Partition, 70 years on: Salman Rushdie, Kamila Shamsie and other writers reflect

Pankaj Mishra

To think about partition on its 70th anniversary is to think, unavoidably, about the extraordinary crisis in India today. The 50th and 60th anniversaries of one of the 20th century’s biggest calamities were leavened with the possibility that India, liberal-democratic, secular and energetically globalising, was finally achieving the greatness its famous leaders had promised. In contrast to India’s grand and imminent tryst with destiny, Pakistan’s fate seemed to be obsessive self-harm.

The celebrations of a “rising” India were not much muted in 1997 and 2007, even as hands were dutifully wrung about the imperialist skulduggery and savage ethnic cleansing that founded the nation states of India and Pakistan, defined their self-images and condemned them to permanent internal and external conflict. Today, as the portrait of a co-conspirator in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi hangs in the Indian parliament, it is the scale and ferocity of India’s mutation that haunts our thoughts.

But should it really be so shocking? Were we too beguiled by the intellectual complacencies of historians and journalists, who turned liberal democracy, secularism, globalisation and economic growth into articles of a new faith?

It is of course easy to ignore the malign and enduring potency of partition. Many of our everyday experiences of pluralist identities comprehensively negate it. My own life has been enriched by Pakistani writers, musicians, cricketers and friendships across borders. Yet the Hindu fanatic who murdered Gandhi for being soft on Muslims and Pakistan exemplified early the lethal logic of nation-building. So did many avowedly secular Indian leaders who used brute force to hold on to Kashmir.

In many ways, Narendra Modi and his mob are completing the unfinished business of partition: the unification of a political community through identification and persecution of internal and external enemies. In conforming to this grimly familiar historical pattern, India has outpaced Pakistan, where regional differences serve to check a ruthlessly homogenising nationalism (and Islamism), and no single ideological movement is able to colonise all key institutions of the state and civil society.

We persuaded ourselves that India was somehow exceptional, immune to the political pathologies that have infected almost every nation on earth, and entered its bloodstream at birth. It is frightening to contemplate on this 70th anniversary what lies ahead for nuclear-armed south Asia. No illusions of a liberation from history, of a rising or emerging India, comfort us today. And we – Indians as well as Pakistanis – are forced to acknowledge the partition as the great atrocity that decisively shapes our brutish present.

Pankaj Mishra’s most recent book is Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Allen Lane).

Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Children was published a few months before the 34th anniversary of Indian independence in 1981, and another 36 years have elapsed since then. The novel now feels like a half-time report. The second half deserves its own novel, although I am not the right person to write it.

When my novel was published, some people criticised it for ending too gloomily. It’s true that much of the novel was written during the mid-70s “Emergency”, Indira Gandhi’s shameful 21-month suspension of democracy, and it bears the marks of that dark moment. But in the novel, as in real life, India emerged from the Emergency into a new day, and the narrator Saleem’s son Aadam represented the hope of a new generation. That new generation has grown up to inherit the world of midnight’s children, and India is becoming a different country. When I look at the last pages of my novel now, they feel almost absurdly optimistic.

The country is rapidly being pulled in the direction decreed by the proponents of “Hindutva”, Hindu nationalism, and away from the secular ideals of the founding fathers. To criticise this movement, in the age of the political Twitter troll, is to be branded “sickular,” or, even worse, a “sickular libtard”. Meanwhile, in the land of the sacred cow, people are being lynched for the “crime” of allegedly possessing or eating beef. History textbooks are being rewritten as Hindutva propaganda. The government’s control over a largely acquiescent news media (there are a couple of honourable exceptions) would be envied by the president of the United States, if he happened to concern himself with such faraway matters. The “world’s largest democracy” feels more authoritarian and less democratic than it should.

But the Modi government is popular. It’s very popular. This is the greatest difference between the India of Indira’s Emergency and the India of today. Back then, Mrs Gandhi called an election, wrongly believing she would win, and by doing so would legitimise the excesses of the Emergency years. But she was voted down resoundingly and driven from office. There is no sign that the Indian electorate will turn against the present government any time soon. Midnight’s grandchildren seem content with what’s happening. And that’s the pessimistic conclusion to volume two of the Indian story.

