Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Crimean War and Religious Conflict . . .

Image from Website of Orlando Figes

I had no idea the Crimean War was so interesting, but the New York Times review by Gary Bass, "Why the Crimean War Matters" (July 8, 2011), of The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes, makes that war sound fascinating and even important, if overshadowed by the two great world wars of the twentieth century.
This is history with an argument. Figes maintains that the conflict was essentially a religious war, and he is frustrated that most writers have neglected that theme: "If the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the rise of militant Islam have taught us anything, it is surely that religion plays a vital role in fueling wars." Figes writes of Russians and Turks clashing over "religious battlegrounds, the fault line between Orthodoxy and Islam," and explains that "every nation, none more so than Russia, went to war in the belief that God was on its side." The Crimean War "opened up the Muslim world of the Ottoman Empire to Western armies," and "sparked an Islamic reaction against the West which continues to this day." The title of the British edition of the book is "Crimea: The Last Crusade."
The 'last crusade'? Sounds as though it might also well be subtitled the 'modern jihad.' But neither Figes nor Bass think in terms of a perennial religious conflict:
As Figes himself emphasizes, ideologues, whether Islamist or Christianist, who seek historical evidence of a permanent war between Islam and Christianity will have to look elsewhere. Britain and France fought for the Ottoman Empire. And Western and Eastern Christians despised each other, sometimes more than they loathed Muslims.
I might here note that this is precisely what Samuel Huntington would have expected, for he distinguishes between Western and Orthodox civilizations, and Figes himself -- as quoted by Bass -- uses language that sounds remarkably like Huntington's: "the fault line between Orthodoxy and Islam." The review, however, does not mention Huntington's clash-of-civilizations thesis, nor does the book itself, if one can trust an Amazon "Search Inside This Book," for a search of "Huntington" comes up as "0 results for Huntington"!

As my exclamation point indicates, I find this rather astonishing. Has Huntington's language of "fault lines" so pervaded intellectual discourse that even scholars themselves are unaware of their debt? That seems rather incredible.

That point aside, however, the review is well-written. I read it together with my fourteen-year-old daughter, and she said that it made the book come alive. It certainly made me want to read this book, which rather surprised me since I only with reluctance undertook to read the review.

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At 9:03 AM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

Interesting point about Huntingdon, as I read in another recent review that dismissed his thesis as just superseded Cold War ideology.

At 11:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I also have some problems with Huntington's thesis, but I think that there's something to it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Sperwer said...

Yeah, it's pretty essentialist

At 2:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The essentialism can be reinterpreted with enough sociological sophistication, I think.

The problem that I have is with Huntington's inconsistency. He divides Christianity into two civilizations -- Orthodox and Western -- but presents Islam as the basis for a single civilization despite a distinction between Shiites and Sunnis that is arguably greater than that between the two branches of Christianity.

Jeffery Hodges

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