WORLDS AT WAR by Anthony Pagden


The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West
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Is there a “clash of civilizations” between the Muslim world and the West? Scholars and pundits are divided; this broad-ranging survey comes down in the affirmative, even if the formulation is a “crude but useful phrase.”

Pagden (Political Science and History/UCLA; Peoples and Empires: A Short History of European Migration, Exploration, and Conquest, from Greece to the Present, 2001, etc.) observes that one habit of the ancient Persians puzzled the Greeks most: their prostrating themselves before rulers and gods, which was not the behavior of free people. The habit still puzzles the West, and the gulf grows ever wider. Pagden’s chronicle of a long history of mutual incomprehension begins in the age of Xerxes and wanders leisurely through ancient history, observing that “Oriental luxuriousness” set many a centurion off the straight and narrow. As Plutarch remarked, Plato wrote of four kinds of flattery, “but Cleopatra knew a thousand” and, as Pagden adds, used every one of them. Muhammad cherished luxury not at all, as the austere religion his followers spread at the point of a sword clearly indicated. That religion, writes Pagden, carried with it “perpetual hostility between Islam and both Jews and Christians.” Charged with this enmity and posing few intellectual obstacles to impede access by ordinary people, Islam became a world religion uniting ethnically diverse cultures from western Africa to the western Pacific. In the permanent battlefield that was Moorish Spain, this new religion clashed with Christianity; the front would widen to embrace the Balkans and spread into Europe as far as Vienna, where only an army of united Christian nations could stem the tide. Later encounters with Islam were no more peaceful, though peacemakers have tried: Napoleon reckoned, for instance, that as long as it was kept out of civil society, religious belief was permissible, a formula that lately met with anguished protest when French educators tried to ban the veil (and the cross, and the Star of David) from the classroom.

A cheerless but useful history.

Pub Date: March 11th, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6067-2
Page count: 640pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2007