Salman Rusdhie’s latest novel, The Golden House, is published by Jonathan Cape in September.

Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie.
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 Kamila Shamsie. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

When I was growing up, partition was not so much a historical event as a family story. Partition had made half my family Pakistani and the other half Indian; partition meant my grandmother couldn’t get a visa to visit her dying mother; partition meant that while I cheered on Pakistan’s triumph against India in the 1987 Test series, my great-uncle, who was then visiting his sister/my grandmother, in Karachi, was despondent that his cricket team had lost. Partition also meant that I grew up in Karachi, multi-ethnic city of migrants, which I loved fiercely enough to make the loss of half a family seem like a price worth paying in a child’s black and white way of seeing the world.

But at the level of official and national conversation in Pakistan, 1947 was a year to which the word “independence” rather than “partition” was attached. It was in British text books and British Raj revival films that “partition” almost always trumped independence. Of course it did. To talk about the independence of Pakistan and India is to acknowledge the yoke of colonial rule. Far easier to talk about “partition”, with its implication of everything falling apart as the British left, as though the falling apart wasn’t the direct result of a policy of divide and rule. And so I’ve always been uneasy – and continue here to be uneasy – when I’m asked to talk about partition rather than independence in Britain.

But the complicated truth is that the entwined nature of independence and partition must be acknowledged. These were nations born as a result of a heroic opposition to imperial rule, but their birth was also marked by hatred and bloodshed. Contemporary conversations often focus on what that bloodshed means for India and Pakistan’s relationship to each other, but increasingly as I look at both nations, now so mired in violence towards their own minorities, I wonder what it means for each nation’s relationship to its own history, its own nature. There was never a reckoning for the violence of partition; that would have got in the way of the narrative of a glorious independence. Instead it became easier to blame the other side for all the violence, and pretend that at the moment of inception both India and Pakistan didn’t wrap mass murder in a flag and hope no one would notice the blood stains.

Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel, Home Fire (Bloomsbury), has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize.

Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid.
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 Mohsin Hamid. Photograph: Sarah Lee

Seventy years after partition, the old hatreds are alive and well. India is descending into an intolerant Hindu nationalism, apparently intent on imitating the religious chauvinism and suppression of dissent that have served Pakistan so poorly. In Pakistan, a moment where it seemed that the press might finally become free and elected civilian rulers might regularly complete their terms has passed.

We are back in the murk of the unsaid, the unacknowledged, the undemocratic. Soldiers of both sides are firing across the line of control in Kashmir. Nuclear stockpiles grow. Rhetoric is unmeasured, indeed often unhinged. A person brought forward in time from the murderous slaughter of 70 years ago would probably look around and say, yes, this is what I expected.

What a failure. A failure for all of us, who live in south Asia. And for all of you, who live abroad, in countries whose governments see only market sizes and geopolitical advantage, and turn a blind eye to the great and mounting danger your angry brothers and sisters pose to each other.

Mohsin Hamid’s most recent novel, Exit West, published by Hamish Hamilton, has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize.

Kiran Desai

Kiran Desai.
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 Kiran Desai. Photograph: Samuel Aranda/Getty Images

Every Saturday I suffer from a depression I call my Saturday depression. The main symptom of this is that when I look in the mirror I don’t see myself, I see a ghost. The sight of this ghost fills me with fear. I know this spectre is merely the cumulative result of one more week in one more year of many years of self-imposed isolation for the sake of a book I have been working on a long wh

Last Saturday to avoid my unavoidable depression I went to the Rubin Museum in New York to see the Henri Cartier-Bresson photographs of India. One section of the exhibition displays the photographs – I almost wrote paintings – that Cartier-Bresson took during the last days of Gandhi’s life and the days following his assassination. The photographs are painterly. Rather than emphasising a passing event, they have a staying presence; while the days they were taken were chaotic, they have a composed stillness; while it was surely noisy, the photographs are overcome by a hush – as if violence has blasted the scene still and all the millions of people in the crowds have been condemned to an eternal moment. The quantity of people is important here, and the fact that every individual in this crowd of millions appears to be missing his or her face. You cannot see the person for an emotion more primal than our human selves has consumed their individual natures to make them part of a whole catastrophic betrayal. Pandit Nehru wears the same loss as Brij Krishna, Gandhi’s secretary, as a man who has clambered up a tree for a view of the funeral pyre, as a refugee on a train leaving Delhi for Lahore.

