Reviewed: The Undivided Past by David Cannadine

If only the Taliban were like us.

The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences
David Cannadine
Allen Lane, 352pp, £20

This is a strange book. David Cannadine, a distinguished historian of 19th-century Britain, has taken it upon himself to admonish the historical profession for setting up a series of unhelpful oppositions in its narratives of the past, emphasising division rather than collaboration, conflicting identities rather than a common humanity. He chides us for not writing about the boring bits in between, when people got on with each other; instead, he claims, we are always chasing after the newsworthy moments of the past, when people evidently did not.

To illustrate his point, Cannadine isolates six forms of identity in which historians have helped to cement unreal antagonisms: religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilisation. Instead of compartmentalising history by focusing on one form of identity at the expense of others, Cannadine insists – and who would question this? – that we have multiple and shifting identities. It is possible to be a woman, black, a worker, a Christian and British all at the same time. Yet this is so obvious that it scarcely needs to be stated. Cannadine’s fear is that historians impose on figures from the past – and, by implication, on those around us today – a single identity, seeing all workers, for example, as potentially class-conscious proletarians; or all Christians as bearers, through the ages, of anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic prejudices or hatreds; or all women as waiting to be liberated from a male-constructed universe.

The most problematic of these categories is civilisation. Here, too, Cannadine insists that historians have been responsible for taking an approach to the past (and the present) that has divided humanity into broad aggregations based on the idea of separate and identifiable civilisations, which, almost by definition, will be antagonistic and which, in the hands of generations of western writers, have been contrasted with the “barbarian”.

This last category, as Cannadine recognises, goes back as far, if not further, than the ancient Greeks, for whom the barbarian was other or alien. In the 19th century, historians contrasted the Greek and Roman heritage and its survival through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment with the “barbarous” societies of Africa and Asia and the peoples encountered in the New World.

In the 20th century, civilisation-counting became de rigueur, with Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler its leading exponents. Samuel P Huntington’s 1996 book, The Clash of Civilisations, is, for Cannadine, the end point of this damaging effort to divide the history of humanity into stories of “us” against “them”. This effort lies, he suggests, at the root of the current struggle between “western” values and ways of life and the invisible threat of international terrorism.

Cannadine writes about all these things as engagingly and fluently as ever. He is no doubt right that some historians over the past century or so, when historical writing in the west has become professionalised and widely practised, have helped to create conflicts of identity that are overdrawn and at times pernicious. It is tempting to project current concerns and prejudices back on to the past, turning every woman in 19thcentury Europe into a victim of universal misogyny or every black man into a victim of white supremacism. Historians have played their part in the creation of national identities that are more imagined than real, as well as in fomenting national rivalries, inadvertently or otherwise.

The history of war is habitually written by the winners, so that “good-war” narratives gloss over the awful reality of all human conflict, especially when the enemy can be defined as barbarous. Not for nothing was the word “Hun” used to describe the Germans in two world wars (and historians certainly helped by hunting for German atrocities in order, implicitly rather than explicitly, to confirm the barbarous sobriquet).

Cannadine reserves his most powerful indictment for those 20th-century historians who, from a Marxist or sub-Marxist point of view, peddled Karl Marx’s view that all history is the history of class struggle and should be written as such. The arch-villains here are, predictably, Eric Hobsbawm and E P Thompson, though the net can be spread widely from the 1920s up to the 1970s, when postmodernism is said to have challenged “hegemonic” narratives of nation, class and elite. Historians who subscribed to the Marxist model (though not necessarily Marxists themselves) not only defined the past in class terms, from the Spartacus revolt of 73 BC to the triumph of Hitler in 1933, but helped to shape the questions that other historians were supposed to ask about the past – hence endless histories of trade union movements, co-operatives, labour relations and class identities, not to mention Cannadine’s work on the declining aristocracy.

In the 1960s, Marxism seemed a solid reference point for understanding the varieties of the past. Now, Cannadine tells us, Marxism is dead and buried, overcome by how class identity is in some ways the weakest of the collectivities imposed on history, unable to explain or to undermine the appeal of religion, nation or gender.

There are some obvious objections to make to Cannadine’s thesis. He has clearly not been paying attention to the direction in which historical writing in Britain and the United States has been moving over the past few decades. The subjects that now interest historians are to be found in everyday life – sex, fashion, food, even noise or dirt – and in the gaps between the old narratives and their battles, murders and commotion. Historical methodology is now rooted in an obsession with “transnational” pasts – just the kind of fluid intercourse between social groups, national units or civilisations that Cannadine argues has been neglected. Contacts, networks and translations are all the rage.

