Monday, May 08, 2006

Update on the series on books about theocracies

A week ago the Wall Street Journal ran a personal tribute to Bernard Lewis by Fouad Ajami which made me think about some of the books suggested to me about what life is like in theocracies.

Ajami is Majid Khadduri Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and author of, most recently, The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq. Bernard Lewis is Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus, at Princeton University.

Lewis is also considered to a sort of "yoda" to policymakers in the present administration; he's a world-renown scholar whose work is often seen to provide the historical and intellectual justification for a muscular Western response to events emanating from the Middle East. As the Journal's Paul Gigot put it:
In his seminal essay, "The Roots of Muslim Rage," Lewis predicted the coming of a great struggle between Christendom and Islam, warning the world, of what he termed "the clash of civilizations" more than 10 years before it was brought home to the United States with devastating clarity on Sept. 11.
Two blog-relevant issues occurred to me when reading Ajami's appreciation.

The first is superficially trivial, though it did make me pause. Ajami writes it was
vintage Lewis--reading the sources, in this case a marginal Arabic newspaper published out of London, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, in February of 1998--to come across a declaration of war on the United States by a self-designated holy warrior he had "never heard of," Osama bin Laden.
I was surprised that this eminent scholar had not heard of bin Laden before early 1998. In this post, I note that bin Laden first came to the attention of New York Times readers in 1994, Washington Post readers in 1996, and readers of John Ridley's 1999 novel, Everybody Smokes in Hell.

The second issue relevant to the blog you are now reading is that Lewis and Ajami refer to the confrontation between the West and the Middle East as between Christendom and Islam.

And yet when I've asked a number of scholars and well-informed writers to name fiction about theocracies in Islamic lands, there don't seem to be many titles. See here and here about some very interesting suggestions that came out of that inquiry, and see here, here, here, and here, for stories about theocracies in non-Islamic settings. At this post, K. Anthony Appiah mentions two western novels and the only suggestion I've received for a book about life under the Taliban.

That there are not more novels about Islamic regimes does not prove that Islam is not engaged in some world-historical struggle with Christendom. Still, the recommended books about theocracies in both regions--and across history--suggest that (1) the actual influence of religion on political power and change is sporadic--so sporadic that "Christendom" may be a misnomer--and (2) that one might fairly suspect that religion--either Christianity or Islam--is being used in an instrumental way to suit the political purposes of agents whose actual religiosity may well be inauthentic, or at least subordinate to their primary motives.

And that makes me suspect that the "Christendom vs. Islam" may not be as apt (or productive) a way to frame the clash as alternatives that lack the same marquee value.

--Marshal Zeringue