PS: Dr Abid sent in a revised version, so I have over-written the original post.
The following post was sent in by Dr Abdul Majeed Abid in response to my recent blog post regarding Islam and liberal world order. (I personally think that loyalty to country, even to an empire not our own, can be successfully created, but it takes an unusually dominant host culture or empire to carry it off for now; and in the future, who knows what shape loyalties and identities will eventually take, but that is a story for another day. Dr Abid’s comments follow).
From Dr Abdul Majeed Abid:
Islam, it may be, really IS the the rock on which the Western Liberal Democratic Consensus is breaking..
in Turkey and the political situation
in France are indicators of a future where the modern democratic project
fails where an interaction with Islam is concerned. A Democratically elected (quibbles
aside) government in Turkey used the tool of democracy to give up on
democracy itself (it was not as simple as that, but this is one of the
easier inferences). Khaled Ahmed has written in one of his pieces that Muslims
don’t really ‘get’ Democracy. Turkey has seen a hundred-year long ‘struggle’
for the government between Kemalist/Secularist forces (be they Mustafa Kemal’s
party CHP or the military) and Islamist/Neo-Ottoman forces (starting from
Nacmeddin Erbakan to Tayyip Erdogan) and the Islamists seem to have scored a
decisive victory. With its Kurdish-majority south-eastern part up in arms, ISIS
knocking on its doors and millions of refugees roaming the cities, Turkey can
easily be branded the ‘New Pakistan’. Pakistan, lest we forget, was made to
escape from a democracy where Muslims would remain as a permanent
France, a nation proud of its unique
national character, faltered when it came to dealing with Muslims. Starting in
the 1970s, the principle of Laïcité, the bedrock of French society for the last
century, has faced critical examination because of Muslims and their failure to
completely integrate in a majority Christian nation.
From the article about Giles Kepel linked
“ In September last year, a landmark survey
commissioned by the Montaigne Institute found that 28 percent of French Muslims
had adopted values “clearly opposed to the values of the republic,” with a
mix of “authoritarian” and “secessionist” views, including support for polygamy
and the niqab, or full-face veil, and opposition to laws enforcing secularism”.
The identity crisis that Muslims have felt in France, in Britain, in Belgium,
in Germany, has not been fully understood or dealt with by the concerned
societies. So you get ‘home-grown’ terrorists in Britain, Germany, France and
Belgium killing people indiscriminately, turning on the very states that have
provided them a social security net and a place to live (and what most
people in Pakistan would give up for getting a chance to spend their lives in
Western Europe, living on taxpayers’ dime). Muslims in these countries have
refused to assimilate partially or completely, threatening the whole edifice of
The threat of such issues arising in United
States has become a rallying cry for right-wing politicians and media. And I
kind of understand where that fear (even though it is mostly irrational in the US context) is coming from.
When I see a black burka-clad woman in Times Square or a full-on Shuttlecock Burka lady in
Houston, I myself get afraid, and not for myself, but for ‘Fellow Americans’.
In the last few months, I have had to provide answers, to the best of my
knowledge, about Islam and Muslims, from West Virginia to Miami and Houston,
basically everywhere that I went and talked to people (including Ayn Rand fans,
non-believers and a few people from India). I see it as a failure of
assimilation, even in the United States (where the situation is far better than
Western Europe). Be it the ‘grooming’ gangs or honor killings in Britain or
Female Genital Mutation in the United States, far too many Muslims have demonstrated an
aversion to participation in a liberal democratic order. From Syed Qutb to Afia
Siddiqi, the story from this subset of Muslims is similar. “We don’t like you, despite your kindness towards
us and when we get the opportunity, we will do our best to harm you”
One of the questions about Islam that
troubled me the most during my interaction with Americans of different
backgrounds was the concept of Jihad and Islamism. People claimed that in the last seventy years, the only religious ideology that has been used
(by various people, for various purposes, more on that later in the post) to
indiscriminately kill people en masse is the ideology of Jihad. Be it Al-Qaeda,
Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Terrorist groups in Kashmir, TTP
in Pakistan or ISIS in the Middle East and the rest of the world, the leitmotif
that binds all of these violent organisations has been the concept of Jihad and
the claim that Islam ‘deserves’ to be a dominant religion in the world. The claim is that there are hardly any Christian or Jewish or
Hindu militias hunting down people basis on religion (Thoughts: Myanmar’s Buddhist monks
and India’s ‘Beef vigilantes’ are an exception? What about states cleansing their enemies? Somegody is bound to bring up Israel, rightly or wrongly? Was communism a religion? Is the difference one of degree or type?).
Nuances exist, but still, this ideology which is often
described as ‘Militant Islam’ in the United States, is a threat to humanity at
present. In my view (and based on my personal interactions with Muslims from
various countries), the problem is not just with these terrorist organizations
carrying out beheadings and massacres, the problem lies in the minds of a
‘silent’ majority that inadvertently or partly justifies their actions. You don’t have to
be a card-carrying Al Qaeda member to be a fellow traveler. When you
support an ‘Islamic’ system of government in your country (as multiple polls in
the wider Muslim world have established), you are demanding a softer version of the same thing that
ISIS is vying for. What if you are a highly educated person spending most of
your time in the ‘West’ (like Aafia Siddiqi or Faisal Shahzad) and you still
harbor this ideology (that Islam deserves to be the dominant religion in the
world and ‘sacrifices’ have to be made in that regard)? In that case, defeating ISIS or Al
Qaeda is not going to solve the ideological problem. How and when do you truly
defeat an ideology?
PS. The concept of ‘Jihad’ (the killing
other people type, which is the most commonly used meaning of it, even if many
Muslims now understand the need to deny that) has been utilized in the past by colonial powers for their
own purposes. The list of leaders/countries invoking ‘Jihad’ includes General
Kai-Shek, Stalin, Mussolini, Churchill, Hitler, the
French during WWI, the US
War Department during WWII, the Japanese
during WWII, more recently, the ‘Afghan War’ that was bankrolled by the CIA.
These people realized that Muslims can be roused for any cause by using the
call of ‘Jihad’. Thus we find both sides in a conflict trying to recruit
Muslims for their cause.
(Special thanks to Umar, @cybertosser on
twitter for the links on Jihad).
intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent; but it
takes a touch of genius and lots of courage to move something in the opposite
Government of Pakistan
announced that it has given a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to recently
retired Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General ® Raheel Sharif to head the Saudi
led coalition. It just put to end the rumor mill swirling around for more than
a year. However, to date, neither Pakistan government nor General ®
Raheel Sharif has put forward any clarification about the terms of agreement
between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on this subject, nature of the military
organization, its objectives, role of its head and the compensation package
associated with the job. There may be some good reasons that government of
Pakistan thinks this is in Pakistan’s interest but it needs to present its
case. The lack of transparency in important policy decisions only
increases the cynicism of general public.
It is no secret that
current Saudi led coalition is engaged in only one conflict and that is in the
civil war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a power struggle
and Saudi led coalition is part of this struggle. Iran is using its own
military assets as well as arming and training sectarian militias for different
theaters. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and
Qatar are arming their own militias to oppose Iran in the same theatres. Iran
has recruited many Afghan and Pakistani Shia who are fighting in Syria.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has put together its own potpourri of Sunnis
from Arab lands, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia for fighting in many
conflict zones. Everyone now has a dog in the fight that makes any
concerted effort of reconciliation almost impossible. The main engine of
activity in Riyadh and Tehran is the fear and hatred of the ‘other’ rather than
any well thought out operational plan for an agreed upon national interest.
Both countries are equally responsible for destructive policies totally
oblivious to the human cost.
It is now clear that
current Pakistan army brass led by General Qamar Javed Bajwa has given its
blessing to Raheel’s appointment. If the agreement is only about Raheel’s
appointment then any negative fallout can be limited to Raheel personally and
country can put some kind of a firewall. Raheel can enjoy a three year
lucrative contract with a few free pilgrimages as a bonus and everyone will
forget about the episode. The unknown part is whether Pakistan army
General Head Quarters (GHQ) also agreed to sending Pakistani troops. If
they have also agreed to sending troops to Saudi Arabia then Pakistan army and
government cannot escape the negative fallout if and when it occurs. My
own feeling is that Pakistan has agreed to send troops.