I was glad to be alone for I found my face was wet with tears. But I wasn’t weeping over the past, I was grieving for the present. The political wing of the RSS, the organisation to which Gandhi’s assassin was once a member, is the party that runs the country now, and it exults in the same vocabulary of violence now as then. The faces of the poor are the same now as they were then. An exhausted labourer sleeps on the street beside his cracked shoes in the same way. The footage of a Muslim dairy farmer, Pehlu Khan, begging for his life before a Hindu mob, one of many such attacks this year – link back to these photographs as if the nation is condemned to forever return to the time of its conception. Perhaps India will never overcome this moment photographed here. Everything that has happened since feels fateful, cyclical, endless and pre-determined.

I thought for a guilty moment that I had no right to feel this for I had not been there to share it. But when I looked at these photographs, I didn’t see them from a foreign distance.

I remembered the story of a grand uncle jailed by the British — when he came out of prison he never left his room, he had been so damaged he stayed inside spinning khadi. He shared a special bond with my German grandmother who had sailed with a trunk full of china to marry the engineering student from East Bengal she had met in Berlin. She made a home in a country that would soon fight Germany alongside the British, became part of a family that was meanwhile fighting for Independence from the British. Everything a contradiction in ideologies, but not in the one thing that could undo it all, the personal story against all this history, all these wars.Gandhi’s funeral train leaves Delhi for Allahabad, the ancestral home of Nehru, reminding me of my childhood visits to my grandparents for my grandfather was a judge at the Allahabad high court. They were also Gujarati like Gandhi, and like millions of others had made a harsh journey away from their landscape, language, religion, their notion of caste for a secular ideal of India. My parents, born in British India, saw their childhood landscapes of Delhi and Allahabad alter beyond recognition as half the population departed for Pakistan. By the time I was born, things must have seemed comparatively quiet, although it was a year in which India and Pakistan went to war, but I too growing up had witnessed Delhi burning in another incarnation of violence. I remember the disabled Sikh gentleman down the road from us who was carried out of his house by a mob and never seen again.

I thought of my father who taught himself to read Urdu and took pleasure in reciting Faiz and Ghalib on his rooftop on a summer night. I thought of my mother’s book, In Custody, about a professor of Hindi literature trying to record the poetry of an Urdu poet. That India, the inclusive India, my natural birthright, is once again under threat, and it has always been so.

As I composed myself in the cool darkness of the museum before I stepped back into the bright summer day, I felt a private gratitude to Cartier-Bresson, for his example of an artist who erased himself becoming a ghost behind his little 35mm Leica in order to memorialise the erasure of others. While the pictures depict violence, looking at them restores one to a place of humanity.

Kiran Desai is the author of the Booker prize-winning The Inheritance of Loss.

Siddhartha Deb

A refugee camp in Delhi in 1947.
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 A refugee camp in Delhi in 1947. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Baniachang, the village in Sylhet from which my father’s family came, became part of East Pakistan in 1947. Today, after the secession of East Pakistan in 1971, it is in Bangladesh. I’ve never been there. How difficult was it, I thought when hearing my family talk about leaving Baniachang, for them to choose one kind of identity over another, in this case religion over language and culture? Partition, as books in recent years by Yasmin Khan and Vazira Zamindar have shown, was a different process depending on which part of it you were caught up in. The British and Indian elites making their new nations – men exemplified by the British viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, the future Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his hardline Hindu nationalist deputy, Vallabhbhai Patel, the Indian industrialist and Gandhi patron GD Birla – were all in a hurry to force the process through. Mountbatten insisted on 15 August 1947 as the date for partition, just two and a half months after the decision to divide the subcontinent had been made. The boundary commission headed by the barrister Cyril Radcliffe finished preparing their maps only on 12 August, although these maps would not be made public until 17 August, two days after partition

