Archive for May, 2008

Every culture has a barbaric past. Some are just more stylish than others. [Warning: gory details to come!]

For instance Italy–the land of the Renaissance, homeland of Verdi and Marconi, was once home to the Lombards.

These nasty long-bearded types had a penchant for cruelty. As one story goes, a Lombard ruler, having conquered his enemy, made a mug out of his skull, then married his daughter and forced her to drink out of the cup at their wedding!

This reminds me of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play Titus Andronicus, in which Titus feeds a Goth woman a pie made from the body of her sons–themselves rapists, whose victim Titus kills at dinner to relieve her shame!

Europeans definitely have a certain flair for life-hatred. But if you’re looking for real commitment, for a barbaric ancient culture that went the extra mile, It’s hard to imagine anyone topping the Aztecs.

The Aztecs themselves claimed to have sacrificed 80,000 victims to consecrate the pyramid of Tenochtitlan over the course of four days. As one writer has remarked, this outstrips the rate of eradication of the Jews by the Nazis at Auschwitz! And the Aztecs did it by hand! Modern writers are pretty convinced the Aztecs were bragging, however, so I suppose that gives Germany the “edge.”

Speaking of edges, how about the edge of guillotine blade? The French were definitely stylish in their barbarism, if nothing else. But when the guillotine proved too slow at lopping off heads in the French Revolution, the French put their inventive minds to work, tied hundreds to barges, and sunk them in the middle of the river. I’m not sure if this got them to barbarism’s “magic number,” which seems to be the slaughter of 20,000 by hand.

This honor goes to Agha Mohammed Khan the first of the Qajars, the dynasty that would rule Iran from 1794 to 1925. When he finally captured the city of Kerman, which had supported his adversary Lotf Ali Khan, Agha Mohammed ordered all the male inhabitants killed, and had a pyramid made out of their 20,000 eyeballs!

Apparently, in a letter (now lost), Agha Mohammed then wrote to Robespierre, which note he received just before having his lead lopped off. It read, “Your barbarians owe my barbarians twenty bucks!”

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According to this AFP Google news story, Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party recently won 92% of the votes in the country’s municipal elections. Of course, the results were never in doubt as the NDP was able to “disqualify” opponents, resulting in a boycott by still others.

Who cares? Well, consider that the British installed a puppet monarchy in Iraq in 1921, and held a bogus referendum showing that the new king had the overwhelming support of the people. Then, in a slowly building crescendo, Iraqis scratched and clawed their way to the point where they overthrew this illegitimate government in 1958. This, by the way, set the stage for the eventual takeover of Iraq by the Ba’ath Party, and the takeover of the country by Saddam Hussein.

One important difference between the gradual shift taking place in Egyptian culture today and that of Iraq after 1921 is that it is being being driven not by nationalists working to displace a monarchy that collaborates with the West, but by Islamists working to displace a dictatorship that collaborates with the West.

Even more ominous though is that Egypt is definitely due for a revolution. It’s coming soon. It took Iraqis about 50 years to develop the political and institutional awareness during Ottoman constitutional rule and subsequent British control to the point where they could take over the government. Egypt’s Islamists have had to endure a secular dictatorship longer than that, and the Muslim Brotherhood has been in operation since 1928 — and has roots going back to the Urabist movement of the 1870s — meaning that is likely better positioned to take over the country than any Iraqi group would have been in 1958. What is more, the Mubarak regime allows Brotherhood members to hold office as “independents,” even though the party is banned.

The only reason Mubarak is still in power is his hold over the military, but one wonders how long that will last. I am convinced that Egypt will become one of the next Islamist theocracies, probably when Mubarak dies. (Here’s an interesting YouTube video from Al-Jazeera that shows the government’s intellectual bankruptcy, and gives you a flavor of the current political scene in Egypt.)

Readers interested in Egypt’s plight, may want to check out John Bradley’s Inside Egypt, which has been called “a blistering overview of what it’s like to live in this autocratic, hopelessly corrupt society.” (I’m currently reading Bradley’s book Saudi Arabia Exposed, and although I think he is too evenhanded in his presentation, the irony is that even when he’s trying to portray so-called dissidents in the The Kingdom in a positive light, to the astute observer he ends up condemning even that segment of the population. There is simply nothing redeeming about Saudi Arabia.) For my top reading recommendations on Egyptian and Middle Eastern history, be sure to join the Powell History mailing list. The next installment is coming this weekend.)

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In my historical research on the Islamist Entanglement, I have been examining the intellectual undercurrent that runs through Middle Eastern history during the Western Ascendancy of 1683-1839 and subsequent Western Supremacy over the region. It has been a fascinating project, with far greater rewards that I had suspected. Among the most interesting characters I have found on this journey has been an Islamic intellectual named Jamal ad-Din “Al-Afghani.”

Al-Afghani, so called because he claimed Afghan lineage at one point in his life, though historians are quite convinced he was actually of Persian descent, is one of the wellspring intellectuals of modern Islamic reaction against the West.

Jamal ad-Din, known as “Al-Afghani”

Predictably, Al-Afghani’s intellectual work contains primarily denunciations of Western imperialism and various calls to Muslims to build a proper apparatus to match the West’s superior power, such as through the creation of a Pan-Islamic union. As a reactionary and Pan-Islamist, Al-Afghani occupies a unique place in the intellectual history of Islam as a mentor of key Islamists, such as the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and through them to Osama Bin Laden.

It is thus especially surprising to find in his writings passages that would thrill the most rational among us and show incredible insight into reality. For instance:

“It is philosophy that makes man understandable to man, explains human nobility, and shows man the proper road. The first defect appearing in any nation that is headed toward decline is in the philosophic spirit. After that deficiencies spread into the other sciences, arts, and associations.”

What is so striking about this statement is that it is true and profoundly insightful, especially when you consider that Al-Afghani would have learned about scientific history from the West when the science of history was devolving into Marxist materialism and Rankean antiquarianism. How many modern Western philosophers uphold such a conviction?

Why does philosophy have such power? Al-Afghani explains:

Philosophy is the escape from the narrow sensations of animality into the wide arena of human feelings…In general, it is man’s becoming man and living the life of sacred rationality. Its aim is human perfection in reason, mind, soul, and way of life….It is the foremost cause of the production of knowledge, the creation of sciences, the invention of industries, and the initiation of the crafts.” (emphasis mine)

This are some of the most eloquent passages I’ve read from any philosopher, including Nietzsche (when he’s exalting the individual) and Ayn Rand.

If only these were the answers Al-Afghani had stuck with, and the message he had transmitted exclusively to his progeny!

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The United States is currently engaged in an effort to elevate Afghanistan to the status of exemplary moderate Islamic state. What exactly are the prospects for accomplishing this mission based on Afghanistan’s history and culture?

The first thing to realize when broaching this question is that Afghanistan is not a nation, and barely a country. Historically, Afghanistan served as a corridor for the rampaging armies of the East moving west, of the West headed east, and of central Asia moving north or south. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Timur (a.k.a. Tamerlane) are only the most famous of foreign rulers who used this geopolitical thoroughfare to fulfill their imperial ambitions. For all recorded history, Afghanistan has either been occupied by a foreign power in full or in part, or subsisted through some interim in which foreign powers were repositioning themselves for another move.

It’s for this reason that historians and those who accept the moniker “Afghan” place such great emphasis on the formation of the “Durrani Empire” in 1747. At this point, one of the region’s tribal leaders was elected King of Afghanistan by an assembly of notables. Even at this point, however, it would be an exaggeration to say that Afghanistan existed as anything other than a primitive feudal amalgam.

I liken the situation in Afghanistan to France in the Dark Ages. In 987, Hugh Capet was selected by the various lords of France as king. He was elevated to the nominal role of king precisely because it served the interests of the lords, who didn’t want centralized rule. Capet’s own land holdings around Paris were insignificant compared to those of the Duke of Normandy or Duke of Aquitaine. As king he would have no real power. Ahmad Shah Durrani, chosen in 1747 as “king” of Afghanistan was in a similar position, except one could argue that Afghanistan in 1747 was quite far behind France of 987. The region had not even coalesced into permanent feudal holdings under major “dukes” or “counts”. The relationships to which Afghans adhered (and many still do adhere) were tribal, like those of the Germanic tribes out of which the Frankish kingdom first came together as Rome fell.

Unlike France, however, Afghanistan never managed to experience the dynastic stability out of which a centralized monarchy could arise. Although Ahmad Shah was succeeded by his son, as Robert II succeeded Hugh Capet in France, the Durrani dynasty never experienced that long string of successes that gave the Capetian dynasty its storied place in French history. Even as the Durrani Empire was in the process of crystallizing, external events swamped its progress.