In December 2015,
when Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman
announced the formation of Saudi led alliance, Pakistan parliament passed a
unanimous resolution against Pakistan’s participation in alliance. Saudis were
outraged and privately they expressed their anger to both civilian and military
leadership. Saudis have been doling out generous financial packages to
both civilian and military rulers. In addition, in mutual infighting
among Pakistani power brokers, Saudis have bailed out both Nawaz Sharif and
General ® Pervez Musharraf arranging for safe and comfortable exiles. Saudis
have a very low opinion of Pakistanis and they were outraged at Pakistan’s foot
dragging considering it a betrayal. This had a sobering effect on Pakistani
civil and military leadership and they carefully walked back.
with Saudi Arabia is wide ranging. Saudi Arabia has infused cash into
Pakistan’s faltering economy from time to time, provided oil at a special
discount rate and Pakistani expatriates in Saudi Arabia send large amount of
remittances back home. Pakistan has provided military trainers in the past and
in return Saudi Arabia underwrote many military items. In 2004, President
George Bush asked Saudi ambassador and close friend Price Bandar Bin Sultan for
help. He told Bandar that it will take a long time to get approval from
Congress for the sale of helicopters to Pakistan. Bandar got approval from
Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and Saudis paid $235 million for twenty
four Bell helicopters destined for Pakistan. (Bob Woodward. State
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia being in United States orbit of influence
also agree on major geo-political policy issues.
In contrast, Pakistan’s
relationship with Iran is very limited with only small scale trade between two
countries. There is no convergence of interests between two countries as Iran
has problems with Unites States for over three decades and Pakistan has a
different take on many Iranian priorities. However, Pakistan shares border with
Iran. With this background in mind, one can understand the dilemma of Pakistani
civilian and military leaders when Saudis asked them to stand up and be
counted. If they wanted, Pakistanis could have used unanimous parliament
decision against joining the coalition in Yemen as a cover to try to wriggle
out by agreeing to send only some training and support elements. Even in
best of the circumstances, this was a hard task but then there was no will on
part of Pakistani decision makers.
Like any decision, there
is a credit side of the ledger and a debit side. If Pakistan has also
agreed to send troops, the minimum number will be at least a brigade and
possibly a division size force. On credit side, at personal level,
soldiers deployed to Saudi Arabia will get a generous package something similar
to what they receive for United Nations peace keeping missions. On
national level, Pakistan will likely receive a compensation package that could
be $1-2 billion per year. However, this will be contingent upon
deployment of combat troops. On debit side, Pakistan will invariably get
involved in the wider sectarian conflict to some extent. Already, the
sectarian gulf inside Pakistan got a little bit more widened with announcement
of General ® Raheel Sharif’s appointment. The discussion on the subject is
mostly along sectarian lines. Pakistan does not have direct border or any
other significant interest in Yemen therefore there is no risk of direct major
damage or acute crisis. However, there will be some complications if
international and regional players up the ante.
Like any simmering
conflict, many aspects of Yemen conflict are not clear yet. United States
under new administration is reviewing its Yemen file. Trump
administration is entangled in domestic controversies, allegations and
investigations that are sucking most of the oxygen. Foreign and military
policy is not clear but indications are not auspicious. Trump’s national
security team with the possible exception of National Security Advisor General
H. R. McMaster is solidly anti-Iran. Secretary of Defence James Mattis
has ordered the review of Yemen policy and it will likely be completed in a
month (The Washington Post, March 26, 2017).
In the last few months of
Obama administration, Washington not only vetoed many Saudi and Emirati
requests about deeper involvement but significantly downgraded intelligence and
operational cooperation. It also stopped shipment of precision-guided
munitions to Saudi Arabia in view of rising civilian casualties from air
strikes. Trump administration has lifted the ban on shipment of precision-guided
munitions to Saudi Arabia and provided better optics for Middle East players by
inviting Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, Egyptian President
Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah to the White
House. Trump administration is currently working on bringing together a
five country military alliance to quarantine Iran. The members of this club
include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan and Israel.
Israel will provide only intelligence and technical assistance while Arab
members will provide boots on the ground. (The Wall Street Journal,
15 February 2017).
Egypt and Jordan have very
close and long standing relationship with Israeli security apparatus and both
countries facilitated Saudi rapprochement with Israel. Saudis are cautiously
pulling the curtain away. Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al
Faisal met two retired Israeli generals with intelligence background.
