Westphalia and culture

I’ve been meaning to comment on TMLutas’s excellent post, Do Islamists Understand Westphalianism?, since he posted it and this looks like a pretty good opportunity. What TMLutas is referring to by Westphalia, are, of course, the consequences of the Peace of Westphalia which brought about the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. In the world according to this series of treaties, the world was composed of nation-states and only nation-states waged war.

These ideas have been under assault from both of those unlikely allies, leftists in the West and Islamists. For example, in 2001 German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said:

“The core of the concept of Europe after 1945 was and still is a rejection of the European balance-of-power principle and the hegemonic ambitions of individual states that had emerged following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, a rejection which took the form of closer meshing of vital interests and the transfer of nation-state sovereign rights to supranational European institutions.”

In the aftermath of the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings, al Qaeda declaimed:

“the international system built-up by the West since the Treaty of Westphalia will collapse; and a new international system will rise under the leadership of a mighty Islamic state.”

I’d like to suggest that the distinctions of Westphalia and, as well, the concept upon which these distinctions rest—the distinction between military and civilian—are outgrowths of traditional Indo-European social forms, are peculiar to those forms, and are, essentially, incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t live within a society governed by such forms.

Before I explore this I want to digress a bit with a lengthy quote from social anthropologist and philosopher Ernest Gellner’s book Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History. It’s out-of-print, the information is interesting and relevant to the fix we’re now in, and, well, I’m a rebel so here goes.

In the Third World, one of the great religions as yet shows no signs of weakening under the impact of allegedly general secularization. The socio-political clout of Islam has beenenormously enhanced rather than weakened. An explanation is available for this unique, most remarkable and, in the West, not fully appreciated phenomen. The West has noticed it in connection with the Iranian revolution, but has barely perceived its extent.

Traditional Islam possessed a high theology and organization, closer in many ways to the ideals and requirements of modernity than those of any other world religion. A strict unitarianism, a (theoretical) absence of any clergy, hence, in principle, equidistance of all believers from the deity, a strict scripturalism and stress on orderly law-observance, a sober religiosity, avoiding ecstasy and the audio-visual aids of religion—all these features seem highly congruent with an urban bourgeois life style and with commercialism. The high theology and the scholarly social elite associated with it were traditionally found in the trading towns, which were prominent in Islam. But the upper strata of commercial cities did not make up all of the Muslim world. There was also a countryside, much of it tribal rather than feudal. There, order was maintained by local groups with a very high military and political participation ratio, to use S. Andresky’s phrase. So military/political activity was not monopolized by a small stratum, but rather widely diffused. Pastoral/nomadic and mountain groups in particular had a strong communal sense and maintained their independence from the central state. Central authority effectively controlled only cities, and some more easily governable peasant areas around them.

The wholly or partly autonomous rural groups needed religious mediators and arbitrators (as did, for quite different purposes, the urban poor). Thus, quite distinct from the lawyer/theologians who defined and maintained high Islam, there was also a host of semi-organized Sufi, “maraboutic” or “dervish” religious orders and local living saints. These constituted an informal, often ecstatic, questionably orthodox unofficial clergy. It really defined popular Islam, which embraced the majority of believers. For many centuries, the two wings of Islam co-existed, often in tension, sometimes peaceably. Periodically, a (self)-reformation, a purifying movement, would temporarily reimpose the “correct”, scholarly version on the whole of society. But though the spirit be willing, the social flesh is weak: and the exigencies of social structure would soon reintroduce the spiritual brokers, mediating between human groups in the name of mediating between men and God. So, even if the formal urban Islam was “modern”, the Islam of the countryside and of the urban poor was not.

With the disruption of the Muslim world by an economically and militarily expansive West, a new wave of reformism swept Islam. But this time, it prevailed; and it would seem that it has prevailed for good. Its “protestant” features made compatible with the modern world, the newly found strenghts of urban life gave it a wider and more stable appeal. Above all, it could define the Muslim community in the name of something which had dignity, by modern standards, but which at the same time was genuinely indigenous.

In most countries of the Third World, struggling with an exogenously initiated industrialization, the ideological ancien regime had become indefensible. At the same time, the unqualified acceptance of a Western model and ideology meant a humiliating self-rejection. One favoured solution was the invention of a local folk model, and idealizing virtues of the local little tradition. Only thus could one refrain from either endorsing the old local high theology, or fully accepting some Western system of ideas. But Islam was spared this dilemma. The old high culture was carried by scholars more than by political authority, and so could detach itself from the latter and (except in Turkey) remain relatively untainted by its debacle. In this way, the old high culture would become the pervasive culture of the entire society, simultaneously defining it against the outside and providing the impetus for regeneration and self-correction. The consequence is that, at present, both socially radical and socially conservative Muslim regimes are in the throes of a fundamentalist revival, which appears to have a powerful hold over the newly urbanized masses, and even over a very large part of the elite. There is little sign, as yet, of this religious ardour abating.

It is too early to say whether, eventually, this system too will undergo secularization. In the one Muslim country in which secularism has been politically imposed, Turkey, the attempt has proved markedly unsuccessful. Rather, it has greatly accentuated and sharpened social conflict. So it is conceivable that, eventually, Islam will show us a society which is “modern” by other standards, but rigorously organized around a seriously upheld and imposed pre-industrial faith.

The key segment that I’d like to focus on from the foregoing passage is this:

There was also a countryside, much of it tribal rather than feudal. There, order was maintained by local groups with a very high military and political participation ratio…

There are two concepts being presented here that are closely allied: the reliance on a tribal or vestigial tribal structure and the lack of division between the military functions in the society and its other functions.

