East and West Divided by Long, Bitter History

UCLA Professor Anthony Pagden's "Worlds at War" lays the historical groundwork for the political thinking that many feel is badly needed in our globalized post-9/11 world. In a wide-ranging interview, Pagden talked to Today Staff Writer Ajay Singh about what separates the West from the non-West and how the East-West divide might be bridged.

This article was first published by UCLA Today Online.

"East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," declared the British writer Rudyard Kipling in one of the most well-known ballads of the 19th century. The poetic refrain echoes a historical reality brilliantly presented by Anthony Pagden, a professor of history and political science, in his latest book, "Worlds at War: The 2,500-year struggle between East and West." Published by Random House this past spring, the widely reviewed book is the latest in a string of scholarly but highly accessible historical epics for which Pagden is noted.

Pagden is one of the world's foremost experts on empire. In this book, he masterfully delineates the boundaries between East and West, highlighting how nations are built on shared memories, both good and bad, and why victory and defeat in battles is an important element of nationhood. Educated in Chile, Spain, France and Oxford, the author reminds us that the millennia-long East-West conflict is far from over. As such, "Worlds at War" lays the historical groundwork for the political thinking that many feel is badly needed in our globalized post-9/11 world. In a wide-ranging interview, Pagden talked to Today Staff Writer Ajay Singh about what separates the West from the non-West and how the East-West divide might be bridged.

Worlds at War

Is this the kind of book you've long wanted to write or was there a particular reason that prompted it?

It's a continuity of my work on European empire. In a sense, it goes back to a set of experiences I had in the late 60s and early 70s in Cyprus and Eastern Turkey before I went to Oxford as an undergraduate. And also the fact that I started life as a student of Persian and Arabic and then switched over to history. But obviously anybody who's experienced 9/11 and lived through the experiences of the last 15 years or so can't fail to have asked themselves some kind of questions concerned with why we've got ourselves in this entrenched position and what the history of it might be.

Are the East and West terribly entrenched?

Yes. And I can't see any way out at the moment for either side. Their histories are fairly long and the memories of these histories are profound. It's something Americans tend to forget — they're in a part of the world where the sense of time is very different, where each generation has forgotten what the previous generation lived through. In other areas of the world people don't forget what the previous generation lived through. They haven't forgotten what happened in the First World War and in many cases haven't forgotten what happened in the 14th and 15th centuries. They may not be real memories, real representations of either the East or the West. The whole point of my book is how these images are recycled over time, how they're used politically.

But if Muslim extremists neither represent Islam nor Eastern traditions, leave alone a large number of democratic nations, does the Al Qadea's war against the West amount to an enmity between Eastern and Western civilizations?

The position Al Qaeda represents is an extreme form of what does exist in quite a large number of states in which Islam is predominant. In Saudi Arabia and Iran — the most obvious examples, religion plays a considerable role and is very closely bound with mechanisms of power. The problem about such states is that the positions taken by the various political actors are constantly driven by factors of an essentially nonpolitical kind, which have to do with visions of 'otherness' and a world beyond this one and life after death and so on.

The extreme representation of that is a group like Al Qaeda. I don't claim for a minute that it represents the large majority of Muslims. But the problem is that there are states like Saudi Arabia whose ideologies are very similar to that of the Al Qaeda — and they have become in a sense frontline Muslim states. And that's something you can't turn your back on.

If certain states have historically been at war with each other for a variety of unrelated reasons, is it fair to describe their conflicts in terms of an East-West struggle?

It's not fair if you take a long-term position. But — and I keep on stressing this in my book — these divisions are Western conceptions. Predominantly because of the longest conflict between the 'Orient' and the 'West,' namely the conflict between the various states of Europe and the Ottoman Empire, an image emerged in the West of something called the Orient — sometimes a caricature, sometimes not. And as a consequence of the decline of the Ottoman Empire from the 17th century on, an image of the West was exported from the Ottoman world to the East. The central piece of the conflict — and this is crucial to Al Qaeda's manifestation of itself — is this Ottoman–European conflict. It's a long imaginary conflict between East and West that is played out from the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottomans to the re-conquest of Constantinople by combined allied forces.

So why not call it a conflict between Christianity and Islam, both crusading faiths?

That's a perfectly reasonable question. What I try to do in the book is to track it back further because it isn't just a conflict between Christianity and Islam but also a conflict between ways of life they represent. The European states chose to represent themselves as something older, namely the Greco-Roman world, of which there is less in the Eastern side. I wanted to try and suggest that there’s something more at stake than just one religion pitted against another. After all, both are heresies of Judaism and have more in common with each other than anything else — something that Islam recognizes and to a great extent Christianity doesn't.