Major General Amos Yadlin is former head of Israeli Military Intelligence (Aman)
and Major General Yaakov Amidror is former head of research department of
Israeli Military Intelligence. In the summer of 2016, former Saudi Major
General with intelligence experience Dr. Anwar Eshki led a delegation of Saudi
businessmen and academics to Israel. He met Foreign Ministry Director General
Dore Gold and military coordinator of Palestinian territories Major General
Yoav Mordechai. There is nothing wrong in breaking the ice and starting
some working relations with Israel. However, in current context it will be seen
by Arab public in a very negative light resulting in many public relations
problems for Saudi Arabia. Saudis want a broader coalition of Sunni Muslim
countries even if majority of the members are sleeping partners to be able to
sell the project to a sceptic public.
The final verdict in
Washington will be based on risks of deeper involvement of U.S. troops in case
Saudi led coalition falters during a major operation especially amphibious
landing. The other concern will be distraction from main U.S. mission in
Yemen that is fighting al-Qaeda and Yemeni franchise of Daesh (Islamic
Currently, Yemen conflict
is in a state of stalemate. If Trump administration decides to push back
against Iran, then a low cost powerful message to Tehran can be via
Yemen. In that case, project of taking back the crucial port of Hodeida
will be the first item on the agenda. Hodeida is the port on western Red
Sea coast of Yemen. It is a crucial supply route for Houthi/Saleh
coalition that is fighting other Yemeni groups and is the target of Saudi led
coalition. Emiratis and Saudis asked Obama administration for increased U.S.
involvement including Special Forces and logistics for large scale amphibious
landings that was declined. If Trump administration goes for active
involvement in Yemen then close cooperation in capture of Hodeida is an
attractive option. This may also help in jump starting more inland gains
especially capture of important city of Taiz.
Emirati troops have
surprised many military observers by fighting well and successful amphibious
landings at Aden and Mukalla. It is due to good training by Australian former
Special Forces operatives as well as a brigade consisting of Latin American
former Special Forces soldiers. However, Emirati troops are too small in
numbers and small Gulf sheikhdoms cannot sustain prolonged deployment or high
casualty rates. It is here that Saudi led coalition needs Pakistani
troops and potential complications for Pakistan. If Pakistani troops are
only deployed along Saudi-Yemeni border and they suffer casualties from rocket
attacks, this can be sold to Pakistani public as martyrs for the defense of
holy places. However, if Pakistani troops are used inside Yemen where in
all probability Saudis want them then it will be a difficult sell.
However, I don’t see any large scale protests against it in view of army’s
control of the narrative and civilian leadership fully supportive. In
fact, Saudis may unilaterally activate their own friends inside Pakistan (many
sectarian outfits have ideological affinity with austere Saudi version with
deep antipathy towards Shia while others such as Hafiz Saeed & Company have
received generous financial packages) by organizing demonstrations portraying
Pakistan’s involvement as defense of holy places.
If the scenario unfolds
this way, Tehran will face a dilemma. If they also decide to up the ante,
their only option is to provide Houthi-Saleh coalition with maritime mines to
cause panic at the choking point of Bab al Mandab that carries most
commercial traffic from Red sea to Arabian sea. This can internationally
isolate Tehran as international community will not like any hindrance of
commercial traffic. A less costly option may be to use remote controlled
boat based attacks on coalition military ships on Red Sea coast. If
Tehran decides to increase costs for Saudi Arabia and provide Houthi/Saleh
coalition with longer range rockets that can have serious re-percussions.
Attacks on areas closer to holy places will inflame Sunni passions putting
Tehran in a very difficult situation. Tehran’s interests in Syria, Iraq
and Lebanon are more strategic in nature while Yemen is a side show.
Tehran may decide to concede in Yemen to protect interests in other important areas.
However, it may still provide rebels with enough short range rockets to inflict
a certain degree of pain to Saudis especially along Yemeni border.
Iran and Pakistan have
serious differences on many issues. There is an environment of deep
mistrust and suspicion. In 2007-10, extremist Sunni Jundullah
group was operating from Pakistani Baluchistan and was involved in some
devastating attacks on Iranian targets in Seistan-Baluchistan province.
