramadan offers a middle path whereby Islamic democrats can use the principles of their religion within a democratic and secular polity to inform public policy, that seems to be something similar to the model of what El-Anani calls a new Muslim Centre.

El-Anani's view of the way that some within Arab politics consider the world receives some support from other sources. His claims about the parties he mentions are substantiated, in the case of the Jordanian Islamic Centre and in the case of the Tunisian Al Nahda party which split on the precise issue of its relation to democracy and secular law. His broader view of the trends within the Middle East has also found support- for example take this article by Par Amr Hamzawy which comes to similar conclusions but mentions a slightly different list of parties as included within the phenomena.

In many ways these Islamic movements fit within societies in which the predominate method of criticising often corrupt leaderships and expressing nationalism rests within a political language that can't be divorced from its Islamic context. Like for instance Catholicism in Eastern Europe under communism, identification with an Islamic nationalism has become an alternative to identification with the regime's promotion of secular nationalism. As Olivier Roy has commented at length in a lecture this kind of politics is one that is steadily becoming more and more important within the Islamic world. I myself have discussed both Professor Roy's lecture lecture and what I think is a related phenomena whereby strict religious behaviour and an identification with incorruptability become crucial aspects of politics within such societies, points I mean to develop over the coming months. The linguistic opportunities offered by Islam as a means of criticising leaderships who seem seduced by luxury don't mean that Islam is neccessarily incompatible with either law or democracy- in a sense as El-Anani argues these movements attempt to separate modernity from Western Christian ideas and provide it with an Islamic base. As Roy has argued, the new mutation in political Islam in the Middle East (interestingly he extends it to other regions too) is the move to allying Islam to nationalism.

Obviously there are questions and problems about this. One for example is with whether such a movement can encompass the pluralism of a genuine democracy. El-Annani's article demonstrates this: with its absolutist rejection of the West and consequently of perceived imperialism. The issues that Farish Al Noor sketches out in his article about Malaysia are issues which all Muslim movements will eventually have to face as their countries come to grips with the dilemmas of living with minorities- especially recently immigrated or even converted minorities. There is also the problem of description- I have no doubt that members of these movements stand further towards Qutb than Ramadan. Nor do I doubt another significant problem which is that a decision to use religious language to describe politics, inevitably risks the kinds of sectarian divisions that say were frequent in early twentieth century Europe.

Having said all that, this is a fascinating phenomenen and one that I do not see covered at all in analyses of the Middle East. Maybe I am too credulous of reports in Al Ahram as in other places, but the backing of experts like Sivan makes me think that I'm not. We must acknowledge that the Middle East is incredibly complicated and the ways that Islam plays into the political arena are also complicated- we must not go down the road of seeing every Islamist as a fundamentalist- there may be Rick Santorums in the Middle East whose motivations are Islamic but whose means are democratic. I don't profess expertise in this area- and some of the judgements in this article are no doubt wrong- but the sense that there might be a space whereby the language of politics, which in so much of the world is Islamic could also support moderate democratic governments I think is right.

I have to say though that I advance this thesis with the maximum of caution, I am ignorant and don't have the language skills to do more than that and would welcome somebody who comes along and disagrees based on better information. This is if you like the first draft of an idea which I hope to redraft several times- maybe hundreds of times.

I should note petulantly that I tried to publish an earlier and better version of this article but Blogger in its wisdom wiped my first attempt- so this is if you like the reheated version and I attribute all infelicities to that fact!

History Carnival

This is perhaps the most innovative witty linking of links together I've seen- its also a fantastic group of historical posts- can I endorse it any more? No, go and look.

December 15, 2006

Carnival Time

Right guys- two great collections of posts up- one the carnival of cinema over here is a favourite from this blog, though I don't have a post in this week, too many books and too few films, having said that my absense has made no impact and there is still a great collection of posts this week on it- and the Carnival against Sexual Violence which includes a post from here this week and lots of other good posts against rape and other sexual violence. Enjoy both.

Democracy and Economic Growth in China and the Third World

Prospect hosts a very important discussion this week (brought to my attention by the Granite Studio) between Meghnad Desai and Will Hutton about the rise of Chinese capitalism and how sustainable it is. The discussion deviates along many lines- Hutton accusing Desai of ignoring any criticism of third world regimes and Desai accusing Hutton of failing to see that the West adopted enlightenment when it could pay the price. The debate is fascinating and no doubt a variation of it will occupy intellectuals and blogs in the future. I do think though that its worth setting out our terms more clearly- there is a confusion in the Hutton-Desai debate which is worth clarifying and I want to do so here- there are two issues which they conflate.

Basically on the one hand there is the issue of the right of Westerners to attack other societies for their lack of public morality and the right of those other societies to respond to Western attacks by pointing to Western history. Questions about the role of imperialism in Western history and the role of imperialism in the third world's history, questions about whether the West owns democracy or whether its a universal value are important and are discussions worth having.

Secondly there is the issue of whether what we might describe as public morality (ie democracy, human rights etc) is a necessary accompanyment to growth and stability. Whether systems which encourage these things aren't merely moral but prudential as well? Whether for instance China's rise might be stopped by its lack of democratic institutions, whereas India's slower rise might be more sustainable because of the presence of those institutions?

I'm not going to try to answer these questions here- I don't have the space but they are separate questions and unless we are going to get very confused in the future, we ought to treat them as separate concerns, deserving separate answers.

Margaret at the New Statesman

The New Statesman today carries a very confusing interview with Margaret Beckett, the British Foreign Secretary. Beckett's tenure at the Foreign Office has not yet been particularly illustrious- but similarly to her earlier Ministerial roles neither has she done anything seriously wrong. Her reputation as a governmental pair of safe hands- a female Alistair Darling- and as a longtime Labour loyalist, John Smith's deputy et al, has not been diminished by her new office. But her interview shows that whereas Beckett's reputation remains as constant as ever, there are problems at the heart of British foreign policy at the moment.

