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.
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.
( Worth reading article by Joel Mokyr in Aeon. I posted an article on same subject in 2105 on this website and argued that Europe was the right place for the Renaissance because it has already network of schools and universities and new knowledge spread to public at large quickly and at the same time it provided infrastructure for inquisitor minds to explore further. In comparison, during Golden age of Islam the knowledge was limited to few cities and few elites while pubic at large was neither receptive nor was much exposed to the new knowledge. When Mongols destroyed these big cities of knowledge, nothing much was left to re-emerge or re-vitalize it. f. sheikh)
How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Learned tomes by historians, economists, political scientists and other scholars fill many bookshelves with explanations of how and why the process of modern economic growth or ‘the Great Enrichment’ exploded in western Europe in the 18th century. One of the oldest and most persuasive explanations is the long political fragmentation of Europe. For centuries, no ruler had ever been able to unite Europe the way the Mongols and the Mings had united China.
It should be emphasised that Europe’s success was not the result of any inherent superiority of European (much less Christian) culture. It was rather what is known as a classical emergent property, a complex and unintended outcome of simpler interactions on the whole. The modern European economic miracle was the result of contingent institutional outcomes. It was neither designed nor planned. But it happened, and once it began, it generated a self-reinforcing dynamic of economic progress that made knowledge-driven growth both possible and sustainable.
How did this work? In brief, Europe’s political fragmentation spurred productive competition. It meant that European rulers found themselves competing for the best and most productive intellectuals and artisans. The economic historian Eric L Jones called this ‘the States system’. The costs of European political division into multiple competing states were substantial: they included almost incessant warfare, protectionism, and other coordination failures. Many scholars now believe, however, that in the long run the benefits of competing states might have been larger than the costs. In particular, the existence of multiple competing states encouraged scientific and technological innovation.
The idea that European political fragmentation, despite its evident costs, also brought great benefits, enjoys a distinguished lineage. In the closing chapter of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789), Edward Gibbon wrote: ‘Europe is now divided into 12 powerful, though unequal, kingdoms.’ Three of them he called ‘respectable commonwealths’, the rest ‘a variety of smaller, though independent, states’. The ‘abuses of tyranny are restrained by the mutual influence of fear and shame’, Gibbon wrote, adding that ‘republics have acquired order and stability; monarchies have imbibed the principles of freedom, or, at least, of moderation; and some sense of honour and justice is introduced into the most defective constitutions by the general manners of the times.’
In other words, the rivalries between the states, and their examples to one another, also meliorated some of the worst possibilities of political authoritarianism. Gibbon added that ‘in peace, the progress of knowledge and industry is accelerated by the emulation of so many active rivals’. Other Enlightenment writers, David Hume and Immanuel Kant for example, saw it the same way. From the early 18th-century reforms of Russia’s Peter the Great, to the United States’ panicked technological mobilisation in response to the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, interstate competition was a powerful economic mover. More important, perhaps, the ‘states system’ constrained the ability of political and religious authorities to control intellectual innovation. If conservative rulers clamped down on heretical and subversive (that is, original and creative) thought, their smartest citizens would just go elsewhere (as many of them, indeed, did).
A possible objection to this view is that political fragmentation was not enough. The Indian subcontinent and the Middle East were fragmented for much of their history, and Africa even more so, yet they did not experience a Great Enrichment. Clearly, more was needed. The size of the ‘market’ that intellectual and technological innovators faced was one element of scientific and technological development that has not perhaps received as much attention it should. In 1769, for example, Matthew Boulton wrote to his partner James Watt: ‘It is not worth my while to manufacture [your engine] for three counties only; but I find it very well worth my while to make it for all the world.’
On the 29th of January 1926, Chaudhry Muhammad Hussein and Bibi Hajira Hussien had a baby boy at their two-bedroom abode in Jhang. They named him Abdus Salam; ‘servant of peace’.
“I was born in the country town of Jhang, then part of British India, now Pakistan, in 1926. My father was a teacher and educational official in the Department of Education and my mother was a housewife. I had 6 brothers and 1 sister. My family was by no means rich.