In 1798, Napoleon demonstrated his intention to move on India by conquering Egypt. Then France allied with Russia in a move that might yield an overland expedition to the nascent British Empire in Asia. Because of this threat the British began to keep a close eye on developments in central Asia, and the “Great Game” was initiated. Woe be to the Afghans, who had no idea their little corner of world was viewed as a pawn in a continental chess match between world powers.

The Shah of Afghanistan and his Suitors in the “Great Game”

They would learn quickly enough, as the British–who judged Afghanistan to be an unworthy state–initiated the Anglo-Afghan Wars in order to achieve regime change in India’s backward neighbor. First in 1839, and then again in 1878, British armies invaded to try to transform Afghanistan into a useful buffer state.

When the region proved too backward to use, but not backward enough to dismiss entirely, the British decided to strike a deal with the Russians, whose empire by 1875 had reached the Amu Darya (the river which now forms part of Afghanistan’s northern boundary. The two empires drew Afghanistan’s borders themselves, including the hated Durand Line which now bisects key Afghan tribes, imposing Pakistani citizenship on some and Afghan rule on others. (A strange result of this imperial boundary tracing exercise is that Afghanistan shares a border with China, and anyone who crosses that line headed East loses both freedom and 3.5 hours of their lives!)

Afghanistan’s present borders were largely imposed upon it by Russia and Britain.

Strangely, Afghanistan got off pretty easy when it came to the World Wars. In 1907, with the Anglo-Russian Entente, the Great Game came to an end. Its two contestants agreed to work together against a common threat instead. Then, as the World Wars consumed the West’s attention, Afghanistan slipped under the radar. It was so backward that nobody really bothered.

Things changed however in 1947, when Pakistan was formed and the Cold War turned the region into a battleground once again. The partitioning of the region by Britain was given permanence when the United States chose to view Pakistan as a key ally of the “Northern Tier” to contain Communism. It armed that country while largely ignoring Afghanistan.

The Soviets, not surprisingly, saw Afghanistan as ripe for the picking. Gradually, as the country moved from having one school in 1904, to two, three, four by WWII, “Western” ideas–including Marxism–began to percolate through the educated elite. With Soviet help, a Communist party staged a coup in 1978 and the primitive Islamic region was catapulted into the era of “scientific socialism.” Not surprisingly, the dissonance between old and new was too great, and the Soviet were forced to move in to prop up the Communist regime, lest it fail for all the world to see. From 1979-1989, the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan.

As Communism collapsed, a power vacuum was created, into which all the pent up Islamic tribal energies of the various peoples of Afghanistan were sucked. The country fell into Civil War, and gradually fell under the control of the Taliban.

From this point onward, the story is familiar to most Americans. The Taliban regime that hosted Osama Bin Laden was displaced by Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 after the 9-11 attacks. And US forces have been there ever since.

What is the relevance of this background to the present? Afghanistan has never become a true state, and it has constantly lived in subordinacy to outside powers. As a result of its history as a “highway of conquest,” as one historian put it, and its recent subordination to Britain and the Soviet Union, Afghanistan really only exhibits one cultural constant: a desire for independence. You often hear people say that the Afghans are “freedom lovers.” This is a misrepresentation. The people who live in Afghanistan are “self-determination lovers”–and with good reason! But these are not the same thing.

Left to their own devices, the Afghans would make war on each other long into the foreseeable future. Their loyalties remain to the tribe, above all, and to Islam. They would not embrace political freedom and create republican institutions; they would seek to dominate each other on the basis of traditional ideas about tribal and religious life. If threatened by outside interference, they would come together, but revert to internecine feuding as soon as the threat receded. They simply don’t know how to live any differently.

Can this be changed by an extended US presence? It’s possible, but not likely. Certainly, the timescale of the requisite cultural change is much longer than anyone in the Bush administration would care to fathom. First, Afghan tribalism is alive and well, and there are simply too many parts of the country that the US-supported government does not control. Second, Afghanistan is not being injected with a sufficiently deep Western outlook. Afghanistan’s so-called universities don’t teach humanities like history and philosophy. They teach computers, engineering, medicine–and Islamic Law. The intellectual framework needed to sustain free institutions is thus not being erected. The minute the US ceases to prop up the country, the weight of Afghanistan’s history and culture will cause the whole apparatus to collapse.

To learn more about the story of Afghanistan, try my lecture on the History of Afghanistan as part of the Islamist Entanglement. For the most accessible reading on the subject, I recommend the Greenwood History of Afghanistan by Meredith Runion. It’s not as thorough as Martin Ewans’s Short History of Afghanistan, which is also useful, but it’s a better introduction.

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