Simply put the interview is an intellectually tired effort. When challenged, Beckett fails to make an intellectually consistent case- on anything from India's nuclear bomb to Iraq, what we can see in her struggles is a government whose foreign policy is reduced now to what happens and what exists. Take India, Beckett argues that India doesn't need to be censured because it never signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty- something that prompts one to think that it is now British foreign policy to reward countries that don't sign that treaty! She seems unsure whether an Indian bomb is safer than say an Iranian because of the presence of a democratic government, something that reveals her as not fully signed up to the neoconservative project. What she is fully signed up to is the idea that 9/11 changed the world. Beckett aparantly might have been a member of CND as late as 2000, but beleives now that the world is too full of threats for us to abandon the deterrant. Again the floppiness of the thinking is remarkable, afterall what changed on September 11th was merely that terrorism became a reality, not that the threat of terrorism became a reality.

Again Beckett's interview lacks a strategic sense of where the world is headed at the moment. The discussion of Iraq is within the confines of Ministerial orthodoxy- that things might be better than they seem and that we can't comment on US internal politics. The discussion of the prewar invasion is again merely orthodox. There is no discussion of what reaching out to Syria and Iran might mean- abandoning Lebanon, nuclear weapons? Furthermore there is no discussion of Palestine. The one serious important issue that Beckett raises is the need to avoid another Rwanda in Darfur- but the issue is again fudged. Does that mean the UK will press at the UN for troops to be committed? The Foreign Secretary beleives there is no point fighting in, all she can promise is sanctions- and again this reader was left frustrated. Sanctions seem to be the method of choice and yet sanctions were precisely what the Prime Minister told us couldn't work in Iraq to stop WMD or human rights abuses- will they work in the Sudan? The silence echoes.

This is an interview therefore as remarkable for what it doesn't say about British foreign policy as for what it does. One gets the sense that sending an old stager like Beckett, a woman who can keep foreign affairs quiet to King Charles Street, is the move of a tired government. How far we have come since Robin Cook vowed to have an ethical foreign policy in 1997? This is slightly unfair of course- Beckett is in a difficult position, with a policy in Iraq that is hard to defend. But we are still looking at a government whose foreign policy shall never be in the glad confident morning again, rather with this foreign secretary policy seems to be shrinking towards an evening of expectation with grand ambitions now turned into the common currency of every day survival.

The question for Gordon Brown is of course whether he can rejuvenate a government that is running out of steam and beggining to get so caught in the detail of defending its policies, that its losing a sense of direction- at least in foreign affairs- that question might be answered if his Foreign Secretary can answer questions better than the present incumbent in twelve months time.

December 14, 2006

Letter writing campaigns work to free Political Prisoners

At least according to Michael Ledeen. I've disagreed with Mr Ledeen in the past particularly over Middle Eastern policy- but its interesting here that he highlights letter writing campaigns by groups like Amnesty (if you want to go to them there is a link on the sidebar). I'd like to see some actual statistics on this though and despite a search on the internet wasn't able to find any.

December 13, 2006

Christian Embassy

The agency Christian Embassy is an organisation in the United States which provides Bible readings and prayer readings for members of Congress, Presidential appointees and people in the Pentagon. I have talked before about the clash of languages between Liberalism and a militant Christianity here. Christian Embassy seems to be yet another example of a clash of languages between two sets of people- a clash which undermines the very terms and concepts that we use in discussing the world.

This promotional video (in two parts on YouTube here and here) makes perfectly clear exactly why Christian Embassy makes people who aren't evangelical Christians worry. Christian Embassy members throughout the video talk about how they use their faith to guide policy, how when you elect a member the decisions he takes are based on his faith, how a Congressman going to Ethiopia doesn't bring religion with him but the saving grace of Jesus Christ, how servicemen in the Pentagon meet privately with each other to pray and how important it is for military leaders not only to be good commanders but to be men of God. All of these principles can be good Christian principles- all of them look exceptionally intolerant of the outside world to those within that outside world. All of this it could be argued fits under the principle of the freedom of association for all members of society in any organisation that they wish- and despite the fact I agree with that principle there are worrying ways in which the language that is used in this group seems to have embedded in it a conceptual aparatus of superiority.

This whole matter was brought to my attention by this article in Salon. The language of the article is hysterical but the point is there underneath that language that what Christian Embassy is is something that could easily slip from bible study to cabal. There is a very real sense that this upfront religiosity and intolerance of arguments that don't stem from religion- what one colonel calls an old fashioned American understanding based on family and God- is fiercely intolerant of any other approach to the world. So intolerant that it does not even acknowledge it but talks past anyone that isn't a Christian, that isn't within the free masonry of evangelicism. The interviewee on Salon for questioning this group and feeling unloved within the military thanks to his Jewish faith has been answered with anti-semitic rhetoric and death threats.

How serious this all is I have no idea and my sense is that most members of Christian Embassy go to it like they would go to a church. Most of its function I would have thought could be absorbed within the right of freedom of association- afterall there is nothing wrong with people attending whatever services they like. But an evangelicism which argues purely with itself, that treats people who aren't evangelicals with the condescension of those knowing a mysterious truth to those without special knowledge is an evangelicism that cannot sit easily in a republic that proscribes deliberately no religious test for its membership. Christian Embassy is probably less important than the alarmists would have you beleive- America is no Iran- but neither should denying the fact that America is a fundamentalist dictatorship or admitting the fact that other countries have problems exclude consideration of whether this kind of rhetoric, this kind of talking past other groups and peoples in society, isn't difficult for peoples of other faiths and atheists to accomodate to, when those expressing it hold government office.

The Cosmopolitans of Medieval China

Rightly there is a good post over here which points out that China has always been a cosmopolitan and open place- many of the links on the Asian history carnival I posted yesterday would back that up. The author at Granite Studio provides some good evidence of Chinese openness and the way that would indicate that China has never been this hermetically sealed place that people imagine it to be- the interesting thing is how more and more historical research posits that we have more in common than we have as differences. As we discover more about the ancient and medieval world, we discover more links binding civilisations together.

