Enlightenment and empire

Alongside the debate among foreign-policy analysts about a “post-Western world” that I discussed in a recent post, there has also been another, oddly disconnected debate about the future of the West as a normative project that, particularly since 9/11, has been dominated by two opposing groups. On one side of the argument are anti-imperialists, who see the relationship between the West and the rest of the world predominantly in terms of the concept of empire and are therefore critical of Western policy and even of the concept of the West. On the other side of the argument are what might be called “Enlightenment fundamentalists” (the term comes from Timothy Garton Ash, who, in an article in the New York Review of Books in 2006, described the Dutch-Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a “brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist”), who attempt to defend the values of the West, which they see as being under threat.

This divide between anti-imperialists and “Enlightenment fundamentalists” began to emerge during the debate about humanitarian intervention in the nineties. For example, at the time of the Kosovo war in 1999, the New Left Review had a special issue on “the imperialism of human rights”. In it, Tariq Ali wrote that the real, “sordid” objective of the NATO military intervention – whose stated aim was stop ethnic cleansing – was to extend American hegemony by establishing “a bridgehead against Russia”. But the debate has sharpened since 9/11 as anti-imperialists and “Enlightenment fundamentalists” have fought over the West’s response to terrorism and in particular the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Anti-imperialists tend to focus on Islamophobia rather than the terrorist threat itself, which they view as exaggerated or even as unreal. “Enlightenment fundamentalists”, on the other hand, believe that we are engaged in an ideological struggle analogous to the struggle against fascism or totalitarianism in the twentieth century – what the neoconservative Norman Podhoretz calls “World War IV”.

It seems to me, though, that both sides of this somewhat polarised debate have a blind spot in their thinking. Anti-imperialists – predominantly but not exclusively on the left – tend to have a somewhat one-sided view of empire. They dismiss the export of Western “values” – whether the British ban of the practice of suttee in India in the nineteenth century or the US promotion of education for girls in Afghanistan in the twenty-first – as a mere pretext or cover for what is really the expansion of power and therefore see the West as cynical and hypocritical when it talks about democracy or women’s rights. This, it seems to, leads to a tendency to ignore the progress that Western power sometimes brings with it – not just in terms of economic development (although this is itself important in terms of improving ordinary people’s quality of life) but also culturally and socially. Because they are so concerned with a threat from the West, they also tend to downplay threats to the West – hence the way some anti-imperialists defend figures like Subhas Chandra Bose.

“Enlightenment fundamentalists”, on the other hand, tend to have a somewhat simplistic and even old-fashioned view of the Enlightenment. They miss what Adorno and Horkheimer, writing after Auschwitz, called the dialetic of enlightenment – the idea that the Enlightenment was an incomplete project that had internal contradictions. As a result, “Enlightenment fundamentalists” tend to see Western values as completely unproblematic. The best example is probably Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It is striking, for example, that in her book Nomad – which is entirely about the relationship between the West and Islam – Hirsi Ali mentions the history of colonialism only once and even then in a positive sense (she describes Christianity as “a civilising force under colonialism in Africa”). As I said my review of the book for the New Statesman last year, it sometimes feels as if she is writing in the eighteenth century rather than the twenty-first.

It seems to me that the other problem with this debate, which focuses on the perceived cultural threat to the West from Islam and the West’s response to it, is that it is oddly disconnected from the broader debate about the relative decline of Western power and its effects that I discussed in my previous post, which focuses more on the economic rise of emerging powers like China and India. As a result, both sides of the argument seem somewhat out of touch with the reality of a “post-Western world”. Thus the anti-imperialists tend to underestimate the genuine threat to Western values – including those in which they themselves believe. Meanwhile the “Enlightenment fundamentalists” assume Western values are so compelling in their own right – despite their association with imperialism – that they tend to ignore or dismiss the need to find ways to make the narratives on which they are based speak to people in the world beyond the West.


One thought on “Enlightenment and empire

  1. “Enlightenment fundamentalists” assume Western values are so compelling in their own right – despite their association with imperialism – that they tend to ignore or dismiss the need to find ways to make the narratives on which they are based speak to people in the world beyond the West.

    This is a very good and important point you make. A variation on that same theme which could well apply to those whom you describe as “anti-imperialists” is what amounts to the notion that there is no need of new narratives which would (or maybe just might) draw together different peoples and cultures.

    The “enlightenment fundamentalists”, who could just as well be described in terms of their secularist and modernist features, are well advised to take into account a not very uncommon perception which Seyyed Hossein Nasr puts forth in his book, The Heart of Islam:

    … it is forgotten that modernism is itself one of the most fanatical, dogmatic, and extremist ideologies that history has ever seen. It seeks to destroy every other point of view … If one is going to speak of “fundamentalism” in religions, then one must include “secularist fundamentalism,” which is no less virulently proselytizing and aggressive toward anything standing in its way than the most fanatical form of religious “fundamentalism.” [p. 109]

    Closely related to this and at the same time serving as a bridge between the “enlightenment fundamentalists” and the “anti-imperialists” is Thomas Molnar’s analysis (in Return to Philosophy) of the modern Western drive for social utopianism as represented in the thinking of John Rawls:

    Rawls directs his attention to the domestic situation in the United States, which he regards as the most advanced society, a model for others … The task is … a search into the conditions of survival of American society as it is presently constituted …

    In A Theory of Justice, Rawls spelled out his general object: the shared principles of justice that can unify and stabilize liberal democracy. He has learned, however, that by now, after the general evacuation of all truths from Western philosophical and political discourse, there remain no comprehensive moral conceptions, “neither political nor metaphysical.” The only valid approach for defining justice is to do away with the requirement of truth … Rawls’s concern is to neutralize the recalcitrant concept of political truth and justify an obviously baseless consensus … in the name of the new absolute: utility. [p. 71]

    It is this denial or “evacuation of all truths” which is also easily found (or perceived) in the “anti-imperialists” who often seem to insist (at best) on a stasis that follows from and depends on insularity.

    Neither the “enlightenment” nor the “anti-imperialist” versions of fundamentalism are adequate for the resolution of the sorts of problems at hand today, although aspects of both could be useful to the formulation of new shared narratives, new manners of expression that are most certainly necessary for there to be a hope of making differences between peoples and cultures less problematic.

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