It is hard to think of any historian who still subscribes to the older verities, so much so that the word “class” (which was a historical concept, invented by Hegel years before Marx) is now regarded as a relic from a bygone age. A great deal of history today is written about historians and the way in which “public history”, as it is called, has been distorted by the values of an earlier generation of writers. Much of this work, including Cannadine’s book, which is based on his 2007 Trevelyan lectures at the University of Cambridge, aims to refine the crude categories that have been imposed on past societies in order to understand them better and to overcome enduring prejudices and assumptions about “the other”. Schoolchildren are now taught in history lessons to sniff out “bias”.

A more simple objection is that historians have often supplied a critical and dissenting voice and have countered crude stereotyping and popular prejudice. Although the current obsession in English schools with the Nazis is perhaps excessive, it is nevertheless a powerful vehicle for exposing all forms of racial prejudice and state oppression. It is precisely because history is an awkward and critical discipline that its capacity to influence how people think or have thought is much more limited than historians like to claim. The small cabals of historians invited to meet, say, Margaret Thatcher or George W Bush were ornamental, not essential. For much of the time, historians have contested realities that they did little to shape.

In his introduction, Cannadine does concede that his six categories are sustained by “pundits, politicians and the public” but he adds that “many engaged academics” (whatever that means) want to define the world in terms of the eternal struggle between “good” and “evil”. This may be true of churches, whose hypocrisy is daily exposed in the press, and of simple-minded American presidents – but of historians? Cannadine has chosen to set up a row of straw men rather than engage with what most of his historical colleagues are really up to.

What is most worrying about Cannadine’s argument is the idea that somehow historians have helped to construct a false version of reality. It is simply not the case that for most of human history social groups, peoples, empires and genders have got on reasonably well. Historians reflect in what they write an inherited reality, however distorted or opaque their portrayal of it can sometimes be. It would be absurd to suggest that women have not been – and continue to be – the objects of discrimination, violent coercion and rape, especially where religious institutions or political structures dictate their absolute inferiority. That women’s voices were seldom heard in the distant past or that evidence seems to show they colluded in their own subjection does not diminish the historical reality of male power.

The same objections apply to Cannadine’s smug dismissal of Marxism. Although some workers felt that they were more Catholic than proletarian, or more patriotic than international, or more white than workingclass, industrial capitalism was responsible for the emergence in the 19th century of jerry-built, grimy cities, inhabited by impoverished populations with few amenities, chronic diseases and negligible welfare. Historians have not made up the antagonism between capital and labour, which is rooted in harsh social realities.

Boring though histories of trade unionism might be, they are monuments to the efforts made by ordinary people to better their bargaining power and challenge an industrial elite that realised only very late that treating workers better improved productivity and expanded demand. Political agitators, economists and philanthropists certainly contributed to the process of ameliorating poverty and social disadvantage; historians have only described that process. Rather than create artificial divisions, most historians are at pains to explain how they came about and what their consequences have been.

It is difficult to see what Cannadine wants his profession to do now. He calls on academic historians to abandon the artificial divisions of “identity” history and to celebrate a common humanity “that still binds us together today”. This is 1960s-style cant, a western delusion that bears no resemblance to the realities of either the recent or more distant past. Most of those who live outside the privileged and secure west think not about a common humanity but about the conditions of merely surviving in a world that more closely resembles Darwin’s than it does John Locke’s.

There remain profound differences in the world that have deep historical roots; indeed, it is precisely western hubris that has assumed that if only the Taliban were like us, we would not have to defend “our way of life” in Helmand Province. There is a common humanity only in the most banal sense that we all eat, sleep, have sex and die – as do rabbits and gorillas. The historian’s role is surely to be able to understand those differences and what they signify and to encourage politicians and generals to respect and comprehend difference. No doubt many historians hope that what they write about will also pose a moral challenge to the many surviving forms of discrimination and violence in the world. But ultimately, human life is, as Schopenhauer insisted, a story of “struggle”. Appeals to a common humanity are not going to change that.

Reading Cannadine’s book, I was reminded of John Lennon’s song “Imagine”, written more than 40 years ago: “You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one./I hope some day you’ll join us/And the world will be as one.” Keep on imagining.

Richard Overy is professor of history at the University of Exeter. His next book, “The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45”, will be published later this year by Allen Lane

Fleeing an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era