Oriental despotism and Islam

Michael Curtis is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of political science at Rutgers University. He has also served as president of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East and as editor of the Middle East Review.
Professor Curtis is the author of approximately 30 books. His latest, a prodigious piece of scholarship, is Orientalism and Islam.
In this book, Curtis considers the writings of six sets of giant intellectual figures on the subject of the Orient. The six are Montesquieu, Burke, Tocqueville, James and John Stuart Mill, Marx and Engels, and Weber. The theme that unites the writings of each is their understanding of the despotic nature of Oriental regimes. Each also saw, to one degree or another, a connection between that despotism and religion, in most cases Islam.
Curtis’ study of these authors has obvious relevance to contemporary issues. But his book also deserves to be read for its close analysis of the writers on whom he focuses. As I see it, Montesquieu, Marx and Engels, and Weber considered the Orient mostly as a pure object of study – Montesquieu from the point of view of government (he treated Oriental despotism as something of an object lesson) , Mark and Engels from the point of view of economics, and Weber from the point of view of the sociology of religion.
Of the three, Marx and Engels represent the most curious case. Their study of the Oreint led them to develop the concept of the Asiatic Method of Production (AMP). This construct is, at best, an outlier in Marx’s materialist view of history because it includes no recognizable class struggle based on the relations of production. A lawyer might consider the AMP an “admission against interest.” Indeed, some orthodox Marxists wish that Marx and Engels had steered clear of the Orient (though in the end they detected the AMP in many additional parts of the world).
Tocqueville wrote about the Orient (actually Algeria) from a less disinterested perspective; the great liberal democrat was also a committed colonialist eager to see France retain its place in the world in part through its role in Africa. Burke engaged the Orient mainly through his obsession (as it seems to me) with impeaching Warren Hastings, the able Governor-General of India.
John Stuart Mill spent most of his life as an employee of the East India Company. He received his appointment as a junior clerk at age 17 through the influence of his father James, who also worked for the company. The main task of both father and son seems to have been writing dispatches on India policy. In a sense, they were company men (John Stuart more so), but also close and keen observers of India.
Among the relevant questions for our time that Curtis identifies as flowing from his study are these: Are contemporary Muslim societies compatible with democratic political systems or with governments based on principles of human rights? Are those societies able or willing to follow the path of modernization? Can Muslim societies owe genuine allegiance to a territorial state not constructed on a religious basis or to a national civic society?
Curtis doesn’t answer these questions or the broader one of whether our contemporary problems in dealing with the Muslim world are “illustrative of a clash of civilization.” But he clearly considers them substantial, and it’s difficult to take issue with that view.
It may be worth noting, however, that many of the writers covered by Curtis’ study saw Oriental despotism as closely related to religions other than Islam, in particular the Hindu religion. Today, Hinduism does not seem incompatible with democratic political systems or with governments based on principles of human rights.
Islam is a different case, to be sure. At the religion’s core, as Curtis points out, is a warrior-prophet who served as a “political and spiritual leader, founding the holy law of Islam and founding and ruling the first Muslim state.” Much depends on the extent to which these differences render the Islamic Orient intractable, and Professor Curtis’ book has much to tell us about this question.

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