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29 October 2001

Lost in the swamp of modernity

His survey of scholars around the world convinced Peter Watsonthat, outside the west, there were no

By Peter Watson

Westerners and Muslims, according to Edward Said in these pages two weeks ago, are all swimming in the same seas. Both are stranded ” . . . between the deep waters of tradition and modernity”. The events of 11 September therefore represent no clash of civilisations, he said. That idea is “a gimmick . . . better for reinforcing defensive self-pride than for critical understanding of the bewildering interdependence of our time”.

The sad – if admittedly bewildering – truth is that “modernity” is in fact more like a swamp, a treacherous landscape where some civilisations can’t get a footing. Modernity itself has magnified differences between civilisations and, in so doing, has helped bring terrorism to the point where it takes the form it has. This is not a “vast generalisation” (another criticism that Said makes about westerners), or at least not one that I alone make. I do not say my research has been exhaustive, but what follows is not just one westerner speaking.

A year ago I published a narrative history of the main ideas that shaped the 20th century. In my research, I visited roughly 150 scholars, leading specialists in their fields, in Europe, America and the Middle East. I asked each expert what were the three most important ideas in their discipline in the 20th century. I found a great deal of agreement, a strong sense of a great conversation taking place. In economics, for example, three experts (two of them Nobel laureates) overlapped to the point where they suggested just four ideas between them, when they could have given nine.

That was agreeably surprising. What shocked me were my interviews with scholars of non-western cultures. Here, I am referring not only to western specialists in the great non-western traditions, but scholars who were themselves born into those traditions – Arab archaeologists or writers, economists and historians from India and China, poets and dramatists from Japan and Africa. All of them – there were no exceptions – said the same thing. In the 20th century, in the modern world, there were no non-western ideas of note.

There is no Asian equivalent of, say, Darwin, no African Max Planck, no Arab Freud, no Japanese Picasso or Matisse. When it comes to ideas, the modern world is a western world, a secular world of democracies, free markets, science and self-governing universities.

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There are important Chinese writers and painters of the 20th century; and we can all think of significant Japanese film directors, Indian novelists and African dramatists. There is a thriving school of Indian post-colonial historiography, led by Gayatri Spivak. Distinguished non-western scholars and writers are household names, at least in smart households: one thinks of Edward Said himself, Chinua Achebe, Amartya Sen, Anita Desai, Chandra Wickramasinghe. But, it was repeatedly put to me, there is no 20th-century Chinese equivalent of surrealism, say, no Indian philosophy to match logical positivism, no African equivalent of the French Annales school of history. Whatever list you care to make of 20th-century innovations, be it plastic, antibiotics and the atom, or stream-of-consciousness novels, it is overwhelmingly western.

Is this an expression of defensive self-pride, as Professor Said also argued? In my survey, the views of non-western scholars matched the views of western ones. And I don’t believe that western academics or intellectuals are blind to non-western achievements, where they exist. The whole “project” of postmodernism is designed to promote the “other”, the non-western, the unorthodox. Look at the famine economics of Amartya Sen (now head of a Cambridge college), the magical realism of Salman Rushdie. They are warmly welcomed in the west and win all sorts of western-based prizes. But these are late-flowering blooms. Overall, throughout the 20th century, the non-western traditions lagged far behind the west in the realm of new ideas. Postmodernism itself is a western notion.

Or, take Bernard Lewis’s history The Middle East, published in paperback only last year. He has a chapter called “New Ideas” where the most recent date is 1896.

Why should this huge disparity exist? Is V S Naipaul right? His general views are well known, and he has been accused of being superficial. But he did visit four Islamic societies – Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Naipaul did the work and his conclusions were not all one-way.

Pakistan, he found, was a fragmented country, economically stagnant, “its gifted people close to hysteria”. As in Iran, there was an emotional rejection of the west, especially its attitudes to women. He found no industry, no science, the universities stifled by fundamentalism, which “provides an intellectual thermostat, set low”. The Malays had an inability to compete with the Chinese, who comprise half the population and dominate Malaysia economically. The Islam of Indonesia Naipaul described as “stupefaction”: community life was breaking down, and the faith was the inevitable response. In all four places, Naipaul concluded, Islam drew its strength from a focus on the past that prevented development, and that in itself meant the peoples of the Islamic nations couldn’t cope with the west. The “rage and anarchy” induced by this kept them locked into the faith – and so the circle continues.

He found support from the Harvard economist David Landes who, in his Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998), shows how in an earlier age Islam turned its back on the printing press, fearful of the sacrilege it might bring (which meant that many crucial Arab texts were not printed until the 19th century). According to Landes, intellectual segregation is the chief burden of religious fundamentalism. But Landes did not single out Islam for special treatment. He frankly labels Arabs, Indians, Africans and South Americans all as “losers” in the modern world.

For me, too, Islam isn’t a special case among the non-western traditions, as Naipaul implies. Neither China nor Japan has produced ideas to match its size or population; nor have the many non-Muslim states of Africa. India, with its burgeoning software sector, Bollywood and its clutch of literary heavyweights, is beginning to stir, but many of its stars seem to spend all or some of their time in the west. Only in that way, it appears, can their own intellectual fulfilment be complete.

An entirely different “take” on this predicament came as early as the 1950s from Frantz Fanon, the black psychiatrist born in Martinique. Fanon’s most poignant book, The Wretched of the Earth, drew on his experiences as a psychiatrist in Algeria where, he said, certain psychiatric reactions he had seen were directly related to the war of independence then being waged in that country.

Fanon’s books, like those of other black authors before him, were deliberately designed to unnerve whites. His most chilling story concerned two Algerians, aged 13 and 14, who had killed their European playmate. As the 13-year-old put it, “We weren’t a bit cross with him . . . One day we decided to kill him, because the Europeans want to kill all the Arabs. We can’t kill big people. But we could kill one like him because he was the same age as us.”

At that stage, said Fanon, Algerian culture was the struggle to be free; the anti-colonial fight – violence itself – was the shared culture of the Algerians, and it absorbed most of their creative energy. And he used a phrase that Martin Luther King was to make famous. He was, he said, a “creative extremist”.

Is it too much to link Fanon and Bin Laden? The actions of the latter – turning two of America’s great modern achievements, the airliner and the skyscraper, against each other, with the incendiary element in between, oil, as the Middle East’s contribution – would certainly count as “creative extremism” on any definition. But the difference, between Fanon’s words and Bin Laden’s deeds, shows how far this “culture”, this way of thinking, this set of ideas, has come. And how long it has been gestating.

Colonialism cannot shoulder all the blame for this, nor can one particular religion. In the realm of ideas, China and Japan are as much underachievers as the Arab and African worlds. At the same time, the evidence is incontrovertible: there is a link between civilisation and intellectual achievement; there is a link between intellectual freedom and political freedom, between the ability to change, on the one hand, and scientific advance, technology-based prosperity and intellectual satisfaction, on the other.

That evidence shows that the parts of the world Bin Laden says he wants to help will be aided by less fundamentalism, not more.

Peter Watson’s book A Terrible Beauty: a history of the people and ideas that shaped the modern mind (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is published in paperback next month

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