We can use civilisations to explain each other. That the Fall of Rome which I referred to in my last post was not inevitable is proved by the fact that a similar empire survived similar pressures in the East- China maybe was more lucky than Rome was but its example proves that Rome might have survived. Equally China has for years as in Erik Ringmar's work on giraffes- see the Asian Carnival below- formed an interesting comparitor for European development. Recent studies of Chinese modernisation have argued convincingly that Chinese intellectuals as far back as the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1735-1796) looked to Europe. European intellectuals in the eighteenth century also looked to China and more and more will in the future look to China.

The world of Samuel Huntington with the inevitable conflict of civilisations was described by Bernard Henri-Levy on Radio 4 as really rather stupid and actually rather disgusting recently- seldom has a judgement been more appropriately true than Henri-Levy's on Huntington and the Granite Journal makes that clear in his post on Chinese openness.

Bryan Ward Perkins The Fall of the Roman Empire

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has been the subject of more historical monographs than possibly any other historical issue. Thoughts about it have ranged impressively from the implausible to the impossible (at some times even to the inedible food the Romans might have consumed). Great historians and philosophers from Montesquieu and Gibbon to Momigliano have tackled the question and come to various answers. Part of the problem is the geographical extent of the empire- from the Euphrates in the East to the Atlantic in the West, from Scotland in the North to the Sahara in the South and the geographical extent that any historian wishing to understand its fall needs to master- the rumblings which brought down the Romans may have started as many as three centuries before the fall of Rome in wars conducted in Northern China.

Facing such a massive project, providing as Bryan Ward-Perkins, an Oxford historian, seeks to do an explanation and account of what this event meant is something almost impossible to do. Ward Perkins rightly stresses the elements of contingency in the destruction of the West Roman state- at various points the West Romans could have succeeded in stopping the barbarion advance but because of bad luck or bad decisions failed to do so. His tale is one of the sudden erosion of a tax base upon which a proffessional army depended- every invasion by a barbarion army to acquire a piece of the empire left the empire weaker than before to respond to the next one. Particularly significant was the crossing of the meditereanean by the Vandals in 429AD and their conquest of the province of Africa: Africa had been the hinterland of the Western Empire, supplying the rest of it with tax revenues and grain, once it had fallen to barbarion depredations- there was no area of the West that was not a frontier and not under pressure.

From there on, Ward Perkins supplies a narrative of collapse. His barbarions invaded in order to acquire the fruits of economic sophistication- to join the Roman system. They actually ended up destroying it. The economy never recovered its vitality or sophistication and as it lurched into the seventh century, various areas in the West had regressed to a level of sophistication last seen in the Bronze Age. The archaeological evidence presented is definitely impressive- from the fall off in pottery production, to the loss of trade networks, the end of graffitti and the end of the tiled roof, what Ward Perkins indicates is a massive loss in living standards for the European population. Based on the record, he also infers a loss in population concommitant with that- though as the population left fewer material artifacts the exact loss can't be quantified.

Ward Perkins's book is definitely a useful corrective to anyone who argues that the decline of the Western Empire was a painless transition. As in a joint interview with Peter Heather (who has also written a recent book about Rome which will be referred to later and which I read just before beggining this blog) he muses- the main thrust of the book's argument is to concentrate upon this perspective. Ward Perkins shows what happened to the Roman empire after the invasion of the barbarians was horrible- the decline in economic sophistication was mirrored in his view by mass confiscations of land and ethnic tensions that persisted for at least a couple of generations.

This book like all books about Rome is limited by its viewpoint. We are seeing the Roman empire from the West, most recent scholarship has concentrated on the East of the empire and in particular the Levant and Egypt, Ward Perkins therefore is a useful corrective. But anyone who hasn't read say Peter Brown's Word of Late Antiquity ought to supplement this book with it, the story of the empire was a story of Constantinople as well as Rome. Again the empire's destruction involved other peoples. Peter Heather, referred to above, in his account concentrates far more on outside the empire to explain what happened. If Ward Perkins makes sense of how the empire collapsed- the loss of tax revenue- then Heather has a much more interesting account of why. Heather postulates that the West was denuded of troops to meet the growing Persian threat in the East and that just as in Byzantium with the Islamic invasions, so in Rome with the German the Empire was caught out by the swift development of peoples outside the empire. The Goths the Romans faced in the fourth century were a much more sophisticated people than the Germans they had faced in the 1st Century.

Ward Perkins's vista therefore is limited to an interior view of the Western Empire. His other limit is that there is very little cultural history here- again this is a useful corrective to histories which have prioritised the cultural in recent years. But in order for a general reader to get a sense of what the Roman empire's collapse felt like to the average Roman, it is well worth reading about the role of saints, the importance of the Church and growing internecine conflict between Christians and pagans that continued through fourth century.

Despite this, what Ward Perkins has provided us with is an up to date and sophisticated account of the impact on the West Roman empire of the barbarion invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries- this is an excellent book. It has its limitations but there are few books about Rome which don't- what it does is capture the importance of the networks of economic sophistication in the ancient meditereanean and the speed of collapse once they were removed. One can almost feel the shock of specialised workers as their industries closed thanks to lack of trade and they were forced back onto the land to work as ordinary farmers- this loss and destruction of specialisation is one that haunts a modern society which is even more specialised than the Roman.

Having said that, the situation in the Roman empire remains unique to it. As Edward Gibbon commented at the end of the 18th Century there are plenty of reasons to argue that there is no sdubstantive barbarion threat today- the more immediate threats to our civilisation lie not in the Hunnic horseman but in the nuclear weapon. Having said that if Ward Perkins's account of the Roman collapse describes the effect of a prolonged disruption of trade routes upon the ancient Meditereanean accurately, then we should beware any disruption in our global trade from either nuclear calamity or even protectionist impulse.

This is though not a book about politics but a book about history and its worth bearing in mind how contingent Rome's fall was. As a book about that fall it is a superb reconstruction of what happened in the West, and provides a useful corrective to current historiography- its worth though remembering that this subject is so big that it overflows the confines of any recent book and even from my paltry knowledge I would reccomend at least reading Brown and Heather to supplement the view here. This book was intended after all to supplement their views- and in doing that it succeeds.

