“The best sort of book for our disordered days: timely, urgent and illuminating” – so says Pankaj Mishra of Christopher de Bellaigues new book The Islamic Enlightenment. This is the direction the Lafayette Club are taking their talks in: politically relevant and stirring. De Bellaigue came to St Andrews last Friday to discuss his book.
The venue was Hotel du Vin’s presentation/conference room, the turnout impressive – all seats were taken, something noted by Bellaigue, because it was a Friday evening (the talk ended before eight… work hard play hard). Students from all year groups had showed up to see the Lafayette Club’s first speaker of the year.
De Bellaigue’s talk outlined the broad thesis undertaken in his book. His main argument is that the “Islamic world” has – contrary to popular belief and assumption – not, after what we know as their Golden Age, been stagnating in a sort of dark ages while the West has progressed, but that the region experienced a period of illumination and liberalisation in the nineteenth century. An ‘enlightenment’ he calls it, a self-coined term, that seems a little ethnocentric: it was unclear how much he believed these changes to have stemmed from within the region or to be offshoots of Western thought. But de Bellaigue shines light on a neglected period in the complex trajectory of middle eastern events – where education flourished and thought was liberal, forward-thinking, while still being Islamic rather than western in its roots and content, de Bellaigue argues.
To what extent the “enlightenment” was “Islamic” was also cloudy – it seemed to be a blanket term to describe the sphere which this liberalising movement influenced; the role of Islam was unspecified though, especially as secularisation acted as a liberalising agent in post-WW1 Turkey. Fourth year student Ludo Stewart piped up to ask de Bellaigue his opinion on the role of non-Muslim minorities in the area, tapping into the sense that de Bellaigue was speaking of the Islamic world as if it were a monolith – ignoring the complex religious mosaic of the region; Stewart said that in 1914 Greeks and Armenians made up just under half of the population of Constantinople, forming much of the educated western/looking middle class that De Bellaigue spoke of. Similarly Cairo had substantial Coptic and Greek populations. So his question centred particularly on the intellectual bourgeois class whom de Bellaigue spoke of as the pioneers of social change and thought. De Bellaigue answered that these minorities did indeed play a part, but when colonialists descended upon the area they were in vilified as European allies – a reactionary response wrapped up in a sense of disillusionment.
De Bellaigue’s focus was upon the three spheres of Constantinople, Cairo and Iran was an approach that had its strengths; covering the main centres of intellectual discourse in the Islamic world during this period. He also outlined the progress made in the education of women in the middle east, an important and neglected story, and he included intriguing and in-depth examples of educated, powerful women who were intellectually active at the time – this was his most objective example of liberal, enlightened attitudes.
But while he glorified the past, de Bellaigue could be seen to disparage the present a little – he described the modern-day Middle East as having a “Medieval” sociopolitical landscape – he was clearly aware of the loaded nature of the term, but thought it the best comparison; it was just problematic because not everyone in the room was with him in the Western boat. At one point my Middle Eastern friend, who has a keen ear for the nuances and insinuations that exist – sometimes accidentally and often owing to the fact that the region is complicated and unpindownable – in discourse about the Middle East, murmured half-ironically “if you want to say backwards, just say backwards.” It seems to me that because the sentiment contained within researching and revealing the buried history of a sort of second Islamic golden age is complimentary, de Bellaigue perhaps didn’t deem it necessary to define or defend his use of such terms as clearly as we might have liked. Think Jay Z’s hazily anti-semitic Story of OJ lyric that was complimentary but played into stereotypes. On the other hand, he of course only touched upon certain things – it was an outline of his argument, fleshed out with a few examples but not fully-fledged; we’d need to read the book to fully grasp de Bellaigue’s opinions.
There was lots of engagement with his talk; it touched on topical issues and illuminated a sort of buried past that was interesting to hear resurrected. Lots of students asked questions, often about the Middle East and Islam in general and de Bellaigue engaged and answered fully. The organisation and feel of the talk was professional and it was made more interesting by the questions it posed in us thinking about how we view and discuss the “Islamic world.”