Monday, January 25, 2010

Visions of God and visions of authority

This extends a comment I made here.

Americans often have a tendency to interpret things rather too much through the prism of American concerns, actions, perspectives and history. It is a natural error: particularly easy for a country which looms large in the rest of the world, let alone own in its own concerns. It is a mistake, for example, to forget that the jihadi movement, however described, has a history and a reach which extends beyond the post-2001 changes in US foreign policy which, after all, were a response to it.

But it is also a mistake to think that Islam is somehow "outside history". The notion that the logic of belief has to be the logic of believers does not fit the historical facts. Yes, Islam has an underlying logic to it and yes that it is such a scriptural-based and all-of-life religion gives that underlying logic recurring power. But that still leaves room for lots of changes. Including how many people actually think that underlying logic has to be the most important thing in their, and their children's, lives.

Moreover, at the centre of that logic is a notion of authority (particularly what constitutes Good Authority) and of God (as the ultimate Good Authority). Al-Ghazali's victory over Ibn Rushd (Averroes), which saw doctrinal absolutism supplant philosophical questioning, was not inevitable. It was in large part due to conceptions of God flowing from conceptions of authority. This is why the potential social change from a burgeoning Middle Eastern middle class may well be extremely significant. If your notion of authority changes, so does your conception of God (as the ultimate authority). Latin Christendom had essentially the same debate as that between al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd but the victory went to the philosophers/Aristotelians and not to their opponents in large part, I would argue, because of different conceptions of God from different conceptions of authority.

To Latin Christendom, God, as the ultimate Good Authority, could not be an arbitrary tyrant. Hence the rule-bound universe of Aristotelianism fitted. To tribal-autocratic Middle East, to put any limits on God insulted his honour. Hence the rejection of Aristotelian reason and rules in favour of doctrinal absolutism. If the middle class revolution shifts people's views of Good Authority, it will change their views of God. Much flows from that: particularly in a civilisation that still defines itself religiously. So yes, the potential middle class transformation of the Middle East does really matter: in a sense, not despite Islam having an underlying logic but because it does.


  1. Those wishing to understand Middle East issues might like Robert Fisk's book, "The Great War For Civilisation - The Conquest Of The Middle Eats." It's essentially 30 years of first-hand accounts by the (London) Times, and later the (London) Independent's middle east/war correspondent, supported by relevant historical context and other sources. The book is a 1300 pager, plus a further 70 pages of references and index, and covers Afghanistan (Soviet war and US/NATO war), Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Algeria, etc.

    The title could be mis-interpreted - it's not not a history book. It's a journalist's take, although he's an exceptionally thorough investigative journalist, over the last thirty years or so. Eye-witness accounts, danger, reflections, humour, tragedy. I love the personal way he writes, but you can sample his work by googling "Robert Fisk Independent," and checking out his pieces. This book is not a collection of articles that have previously been published; it's an original work. I couldn't put it down - and, now that I've read it, will keep it as a reference book. First published in 2005.

    To my knowledge, Robert Fisk is the only person to have interviewed Osama bin Laden three times.

  2. I have never found Robert Fisk's analysis of events persuasive or prescient.