December 12, 2006

Privacy and Databases

Lord Ashcroft's report about the information commissioner's response to his queries about the use of the police database is worrying. According to Lord Ashcroft's report there were roughly 5,000 breaches of the data protection act and 11,000 possible breaches. A private detective firm carried out work for its clients to get this information off the police computers and then they used it for their own purposes.

Most of this information was used by the press to embarass people, some was used by insurance companies, but this should make us all think hard about extending the remit of those databases to things like identity cards. If they were so easily breached before by agents of the press, with more information on them, could they be breached by others whose intention wasn't say so benign!

(I should note I got this story from Iain Dale whose digging yet again does him credit.)


One of the pleasures of a Tuesday or Saturday is attending to James Higham's Blogfocus, James has a great eye for a good blog post and a good eye for how a series would fit together- today is no exception!

Asian History Carnival

This blog has the honour this month of hosting the Asian History Carnival- and honour it is. I am not an Asian historian though I am a historian and have been shocked by the sheer quality and quantity of writing about Asia out there on the net- we have for you today all kinds of history, from the longue duree to the tightly focused study, from contemporary history to ancient history, representatives from every geographical area, Russia, China, Japan, India, South East Asia they are all represented here. We have all kinds of article, many different types of issue and history. There isn't as much medieval history as I'd like and not as much ancient history- my digging was obviously not good enough- but what there are are some of the best articles on the web about history I've read.

So to begin let's take in those parts of Asia and topics which few of us think about much if at all- Kazakhstan has unusually been in the news thanks to Borat recently- more interestingly though Ben at NewEurasia suggests it might have been amongst the first places to domesticate horses. Despite the prominence of Iraq in the News, the Kurds seem yet again to be ignored, something that R.D. Gasti at Ahuyevashi has tried to resist with this fantastic post about Kurdish nationalism. The Kazakhs and the Kurds are at least sometimes heard of by most of us, but as for the Tatars never- something that Garth Trinkl is keen to redress at his blog Renaissance Research. Coming closer to traditional history, but still as a society within a society, largely impervious to historical study we find the Assassins- a useful introduction to them is provided over at the World History Blog by Miland.

The other thing that we all tend to underrate when it comes to the history of various countries and continents is the importance of cultural exchange and comparative history. Well luckily the bloggers have been busy again. Alan Baulmer takes time out at Frog in a Well to remind us how Chinese ruling families have been attracted by other civilisations and even religions. Stephen Zavestoski notes at the Curious Stall that how present day Americans find inspiration from Indian TV heroes (ok its not history but it fits the theme). Dave and Stefan wonder about American interraction with Asia more generally- they use comparisons of Japan and China's contacts with the West in the nineteenth century to come to some interesting conclusions about why the countries have different attitudes to the US today. Comparative history has gone through a boom this month- Erik Ringmar is thinking about the reception of giraffes in China and in Europe and what it says about colonialism, I've criticised some of his conclusions here. Ringmar's work and the work of Tonio Andrade on Taiwanese and Dutch colonialism form the basis of this meditation on the differences between Chinese and European colonial policies. Colonialism is only one way for societies to interract though: as the Mutant Frog records here by showing the first attempted adoption from China to the US. That contact may have proved abortive, but the experience of Japanese prisoners in Kazakhstan during the second world war was as Leila shows at Neweurasia very genuine.

Contact leads to communication and there has been a real discussion this month in the blogosphere about the way that Asia and the West communicate with each other. Kotaji points out based on a translated Korean article the difficulties of applying simplistic models of Stalinism from the past to the present in the case of North Korea. Mohammed Fadel is also irritated by Western misinterpretations of the East and comes to the defence of Edward Said's orientalism, pointing out how Said's theory improved studies of early Islamic law. Adam Valve is also unhappy, he can't find Martin Amis's analysis of Russia or of Islam convincing. Using Asian history as a resource for Western politics or identity has always been common though, Morgan Pitelka brings a fascinating new light to this with a small collection of photographs of Japan taken by American GIs in 1951. G. Willow Wilson though isn't so unhappy, she finds solace in a group of thinkers who she thinks were genuinely open to Indian influence in the later Raj. Over at the Sepia Mutiny western intellectual trends specifically the economics of Milton Freidman are being used to analyse Indian economic development.

If the West has a political interest in Asian history, then so do many within the continent and a fair number of bloggers have picked up this month on examples of this. Xiaode for instance discusses how China is looking back at the mid nineties from the perspective of today and what the comparrison says about Modern China. The anonymous Qing historian looking at the Chinese papers sees more though, he sees the the modern Chinese start to reinterpret their history, thinking not about decline but about the restoration of the ancient Chinese empire. Any instability in Eastern Asia though is dwarfed at present by the instability in Western Asia- Juan Cole on his blog carries a link to a radio program he did about Shia and Sunni historical tensions in Iraq. Tensions within civilisations and regions are at least as strong as tensions from them to the outer world- Pass the Roti shows how those tensions can have a real impact on the evidence of the past that we have, leading to the destruction of ancient monuments in India. That wouldn't come as a surprise to Synchroni-Cities, for him ruins in a city like Delhi, can be the only indications left of past suffering and trauma.

Away from such gloomy notes of forboding and memories of destruction, away, let us merely revel in the past. I have a passing weakness for the history of crime- well Dave and Stefan fill that need by providing evidence of the plot discovered by James Legge amongst others to use the drains of Hong Kong to attack the city's infrastructure in the 19th Century. If you prefer less vicious enjoyment, then why not come over and read the Mutant Frog about the First Car introduced to Japan. Ah but don't get complacent because those boys at Blogging Walk the Talk, Dave and Stefan will bring you right down again with the tale of Eu Tong-Sen, the Hong Kong millionaire, his houses, mistresses, children, legal squabbles and atrocities committed during World War Two. Away from stories of murders, millionaires and cars, its worth considering with Alan Baumler at Frog in a Well the intellectual lineage of modern Asian society- in particular the teacher who framed Mao Tse Tung and other leading communists' ideas about the world.