Salam had his early schooling in Jhang city.
“When I was at school in about 1936 I remember the teacher giving us a lecture on the basic forces in Nature. He began with gravity. Of course we had all heard of gravity. Then he went on to say “Electricity. Now there is a force called electricity, but it doesn’t live in our town Jhang, it lives in the capital town of Lahore, 100 miles to the east”. He had just heard of the nuclear force and he said “that only exists in Europe”. This is to demonstrate what it was like to be taught in a developing country”
At the age of 12, Abdus Salam was admitted to Jhang’s local college for his intermediate education.
In the following article, published in the Urdu monthly magazine `Tahzeebul Akhlaq’ in January 1986 (translated by Mr. Zakaria Virk), Salam narrates his account of the time he spent at Jhang College.
“I was admitted to Jhang College, Pakistan in 1938 at the tender age of 12. I spent four years there. In those days it was an intermediate college, grade 9, 10, first year and second year classes were taught there. The majority of students in the college were Hindu. It was my good fortune that I had some of the exceptionally learned and most affectionate teachers assigned to me.
The foundation of my academic career was laid in this college. I believe that I owe all of my later accomplishments to this institution and to its hard-working teachers. I firmly believe that a teacher’s affection and his proper attention can make or break a student.”
A hero’s welcome
Right from the start, Salam was deeply invested in his academic growth. At 14, he scored record breaking marks in Punjab university’s matriculation entrance exams.
I remember returning home around 2 p.m. in the afternoon on my bicycle from Maghiana to Jhang city. The news of my standing first in the exam had already reached Jhang city.
I had to pass through Police Gate district of Jhang city to reach my home in Buland Darwaza. I distinctly recall that those Hindu merchants who normally would have closed their shops due to afternoon heat, were standing outside their shops to pay homage to me. Their respect for me and their patronage of education has left an indelible impression on my mind.”
Mathematics at Government College Lahore
In 1942, Salam joined the Government College University at Lahore. He enrolled to study Mathematics A and B, and English. Apart from being somewhat of a prodigy at mathematics, Salam was also seen as a highly able student of the English language by his mentors. It is recorded that some of his tutors thought he would make a great English teacher.
First paper and a scholarship
In Mathematics, Salam published his first paper in 1943. It was titled, “A problem of Ramanujan”. He graduated next year with jaw-dropping scores: 300 out of 300 marks in Mathematics, 121 out of 150 in English Honours. He stood first at his university, breaking all records in the B.A examination. As a result of Salam’s high scores, he secured a scholarship for further studying mathematics at Cambridge University’s prestigious St John’s College.
“I wrote my first research paper when I was about sixteen years of age which was published in a mathematics journal but I wasn’t actually hooked on research till I went to Cambridge University.
“I was very fortunate to get a scholarship to go to Cambridge. The famous Indian Civil Service examinations had been suspended because of the war and there was a fund of money that had been collected by the Prime Minister of Punjab. This money had been intended for use during the war, but there was some of it left un-used and five scholarships were created for study abroad. It was 1946 and I managed to get a place in one of the boats that were full with British families who were leaving before Indian Independence. If I had not gone that year, I wouldn’t have been able to go to Cambridge; in the following year there was the partition between India and Pakistan and the scholarships simply disappeared.”
Salam at Cambridge
I remember my first day at St. John’s College in London, England. When I arrived there my 40 kilogram luggage bag was brought from the railway station by a taxi driver. On arrival at the college I asked a porter for help. He pointed towards a wheel-barrow and told me to help myself. These incidents I am narrating here not for the sake of pastime but the subject at hand is education whereby these anecdotes become part of getting a point across.
While being groomed in a quintessentially British environment at Cambridge University, Salam did not lose sight of his purpose of being there. His grades spoke volumes about his performance.