So I wanted to show that behind the religious issues lie ones of conflict over what kind of societies you live in, how you organize your lives and, crucially, who is that controls the law. That is the point I keep on making in the book: Who makes the law. Is it God or man? And the answer that the West came up with, after considerable struggle, is that it's man — human constructs for human use and nothing more than that.

Europe's memory of these conflicts is of course deeper than America's. Is that why the cover illustration for the British edition of "Worlds at War" plays into the stereotypical representation of the East as being lustfully rapacious, whereas the U.S. edition depicts a more neutral image?

That's right. The English illustration, which shows a massacre in a bazaar in Cairo by Napoleon's troops, represents a stereotype of the West and the East and a crucial moment of slaughter, an imperial moment. It's a French image of the East but it's also an image of rapaciousness. The cover of the U.S. edition is a more subtle rendering about a conflict in the 19th century between a Turk and a Greek who are very closely alike. They're wearing a similar dress because they're both Ottomans — one is an Ottoman Turk, the other is an Ottoman Greek. It represents the struggle within the Ottoman world and its eventual break up.

A point I wanted to get across — and a lot of the book reviewers failed to pick up on it — is that these two blocks of cultures have an enormous amount in common, and a common origin apart from anything else. And that was my reason for taking history back to the beginnings — to show how Europe comes out of Asia (and Asia in the European sense is the land West of the Himalayas, not the other side). So the image of these two men, both very similarly dressed, seemed to me to emphasize both the similarities of their origin and the fact that nevertheless there is this enmity between them.

You refer to Samuel Huntington’s 'Clash of Civilizations' thesis as a 'crude but useful phrase.' How is it useful?

Simply because you have these civilizations, rather than structural political entities, at war with one another. It's difficult to get around it since it (the conflict) has been there for so long. When Bin Laden was asked whether there was a clash of civilizations, he said yes, of course. That's what it is. It's something that just resonates. Yet it is very crude.

Do you think people in the West also share that conception?

I think increasingly people do. The clash of civilizations has now replaced race to a certain extent. People are not being singled out because they're a different color; they're being singled out because they’re Muslim. You know, I was in London and my wife was just one block away from where those bombs went off. I have friends who were going to the (train) station when it was blown up. I should have been in New York on September 11 but I changed my dates the day before.

So when you're that close to these things happening to you, it's very difficult to think things very carefully and try and control your emotions and to not think in those terms. I think there's a great deal of mounting hostility to Muslims within Europe and a great deal of mounting hostility within Muslim communities in Europe, which didn't exist before.

What role has 20th-century globalization played into this conception of enmity between East and West?

Globalization as an economic phenomenon has made labor more mobile. In Europe there's been a massive migration (of Muslims) from all over the former European colonies — and this has very much changed the ethnic landscape in quite dramatic ways. On the other hand, if there's any hope that we can get past old, entrenched views, globalization's going to help it. We are moving slowly into a world in which there is much greater diversification — people see things in much more global terms. I have two teenage children who see things in the world in a way that is completely different from the way I saw the world as a teenager.

You use the phrase 'perpetual enmity' in your book. What do you mean by it?

That was borrowed from Herodotus. It was Herodotus's term for why the Greeks fought the Persians. The cast of characters change, the images change but there is a sense of continual warfare between Europe and Asia over 2,500 years. And what I was looking at is why this is so. Why is it in that particular part of the world that Islam arises? Why doesn't Islam arise in, you know ... France? There are obvious reasons for that — but they are reasons that are linked in some sense to that continual history. They are historical and cultural reasons.

Are you fairly optimistic that globalization can halt this conflict?

We have to learn to forget — I think that's the crucial point. The European Union is a great masterpiece of forgetting. If we couldn't forget the First World War, the Second World War, the Napoleonic Wars, we'd still be fighting each other. And that was about the determination to bring an end to internecine conflict between European states, using economic means. It was on a small scale. Globalization is something like that — but on a world scale.

Can globalization be accelerated?

The standard Western way of dealing with regime change — send in an army, followed by a ballot box, hoping that the people who vote are going to vote the way you want them to vote — isn't going to solve things. Take Iraq. In the beginning stages of the Iraq war, lots of people kept invoking the Marshall Plan, which was later dropped. The Marshall Plan was the one piece of really successful (post-World War II) American policy that succeeded because it gave people resources. If they had produced schools and welfare systems and all of the infrastructures that weren't there in Iraq, there might have been some hope. If you use economic development and the world market as a forefront for democratization, you've got some chance of success.

How do you see the future?

It seems very bleak at the moment. One can only hope nothing stupid's done about Iraq. There's a great deal to be said for the rising power of China and India. There's great hope that the force of their economies will bring about a kind of universalization, not homogenization, that will perhaps bring these other states into its thrall eventually.

Published: Tuesday, August 05, 2008