In view of close cooperation between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence
(ISI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during that time period, Iranians
believed that Pakistan was involved in this adventure. This was not
true. Later, it was disclosed that Israelis made contact with Jundullah
in London posing as American agents carrying American diplomatic
documents. After this revelation, U.S.-Israeli relations were strained
and incoming Obama administration significantly downgraded Israeli-U.S.
intelligence cooperation. (Foreign Policy, January 2012). Pakistan
had to go an extra mile and worked overtime to apprehend Jundullah
operatives and handed them over to Tehran to convince Iranians that they were
not in the game. There was some improvement in relations but in March
2016, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was visiting Pakistan, he was
embarrassed. The arrest of Indian intelligence operative Kulbhushan Yadav
in Baluchistan when he was coming from Iranian port city of Chahbahar was made
public and General Raheel Sharif then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) read Rouhani
the riot act. Army’s spokesperson dutifully contradicted Rouhani’s statement at
a press conference and tweeted the text of conversation while Rouhani was still
in Pakistan. This has not been done to even a visiting rival Indian high level dignitary.
Iranians were furious as they had brought a large delegation including several
cabinet members for wide ranging engagements. They left with the
impression that Pakistan army had done this at the behest of Saudi
Arabia. This incident brought Iran-Pakistan relations to another
low-point. Now with the hindsight, we know that Raheel was negotiating
his post-retirement lucrative employment package with Saudis at that time, it
puts a question mark whether he did this to earn few ‘brownie points’ from
Iranians are no boy scouts
and they will look after their own interests. Osama Bin Ladin’s family
members were kept for safe keeping in Iran. Now looking at the time line
after Bin Ladin’s killing, it is clear that in 2010 Iran exchanged Bin Ladin’s
family members for its intelligence operative Heshmatollah Atterzadeh. He
was working under the cover of commercial attaché at Iranian consulate in
Peshawar from where he was abducted by al-Qaeda operatives and kept in
Pakistan’s tribal areas. Tehran didn’t bother to inform Pakistanis even
after the exchange was done. Leader of Taliban Mullah Akhtar Mansur was
travelling on a Pakistani passport with an Iranian visa and coming from Iran
when a drone sent him packing back to his creator. He was surely not
going for a holiday trip to Iran. Pakistan’s involvement in Saudi led
coalition will add to this existing deep mistrust. From economic point of view,
there is not much between Iran and Pakistan and an angry Iran will simply
further downgrade economic ties. However, everyone knows how to play the
game. If you are unhappy with Pakistan then simply enhance your relations
with Afghanistan and India. It is now certain that Iran’s cooperation
with Afghanistan and India will expand and it may result in clash with
Pakistani interests. Tehran will also increase its contacts with
Pakistani Shia players as it will find a fertile ground of resentment against
the state and its policies. There is clear risk that Tehran will try to
cultivate its intelligence assets inside Pakistani security apparatus for
situational awareness. This in turn will put extra load on an already
overstretched Pakistani intelligence apparatus for counter-intelligence.
Coalition especially a
military coalition is a tricky business. North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) with seventy years history, enormous resources and
unrivalled diplomatic cover has failed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mutual
incriminations, huge wastage of resources and uncertain benefits from a decade
long involvement in foreign adventure by a well-established and well-resourced
entity like NATO should make every sane person to pause and reflect. If
General Raheel Sharif thinks that he can pull this thing up while serving as an
employee of a royal ego like Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, then he needs serious
counselling. In case he is not aware, Saudi Arabia has declared Hezbollah a
terrorist organization, Egypt has declared Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist
entity and Turkey has labelled its own former mentor Gulen movement a
terrorist organization. You don’t need a military staff college course on your
resume to understand the dilemma.
It is important for
Pakistani elite and general public to understand that if someone is giving them
financial aid as well as bailing them out in their personal woes then payback
is an essential element of this arrangement. They may have to then make
decisions that may not be in Pakistan’s long term interests. This has been a
pattern of Pakistani-U.S. relations and now Pakistan is expanding on this theme
with its relationships with Saudi Arabia and China going on the same
‘The desire to gain an
immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests. If
they recognize this fact, they usually recognize it too late’. Reinhold Niebuhr
Postscript: Having been told this is a rant, not a review, I have decided to add this disclaimer: it IS a rant. And no, it is not personal. I have never met Pankaj and for all I know he is probably a very nice guy. This is not so much about him as about the postliberal Eurocentric elite in general. That he writes this for them and they love him for it makes me use him as a focus for my criticism. Someday, if i have the discipline and/or the time, I should write a long-form essay and not make it about him but about the worldview in general. Until then, he gets to stand in for the lot of them. But it is NOT personal.
