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Getting to the bottom of the great divide

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Jean Dubail

We Americans often as sume that the constant turmoil in the Mideast stems mainly from an ancient enmity between Arabs and Jews. But as British historian Anthony Pagden argues in the timely and provocative "Worlds at War," this enmity is actually of recent origin and only partly religious in nature. The real divide is not between one people and another, he says, but between the cultures of East and West, and this contest has been going on for 25 centuries.

The first great battle was fought in 490 B.C., on the plains of Marathon. As Herodotus recognized, it was more than a clash of Greeks and Persians; it was also a clash of worldviews, pitting the individualistic, freedom-loving Greeks, led by democratic Athens, against the slavish Persians, ruled by cruel despots who knew no law but their own whim. The war between Greeks and Persians ended in a Greek victory, but it proved to be merely the first skirmish in the struggle between East and West.

Not all Greeks shared Athenian values, of course, and more than two millennia would pass before democracy took root anywhere else. But the ideas birthed in Athens - the human-centered view of the universe, the value placed on the individual, equality before the law - spread throughout Europe under the Roman Empire. In the lands between the Mediterranean and India, meanwhile, empires rose and fell with little change in the relationship between peoples and their rulers.

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This difference persisted after the West became Christian and the East became Muslim.

Pagden is a good writer, and his erudition is impressive. The book is full of well-chosen quotations from a wide array of sources: from the Bible and the Koran to Montesquieu and Osama bin Laden. The author puts great weight on the Gospel story in which Jesus draws a distinction between the things rendered to God and those rendered to Caesar. This distinction, he argues, underlies the concept that religion and politics occupy separate spheres, that the law of God and the laws of men are not identical. The Renaissance and Reformation, Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution affirmed and strengthened this separation, so that the West, culturally understood, is today practically synonymous with secular liberal democracy.

In the Muslim East, by contrast, no such distinction was made or even thinkable. The law of God is law for men. And while the arts and sciences often flourished in Muslim countries - it is owing largely to the Arabs that Greek learning survived the Dark Ages - politics remained a matter of tribes and empires.

Add to these fundamental differences the claims to exclusivity of both Islam and Christianity and the hostility between East and West seems foreordained.

Pagden is adept at taking the long view; he needed fewer than 200 pages to cover the history of European migration and conquest in 2003's "Peoples and Empires." This book is more expansive, but it covers 2,500 years with great skill and economy.

True, Pagden's conclusions are more than a little sweeping, and an attentive reader is sure to think of many qualifications and objections. But just as a few loose threads shouldn't blind us to the beauty of a tapestry, a few quibbles shouldn't lessen the value of this enlightening book.

Dubail is The Plain Dealer's assistant managing editor/online.

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