Intellectual history becomes a bit of a trend as soon as we look at the blogosphere's contributions to knowledge about the old and famous Asian civilisational centres this month. Chandrahas one of my favourite literary bloggers, takes the time to consider and quote the exquisite poetry of the Turkish poet Orhan Veli Kanik. At Chinalyst, they too are interested in intellectual history, over there Absurd fool considers in a deeply thought through essay what relevance the concepts of humanism and enlightenment have to Chinese history. At the Qahwa Sada, the authors (academics concerned with the Middle East) are more interested with the structures of Saudi oil production and the way that the Americans have exploited it over the years. Garret Johnson wants us to think about Russian democracy and the events of 1991 all over again as a way to explain present problems. Jonathan Dresner (the onlie begetter of this carnival) is also concerned with the longue duree, he wants us to look at Pearl Harbour as the end of a process of American Japanese relations stretching back to Commodore Perry. What Jonathan wants to do for American Japanese relations, Professor Cutler does every day for the contemporary Middle East, thinking about politics in an incredibly historical way, look for example at this post about the Middle East, the Democrats and the tensions in the region. Moving back to culture, Abu Sahajj reminds us of how different various cultures are, by thinking about how we define a Japanese geisha. The Axis of Evil Kneivel though reminds us that no matter what our cultural peculiarities there are some tragedies that all of us can empathise with across our boundaries, he brings up the horrible case of the disaster in a factory in Bhopal.

Its a rather grim note to end upon- but this carnival attests to some of the richness of the blogosphere concerning Asian history that's out there. Blog after blog is filled with interesting ideas, novel facts and good thought about this vast continent and impressive history- I've learnt a hell of a lot from collating these entries- so everyone keep writing. More than that submit your articles to the next Asian history chronicle and volunteer to host, its great fun- and I hope its fun to read these links!

LATER Typically I left off the list a crucial link- for all Asian historians and wannabe Asian historians (the category I fit into!) this is a link to the Carnival Homepage itself where you can volunteer to submit articles and also to host one of these carnivals- honestly its great fun, not too difficult and you will come across some truly wonderful writing.

December 11, 2006

A Woman in Berlin: A diary of the fall of the Nazi Regime

In 1945 German resistance to the Russians, British and Americans finally collapsed. It was the Russians who reached Berlin first, arriving in the capitol in late April and early May 1945. What then followed has become well known in the last couple of years. Going by Anthony Beevor's estimates its assumed that around 2 million women were raped in 1945 by the invading Russian forces, that figure includes Poles and Russian women who were with the Russian army. In Berlin the figure was somewhere between 95,000 and 130,000 women, many of them raped several times, many of them gang raped. The explanations for this orgy of sexual violence have been found in the trauma of the Soviet soldier, who had both come through the killing fields of the Eastern Front, the most vicious front of the most vicious war in human history, and who had earlier endured the long reign of Stalinist terror at home. When added to the 6 million Jews, who contrary to Iranian propaganda, were slaughtered in the Holocaust, the millions of soldiers dieing on each front, the massacres in China and the gulags in Russia, these rapes seem like a final installment in the chronicle of horror unleashed on Eurasia by the German and Russian dictatorships.

Understanding though the specific details of each victim that we can elucidates the status of every victim. Instead of feeling statistics, we can start to feel pain. The pain of the rapes that happened over Germany in 1945 struck very deep and this diary of a woman journalist brings that out. The anonymous diary titled A woman in Berlin conveys something of what it felt to be a woman alive in Berlin as the Soviet men rolled through. The grim humour, better one woman jokes a Russki on top than a Yank overhead, echoes throughout a tale that is filled with repeated atrocity. This is a chronicle of unreleived sexual violence. She is raped by soldiers, officers, gangraped by groups of Russians and lives in perpetual fear. Her friends too endure massive hardship- one nineteen year old girl was raped by three different soldiers one after the other, then she had marmalade smeared into her hair and coffee grains scattered over her face. The repetitive nature of the violence offered numbs the senses, but its the physical details which shocked me again and again, take for instance this description of a rape:

The one shoving me is an older man with grey stubble, reeking of alcohol and horses. He carefully closes the door behind him, and not finding any key, slides the wing chair against the door. He seems not even to see his prey, so that when he strikes she is all the more startled as he knocks her onto the bedstead. Eyes closed, teeth clenched. No sound. Only an involuntary grinding of teeth when my underclothes are ripped apart. The last untorn ones I had. Suddenly his finger is on my mouth, stinking of horse and tobacco. I open my eyes. A stranger's hands expertly pulling apart my jaw. Eye to eye. Then with great deliberation he drops a gob of gathered spit into my mouth

It isn't pleasant to read, I assure you it isn't pleasant to write, even though all I'm doing is copying it out of a book, but how much worse to have experienced that again and again and again. The book takes us through the journey of someone who suffers repeatedly in this way- it changes the woman and it changes her friends. It gives them for a start a kind of collective identity as women and a collective despair with men. As they queue up once stability is restored to collect ration books and get jobs, the chat amongst the women is of how many times they've been raped and how they will deal with their husbands about it. Fears of sexual disease and pregnancy also proliferate- our diarist notes that conversation became coarser, that things unmentionable before became mentionable. And also running throughout is another theme, that the experience changed completely her and other women's reactions to men. The fear created lasted long after authority was restored- she notes that when she goes out in the evening, she never sees women. Also in her eyes, men become diminished, parasites or rapists. She is unbeleivably, unimaginably fair to many Russians that she meets who don't deal badly with her- I can think of three men she mentions by name- and all three are recorded scrupulously fairly. Very few times does she unleash a generalised hatred despite her experiences of all men or all Russians- a hatred I am sure that lesser mortals such as myself would find easy to slip into. Despite this the psychological damage is emmense and the diary is a record of the damage done even to someone who sought to protect her own personality under enormous stress.

