History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 2)


The original title of Prof. Richard Bulliet’s lecture given on January 29, 2009 at Columbia University lecture is “Inequality” vs. “Difference”, but I found after listening to his lecture, that the above title more specifically addresses the contents.   In this post, he talks about the growing dissatisfaction in historical circles of the notion of the “decline of the Ottoman Empire” or “the decline of the Middle East”, and refers to Edward Said’s debunking of many of the ideologically driven critiques of Islam and the societies of the Middle East.

Then he lays the groundwork for talking about the inequality between  modern EuroAmerica and the Middle East and North Africa by showing how society evolved in different ways in those regions.   He starts with the notion of aristocracy in Europe, which does not exist in the Middle East.  

4. The Decline of the Ottoman Empire

Now the debate over the decline of the Ottoman Empire or the decline of the Middle East really moves along a different track. People who have focused on the issue of decline and who have provoked a strong reaction have been less interested in material measures like livestock or population than they have in the structure of government. In their view, the notion of government by a Shah or a Sultan appears to be primitive and unworkable, whereas government by a Constitution Monarch and a Parliament seems to be wonderful and advanced. They are focused on the political inadequacy and/or the problems you have with Islam. Some people will argue concretely that Islam as a religion is deemed incompatible with aspects of modernity, with the notion of individualism, and the notion of science, and it is deeply imbued with the notion of fatalism, that is to say, throwing everything into the hands of God and therefore not doing any work. You know, “I have these 10 acres of land, but I think this year I’m just going to kind of sit and watch the sun rise and the sun set and lot God grow the damn crop (laughter). It almost reaches that level of ascribing to a religious outlook a totally unproductive and backward, superstitious way of dealing with the world.

Ever since the work of Prof. Bulliet’s late colleague Edward Said, it is pretty much universally accepted that these conjectures are ideological and have little basis in any sort of close examination of history. They reflect a tendentious and insupportable interpretation of what Islam is about, and they reflect a profound ignorance of the actual structure and operation of government and the financial order in the Middle East.

5. The Great Divergence re-examined

So if you throw out all of that, then we still get to the question of “what was different”? In a way you can say, it should probably be examined in three different parties

  • one party consisting of Northwest Europe,
  • one party consisting of the Ottoman Empire–that is to say, the countries of Southeast Europe, Turkey and the Arab world extending into North Africa, and
  • one party consisting of the Russian Empire.

If the Europeans are by certain measures substantially better off than the Ottoman segment, by those same measures they are substantially better off than the Russian segment. In many ways, if you compared the Russian segment and the Ottoman segment, the Russian segment appeared to be more in need of development, of commercial and intellectual evolution. But by the time Modern Middle Eastern history came into being as a topic, Russian had become a great competitor. You could no longer say Russia and the Middle East were primitive, underdeveloped lands and therefore talk about Western Europe vs. these other places. What had happened instead was that Russia had become an advanced society, a very productive society, but one very differently structured politically. You also the interesting comparison of Japan, which had also gone from being a peripheral land disconnected from the European perspective to being a country competitive with the great powers in the world.

So if inequality existed, then to what do you attribute it? And is that attribution so contingent that it can almost change overnight if you have a different way of doing things, in the way that Russia changes after the Bolshevik revolution.

What did the inequality involve? There are probably as many perspectives on this question as there are lectures available in this course. Prof. Bulliet will not give an exhaustive list, but will point out some of the characteristics that contribute to it in different ways that may not necessarily be obvious.

6. Aristocracy and the Caste System in Europe

Aristocracy is a characteristic of Europe. An aristocracy is ultimately rooted in the societies that go back to the spread of people speaking Indo-European languages, in other words back to around 1500 BC or thereabouts, as people spread from northern India across to the British Isles. It is very clear in the surviving literature and vocabulary of these languages, that these societies have a caste of warriors. In India originally this was called the Kshatriya class; they also have a class of priests that are called the Brahmins in India, and then they have other classes of people. In India, you would call them the Vaisyas¸ the commercial/artisan class, the shudras, more or less an agricultural class.

Fig. 1. The Four Castes of India (from Guide to the Essentials of World History, by Prentice Hall)

It is these top two, the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas, which seem to be the most common: a religious, priestly elite and a warrior elite. These are the two segments of the society that dominate.

They dominate either through monopoly over religious ritual or a monopoly over military activity. The king comes from the Kshatriya class. You might say this is simply the way societies are organized, but it isn’t. If you go into ancient Egyptian society, the king is not part of the warrior class, he is a living god, and to distinguish the Pharaoh from the religious sphere and to put him strictly in the military sphere simply doesn’t work. If you go back to ancient Mesopotamia, the king plays a very important religious role and his military role is less singular. Leaving all of this ancient stuff aside, the result is that in many if not all of the societies that come from this cultural background, you have a hereditary notion of military service and military duty, and this becomes directly associated with the notion of governance. The king perhaps originally was the first among equals of warriors, but then becomes the person who is in a position to denote someone as a warrior at various levels: they may become a Duke or an Earl or a Margrave or a Herzog or whatever nobility the imagination might think of. The king is able to distribute these honors that are closely related to the control of land.

When you get into the 19th century, and to a lesser degree before that, you begin to have an increasing importance on nobles who come out of the administrative service of the state, but this sort of ennobling of administrators relates to the growth of centralized kingdoms and is really overshadowed certainly before the late 19th century by the hereditary nobility based on possession of land.

NOTE from 4squareviews.com:

Prof. Bulliet’s remarks made me realize that even within the Indo-European societies, there has been a difference the aristocracy evolved in Europe and the way its original form was in India. In India (see Fig. 1 above), the Brahmins or religious/priestly caste is the top class, whereas in Europe, the warrior class is at the top. You can tell that by looking at a deck of playing cards. What is the order or ranking of the suits

1.   spades (♠ represents the warrior class because it derives from a symbol for a sword)

2.  hearts (♥ represents the religious class because it is the symbol for a man’s heart or conscience, which in Protestant terms was the key to religious fervor.  This was changed from its original medieval form that you see in a suit of Tarot cards of CUPS or CHALICES which was the symbol of the sacraments of the Catholic church)

3.  diamonds (♦ represents the merchant class—an obvious symbol of wealth)

4.  clubs (♣ represents the clubs or batons of the agricultural class)

These rankings replicate the aristocratic system of Europe as opposed to the original Indian formation that would have had the hearts or religious class as the top ranking.


Fig. 2 Suits of playing cards

The next post covers the evolution of societies in Middle East, which do not have this tradition of aristocracy that existed in Europe.

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