Like many of you, my fellow Americans, my knowledge of the Islamic worldview and the history of the Middle East is shameful, at least in comparison with my knowledge of Western civilization. There is as much intrigue in the Middle East as there has ever been: protests, violence, and calls for democracy; continued conflict between Israel and her neighbors; a history of European and U.S. exploitation to grapple with; terrorist organizations and political protection for them; and a good deal of oil still to be sucked up and distributed around the globe. The West vs. East question continues to define our times, with consequences that will outlive us.
To supplement my knowledge of the Middle East, I turned to Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted. Destiny Disrupted is history as story. Tamim Ansary is an Afghan with personal roots as well as historical insight. He writes this history not as a historian but as though he were sitting down to a cup of coffee with you and I, a couple of folks from the West, explaining history through the eyes of Islam. He avoids any and all academic jargon and simply tells the story, complete with contemporary idioms in our modern American jargon.
The story he tells is folksy but no less insightful. The authors spans a good deal of history, but I felt as though I had gone both deep and wide into the history of the Middle East, or as the author calls it, “the Middle World.” The author moves effortlessly between the details of history and the wider context of the historical flow. On top of that, he ties in the high points of European history as they are developing in relation to events in the East.
Ansary also draws out a few, key cultural differences between the East and West that have important political ramifications. One of the more interesting to me was the mistake that we in the West have of thinking in terms of nation-states. Hence, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we attacked the problem terrorism as though it were a problem in Afghanistan or in Iraq. But thinking in terms of nation-states is a central way for the West to view the world, but it is not necessarily central to the Middle World. Ansary continues to return to the fact that the Islamic worldview centers on creating one unified and harmonious community of those who are faithful to God, God’s laws, and the religious community. Ansary further points out that many of the current boundaries in the Middle World were carved out by colonial Europeans, that these boundaries are not necessarily natural or the result of social and cultural movements native to the area. To understand the Middle World, one must not make the mistake of thinking primarily in terms of nation-states. It follows then that dealing with terrorism is not a mere matter of nation-bombing or nation-building.
I also found Ansary’s commentary on the role of women enlightening. Islamic society separates the sexes in order to deal with sexual desire, to order society so as to avoid disruptions caused by desire. Viewed from this perspective, those of us in the West are clearly immoral, allowing for individual sexual freedom and exploration. Ansary notes that the Western and Eastern perspectives are incompatible on this issue. These are two separate answers to the question of sexuality. Neither narrative is necessarily superior, neither narrative is necessarily more moral or immoral; for Ansary they are different, a difference that needs to be addressed as such.
Lastly, I had the added benefit of listening to the audiobook, which I snagged from audible.com. This was a delight because Tamim Ansary himself read the book! So, it really felt as though I was sitting down to coffee with him…even though I listened to a good bit of the book while mending nets in the cold in Alaksa!
If you are like me, and need to do some catch up on Eastern history and civilization, I cannot more highly recommend Destiny Disrupted. It is history that is story and there are very few sentences that do not have direct implications for our contemporary world, as well as the world of the future.