Global Context (Europe): The Penguin History of Europe

This series of posts deals with the global context in its many dimensions-historical, social, cultural, political, economic, and religious. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.

J. M. Roberts’ The Penguin History of Europe is the best one-stop history of Europe available. (Norman Davies’ Europe: A History is of comparable quality, although it weighs in at nearly 1400 pages.) Roberts writes for an audience who has some knowledge of the history of Europe, but who would like to put that knowledge into broader context and analyze the broader patterns and themes that surface.

In the first third of the book, he begins with ancient European civilization and works all the way up to late Christendom. In the second third, he walks the reader through modern history from the 16th through the 19th centuries. In the final third, he treats the twentieth century, with the two world wars and the Cold War as structural markers.

Roberts is a fair-minded historian, not given to writing revisionist and special interest history. He focuses primarily on the political and economic aspects of European history and secondarily on its socio-cultural aspects. In so doing, he chooses to leave out certain socio-cultural elements that I wish he had included, such as history of philosophy and art. This is not a strong criticism, however, because Roberts is attempting to collate, analyze, and communicate a massive amount of historical data in only 700 pages.

This brings us to a brief discussion of historical surveys which are by nature broad but not particularly deep. The positives are that we are introduced to a wide range of historical phenomena and are able to grasp the big picture, putting what we know in a broader context. The negatives are we are left unaware of many interesting and significant details and must trust the author to “get it right” in his interpretation and analysis of the overall patterns of his presentation.

Roberts The Penguin History of Europe is highly recommended for those interested in a concise overview of the history of Europe.

Book: The Penguin History of Europe (1996)

Author: J. M. Roberts

Region: Europe

Genre: History

Length: 722 pp.

Difficulty: Intermediate-Difficult

Global Context: On India, Calvinists, and cow-dung shampoo

In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India

Should you read In Spite of the Gods? That depends. If you’ve never heard a man compare militant Hindus to Calvinists, then yes. This will be amusing. If you are looking for a book that gives a riveting narrative of the rise of modern India, the answer is yes. If you want a book that is well researched and interspersed with colorful and humorous vignettes observed first hand by the author, the answer is yes. If you are looking for an author who is treats religious and theological matters with the depth and discernment that one would expect from an undergraduate, the answer is no.

In Spite of the Gods is held together by one overriding question: Will India be a world power, and if so what type of power will she be? The author, Edward Luce (former Financial Times correspondent in India), answers the question by means of historical research, an enviable grasp of current and international affairs, and numerous and colorful first-hand stories.

The major strand of Luce’s argument is that, within a few decades, India will be a major world player. She will be a major player, in part, because of a good hand dealt her by recent history: Of first importance is the fact that India lost most of its foreign reserves in the aftermath of the 1990-91 Gulf War. As a result, India shifted gears and build an open-market strategy that catapulted it into significance in a rapidly-globalizing world. Another stroke of luck is the English language bequeathed by the English during the days of colonialism. Yet a final good fortune is that China also is on the rise, thereby giving India the opportunity to be a counter-balance to China’s power. India, in Luce’s eyes, is a rising world power and she will be a democratic counterbalance to authoritarian China.

The minor strand of his argument is that India’s rise will be in spite of, and not because of, her gods. Perhaps the most telling story is Luce’s visit to the Cow Product Research Centre outside of the city of Nagpur. At the Centre, run by militant right-wing Hindus (whom he compares to Calvinists!), Luce is given a tour of the laboratories. After being told that he must make the journey barefooted and through piles of cow dung (which, he is told, heals athlete’s foot), he is made to participate in a cow-worshiping ceremony.

“I was handed a silver tray, Luce writes, “with candles on it and also turmeric, rice, flowers and red paste. I had to circle the tray a few times above the head of one of the cows before smearing the paste on the cow’s forehead and my own. ‘Now you are praying to the cow. She is my mother. She is your mother,’ said [the guide]. Mother seemed unfazed by all the attention.

Next, Luce was taken to into the laboratories where he was shown Bunsen burners and beakers full of cow’s urine, which, he was reassured, is an anti oxidant that will cure cancer. Then there was this: “Next we were shown cow-dung products. My favorite product was cow dung soap. There was also a cow-dung shampoo for dandruff. Mansinghka said the centre had submitted a number of cow-derivative applications to the US Patents Office and other countries. ‘God lives in the cow dung,’ he said. ‘All of these recipes are contained in the holy texts.‘”

The upshot of this encounter, for Luce, is that the Cow Product Research Centre is yet another example of fundamentalism-a uniquely modern religious affliction that people’s ancient symbolic beliefs and holds them to be literally true in the present-comparable to jihadism in Islam and Calvinism in Christianity.