Pankaj Mishra is a British-Indian writer and public intellectual who currently lives between London and Mashobra and writes regularly for publications like the NY Times and the NYRB. He started his career as a promising literary critic (Naipaul was initially impressed) but soon switched to “native informant” mode, presenting and interpreting what he described as the angst, atomization, envy and ressentiment of newly emerging and fitfully modernizing India; a phenomenon that other elite commentators and foreign visitors were presumably failing to notice. He then expanded this theme to all of Asia and has finally graduated to interpreting the Metropole to the metropolitans themselves. This could have been a somewhat risky move, since Western reviewers who received his reports about the darker nations relatively uncritically, might well know enough about their home turf to become critical. But by and large, that has not happened; reviews have generally been favorable.
This is not one of those favorable reviews.
I found the book tendentious, shallow and repetitive, with quotes and facts cherry-picked from across his vast (but chronologically limited and highly Eurocentric) reading list, full of unfounded assumptions and opinions that are casually passed off with an “as everyone knows” air in practically every paragraph.
The book begins with a brief account of D’Annunzio’s occupation of Fiume in 1919. This relatively obscure episode is sprinkled with cherry-picked quotes and while the facts are mostly true, their significance is asserted rather than proven. This pattern is followed throughout the book; vast historical claims (e.g. that modernity led ultimately, not just transiently, to more immiseration in Europe; “First manifested in 19th century Europe – Bursts of technological innovation and growth offset by systemic exploitation and widespread immiseration“) are casually asserted as if they are already known and accepted by all sane-thinking people. There is no systematic description of what happened economically, socially or culturally in Europe (or elsewhere) in the last 200 years, and no data is ever offered to support any claims, but since these claims (sometimes stated, frequently just hinted at) are almost all prevalent (if only vaguely and without systematic evidence) in postmodern liberal European (and Westernized Desi) circles, so the book gets a pass in those circles; but the fact is that if you stop and dig into any random claim, the tone and the details will not pass muster.
It could be objected that this is not the point of the book. As Pankaj himself puts it:
“This books is not offered as an intellectual history; and it cannot even pose, given its brevity, as a single narrative of the orign and diffusion of ideas and ideologies that assimilates teh many cultural and political developments of the previous two centuries. Rather, it explores a particular climate of ideas, a structure of feeling, and cognitive disposition, from teh age of Rousseau to our own age of anger”
He goes on to say “It tries to show how an ethic of individual and collective empowerment spread itself over the world, as much through resentful imitation as coercion, causing severe dislocations, social maladjustment and political upheaval. ”
Marx said it better but this is not bad either. But unlike Marx, who offered a diagnosis and then a prescription (right or wrong), Pankaj goes on to dig through 200 years of (mostly European) intellectual history to find quotes and episodes that bewail this process of destruction of the old in action; but he never offers a diagnosis of why human beings and human societies created modernity in the first place (after all, even Europeans, or rather Anglo-Americans, who appear in this book as the only people who actually do things instead of just reacting to things being done to them, are also humans); nor does he offer any ideas about what an alternative may look like. What he does add to the diagnosis of some of the authors he quotes is a relentless focus on ressentiment as the quintessential human emotion; the secret sauce that explains everything that Pankaj does not like about the world today, from Trump and Modi to Erdogan and, somewhat surprisingly, the New York Review of Books (“a major intellectual periodical of Anglo-America“).
Resentment and envy drive everything in Pankaj-world. Herder and Fichte, for example, are “young provincials in Germany.. who simmered with resentment against a metropolitan civilization of slick movers and shakers that seemed to deny them a rooted and authentic existence”. This motif is repeated with variations throughout the book. Everyone (except the Anglo-Americans of course) is endlessly burning with resentment and hates who they are. It almost makes one wonder if the book is really about Pankaj digging through 200 years of intellectual history to find his own mirror image everywhere? But this would be to psychologize, and one should try to avoid that, even if Pankaj never does.
