Wednesday, May 14, 2008

William Dalrymple bats for the East against the West

William Dalrymple-an upscale Barbara Cartland?
"an upscale Barbara Cartland"?

For some reason I am unable to share the common enthusiasms of our elite classes(in fact, I am tempted to delete 'cl' from the last word)- be it the deification of Amitabh Bachchan or the adulation of RK Pachauri or the relentless bashing of Bush. So when our media-intellectual elites swoon on hearing the name of William Dalrymple, I find myself feeling characteristically indifferent.

William Dalrymple is a historian and an author who is much toasted in the Indian intellectual circles. I am unable to say if that is well deserved, not having read any of his very well received books(although I have just started his The Last Mughal; my opinion of it will follow if I am able to find the time to finish it, having borrowed it from a library).

However, from the introduction to the above mentioned book, from the bits of his interview I have read or seen(I forget which), Dalrymple comes across as apparently sincere but in some ways part of that breed of western orientalists who come to believe(if they did not do so before)in the superiority of Eastern culture and ideas over that of the West.Even if they may claim to be neutral in the culture-wars or may profess to believe in giving equal respect to all cultures and philosophies, their actions and words do let through their bias(or preference, shall we say?) towards the East and against the West.

What most left this impression about William Dalrymple was what he said in a lively debate on the topic "We should not be reluctant to assert the superiority of Western values".Somehow I was not surprised that Dalrymple took a stand against the motion. He was on the side of Tariq Ramadan, an Islamist apologist and Charles Glass, a leftist writer.Supporting the motion were Douglas Murray, a conservative writer and commentator, David Aaronovitch, also a writer and Ibn Warraq, former Muslim writer living under a fatwa and the author of‘Why I am Not a Muslim’. All three are despised in British leftist circles as 'neo-cons'.
You may hear the debate here.

In the debate William Dalrymple comes across as a fish out of water. He gave a strong impression that he was on the exact other side -that Eastern values were superior and that "We should not be reluctant to assert the superiority of Eastern values". However he could not assert this conviction of his(I might be wrong but as I said he does give an impression that such is his conviction). So while opposing vehemently the debate topic and denouncing Western values, he could not take a convincing stand in favor of the opposite, a nod perhaps to the notion of neutrality between the cultures(a notion which I suspect Dalrymple holds with no strong conviction, if at all).

Dalrymple's constant invocation of Akbar as a fair representative of the Orient was logically untenable, since Akbar was unique among the eastern rulers and an exception to many rules.

Hugh Fitzgerald has an interesting description of the debate-

I listened to the Q2 debate once through yesterday morning, and took no notes, but I remember some important details. The resolution, about being unafraid to assert the superiority of Western values, had on one side, supporting the resolution, Ibn Warraq, David Aronovitch, and Douglas Murray, and opposing it, Charles Glass, Tariq Ramadan, and William Dalrymple.


The one who really gave himself away was the odious and stupid and remarkably ill-informed William Dalrymple. He went on and on about how, near to where "I live in Delhi" there is some spot connected to the reign of Akbar. And then he proceeded to tell everyone -- thank god it has been preserved on tape, for all time -- how Akbar, the "Muslim emperor," had called together Shi'a Muslims, and Sunni Muslims, and Jains, and Christians, and even Jews from Cochin, for a colloquy. And he went on and on about how splendid Akbar was. Of course, Akbar was splendid, when he became syncretistic, when he ended the Jizyah, when he essentially stopped being a Muslim in every important way. The British historian V. A. West, in his "History of India," notes that Akbar demanded that those in his inner circle had to abjure the Qur'an -- not exactly the sign of a Muslim.

So his entire speech was all about Akbar, and he apparently did not know that Akbar, the Akbar he praised, is remembered today fondly by Hindus and despised by Muslims. And at one point he even described "Ashoka and Akbar" as Muslim leaders. Ashoka was no Muslim. Could I really have heard him say that? Not possible. No, I suppose anything is possible, especially if Dalrymple shows he has missed entirely the main point about syncretistic Akbar, has not understood the whole point of his later rule, and why he is revered by Hindus and despised by Muslims, though some may now invoke his name to show that “Muslims are tolerant.”