By then, the ethnic cleansing was well under way. Over a million were killed, thousands raped and abducted, and between 12 and 20 million displaced in the process. Trains criss-crossed the landscape with carriages filled with corpses. Those escaping on foot travelled in columns that were sometimes 45 miles long. None of this violence and pain has really worked its way into the official histories of Britain, India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. This is surely one reason why the partition shows an uncanny ability to replicate itself through the decades, in mini partitions, mini pogroms and the steady marginalisation and brutalisation of minorities that has become the governing spirit of nationalism in south Asia.

The Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, who reluctantly moved to Pakistan from Bombay after partition and found himself utterly disillusioned in his new nation, captured the situation best in his short story about patients in a Lahore asylum being divided up as assets for the new countries. The Sikh protagonist, named Toba Tek Singh after the village he comes from, is taken to the border to be sent to India, although his village happens to be on the other side, in what is now Pakistan. Lying down on “a bit of land that belonged to neither India nor Pakistan”, he refuses to take part in this process of exchange that has already blighted so many lives. Seventy years after Partition, Toba Tek Singh’s defiant madness evokes freedom better than anything achieved by the supposedly rational nations that came out of that bloody process.

Siddhartha Deb is the author of The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India, published by Penguin. An excerpt from his new novel, set in part against the backdrop of partition, will be published in the autumn issue of N+1.

Fatima Bhutto

Fatima Bhutto.
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 Fatima Bhutto. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

India takes its name from the Indus, which flows through Sindh, my hometown in Pakistan. The mighty river is a force that animates the legends of India and Pakistan. Mohenjo-daro, the seat of that ancient river culture, is shared – no matter modern partitions – between our two countries.

Today Hindus and Muslims gather to pray together to the saint Udero Lal, a form of the beloved Jhulelal, in the complex where both a temple and a mosque stand together. Jhulelal has many avatars: for Sindhi Muslims he is a manifestation of Qalandar, a Sufi mystic who travelled from the Middle East to our shores to bring the faithful closer to God; for Hindus, he is an incarnation of a Varuna, a Vedic god who ruled the oceans. Across the border, the holy city Varanasi is named partly in his honour.

I spent many days in my childhood among the bricks of Mohenjo-daro. My brother spent his teenage years journeying to Udero Lal. Both of us have driven hours from our home in Karachi to sit under the golden dome of the Sufi shrine of Sehwan Sharif, where rose petals are offered to the tomb of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar by all faiths. Last year, the shrine was bombed by Isis because of what it stood for – a refuge, a site of adoration and love, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Sehwan, the name of the town where Pakistani Sufism’s most cherished shrine stands, is believed by many to be derived from the name of the god Shiva.

Sindh’s syncretic culture, its centuries of tolerant co-existence and even its turbulent present defy the sectarian logic of partition. And I have faith that it will survive the disasters designed to flow from it, even 70 years on.

Fatima Bhutto’s most recent book, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, is published by Penguin.

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“A Much Maligned Mughal Emperor” By Audrey Truschke

Aurangzeb Alamgir, the sixth ruler of the Mughal Empire, is the most hated king in Indian history. He ruled for nearly 50 years, from 1658 until 1707, the last great imperial power in India before British colonialism. According to many, he destroyed India politically, socially and culturally.

Aurangzeb’s list of alleged crimes is long and grave. He is charged with fighting protracted, pointless wars in central and southern India and thereby fatally weakening the Mughal state. He is envisioned as a cruel despot who brutally murdered enemies, including his own brothers. He is regarded as a cultural dolt, uninterested in the extraordinary arts of south Asia, even hostile to them.

