Thursday 10 May 2007

A bad history lesson

'A bloody warning to today's imperial occupiers'. That's travel writer William Dalrymple's verdict on the Indian mutiny of 1857, in a provocative article in today's Guardian. According to the strapline for the piece, 'echoes of the arrogance and lies that sparked insurgency could not be clearer'.

In an earlier post I counted Dalrymple among those liberal Catholic commentators (the foremost being Madeleine Bunting, but the list also includes Karen Armstrong, Christine Odone and Paul Vallely) who have attempted to 'understand' the feelings of Muslims following events such as the publication of the Danish cartoons. As I said then, this show of empathy derives from an admirable Christian instinct to identify the good in other religions, even if one could wish that it were accompanied by an equally strong liberal instinct to defend freedom of expression.

However, I think Dalrymple's latest article goes way beyond understandable inter-faith empathy. It uses dodgy historical parallels as part of an attempt to 'understand' the 'resistance' in Iraq and possibly Afghanistan - though it's in the nature of these attempts to find 'equivalence' that their authors are strangely reluctant to come clean about exactly what they're saying.

I've been an admirer of Dalrymple's writing in the past: White Mughals was a superb work of historical re-creation and I enjoyed his TV documentary on the music of Sufism. But in his most recent book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, which has just been published in paperback (now there's a coincidence), and in this article, he has tried to draw some pretty questionable 'lessons' from Britain's imperial past for today's conflict with political Islam.

Whatever virtues Dalrymple's argument might have are undermined by the use of a lazy rhetorical device to create false parallels between past and present realities. For example, he repeatedly uses the word 'insurgency' to describe resistance to 19th century imperialism, and employs the term 'new conservatives' (just like today's neo-conservatives - geddit?) to refer to the evangelical Christians who were apparently increasingly influential in imperial policy - not to mention labelling a parliamentary paper of 1856 a 'dodgy dossier'. The trouble with this kind of anachronistic levelling, besides the fact that it glosses over real historical differences, is that it doesn't actually tell you anything. It's like rebranding Japanese kamikaze pilots as 'suicide bombers' in an attempt to draw parallels with today's jihadists - when in fact their aims and ideologies are utterly different. It can be useful for comic effect - as when The Life of Brian gave us anti-Roman zealots (the Judean People's Liberation Front) speaking in the language of a Marxist splinter group - but serious historical analysis? I think not.

Dalrymple claims that 'there is much about British imperial adventures in the east at this time, and the massive insurgency it provoked, which is uneasily familiar to us today.' Really? Can we really draw useful parallels between the attempts of a Victorian nation to hold on to its empire, and today's campaigns by western democracies to rid Afghanistan of fundamentalist extremism or Iraq of a fascist dictator?

Dalrymple states that under British rule in India 'local laws which offended Christian sensibilities were abrogated - the burning of widows, for instance, was banned'. I'm not enough of a historian to know whether Dalrymple's attempt to characterise the Empire as a Christian campaign to suppress Islam and Hinduism is justified, but what exactly is he saying here? Does he think that banning widow-burning was a bad thing, or that it's only Christian sensibilities that might be offended by it? Is he making some implicit link with the attempt by Britain and the US to roll back the oppression of women under the Taliban - and once again, is he saying that's a bad thing?

This kind of nudge-nudge parallel-drawing is a consistent and irritating feature of the article, as here:

Though it reflected many deeply held political and economic grievances, particularly the feeling that the heathen foreigners were interfering with a part of the world to which they were alien, the uprising was consistently articulated as a defensive action against the inroads missionaries and their ideas were making in India, combined with a generalised fight for freedom from western occupation.

So William, are you saying that there's a parallel here with Iraqi insurgents - and if so, do you think that their 'defensive action' is justified as part of a 'generalised fight for freedom from western occupation'- rather than being the desperate actions of an increasingly isolated minority of murderous fundamentalists, disappointed by the results of UN-backed elections?

Dalrymple discusses the attempt by British imperialists to see the Indian mutiny as a Muslim conspiracy:

Like some of the ideas propelling recent adventures in the east, this was a ridiculous and bigoted oversimplification of a more complex reality. For, as today, western politicians found it easier to blame "Muslim fanaticism" for the bloodshed they had unleashed than to examine the effects of their own foreign policies. Western politicians were apt to cast their opponents in the role of "incarnate fiends", conflating armed resistance to invasion and occupation with "pure evil".

Hang on, exactly what kind of recent 'bigoted oversimplification' are we talking about here? Maybe the argument that the Taliban were creating an oppressive fundamentalist state that was a base for the export of mass terrorism? And how many times does it have to be stated that the fanatical death cult that is Bin Ladenism uses western 'foreign policies' as a convenient pretext for its murderous activities. To quote Ed Husain:

When the political pretexts of Palestine and Iraq have been dealt with, Wahhabi-inspired militants will turn to other social grievances. Drinking alcohol, 'impropriety', gambling, cohabitation, inappropriate dress - these and a host of miscellaneous others will become excuses for jihad, for martyrdom, feeding the tumour of Islamist domination which grows in the Wahhabi and Islamist mind.

Finally, whatever your definition of 'pure evil', surely blowing up dozens of your fellow citizens in a crowded market-place comes pretty close?

Dalrymple ends his article with a claim that the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and western imperialism have 'long been closely and dangerously intertwined.' Well, maybe, but what does that tell us? It looks like an attempt to excuse contemporary extremism by laying the blame on things that 'we' did 150 years ago, rather than accepting that the perpetrators of terror might be agents in their own right and bear some responsibility for their actions. Then there's a familiar attempt to see fundamentalism on every side:

In a curious but very concrete way, the fundamentalists of all three Abrahamic faiths have always needed each other to reinforce each other's prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the lifeblood of the others.

Once again, this exercise in western self-flagellation conveniently lets the extremists off the hook: if we're all to blame, then nobody's to blame.

Maybe Dalrymple should stick to travel writing, rather than engaging in this kind simplistic historical analysis, which can only give comfort to the apologists for reactionary fundamentalism.

No comments: