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The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West


By Anthony Pagden


Random House. 625 pp. $35


Tuesday, December 9, 2008; C02


Traditional historians, like traditional Christmas revelers, love chestnuts, those succulent, oft-repeated stories that have long served to spice up the bland fare of Western history. Seldom have so many of these crusty old tales been related with such elegance and, at times, page-turning gusto as in "Worlds at War." But seldom, too, have such confections been put to such strongly ideological uses.


Anthony Pagden's classicist wife planted the seed of this book after looking at a picture of Iranians at prayer. She noted that Persians kneeling before a king -- not, mind you, before God -- had puzzled the ancient Greeks, and she suggested to her husband that he write a book about "what Herodotus calls the 'perpetual enmity' between Europe and Asia." But Herodotus was talking about the Athenian confrontation with Xerxes, not America's fight with al-Qaeda 2,500 years in the future.


The "perpetual enmity" that Pagden describes here is his own triumphalist construction of European ideology. His lively tour through strife-torn centuries lavishes coverage on Alexander the Great crushing Persians, Romans conquering Egyptians and Syrians, Charles Martel stopping Muslims at Tours, storybook episodes from the Crusades and the Christian reconquest of Spain, two heroic defenses of Ottoman-besieged Vienna, Napoleon invading Egypt and Bush raining "shock and awe" upon Iraq. That's a lot for one book, but Pagden's tactic of giving as little voice as possible to the Eastern foes of these Western paladins makes the job easier. His history is not actually about two worlds at war. It is a history of Western self-glorification in confrontations with Eastern powers.


The East itself is only occasionally heard from, sometimes through Pagden's own bizarre interpretations -- at one point he denies Islam's claim to being monotheistic by calling it a version of dualistic Manichaeism -- but more often through disparaging comments mouthed by Western ideologues. Faced with the inconvenient truth that Islamic science and philosophy jump-started Europe's Renaissance and scientific revolution, for example, he quotes the 19th-century French philosopher Ernest Renan: "[Islam is] the heaviest burden that humanity has ever had to bear. . . . [The Muslim is] absolutely closed to science, incapable of learning anything, or being open to any new idea." If Abdus Salam, Pakistan's devoutly Muslim Nobel Prize laureate in physics, were still alive, I'm sure he would feel obliged to turn in his medal on reading such words.


Alas, Pagden is not above manipulating his story for partisan ends. Osama bin Laden's terrorism, for example, is chronologically misplaced, so as to imply that Israel's wars had something to do with the rise of militant jihadism. Israel's 1967 defeat of its nationalist Arab foes, he writes, "forced upon the entire Muslim world a new vision of the struggle between Islam and the West," namely a vision that places Islam, and ultimately bin Laden, at the center of things. The next pages, however, describe an Islamic political trend that began in the 1880s and became militant in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood well before Israel came into being. The fact is that the Six-Day War had nothing to do with Islam, militant or otherwise. Some Muslims did eventually turn to militant religion, but not because of the defeat. The actual responses continued to be secular and nationalist, taking the form of Palestinian resistance organizations (al-Fatah, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, etc.) and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, in which Egypt attacked Israeli forces occupying the Sinai Peninsula.


Furthermore, many comments about Easterners, such as "before [Napoleon's army] landed on the beaches at Alexandria, ordinary Muslims had had no previous contact with the 'Franks' [i.e., Europeans] since the thirteenth century," are patently silly. Pagden elsewhere deals extensively with conflicts -- he keeps mum on trade and cooperation -- between Muslims and Europeans during every one of the intervening centuries.


Despite his credentials as a UCLA history professor, Pagden gets names, titles and terms wrong . . . but only those pertaining to Easterners. Neither he nor his publisher seems to have felt that the manuscript needed a read-through by someone knowledgeable in Arabic, Persian or Turkish. For example, on Page 284 "turgh" should be "tugh," and on Page 285 Silhadar Findikhh Mehmed Agha should be Silahdar Findikli Mehmed Agha.


Readers who found that Samuel Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations" only whetted their appetite for anti-Muslim, pro-Western raw meat will find much to slaver over in "Worlds at War." But Muslims and open-minded people who abhor the tide of Islamophobia that is steadily rising in the United States and Europe will shake their heads in sadness at the distortions served up here.


Near the book's close, Pagden asks the question: "Who says that tolerance, dialogue, and understanding are virtues? The answer is invariably: secular Westerners. The religion of the Prophet is not one of polite conversation." It is regrettable that Pagden himself, otherwise a proudly secular Westerner, makes no effort to practice the virtues he extols or even to engage in polite conversation.

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