Above all, many modern Indians see Aurangzeb as a brutal oppressor of Hindus. He was a pious Muslim, and it is widely believed that he spent his long reign, nearly half a century, rampaging against Hindus and Hinduism. The popular story goes that Aurangzeb tried to convert all Hindus to Islam, and when that project failed he supposedly slaughtered millions of Hindus. People claim that Aurangzeb systematically destroyed Hindu cultural institutions, levelling thousands of Hindu temples. Some have even said that the reason why north India lacks the tall, elaborate temples that one finds in south India is because Aurangzeb smashed them all to pieces.

In 2015, a successful petition to rename Aurangzeb Road in Delhi summarised this despised ruler as ‘one of the most tyrannical tormentor perpetrator of Intolerant Inhuman Barbaric crimes in India [sic]’. However, these views of Aurangzeb owe more to myth than reality. Worse, the modern attacks on Aurangzeb are themselves rooted in dark motives.

Over the centuries, many groups have found Aurangzeb a convenient villain, for reasons more to do with their agendas than with Aurangzeb’s reign. The British, for example, disseminated great calumnies against him, as well as against other premodern Indian Muslim kings, because a barbaric Aurangzeb made British colonial rule look civilised by comparison. The British fostered their portrayal of Aurangzeb as a cartoonish bigot with misleading scholarly work, including selective and sometimes blatantly wrong translations of Mughal histories designed to highlight Aurangzeb’s alleged loathing for Hindus.

British colonialism ended in India 70 years ago, but their misrepresentations of the Mughals and other Indo-Muslim rulers have had a long and poisonous afterlife. In India, many still cite biased colonial-era British translations of Mughal texts as evidence of supposed Muslim wrongdoings. At least some of this reliance on questionable scholarship and translations is relatively innocent, but not all of it. Several notable groups in independent India have found maligning Aurangzeb to be useful for other, more sinister purposes, especially attempts to discredit modern Indian Muslims.

Today, Hindu nationalist groups lead the charge in creating a popular image of ‘Aurangzeb the bigot’. For Hindu nationalists, Muslims are a threat to India’s alleged identity as a fundamentally Hindu nation. Through most of the 20th century, Hindu nationalism was not a mainstream view. Especially after a Hindu nationalist assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, India’s beloved independence leader, in 1948, many Indians recoiled from the idea that India was or should be a Hindu nation. Instead, they embraced a view of India as a secular state, and a pluralistic one with equal room for followers of all religions. But, in the past decade, Hindu nationalism has surged in popularity, and in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu Right-wing political party, swept to power. More recently, in March of 2017, the BJP dominated legislative elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.

Despite its recent popularity, Hindu nationalism is an ideology with little, if any, grounding in Indian history. For most of its past, India was neither Hindu nor a nation, in the sense that Hindu nationalists typically use these terms. Mughal rule, a period in which a Muslim minority ruled over a Hindu majority in South Asia, embarrasses Hindu nationalists. If, as Hindu nationalists aver, India has long been a Hindu nation, why was it for a long time ruled by Muslims? Even more troubling to the claims of Hindu nationalism, why was Mughal India characterised by fruitful Hindu-Muslim relations in many areas, including state administration, literature, painting, music, and even religion and spirituality? Instead of admitting the complexity of the past, Hindu nationalists insist that religious oppression must have been the signature trait of Mughal rule. Aurangzeb’s reign in particular has become a focal point for this distortion.

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“We Committed Intellectual Suicide After 9/11” Pankraj Mishra

Did Osama Bin Laden’s 9/11 attack set in motion dominoes that is leading to destruction in the Muslim world and self destruction in the West? Worth reading interview on Pankraj Mishra’s book, Age of Anger. f.sheikh 

Historian and intellectual Pankaj Mishra’s latest book Age of Anger: A History of the Present, published earlier this month, presents what Mishra calls “an emotional history” at a time of “worldwide emergency” when rage fills the global political sphere. Mishra locates the core of our chaotic condition in the Nietzchean concept of “ressentiment,” a creative force that animates the rebellion of the poorest and most disenfranchised against the ruling class. It is this very force, Mishra argues, that is animating those most marginalized, its power whetted by the contradiction between the equality promised in prose and exalted in rhetoric but never delivered in reality.