As K.K Aziz points out in this book, The Coffee House of Lahore, “He got a first both in preliminary in 1947 and Part II in 1948, and then gave up Mathematics for the time being because on the higher level it could not be fully mastered without a good knowledge of physics. In an unprecedented performance, he read Physics for one year and took its Part I and II together in 1949; scoring a first and surprising even his teachers.”
His time at Cambridge ended, for the time being, with a PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory at St Johns’. By the end of his tenure, he had made a mark in the scientific fraternity as a promising young scientist.
‘Intellectual isolation’ in Pakistan
In 1951, after having won a number of awards and accolades, Salam was ready to move back to Pakistan. He dismissed an opportunity to spend a year at Princeton University (where Professor Albert Einstein was too!) and took up the offer to head the mathematics department at GCU. Unfortunately, his time in Lahore was turbulent right from the start. The university allegedly failed to give him an official accommodation. Salam, with his wife, moved in with his colleague Qazi Mohammad, a professor of Philosophy at GC. To resolve the matter, Salam scheduled a meeting with the Minister of Education, Abdul Hameed Dasti. The minister, dismissively said to Salam; “If it suits you, you may continue with your job; if not, you may go.”
Prominent historian Khurshid Aziz in his book, The Coffee House of Lahore, narrates two incidents that exemplify Abdus Salam’s time at GC.
Salam, the football coach
“Professor Sirajuddin, asked him (Abdus Salam) to do something to earn his keep besides his teaching. He was given three choices: to act as Superintendent of the Quadrangle Hostel or to supervise the college accounts or to take charge of the college football team. Salam chose to look after the footballers. Occasionally, at the end of his chore at the University Grounds, he would drop in at the Coffee House and tell me (Khurshid Aziz) about his bitterness on being forced to waste his time. A man who had worked 14 hours a day at Cambridge as a student had now hardly any time to read new literature on his subject, and the facilities in the college laboratory were dust and ashes compared to the Cavendish Laboratories where he had worked as an undergraduate and a doctoral student. It was not difficult to take the gauge of Salam’s frustration.”
Leaves without permission
“A more serious contretemps occurred in the Christmas Holidays of the same years. Professor Wolfgang Pauli, the 1945 Nobel laureate of physics and a friend of Salam, was visiting Bombay on the invitation of Indian science association. He sent a telegram to Salam wishing to see him and asking him if he could come to Bombay. Salam, who had been craving to talk to a peer in his field, at once left for India, and spent a week with Pauli. On his return to Lahore, he was charge sheeted for absenting himself from his station of duty without prior permission. Salam was shocked. He was used to European freedom of movement and had been part of Pakistani bureaucratic set-up for a mere three months. The principal made so much fuss about the incident that Salam feared that he might be dismissed from the education service. At this point S.M. Sharif, the director of Public instruction of the Punjab, intervened and the period of Salam’s absence was treated as leave without pay.”
Riots strike Lahore
In February 1953, anti-Ahmadiyya riots set the city of Lahore ablaze. Incidents of looting, arson attacks spread across not just Lahore but to other parts of Punjab as well. Somewhere between 200 and 2000 Ahmadis were feared to be murdered.
When the dust settled, Abdus Salam had returned to St Johns’ College as a mathematics lecturer.
A fresh start
I returned to Cambridge in 1954 as a lecturer and Fellow of St. John’s College. Three years later, I accepted a professorship at Imperial College, London, where I succeeded in establishing one of the best theoretical physics groups in the world.
Despite his move from Pakistan, sections of the Pakistani academia and intelligentsia had begun to value Abdus Salam as an asset. He was inducted in 1954, as a fellow at the Pakistan Academy of Sciences.
Finding home at the UN
In 1955, Abdus Salam had his first brush with the UN as scientific secretary at the first Atoms for Peace conference. He also helped set-up the United Nations Advisory Committee for Science and Technology. The experience was memorable, as he narrated in an interview, years later.
Abdus Salam in conversation with WBGH.