The French philologist and historian of religions Georges Dumézil in his great work Mythe et Épopée described the tri-partite ideology of Indo-European myth and society. From extreme antiquity Indo-Europeans have divided their societies functionally into sovereign and religous functions, martial functions, and economic functions (the book, sword, and plow of Gellner’s title).

In myth this is represented by the Vedic gods Mitra and Varuna (priest-king), Indra (warrior), and the Asvin twins (healing); the Norse gods Odin, Thor or Tyr, and Freyr; and the Roman gods Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus. In society the most extreme case of this division of society is the Hindu caste system and it has been continued in Europe up to the beginning of the modern era as the three estates—religious, knightly, and peasant.

This division of society is simply absent in non-Indo-European cultures—they organize their societies along other lines. Ancient Jewish society as reflected in the Bible has no such distinctions—David is at one point in his life a shepherd, later a soldier, finally a king. Gellner above suggests a division in Arab societies along tribal lines and between urban and rural lifestyles. Traditional Chinese society also does not reflect such a division in the society—even the son of a peasant through the civil service examination could rise to governorship of a province.

This division is part of the deep structure of our society—it’s part of our languages and our assumptions about the proper way to organize a society and to behave. And it’s the source of the distinction between combatant and non-combatant. Why is it acceptable to attack a soldier in war but not acceptable to attack a farmer although the farmer raises the crops that the soldier eats and, consequently, also is arguably a participant in war? Because in our culture it’s just not done—farmers aren’t warriors, soldiers are.

This division of society may also cast some light on what has been something of a mystery: why have the Japanese taken so quickly to modernization? In answering that question we probably should consider that traditional Japanese society was divided into a ruling class, a samurai (warrior) class, and the peasant class effectively mirroring the tri-partite Indo-European structure. While our histories and cultures were quite different there may have been a resonance between the two methods of social organization—what we were doing just made sense to them.

And these same methods of doing things may not make the same kind of sense to people who have been reared with a completely different set of social norms that aren’t quite as resonant with the traditional Indo-European social structures. They have different social structures and different things make sense to them.

But that, as Scheherazade said, is another story.

5 comments… add one
  • Very good post Dave. I’m going to have to link to this and blog on this topic too.

    The Islamists and the Transnationalist Left have a governing principle in common – the irresponsibity of collective authority without accountability.

    In Sunni Islamic jurisprudence the Ulemna is an open, corporate body of scholars who make rulings within the confines of the four recognized schools of jurisprudence. If you don’t like a particular Fatwa as a Muslim you have a pretty fair lattitude to ” shop around ” for another more to your liking. So long as you can reasonably justify it within the tradition and it does not conflict with the Quran, you’re ok. Authority is so diffuse loose cannons are enabled and justified. Shiite jurisprudence is more structured but even so you still have your choice of an Object of Emulation given the limited number of Grand ayatollahs.

    The Transnationalist Progressives of the EU and various NGO’s have worked hard to establish a system with international or transnational bodies that can legislate or regulate for various nation-states without having to accept democratic accountability to the citizens of those states. Or even having well defined boundries or lines of authority between various institutions.

    Their covert agenda is to give ” International Law ” some kind of mystical, supreme authority while leaving the specifics to be molded by the Left-wing activists to fit the needs of the moment and create a ” heads we win-tails you lose” system to the detriment of constitutional, liberal, individualist, market democracies. Sort of a Transnational Progressive Ulemna composed of the UN, ICC, World Court, EU, OECD or whatever venue is most handy, regardless of the institution’s actual authority is supposed to be.

  • Did our culture start with the Peace of Westphalia? Killing non-warriors was quite common in military campaigns, so were interventions on behalf of sub-national groups that crossed national borders. The Thirty Years War was just the last in a long series of such interventions and had several of them during that war.

    I view the westphalian outlook more as a useful evolutionary tool but not a bedrock part of indo-european culture. It came and served its purpose but will not utterly inconvenience us by its passing if we can manage to replace it with something better.

    The horribly frightening prospect is that we will throw away the tool and replace it with nothing. Eliminating the strictures of westphalianism would rid us of the islamist threat as we would simply kill them as we find them to the point of genocide. But the whirlwind we would unleash is rightfully feared.

    I believe the fear of that whirlwind is at the heart of much of the decent end of “old europe’s” opposition to President Bush’s War on Terror. I call that state pre-westphalianism and you can see it in miniature as pig heads get nailed to muslims’ doors in the Netherlands and the smell of burning mosques wafts through the air there.

  • Did our culture start with the Peace of Westphalia?

    Well, no (actually I think that argument could be made). But my point is that some of the distinctions we make and that our enemies don’t make have a foundation in very ancient practices and traditions. Our cultures are equally old (all human cultures are equally old); their religion has prohibitions against killing non-combatants. So why aren’t they honoring them?

  • A quote from Disraeli :” Colonies do not cease to be colonies because they become independent ”

    Re: pre- Westphalianism as described by TM

    I think after WWII during de-Colonization the west superimposed Westphalian state forms upon the societies of former colonies that remained very much pre-Westphalian except for a superficial, westernized elite. While we had a large increase in the number of de jure sovereign states since WWII the number of states capable of fully exercising sovereignty lags behind. Distantly behind.

    Some of thses states – most of them were British colonies – were relatively well-prepared for self-government with a sizable native elite and middle-class. Most were not. Compare say India in 1947 to the Belgian Congo at that state’s independence. Literally nothing had been done by Brussells to prepare the Congo which slid, almost immediately, into a civil war and then dictatorship and now anarchy.

    The Arab world emerged from Ottoman rule – an imperial state based on an odd mixture of absolutism, the Sharia and corporative rights – primarily into artificially created nation-states ( excepting Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco) to which their citizens felt no particular attachment. These states were then expected to fuction according to Westphalian rules and standards.

    An experiment in self-governance that I would argue, has failed.

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