No, Dalrymple’s idiocy about Akbar will live on forever, on the tape made of the other evening, forever made available online with a single click, to haunt him, to mock him, to serve as proof that Dalrymple the historian of Mughal India, “internationally-acclaimed,” is unsteady when it comes to possibly the most important figure in Indian history during the entire Mughal period.

Ibn Warraq, in one of later replies, noted -- too quickly, alas -- that Akbar was no Muslim, and it was clear, according to observers, that Dalrymple was nervous, that he knew he was out of his depth.

And why was he "out of his depth"? Did he not know about Akbar? Never read the "Akbarnamah" of Fazl? Strange, isn't it, that someone who has made his entire professional career out of his supposed knowledge of Mughal India, and has written all his books about Mughal India, appears to be so ignorant about Akbar, the celebrated emperor who during his reign ended the practice of demanding the payment of the Jizyah (his successor, Aurangzeb, promptly re-imposed it) and was clearly indifferent or even hostile to so much of Islam. And Dalrymplecannot claim that little is known about Akbar or his reign, for it was recorded in great detail by Fazl, and by others. Or does Dalrymple not know that, either?

Oh, did I mention that the same Dalrymple (google his name and "Jihad Watch" and "Posted by Hugh" for my many descriptions of him as an upscale Barbara Cartland, singing the life of luxe and volupté at the Mughal court, with love intrigues in the palaces, and trans-racial transgressions, and all the rest of it) a few years ago was earning all kinds of prizes and glory for his book “The Last Mughal.” For that book the claim was repeatedly made that he, Dalrymple, had come along and finally made use of the Mutiny Papers that no historian had seen or used, and until Dalrymple came along had simply been overlooked or, in some accounts, even entirely unknown. But if you read his much-overrated "The Last Mughal" you find, in the footnotes, that Dalrymple takes much, perhaps most, of what he quotes from those Mutiny Papers not directly, but from books by other, much more solid historians. He admits as much. And yet the story still makes the rounds about how William Dalrymple used a cache of papers that no one had known about. Good Christ, you’d think he was Hyde at Malahide Castle. It’s blague. Curious that his self-promoting website, the one you get to by googling his name and then clicking on a link that proudly describes itself as yielding “[t]he Home site of William Dalrymple, internationally acclaimed writer and historian” (who do you suppose wrote that?), continues the tale of the Papers That No One Knew About.

Fitzgerald is practically accusing Dalrymple of scholarly fraud in the last paragraph above. I have no idea if that is true.However do read the whole thing as there is much more on this and the debate including stinging barbs at Amartya Sen.

And here is why(among other reasons) I swoon not on hearing the name of William Dalrymple-
The historian Dalrymple was more comfortable commenting on the West's dark history, than dwelling on the inconsequential present. For Dalrymple Western values were equivalent to the Holocaust. Indeed colonial genocide, Nazism and Marxism were "not freak departures from form," they were rather the logical consequences of Western -- or universal -- values.
(Christopher Orlet)

Christopher Orlet(link above) sums it up nicely-
IT MAY BE ARGUED that Western Civilization did indeed produce Hitler, Ulbricht, Franco, Mussolini, Stalin, Milosevic and Ceausecsu, but the free West also defeated them. Huntington at least would reject the notion that the last three dictators were in any real sense "Western." He maintains that Eastern Orthodox nations of southeastern and Eastern Europe constitute a distinct "Euro-Asiatic civilization." Though European and Christian, these nations were but minimally effected by the cultural influences of the Renaissance. As for Hitler and Ulbricht, the German has never shown much respect for individualism. Most important, these dictators could only flourish by completely crushing Western values. Like Islam, none of these dictators allowed for the West's two key values: self-criticism and individualism.

Granted, the West is no Utopia, and it has seen its share of excesses (My Lai and Abu Ghraib), though these are seen as blots on our name, not good policy. If William Calley got off with a slap on the wrist, Abu Ghraib veteran U.S. Army reservist Charles Graner received 10 years and his "ex-girlfriend" Lynndie England was sentenced to three years in a naval brig.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that such free exchange of ideas could only take place in a Western country. That in itself should prove the superiority of Western values.

Dalrymple's team lost the debate 465 -264.(No, I don't believe that the truth of ideas is a matter of majority voting)

(emphasis mine)