Heading the Theoretical Physics department at Imperial College
In 1957, Abdus Salam joined Imperial College London, initially, as a lecturer of applied mathematics. By next 1960, he was bestowed with the responsibility of chairing the Theoretical Physics department, along with Paul Matthews.
In both Cambridge and London, Salam had formulated a team of scientists to work with, a majority of whom were Pakistanis. One such scientist was Munir Rashid.
In an interview with Dawn.com, he spoke about the kind of work ethic that characterised Salam.
Scientific secretary for the Government of Pakistan
President Field Marshal Ayub Khan appointed Abdus Salam as his Chief Scientific Officer. With this appointment, Salam endeavoured to improve the standard of scientific progress in Pakistan, using his newly legitimised influence as a leading scientist. During the 60’s Abdus Salam gained influence in Pakistan’s domestic scientific policy and established a number of scientific institutions in Pakistan.
Establishing science in Pakistan
By now, Professor Abdus Salam was juggling a hectic schedule. A lot of his time was spent travelling, mentoring PhD students around the world, delivering lectures and speeches on science and its development. Central to his professional ambitions was the idea of developing science in the third world. Despite the obstacles in his path, Salam devoted his energies towards establishing scientific institution in Pakistan. Together, with I.H Usmani, another Pakistani scientist, Salam set out to lay the foundations of science in Pakistan. He became a member of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission and under the ‘nuclear’ umbrella, did much more than just enhance Pakistan’s nuclear energy capabilities.
Abdus Salam in conversation wit WGBH
Setting up ICTP in Trieste
The International Centre for Theoretical Physics was another brainchild of Professor Abdus Salam. Professor Salam believed in potential that scientists from the third-world could offer to the global scientific community. ICTP was set up in Italy’s Trieste after attempts to establish such an institution in Pakistan failed. His colleague Munir Rashid narrates:
Munir Rashid in conversation with Dawn.com
The notion of a Centre that should cater particularly to the needs of physicists from developing countries had lived with me from 1954, when I was forced to leave my own country because I realised that if I stayed there much longer, I would have to leave physics, through sheer intellectual isolation.”
Munir Rashid in conversation with Dawn.com
Finding peace in a nuclear world
In 1968, Salam received the Atoms for Peace award for his efforts in “making the world aware of the benefits to be gained from using nuclear knowledge for peace, health and prosperity.”
Setting up Pakistan’s first nuclear power plant
In 1970, Salam helped set up Pakistan’s first nuclear power plant in Karachi with the help of Canadian and Chinese engineers.
“I am a humble man,” Salam would often say, whenever confronted with a complication. In all his humility, Salam’s generosity was a quality that many of his colleagues and pupils associated him with. He was known to spend out of his own pocket to make it possible for budding scientists in the developing world to realise their potential.
“Funds allotted for science in developing countries are small, and the scientific communities sub-critical. Developing countries must realise that the scientific men and women are a precious asset. They must be given opportunities, responsibilities for the scientific and technological developments in their countries. Quite often, the small numbers that exist are under-utilised. The goal must be to increase their numbers because a world divided between the haves and have-nots of science and technology cannot endure in equilibrium. It is our duty to redress this inequity.”
Munir Rashid remembers the time when the 1974 anti-Ahmadiyya legislation was passed under Bhutto’s regime. Rashid, who also belongs to the Ahmadiyya sect, talks about how they reacted to the legislation. In what may have been a silent protest, Salam started to grow a beard after 1974. When asked why? His response reflected the emotional scar that had been left on Salam.
Munir Rashid in conversation with Dawn.com
Winning the Noble Prize for Physics
The pinnacle of my physics career came in 1979 when I shared the Nobel Physics Prize with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for our unification of electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force in the ‘electroweak’ (a word which I invented in 1978) theory, one of the major achievements of twentieth century physics. This theory had made predictions that could be verified by experiment. The most revealing of these was that a new particle exists at extreme energies. To test this theory we had to convince the experimental physicists working on the great particle accelerators to build new equipment: To create, in principle, conditions that would be similar to those first few moments in the birth of the universe.