Men being powerless, what we see is that women begin to adapt various survival strategies. Our heroine turns herself into a virtual prostitute, protecting her own building and her partners in her flat by sleeping with Russian officers as they move in and out of Berlin. Her prostitution is exploited by others- most importantly by her male co-lodger who seems to do nothing but eat and complain. The violence of prostitution is also key to this book: our heroine at one point hurts so much bodily that she has to beg her Russian officer to be gentle, but she can't ask him to stop making love to her for fear that then a source of protection and food would fade away. The sense of blissful relief that she evokes when she ends her diary and is able to sleep on her own in her own clean sheets is one of the most powerful images of the whole book- it makes the stretching out of limbs seem like another Eden, a demi paradise.

Coping strategies through this book are emmense- I've mentioned the physical coping strategy of prostitution but she coped in other ways too. She coped in part by becoming numb- time and time again she refers to the need just to keep on living, not to enjoy or appreciate life but just to keep going. Fascinatingly, in a way that illustrates her education, she draws upon that: using images out of Horace, Virgil, Aeschylus, Shakespeare and others to understand her situation. Furthermore filtered through the book are her own memories of her own past- the moment she met a Dutch Jew in Paris, her lover, her first kiss and other moments which she uses to make analogies to present situations, even if depressing analogies. These are her psychological resources.

This is one of the most amazing documents of wartime Europe I have ever read. Beevor thinks that its genuine and I see no reason to doubt that assessment from a leading historian of the period. It is such a rich source. The internalisation of Nazi propaganda is fascinating to see- we deal in this book with a worldly and intelligent woman yet even she is stunned that the Soviets can provide better rations than the Nazis. The speed with which the Germans turned on Adolf is also interesting- she mentions that defeat made people hate the government- look what your Adolf did to us they repeat to one Nazi. The unbeleivable thing though about this diary is its record of continual and terrible atrocity, these women were not killed but they were smashed, violated in the sovereignty of their own persons.

There is one last question that does need addressing whenever one thinks or writes about this kind of subject and that is the nature of German war guilt. I can feel some in my audience twinge at the thought of prioritising the German loss over Jewish and other losses in World War Two. The film Downfall has been criticised for this. This document is different- the German crimes in the war are alluded to, interestingly they are used by a man to dismiss woman's suffering as a fair exchange for the suffering the Germans' committed in the East- an intriguing bargain to say the least and one that made me as a man shiver at the moral complacency of the comment.

But this document does not seek to be a total account- this is a diary and we can't treat it like a history- this is a diary of one woman's experience in Berlin from April to June 1945, it includes what she experienced and not what she didn't. What she describes was a reality of acute suffering and it is just that it becomes part of our record of the war, though it is a mere part. There are of course grim ironies within all this- one couple that she records suffering hugely are a Jewish couple who somehow had managed to survive the Nazi regime by hiding and then on the moment of their release, the man is shot and woman abused. In a further irony, as Linda Grant commented in a Guardian review of the book, these same troops who raped this woman may well have been amongst the troops that liberated Auschwitz. We need to read documents like this- not because they obscure the other suffering of the second world war or the guilt of Germany for inaugurating the Holocaust- but because they illuminate the very nature of suffering itself. This woman, whoever she was, was a casualty of the second world war and her diary gives us an insight into how the victims of that or indeed any conflict feel in their degredation.

The Second World War and its horrors (even the ultimate horror of the Holocaust) are almost cauterised, cleansed by their names, by the statistics, but being brought face to face through three hundred pages with the gashes upon the soul inflicted by repeated rape and gang rape, not to mention prostitution, makes one turn back to all the evil atrocities of the period and suddenly realise they weren't numbers on a scorecard of infamy, but souls tortured, and in many cases murdered. Each person had their own separate individuality and each one suffered in ways we cannot even imagine, to perceive one person's suffering gives us an emmense insight into what that kind of experience is like.

I have failed in my account of how this book effected me and why everyone should read it- like other great works about that most terrible period in European history- like Solzhenitsyn or The Pianist or Primo Levi or indeed many others, it makes you want to cry. The repeated terror both leaves you wishing to comprehend and realising you never will because though you can share the words, you can't share the experience. We live in a world where rape is still too common everywhere. Moreover we live in a world where rape used as atrocity and gang rape used as atrocity like this are still happening, in places in Africa and other areas of the world, and the only thing that I as a male blogger from Europe can do is leave you with a final and to me heartbreaking quotation- this is our diarist reflecting on what she would live for after the war,

When I was young the red flag seemed like such a bright beacon, but there's no way back to that now, not for me; the sum of tears is constant in Moscow, too. And I long ago lost my childhood piety, so that God and the beyond have become mere symbols and abstractions. Should I beleive in progress? Yes to bigger and better bombs. The happiness of the greatest number? Yes for Petka [a rapist] and his ilk. An idyll in a quiet corner? Sure for people who comb out the fringes of their rugs. Possessions, contentment? I have to keep from laughing, homeless urban nomad that I am. Love? Lies trampled on the ground. And were it ever to rise again, I would always be anxious I could never find true refuge, would never again dare hope for permanence. Perhaps Art, toiling away in the service of form? Yes for those that have the calling but I don't. I'm just an ordinary labourer I have to be satisfied with that... What's left is just to wait for the end.

I don't think I really need to add anymore except for the fact that I have failed to do either a tragic period or a tragic book the justice they deserve in these few lines.

Commentary and Neo-Conservatism

Here is a fascinating article about the origins of neo-conservatism which locates its origins within the magazine Commentary. Obviously one magazine could not have started the whole movement- this is not an intellectual history of neo-conservatism. But what it does demonstrate is the importance of an institution to an intellectual movement- Commentary under its editors (like Norman Podhoretz pictured above) was relatively free to publish what its editors choose to publish. Consequently it was a free space in which intellectuals could experiment. Whether magazines like Commentary will be required as much in the future to begin movements of ideas is doubtful- the phenomenen of internet self publishing has changed the ways that political ideas are produced and diffused. But the experience of Commentary in the fifties and its non-exclusive connection to the rise of the right in a separate internationalist analysis of US foreign policy, demonstrates what kind of institutional arrangements were neccessary for intellectual movements to thrive in the twentieth century.