Perhaps all this would be fine if he was suitably humble about his own limitations, but of course, he is no such thing. There is a consistent tone of “I have discovered what all of you fools missed” throughout the book. That tone is grating, partly because what he has discovered is not very original, and partly because it is by no means certain that his assessment of the Enlightenment and its major thinkers is the correct assessment. I think it likely that the specialist who specializes in any thinker cited in this book will disagree with the flippant generalizations and cherry-picked quotes, but given that this treatment is being meted out to dozens of thinkers from across the globe and the specialist knows only his own, he may not realize that Pankaj is equally shallow about all of them. For example, he sums up Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire and Kant in one go with the dismissive “the universal commercial society of self-interested rational individuals that was originally advocated by such Enlightenment thinkers as Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire and Kant”; is this really a fair and reasonable summary of all that those subtle and profound thinkers wrote and thought? I think it is certainly part of what they said, but Pankaj has no use for their other insights. What he needs for his purposes is the code words “commercial, self-interested, rational”. He knows these will do their magic within his (superficially anti-capitalist) audience, and he is probably right.
Of course, doubts and misgivings about modernity have been the subject of countless works ever since the terms were invented. In fact, the reason Rousseau, Nietzsche and company are one of the two groups who dominate the quote-mining in this book (terrorists and anarchists are the other) is precisely because they did produce works that questioned and critiqued many Enlightenment assumptions. Pankaj, with his focus on resentment and envy is, if anything, a much more limited and shallow version of their work. This may sound harsh, but this book is really little more than a disorganized dictionary of selected (sometimes misleadingly so) quotations and sweeping generalizations about writers who generally thought deeper and harder than Pankaj does. So my suggestion, dear reader, is, why not read them?
Which brings us to another problem with this book; its complete lack of interest in all human history before 1688 and in all civilizations except the European civilization of the last 200 years. Again, one may say that they are not the subject of the book, but the problem goes deeper than that. Not only are they not the subject of the book, it seems that they are not of interest to Pankaj at all. He never shows any interest (or awareness) of humans as biological beings, evolved over millennia, with instincts, drives and abilities shaped by that evolution far more than they can ever be shaped by “modernity”, whatever that may be. He is not interested in 10,000 years of human cultural evolution or in the vast literature on the evolution of political order. And he seems to regard all non-European (or perhaps non-Anglo-American) civilizations as interchangeable place holders for “tradition”, trammeled under the boot of modernity. That China and the Chinese, for example, may not be exact counterparts of his native India, and may even be a civilization that regards itself (justifiably) as a world-leader, a source of many “modern” ideas, fully capable (and desirous) of joining the modern world on its own terms. But these are not notions to be found in Pankaj-land. To him, all non-Europeans are simply interchangeable primitives; “traditional” people driven by resentment and envy and, more to the point, doomed to fakery, imitation and disappointment.
Finally, there is the issue of conscious (or unconscious?) manipulation of facts and anecdotes to fit his agenda. Pankaj seems to know the prejudices and vague preconceptions of his postmodern Eurocentric audience, and he never misses a chance to push their buttons, even if it requires some subtle alteration of events. A few random quotes will illustrate this tendency:
“Turkeys Erdogan to India’s Modi, France’s Le Pen and America’s Donald Trump, have tapped into the simmering reserviors of cynicism, boredom and discontent”. Discontent, yes, but cynicism and boredom? Other than sounding good to his audience, how much sense does this really make?
Speaking of the 1990s “The Dalai Lama appeared in Apple’s “Think different” advertisements and it seemed only a matter of time before Tibet, too, would be free”. Did it? really? to whom? The only reason this sentence appealed to him is because it presses the right buttons. The Dalai Lama, check. Evil corporation Apple, check. Advertisement, check. Sheeple being fooled yet again, check. It is a theme, and it recurs.
He casually claims that the first televised beheading occurred “in 2004, (just as broadband began to arrive in middle-class homes) in Iraq, of a Western hostage dressed in an orange Guantanomo jumpsuit“. This is another classic example of Pankaj in action. It is hard to believe that he has not heard (or did not learn while Googling) that the televised beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl happened two years earlier in 2002; but that beheading was in Pakistan, involved Jew-hatred and did not include an orange Guantanomo jumpsuit. So it doesnt really evoke instant anti-imperialist memes in the way the Iraq invasion and Guantanomo jumpsuits do, so the example chosen has to be Iraq in 2004. And the “broadband arriving in middle class homes” is the cherry on the subliminal messaging cake. This is a minor point, but it is worth noting that even in the case of minor points, the rhetorical needs of Pankaj’s overall project are going to be paramount. The reader has to be on his guard.
