When Disordered World, Amin Maalouf’s book on the post-9/11 decade, appeared in French two years ago it was a potent and lucid counterblast against the simplistic prophets of a clash of civilisations, and a cri de coeur against a pinched form of globalisation so divorced from universal values that instead of bridging the world it divided people into global tribes.
With a foot in the west and the east, Maalouf, an Arab-Christian from Lebanon who lives in France and writes his magnificent historical novels in French, long ago identified a pernicious global slide into identity politics, above all in his seminal essay, On Identity (2000), and in a more ruminative personal memoir, Origins (2008).
In Disordered World, the sweep is much greater, from a fascinating comparison between the Catholic papacy and the Islamic caliphate to consumerism and climate change, and no review can do justice to its limpid prose. But it is his empathetic examination of Arab political failure, the way in which the Arabs’ sense of faded glory, lost self-esteem and cultural despair had turned explosive, that connects it back to these earlier works – and forward to the revolutions unfolding across the Middle East.
In light of this year’s extraordinary events, the appearance in English of Maalouf’s book (with very slight changes aside from a new preface) might be seen as too bleak. That would be a mistake. With his consciously nurtured multiple identity, Maalouf is just the sort of interlocutor this period needs. He reaches deep into unmined seams of cultural history, scything elegantly through cliché and conventional models of received wisdom. This is a primer for an era in which history has most emphatically not ended and which needs someone of his sensibility joining up some of the dots.
The book starts with the “misleading victory” of the west over the Soviet Union. This triumph, which Maalouf celebrates, nevertheless “greatly diminished the quality of political debate all over the planet”, exchanging ideological divisions for divisions along identity lines. Instead of a “new, mobilising form of humanism” the disordered world is moving away from “universalism, rationality and secularism” towards “a reinforcement of inherited allegiances”. In the Arab-Muslim world, moreover, disfigured by “a local, nationalistic brand of Stalinism”, a western mix of support for tyranny and tactical alliances with religious movements such as the Mujahideen in Afghanistan “meant that at the end of the cold war the Islamists were on the winning side”.
While “the west has given humanity more than any other civilisation” the victory of its model has triggered its decline, “not because its civilisation has been overtaken by others, but because it has been adopted by others”, from China to India. The attraction the Soviet system long exercised on the third world paradoxically delayed this decline. Now, Maalouf argues, a US-led west has had its moral standing eroded, not least by its serial recourse to war. After contributing so much to universal values, it has lost the ability to transmit them.
An avid consumer of technology, Maalouf observes that the digital revolution, coming at a moment in history when identity politics was being unleashed and the triumph of the US as sole superpower had raised the question of legitimacy at a global level, has helped regroup people into “global tribes” sheltering inside self-reinforcing narratives.
The second part of the book is above all about legitimacy. There was no paradox in Ataturk’s successful attempt to defeat the Europeans and then Europeanise the new Turkish republic. Turks followed him because he had salvaged their self-respect. The Shah of Iran may have envisaged similar reforms but he was discredited, as the illegitimate protégé of western powers. For a brief and intoxicating time, Nasser restored Arabs’ sense that “they had recovered their dignity, and were able to hold their heads high alongside other nations” after generations of defeats, capitulation and foreign intrusion. It was an illusion. Nasser’s triumph in the 1956 Suez crisis was real but a geopolitical fluke. His pan-Arab nationalism, based ultimately on rule by the secret police and the army, turned out to be an ideological wild goose chase and ended in disastrous defeat in the 1967 Six Day War with Israel.
But Maalouf suggests – more as a question than an answer – that the Arabs, recovering their dignity through their heroic struggle against tyranny, now have the chance to resume being actors in their own history. The upending of the despotic order, which Islamist insurrectionaries serially failed to do, may cause the world to look on the Arabs anew, just as the west now sees Japan and China in a different light to a century ago. “As soon as a people acquires the image of being a winner, every aspect of its civilisation is looked at with interest and automatic respect by the rest of the world,” he writes.
However much the west may have failed to live up to its values in dealing with the Arabs and other peoples, the idea of freedom, which Maalouf traces back to pre-Christian origins in Roman law and Athenian democracy, has lost none of its power.
David Gardner is the FT’s international affairs editor and author of ‘Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance’ (IB Tauris)
Disordered World: Setting a New Course for the Twenty-first Century, by Amin Maalouf, Bloomsbury, RRP£20, 288 pages