Friday, May 2, 2008

An Unedifying Controvery

I hesitate to blog on this subject, since I am quite unqualified to comment on the underlying intellectual controversy. Yet it seems to me symptomatic of an intensifying polarization of certain areas of academic debate that in other circumstances would be of no interest at all to the wider intellectual community, much less to public opinion. But anything touching relations between "Islam" and "the West"--the "clash of civilizations" in its presently most acute form (though China and the West is a close second)--is likely to erupt in unexpected ways these days. So we have the controversy surrounding the book of medievalist Sylvain Gouguenheim, who purports to undermine the claim that Greek philosophy came to the Christian West by way of Islamic intermediaries. Pascal Riché does a nice job of summarizing the controversy and some of its nastier excrescences. His conclusion is worth quoting:

This whole controversy--which might have gotten off on a good footing, with a muscular but enriching exchange on the origins of Europe--seems to have turned into a sterile exercise in name-calling (insults of "fascist" are flying in both directions), and people are asked to choose sides without necessarily having read the book in question. A pity.

It might be worth comparing this case to the tenure case involving Barnard professor Nadia El-Haj, about which Jane Kramer recently published a long article in The New Yorker. The different constellation of cultural and intellectual forces involved in the two controversies might shed interesting light on similarities and differences between France and the United States in regard to the academic treatment of subjects touching on Islam.