Colbert on Cheney

Stephen Colbert comments on the Mary Cheney affair.

The video has now been taken down by the user at YouTube but is at the Comedy Central Website. Thanks to Not Saussure in the comments for pointing this out to me. Another Colbert fan- the more the better!

Prostitutes in Ipswich

Ellee Seymour on her blog has recently highlighted the deaths of two prostitutes in Ipswich, she has added her voice to those calling for a temporary amnesty for prostitutes in the city so as to enable them to give evidence without fear of arrest. Given that it seems that a third body has now been found, the situation seems even more grave than when Ellee made her call. It seems more likely there may be a serial killer on the loose, targetting prostitutes.

I don't want to get here into the argument for or against criminalisation of prostitution. There are important arguments both for and against, and some of the academic evidence for example about the way that strippers are abused makes one stop and think about what would happen if prostitution were legalised. Having said that prostitution is a self regarding act, or a contractual one, and it is difficult therefore to justify its prohibition. It certainly can't be said to be in the same class as murder and if we were to justify its illegality I wonder whether the criminality of a prostitute is more like the criminality of someone who sells themselves into slavery than that of a murderer. But we must not, whatever we think of that question, believe that prostitutes are anything other than, in the majority of cases, incredibly vulnerable women who live lives of danger and exploitation. By virtue of being prostitutes they do not lose their humanity.

Its impossible to know at this point in time what form this murder inquiry should take without more intimate knowledge of the case or of policing methods, but if an amnesty would be helpful, there is no argument that I can see against granting it temporarily until this bloody murderer or these bloody murderers are caught.

LATER There was a brief item on the Today program this morning which contains some new details. I am no expert in this case but I would reccomend anyone who is interested in this case to go over to Ellee's blog as she has covered this for longer and in much more detail than I have.

M. R. James's warning to the Curious

M.R. James is one of my favourite English writers- he savours very much of the old common room with its editions of scholarly journals, discussions of obscure philosophers of the past and sense of history. He wrote ghost stories in the early part of the twentieth century to be told to the students of King's College Cambridge- a tradition gently mocked and exalted at the same time by Robertson Davies in his collection of ghost stories for Massey College. James's peculiar outlook was a deeply conservative one, he campaigned that women not be admitted to Cambridge as students and seemed irrevocably stuck in the world of collegiate male scholarly mice that he had made for himself.

Like C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkein, his junior contemporaries, his world was that of the single sex Oxbridge College and like their fiction, his never really escapes it- the contrast though is interesting. Whereas Lewis's mental vision of Oxford has descended to the swift parry and counterthrust of polemical debate and Tolkein's vision of male comradeship became almost austerely sentimental or descended into a parody of what was might have been (vide Frodo and Sam), James had a much more intimate feel for that society. Lewis and Tolkein sought to defend it as it failed, James lived through its pomp and so his fiction doesn't defend such a society, it assumes it. Consequently what he writes has an amazing texture, a thickness of description of that world. He was a wandering antiquarian, he didn't need to imagine being one.

What runs through his stories though isn't an overt conservative political outlook but a far more interesting conservative disposition- his stories are about knowledge, its allure and its dangers and particularly the danger of the supernatural- they are often also about a world marginal to most lives at the moment, that of the solitary scholar- most often male- and mostly linked only to other scholars who lives in inns and archives. The Jamesian world is one where academics scarcely exist outside their books, suffused in a glow of dust, they sink to their library chairs and read and read and read.

There is obviously much in James of the romantic period of European thinking. James's ghost stories are conditioned by a Vicoian faith in the nature of humanistic studies. Like some ancient professor of the ars historica in sixteenth century Florence, for James there is little division between that that is old and that that is new. New thinking, whether it be that rationalism he mocks in a tale about witchcraft, the Ash Tree, or whether it be the hectoring tone of a young bully in the Wailing Well, always leads to disaster.

For James, both the rationalist knight in the Ash Tree and the bullying public school boy in the Wailing Well don't understand that ancient wisdom, the wisdom Coke or Burke saw built up over ages, trumps always the wisdom of a single mind. James's view of academia therefore is a worrying one- on the one hand the scholar's task has its fascinations but it also can become dangerous- it can become an instrument of novelty which seeks to open up the past, to reinvent the past. He has an inbuilt respect for those with an uncomprehending intimacy with the past- village elders almost never get things wrong in James.

Take the story of my title- A warning to the Curious. The story is about a crown, one of the crowns of the ancient Kingdom of East Anglia, now long lost. The title points to the theme- the issue is the search for knowledge about the crown and about those who have guarded it. James litters his text with signs of other minds around, other perceptions of reality. Like the good medievalist he was, he shows awareness of convention and style. So for example the scholar in pursuit of the crown finds signs to where it lies by following hints about where the ghost that guards it haunts. He finds seventeenth century verse to remind him about the Ager family that hold the crown, a wonderful styallistic piece of doggerell that fully captures the kind of rawly expressed piety of many in that time. There is a contrast between the local vicar and the locals themselves- James's scholar, like so many through the ages, finds himself in an isolation of education- the vicar alone is able to provide the clue to unlocking the folktale but he is isolated from the Boots of his hotel, the countrymen and women of the village and their wisdom to misdirect him.

There is, and I say this despite the fact its late at night and I can feel the shadows of a Jamesian ghost at my back as I write, no way that a scholar gets bitten back through his research- James may well have believed there was. James, like A.S. Byatt a very different writer in Possession, shows us that scholarship is intrusion. Its the taking over, the reunderstanding of another's life. The physical annexation of the crown is similar to the annexation of William Ager's life that our scholar performs. There is something unsettling about reading documents which noone meant you to read, touching things which were meant only to travel between a couple of people, there is something unsettling about violating the privacy of historical persons that every researcher of the past comes across. That is the novelty that I beleive James beleived was disquieting about scholarship- James was conservative enough to want people to be intimate with their pasts but not wish for prurience.