This brings me to my criticism of the book: It should be clear from this little excerpt that when it comes to religious studies and theology, Luce is more of a rock skimmer than a scuba diver. Although he has done his research on matters economic and political, has not done so on matters religious. If a man can compare Islamic and Hindu radicalisms to Christian Calvinism, he has not earned a place at the table concerning issues theological.

Aside from this criticism, I strongly recommend the book for its insightful rendering of the rise of modern India.

Global Context Series (Central Asia): Ghost Wars

Ghost Wars

Ghost Wars

A wise man would refuse to lug even the paperback version of Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars to bed, for fear of being crushed to death if he dozes off in mid-sentence. However, despite being 712 pages long Coll’s volume is well worth the read for anyone interested in U. S. involvement in Afghanistan beginning in 1979 and spanning more than two decades.

Coll’s book is not a history of Afghanistan, per se, but rather a history of American interaction with Afghanistan from 1979 until September 11, 2001. The drama that unfolds includes a cast of actors that include presidents, generals, mujahedin, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, the Soviet army, and the Pakistani and Saudi Arabian intelligence agencies.

The first part of the book deals with the Soviet-Afghan War (Nov 1979 – Feb 1989), and begins just before the Soviet invasion, as the U. S. began using Afghan warriors to embarrass the Soviet Union. The Americans funneled cash and arms through Pakistan into Afghanistan and managed to succeed in sending the Soviets scurrying back to their borscht. However, the Americans were not alone in funding the war: The United States’ contributions to this campaign were matched and possibly exceeded, however, by those of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The second part of the book deals with the factious aftermath of the Soviet expulsion (March 1989 – Dec 1997). After having covered in detail the humiliating defeat and withdrawal of the USSR, Coll turns to the intramural warfare that followed, including the rise of the Taliban from small faction to ruling party. The reader is given a well-researched and well-written account of Bin Laden’s emergence as a force with which to be reckoned, and of his escape to North Africa.

The third part of the book concentrates on the CIA’s attempts to capture bin Laden (Jan 1998 – Sept 11, 2001). Coll details bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan, where he marries himself to Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Taliban, allowing him to use Afghanistan as a base from which to plan attacks on American assets.

Ghost Wars is crammed full of great stories. Coll’s well-crafted character sketches cover a wide range, including major figures (Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ahmed Shah Massoud, bin Laden) as well as more minor characters: (secret agents, warriors, generals, diplomats, suicide bombers). Without Coll, there are many things that we would not now know. How would we have known that Nawaz Sharif was “an unusually dull, muddled politician” who “seemed to offer a bovine, placid gaze in private meetings where he sometimes read awkwardly from note cards“? Or that , at a meeting with Americans, “None of the Taliban wore shoes or sandals. They picked continually at their feet, the Americans could not help but notice“? Or that Ahmed Shah Massoud (the warlord who refused to be controlled by the USSR, the USA, or the Taliban, and who, by the time he was 30, had fended off six direct assaults by the world’s largest conventional army) “had written his thesis on the battle of Gettysburg” when he studied at Pakistan’s elite officer’s college?

Or how would we have ever known that our own CIA was a publisher and distributer of the Qur’an? During the early stages of its proxy war against the USSR, Coll tells us, William Casey and the CIA sought to smuggle books about Central Asian culture and Soviet atrocities into the USSR, hoping to incite a revolution. The Pakistani ISI, however, argued that copies of the Qur’an would be even better, so “The CIA commissioned an Uzbek exile living in Germany to produce translations of the Koran in the Uzbek language. The CIA printed thousands of copies of the Muslim holy book and shipped them to Pakistan for distribution to the mujahedin.” Oh, dear. I think I’ll leave that one alone.

But perhaps the best sketch of all is Mullah Mohammed Omar. The reader is perhaps already aware that Omar had a big beard, wore an eye patch, and was the political and spiritual leader of the Taliban regime. What they might not have known are the details. Omar, Coll tells us, was an expert with rocket-propelled grenade launchers during the Afghan-Soviet war. He was struck in the face by shrapnel and lost his right eye. (Legend has it that he used a knife to cut his own eye out of the socket.) He believed that his dreams were prophetic guides for Afghanistan and used them to make strategic decisions. In fact, Omar said that Allah had appeared to him in a vision and told him to lead the believers.

And “lead the believers” is exactly what he did. In the spring of 1996, Omar summoned over 1,000 Pashtun leaders and scholars to Kandahar for an assembly. In the background stood the Mosque of the