As séances go, says Timothy Larsen in the latest issue of Books & Culture, most tend to be awfully one sided: a question, a gust of wind, a tap on the desk, a flicker of the lights. Not much of a dialogue, he says, which sadly tends to be the way we deal with the dead even when we’re using the tools of history and not a Ouija board.
The pillaging of the past for clear and unambiguous stories that make sense of the present day is not a new problem, but it’s earned a special place in the conflagration in Iraq in the last month. Yesterday, the New York Times ran some easy reading on how “Longtime Rivals Look to Team Up to Confront ISIS,” a feel good round up about how pretty much everyone in the region is grudgingly putting aside old enmities to face ISIS/ISIL together. “I don’t think there’s been anything like this since the seventh century,” quoted one former American ambassador. It’s a delicious piece of journalistic overstatement, but it also fingers the pitiless, and instrumentalist, way the history of the region is often picked over in the moment to score today’s talking points.
There has, in fact, been something like this since the seventh century. The now accepted truism that Shia and Sunni Muslim traditions are nearly eternal and intractable enemies neglects not only the basic political-theological history of a region, often defined by its mutual vulnerability to external threats (say, the Mongol demolition of central Asia), but also long histories of exchange and dialogue between groups that might alarm us. S. Frederick Starr in his important new book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane makes a long point that not only did scholars and theologians across ‘long time rival traditions’ engage in regular debate and dialogue, but that dialogue was itself the fruit of a great deal of scientific, philosophical, theological, and medicinal innovation. Further, he speaks at length of the central Asian legacy of these achievements, not only their Islamic origin, harkening both to Zoroastrian and Buddhist roots of what only retrospectively gets called the Islamic renaissance of culture and science. We hear stories about paper making in Khwarazm, of that jewel of trade and culture Samarkand, the astronomical sophistication of Balk, and the urban academies of Merv.
But to read (some) political commentary on war in the region today would convince you that rival political-theological traditions of Islam have been making total war on each other since the first Fitna (656-661). This is true in the same way as the wars of religion in Europe (1618-1648) were an uncomplicated contest between Protestants and Catholics, an easy history which all but the most committed dogmatics have long since abandoned. In fact, the history of central Asia is replete with historical facts on both sides of the argument – of fitnas and dynastic war, but also of interreligious, scientific, and cultural renaissance.
It serves present-day sensibilities, and sensationalism, to give a picture of a region/religion that is hopelessly and eternally divided, driven to aligning tactically on the back of the atrocities of ISIS/ISIL. Tactical alignment, as Nasr says, may be a present reality, but it is neither a first, nor last time, something like that has happened in a region, one time Center of the World, one time home of the world’s greatest, most enduring empires. Dan Philpott writes about the global resurgence of religion that the more interesting question is not ‘why religion is back’ but ‘why we [in the West] ever thought it went away.’ Larsen might say a version of that question is the more interesting for central Asia too. The more interesting question is not ‘why regional interests have aligned for the first time since the seventh century’ but ‘why we ever thought they hadn’t before.’