Reviewed by Fouad Ajami
Sunday, April 2, 2006
IDENTITY AND VIOLENCE
The Illusion of Destiny
By Amartya Sen
Norton. 215 pp. $24.95
Nowadays the economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen travels the world, opinions at the ready. His subjects are rarely economic. In the main, he works "out of area," taking on a wide range of political and social issues that have little to do with the dismal science. He is serene and confident, full of good cheer, ready to see the best in everyone.
Over this discursive little book lies the shadow of Sen's formidable Harvard colleague, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, with his celebrated theory of the "clash of civilizations." Sen has assigned himself the role of the anti-Huntington: Sen sees Huntington's thesis of cultural conflict yielding a one-dimensional approach to human identity -- and leading to the "civilizational and religious partitioning of the world," which can only occasion greater global disorder.
ere, in contrast, is Sen celebrating the complexity of human identity: "The same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theater lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician," etc. One's civilizational identity is not one's destiny, Sen observes, and civilizational "partitioning" -- seeing the planet culture by culture -- does not capture the messiness of the world. This Earth of ours, he says, is made more "flammable" by warring definitions of human identity, rather than an embrace of the many different facets that make us human.
Sen's faith in the multiplicity of claims on human loyalty is admirable, but it can hardly stand up to the fury of the true believers. In our combustible world today, Huntington's outlook has much greater power. His "cartography" of civilizations may have been too sharply drawn and he may have been a bit cavalier about modernity's appeal across cultural lines, but he came forth with a formidable work. Nor did he fail to see the fissures at the heart of particular societies -- hence his category of "torn countries," places like Turkey, Russia and Mexico, where the matter of loyalty and identity is fiercely contested. But Sen needs his straw man, and Huntington is pressed into the role.
Sen is a product of Western (British) education. But he sees no clear demarcation between the West and the rest (the language is Huntington's). There is nothing peculiarly Western about democracy, Sen argues. It has global roots; there were antecedents of it in India and in the Muslim world at about the same time when "Inquisitions were quite extensive in Europe, and heretics were still being burned at the stake." In his most intensely argued assertion, Sen sees the democratic inheritance as a truly universal enterprise. "The Western world has no proprietary right over democratic ideas," he writes. "While modern institutional forms of democracy are relatively new everywhere, the history of democracy in the form of public participation and reasoning is spread across the world." Western practice was not "sequestered" then, and it has not developed in some "splendid isolation."
It is the unease of Islam, of course, and the violence of some of its radical adherents that have given the question of identity its contemporary global relevance. On that issue Huntington was at his most prophetic, writing of Islam's "bloody borders" and of the "youth bulge" in Muslim societies that had unhinged and radicalized the Muslim world. He did so in the early 1990s, and then history -- 9/11 and all that followed -- provided his thesis with cruel compliance.
Sen, however, wishes to rescue Islam from this "confinement." He makes his way through Islam's history and its wide geographic sweep in order to find great Muslim practitioners of tolerance and periods of genuine enlightenment. There is Akbar, the great Mughal emperor, who "insisted in the 1590s on the need for open dialogue and free choice, and also arranged recurrent discussions involving not only mainstream Muslim and Hindu thinkers, but also Christians, Jews, Parsees, Jains, and even atheists." In the face of the anti-Semitic bigotry of today's radical Islamism, Sen offers the example of Muslim rule in Córdoba and the Iberian Peninsula -- that time of convivencia , where a Judeo-Islamic civilization in court life, letters and philosophy had a genuine flowering.
Sen works with the anecdote: His potted history is tailored for interfaith dialogues. He writes of the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who, when forced to emigrate from "an intolerant Europe" in the 12th century, was able to find "a tolerant refuge in the Arab world" in the court of the great Muslim ruler Saladin. But this will not do as history. Maimonides, born in 1135, did not flee "Europe" for the "Arab world": He fled his native Córdoba in Spain, which was then in the grip of religious-political terror, choking under the yoke of a Berber Muslim dynasty, the Almohads, that was to snuff out all that remained of the culture of convivencia and made the life of Spain's Jews (and of the free spirits among its Muslims) utter hell. Maimonides and his family fled the fire of the Muslim city-states in the Iberian Peninsula to Morocco and then to Jerusalem. There was darkness and terror in Morocco as well, and Jerusalem was equally inhospitable in the time of the Crusader Kingdom. Deliverance came only in Cairo -- the exception, not the rule, its social peace maintained by the enlightened Saladin.
Here, for Sen's benefit, is a passage from Maimonides's seminal Epistle to Yemen : "Our hearts are weakened, our minds are confused, and our strength wanes because of the dire misfortunes that have come upon us in the form of religious persecution in the two ends of the world, the East and the West." Maimonides's geography was Islamic: The East in the Epistle was Yemen, then a battleground between Sunni and Shiite Islam, a place where Jews were being subjected to forced conversions to Islam; the Western lands were the burning grounds of Andalusia. The Almohads' pitiless warriors were in every way the Taliban of their age, the ancestors of today's religious radicals in the world of Islam. They put to the sword the fabled world of Andalusian tolerance, and young Maimonides witnessed the shattering collapse of that culture. There had been Andalusian bliss, and Muslim rulers with Jewish courtiers and poets, and philosophers who believed in the primacy of reason, but that world was scorched.
Inspirational history can go only so far; it will not bend to Sen's good cheer. ·
Fouad Ajami is the Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. His books include "The Arab Predicament" and "The Vanished Imam."