This most scholarly of writers therefore leaves us a set of ghost stories that are ambivalent about scholarship. Reading James is like reading a dramatisation of the tension between intimacy and prurience- James himself was fascinated by the past, fascinated by past ideas and lives. There is no way that his ghost stories could have been written without that fascination- but ultimately there is no way that his ghost stories could have been written without his worry about the violation of the human beings that he studied. Scholarship became dangerous in James's stories and perhaps in his beliefs because he wanted it to be- because he wanted the past to be the kind of neighbour to the present who could shut the window to the hidden camera, scream at the hidden microphone and kick out the papparazzi of the present.

James's politics are now obscure, the causes at Cambridge for which he battled are thankfully long defeated. But James's real vision never lay in politics, his skill lay dramatising the life of a particular kind of mind, the mind attracted by obscurity, by the particular past and by it with all its curiosities through the medium of the ghost story. He is nostalgic for a lost moment when he beleived we were intimates with our own pasts, but he also acknowledges that the price of such intimacy is a lack of education and for James education trumps it in the end. His village elders may never get things wrong, but they remain one dimensional. It is in the ambivalent depiction of the scholar, an intruder and a violater but also an appreciator of the past, that James excelled.

Go and read his stories, they are some of the most atmospheric and interesting short stories you will ever come across and this frail depiction has not captured either their charm, smooth style or intellectual glow!

(Incidentally there is another nice review of one of James's stories over at Normblog.)

December 10, 2006


Mr Worstall's new britblog is up here with the best of British!

I should also note that Mr Higham's famous blogfocus has returned- it actually did yesterday but lateness in linking is no fault. Its got some good stuff in it. Mr Higham has started a new effort designed to help smaller bloggers- where by we support each other to grow- and has inaugurated the banner defend the blog that you'll see in the links of this blog (its the picture of a knight)- it links back to another website and I'd strongly reccomend anyone that owns a blog to click on it, get the link and join in the fun- and support other blogs. Cheers.

States, Nations and Nationalism

James Higham in his normal acute way has picked up on a current phenomenon in today's world- the fissaporous tendencies of minor nationalisms, whether in Chechnya, Tibet, Scotland or Cyprus which in different ways seem to be breaking up larger states. James argues in his post that what's going on is a breakdown of the conventional state before on the one hand a liberal affection for the minority and on the other the rising power of multinational organisations. On the one hand, government getting closer and on the other government getting further away from us.

He is on to something here. Over the last two centuries, the great imperial states firstly on the continent of Europe, particularly with the destruction of the Napoleonic empire out of which flowed much German nationalistic literature and later in the European empires broke up. In many ways what is happening both in the Middle East and in Russia is a last stage of this- the origins of the war in Iraq lie in the breakdown of Ottoman imperial authority, the wars in Chechnya and the destruction of the Soviet Union were as much the demolition of the unit created by the Tsars as they were of the unit created by Stalin.

Principles of the nationstate- of the creation of what Benedict Anderson has called imagined communities- seem to be something whose political importance has multiplied in the last couple of centuries. Why then does an intelligent observor like Mr Higham see what is happening now as a brief and local phenomenen rather than a very old and enduring aspect of modern politics?

The great nationalist movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries largely reacted against more antique forms of national organisation. In Italy and Germany for example- the creation of a nation state was the product of the forced unification of several small principalities, duchies and bishoprics and the expulsion of the large Habsburg empire. Territorially the unifications didn't result in the loss of much territory either by the Habsburg or the Napoleonic empires though both lost through it but both saw the expulsion of imperial influence from Germany and Italy. Even in Britain, the creation of British nationalism was an anti-imperial movement, against the Bourbon monarchy. Britain likewise was a fusion of various more ancient states.

Over the twentieth century, the creation of nation-states was disrupted by the fifty year crisis of the first and second world wars, during which the frontiers of Europe ebbed and flowed. The main event though in terms of the creation of nation states, took place after 1918 and was a consequence of the weakness of world powers following the first world war. The intrusion of a vast nation-state the US into politics and the destruction of the Romanov, Habsburg, Ottoman and Hohenzollern empires led to the creation of a series of nation states, starting from 1871 a whole series of nation states- Rumania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, even for a while the Baltic states- were created.

This trend of 1918 seems to be the same trend as is going on now. The twentieth century has been a century as Niall Ferguson argues in which empires rise and fall swiftly and at each of the declines of imperial authority, they have been replaced with a range of nation states. Whether we talk about the ebbing of authority after World War One in Eastern Europe, of imperial authority mainly French or British in the third world after World War Two and of imperial Marxist authority in Europe and the republics of the Soviet union in the early 1990s, what replaces it in most cases is a collection of nation states.

What we are seeing now therefore is something that is a long range trend. The first creations of nation states came out of fairly weak smaller countries, during the twentieth century as empires have fallen more swiftly than before, we've seen nation states carved out of the old regime. Mr Higham's analysis is correct, what it demonstrates though is something about the way that power is configured within the modern world which means that imperial authority, a mainstay of political organisation over the millenia of civilisation we have so far seen, has declined.

There are other things going on here- but the way that nationalism has worked during the last two centuries started with the unifying forces tieing smaller states together and then the destructive forces pulling states apart have during the last century become more powerful. What the rise of multinational organisations may demonstrate though is that unificatory forces of identity- like Anti-Americanism- are still powerful. Multinational groupings are replacements possibly in some ways for imperial groupings- China, Europe, NAFTA and even the African Union- represent a new fusion of identity and empire. Their ancient comparitors might be Rome and China- in terms of identities which embraced large numbers of people with more local identities.

This doesn't answer Mr Higham's eloquent post, but I think considering nationalism and the way that we organise the borders of states and how that's shifted and continues to shift is an interesting subject, this post is no final word but it presents some thoughts which I admit are mostly unsustainable generalisations.