“only on the rarest occasions in recent decades has it been acknowledged that the history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence” . First of all, it is by no means certain that this history is “largely one of carnage and bedlam”, but among those who think this is true, this has been the fashionable view for decades. Pankaj does not get to announce this as new news to the in-crowd.
“Wrought by the West’s transition to industrial capitalism and mass politics..“. We know he is against capitalism. Perhaps against industry as well. But is he also against mass politics? Pankaj will not say “the people” are ignorant, easily manipulated fools, but he is never too far from implying exactly that. It would be hugely interesting if he went deeper into this topic and reached some philosophically interesting (and perhaps even controversial) conclusions (aristocratic ones? under that “man of the people from Jhansi” exterior?) but this is another reason I am not a fan of his books. You get the party line, and nothing but the party line. The message is in fact NEVER controversial or new or shocking. it is exactly tailored to fit current postliberal fashions and where those fashions are internally contradictory, Pankaj will not venture. Sad!
By the way, he thinks Pope Francis is the “most convincing and influential public intellectual today”. Convincing? to whom? and MOST influential??
When it comes to Islam, he is even more predictable and safe. The following, for example, is a fairly typical example of clueless Euroliberal apologetics, and Pankaj may even know better, but he knows what buttons to push, so here it is.
(Osama and Zarqawi, not to speak of Al-Baghdadi, who has a PhD in Islamic studies, do in fact know a lot about the Islam of their ancestors. that the foot soldiers don’t know the theological details is neither here nor there; foot soldiers of other ideologies don’t know either)
He is not always wrong. In fact he is frequently perfectly correct, but in a trite and almost trivial way. For example, he says (correctly in my view) that “those routinely evoking a woldwide clash of civilizations in which Islam is pitted against the West, and religion against reason, are not able to explain many political, social and environmental ills”. Yes, but to hear him say it, you would think everyone except Pankaj thinks this is the case. But in fact, hardly any liberal commentators see this as the main explanatory framework for the world today. Debunking this to a liberal audience (and there is no other audience for this book) seems like the easiest of easy shots, not worth wasting 350 pages. But that is the problem with the book: in the end, it is just dumbed down propaganda, preaching to the converted, telling then what they already believed, but making them feel like they are participating in the unmasking of some deep and meaningful secret. This formula surely works as a way to sell books and get good reviews. But for anyone interested in new information or deeper insights, it is a waste of time. What Scruton said about Foucault’s “The order of things” (“an artful book.. a work not of philosophy but of rhetoric”) applies to this book too. Which is unfortunate. Pankaj is obviously intelligent and very widely read. He could do something more interesting than just artfully massaging the fashionable prejudices of his class and his audience.
Besides, while he hates this “soul-killing world of mediocrity and cowardice” he is also a Westernized liberal (or post-liberal) who cannot possibly stand alongside, say, the extreme Hindu or Islamic radical who says exactly the same things. To him, those people are justified in their rebellion (though he is not at all sympathetic to the Hindu variety, relatively gentle on the Islamist variety, and most forgiving of the Leftist variety, because of the particular politics of his own peer group) but at the same time he cannot really advocate any “return to traditional mores” because of course, those mores are patriarchal, heirarchical, transphobic etc etc.. Knowing this and knowing his audience, he never goes too far into this problem. But the problem is very real. If modernity is evil, then why not the premodern? And if that too is “problematic”, then we have a bigger human issue on our hands and all this handwaving has done nothing to bring us one step closer to a solution.
PS: a couple of other random screenshots
“Man..can no longer connect cause to effect”. OK, but that implies a return to very ancient isolation. Is that the solution? maybe it is, but you won’t hear more about it from Pankaj. He presses the button, makes you feel deep, and moves on.
The book is full of this sort of elevated pseudo-discourse..
We end where we began. We need to do something new. But what?
by the way, since Pankaj quotes Nietzsche on ressentiment, here is the original. Judge for yourself..