Academics are a touchy lot. First, the liberal Roman Catholic academics who questioned the bona fides of a man who writes op-ed columns for — get this — the liberal New York Times!!!. Now, a history prof (thanks to John Fea) in Wales who faults Niall Ferguson for not showing poper deference to professional specialization in an op-ed column about Islam and Europe:
Gibbon, then, saw the demise of the Roman empire in the fifth century as a peculiarly western tragedy; it was also one that risked happening again. No modern specialist of the period would accept Gibbon’s analysis as anything more than the posturing of an Enlightenment intellectual decrying the forces of “superstition” and “barbarism”. That Ferguson chooses to do so fits neatly with the primacy and ascendancy of the West in his historical vision. In this he is not alone: a string of right-wing commentators in the United States have expounded a similar vision equating modern America with ancient Rome, and issuing dire warnings that it risks a similar fate. This perspective has been subject to withering deconstruction by the late Jack Goody, who argued in his The Theft of History (2006) that much of world history has been shoehorned into a narrative framework derived from and designed to satisfy the experience of the West. It also purposefully leaves out of the picture the dynamic interactions and genuinely shared histories of the West and the rest of the world. But that is not a story that suits an agenda of “us” pitted against “them”.
What’s odd about this quibbling is that I don’t suppose Dr. Humphries would disagree with Ferguson about the barbarity of the Paris attacks. So barbarism, as bad as that word it, carries a degree of plausibility after what we’ve seen from the efforts of ISIS.
Nor do I suspect Dr. Humphries would really dispute the primacy and the ascendancy of the West to which Ferguson appeals. Sure, Humphries likely laments that supremacy as much as Ferguson celebrates it. But would Europe and North America really be facing Islamic terrorists if not for the dominance of the West in the Middle East? In fact, would the West even be the source of a global political and economic order had not Europeans began to fight back against Muslims first in the Crusades and then in the Reconquista and beyond? Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World was partly inspired by a hope to find more precious metals to fund the defeat of Islam. Would Jack Goody’s point about the “theft of history” even make sense if not for the West (for good — my living in the U.S. — and for ill — slavery) dominating the globe?
Again, that’s not to say that the West is innocent or should be celebrated. It doesn’t take a lot of historical imagination to appreciate Muslim resentment about the presence of Christians and westerners in formerly Muslim dominated territories. It may not even take much imagination to acknowledge that all people celebrate war and defeat of enemies — think the Battle of Lepanto and the Rosary. But simply to fault Ferguson for insensitivity to the standards of historical journals in the service of an op-ed piece while also failing to concede the sources of the historic opposition between Christendom and Islam, whether in its overtly Christian or secularized versions for Europeans, is to get lost in the weeds of academic pretense.
Would the French and Muslims be served better by reading historical monographs or by recognizing the antagonism divides them?