Mishra recently traveled to the United States, during the pause between President Trump’s first travel ban on the citizens of seven Muslim countries, and all refugees, and the striking down of his new one. A few days after we spoke, the President’s new budget pledged to do away with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. The budget for the U.S. State Department is to be slashed while the U.S. Defense budget will be augmented by billions of dollars. It certainly seems that the world is at the brink of even more war, more destruction, more displacement, and more turning away. In our conversation, Mishra and I spoke about the prescience of Age of Anger and his framing of our bleak and divided global moment.

Rafia Zakaria: The very first page of your book describes its stages of production: beginning at Modi, writing through Brexit and published with the election of Donald Trump. When you were at the beginning of this intellectual journey, did you foresee how it would proceed, both in terms of the books and the politics it aspires to explain?

Pankaj Mishra: I wish I could claim that kind of prescience. I knew that things were going very wrong in Europe and that inequality was an issue in the U.S. I did not know Brexit would happen or that Donald Trump would be elected. I just thought that there would be very large number of people who would vote for him, but I hoped that not enough would go as far as actually electing a maniac and a troll to the White House. I wrote my book obviously taking into account the state of dissatisfaction, but I could not predict the political outcome.

RZ: A dominant theme in your book is dislodging the post 9/11 assumption that terrorism as a phenomenon must be pinned on Islam and Muslims. You write: “The experts on Islam who opened for business following 9/11 peddle their wares more feverishly after every terror attack.” Who are these “experts,” and to what extent do you see their cultivation as a threat to those they seek to represent? 

PM: We, and by that I mean “the intelligentsia,” made a catastrophic mistake after 9/11 when we located the roots of terror in Islam, saying that there is something peculiar in their political tradition that explains an eruption of violence. That perspective looked past the mixed history of terrorism, and we now see that regardless of whether it is in Burma or Thailand or India, militancy and terrorism emerge out of a confluence of socio-economic factors. It is a sign of desperation and despair. This idea that it belongs to Islam in particular is a very dangerous idea; it was made mainstream and it was legitimated not just by the far right who are in charge of policy today (and have been engaging in this puerile debate), but also by the liberal intelligentsia.

Francis Fukuyama, for instance, said there is something intrinsic about Islam which is just not compatible with modernity. Then there is Salman Rushdie and even Martin Amis, talking about mass deportation as part of a thought experiment that he offered to a journalist. In sum, all sorts of mainstream figures were advancing this Islamophobic discourse in very holistic and dangerous ways, and in the guise of teaching Islam or understanding Islam or helping the Muslim moderates. This is why we are where we are today.

 

Now we see that when bigotry leads the West, and the leading bigot in the U.S. is President, it becomes impossible to explain it in relation to Islam or Christianity. So we are looking at the dislodging of a whole interpretive paradigm that has proven an utterly useless way of understanding the world. We need an analysis that compares the fundamentalists of today, whether they are Muslim or Christian or Jewish supremacists; their misogyny, their antipathy to multiculturalism, is markedly similar.  It is what links them that needs to be explored, the shared experience of disruptive social change, psychological disorientation, scorn, and humiliation.

I just returned from Myanmar where Buddhist monks have become ethnic cleansers. I would challenge anyone to explain their violence from the content of Buddhism. None can be found; it is socio-economic. A large number of the monks feel their power is being in a globalized capitalist economy, and you have to understand that to explain how Buddhists are becoming terrorists. We committed intellectual suicide soon after 9/11 when we started thinking of Islam as a generator of violence.

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There is no such thing as ‘western civilization’

Worth reading article by Kwame Anthony Appiah questioning the notion that the values of liberty, tolerance and rational inquiry are the birthright of a single culture. In fact, the very notion of something called ‘western culture’ is a modern invention.

Like many Englishmen who suffered from tuberculosis in the 19th century, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor went abroad on medical advice, seeking the drier air of warmer regions. Tylor came from a prosperous Quaker business family, so he had the resources for a long trip. In 1855, in his early 20s, he left for the New World, and, after befriending a Quaker archeologist he met on his travels, he ended up riding on horseback through the Mexican countryside, visiting Aztec ruins and dusty pueblos. Tylor was impressed by what he called “the evidence of an immense ancient population”. And his Mexican sojourn fired in him an enthusiasm for the study of faraway societies, ancient and modern, that lasted for the rest of his life. In 1871, he published his masterwork, Primitive Culture, which can lay claim to being the first work of modern anthropology.

Primitive Culture was, in some respects, a quarrel with another book that had “culture” in the title: Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, a collection that had appeared just two years earlier. For Arnold, culture was the “pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”. Arnold wasn’t interested in anything as narrow as class-bound connoisseurship: he had in mind a moral and aesthetic ideal, which found expression in art and literature and music and philosophy.

But Tylor thought that the word could mean something quite different, and in part for institutional reasons, he was able to see that it did. For Tylor was eventually appointed to direct the University Museum at Oxford, and then, in 1896, he was appointed to the first chair of anthropology there. It is to Tylor more than anyone else that we owe the idea that anthropology is the study of something called “culture”, which he defined as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. Civilisation, as Arnold understood it, was merely one of culture’s many modes.

Nowadays, when people speak about culture, it is usually either Tylor’s or Arnold’s notion that they have in mind. The two concepts of culture are, in some respects, antagonistic. Arnold’s ideal was “the man of culture” and he would have considered “primitive culture” an oxymoron. Tylor thought it absurd to propose that a person could lack culture. Yet these contrasting notions of culture are locked together in our concept of western culture, which many people think defines the identity of modern western people. So let me try to untangle some of our confusions about the culture, both Tylorian and Arnoldian, of what we have come to call the west.

Someone asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of western civilisation, and he replied: “I think it would be a very good idea.” Like many of the best stories, alas, this one is probably apocryphal; but also like many of the best stories, it has survived because it has the flavour of truth. But my own response would have been very different: I think you should give up the very idea of western civilisation. It is at best the source of a great deal of confusion, at worst an obstacle to facing some of the great political challenges of our time. I hesitate to disagree with even the Gandhi of legend, but I believe western civilisation is not at all a good idea, and western culture is no improvement.

One reason for the confusions “western culture” spawns comes from confusions about the west. We have used the expression “the west” to do very different jobs. Rudyard Kipling, England’s poet of empire, wrote, “Oh, east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet”, contrasting Europe and Asia, but ignoring everywhere else. During the cold war, “the west” was one side of the iron curtain; “the east” its opposite and enemy. This usage, too, effectively disregarded most of the world. Often, in recent years, “the west” means the north Atlantic: Europe and her former colonies in North America. The opposite here is a non-western world in Africa, Asia and Latin America – now dubbed “the global south” – though many people in Latin America will claim a western inheritance, too. This way of talking notices the whole world, but lumps a whole lot of extremely different societies together, while delicately carving around Australians and New Zealanders and white South Africans, so that “western” here can look simply like a euphemism for white.

Of course, we often also talk today of the western world to contrast it not with the south but with the Muslim world. And Muslim thinkers sometimes speak in a parallel way, distinguishing between Dar al-Islam, the home of Islam, and Dar al-Kufr, the home of unbelief. I would like to explore this opposition further. Because European and American debates today about whether western culture is fundamentally Christian inherit a genealogy in which Christendom is replaced by Europe and then by the idea of the west.

This civilisational identity has roots going back nearly 1,300 years, then. But to tell the full story, we need to begin even earlier.


For the Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BC, the world was divided into three parts. To the east was Asia, to the south was a continent he called Libya, and the rest was Europe. He knew that people and goods and ideas could travel easily between the continents: he himself travelled up the Nile as far as Aswan, and on both sides of the Hellespont, the traditional boundary between Europe and Asia. Herodotus admitted to being puzzled, in fact, as to “why the earth, which is one, has three names, all women’s”. Still, despite his puzzlement, these continents were for the Greeks and their Roman heirs the largest significant geographical divisions of the world.

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