The Fascination of the East

The following essay by JLH was prompted by our recent discussion of Carly Fiorina’s paean to Islam from September 2001.

The Fascination of the East
by JLH

Since the Baron turned up Carly Fiorina’s glorification of Islam as the culmination of a long speech that had otherwise to do with world business and Hewlett-Packard, I have reflected on where such an attitude comes from in the Western world. I have examined my own history of fascination with Islamic civilization, encompassing historical novels such as one with a hero who survived the life of a janissary and returned triumphantly home. And even earlier, I was enthralled by the romantic and appealing figure of Scheherazade in Arabian Nights, enticing one more night of life from the sultan by spinning yet another fabulous tale. I was in awe of her cleverness, never considering at that young age that the real story might lie in the fact that the sultan could simply command her death because he wanted to. And the tales she told were easily as magical and entertaining as the many tales that grew up around the Knights of the Round Table.

So I began to think about the fascination with the lands and cultures of Islam that has existed for a very long time in the West. How long, at least as far as I knew, it had been with us. And I thought back to one of my favorite 18th century skeptics — Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who joined and then de-bunked the Masons. His friendship with the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was no doubt a factor in his famous public feud with one of the Protestant Christian bigots of his time. He later wrote a play famous for its suggestion that the three great religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — could peacefully co-exist, as had a previous play by Voltaire. Great emphasis was put upon the chivalric relationship between Richard Lion-Heart and Saladin.

Lessing also spent time studying the great Persian civilization, and seemed to believe that the figure of “angels” was originally a Persian concept, absorbed by Judaism. His fascination with Persia was followed later by the man considered to be the greatest of all German writers — plays, novels, short stories, trend-setting epic and lyric poetry, nature studies — also a statesman, and ennobled by the Duke of Weimar so that he could circulate socially in the court. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the West-östlicher Divan cycle of poems celebrating the East and the great Persian poet, Hafiz.

Germany and France were not alone in their fascination with the “East.” In 1859, Edward FitzGerald produced the sensationally successful Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

James Henry Leigh Hunt, a British 19th century writer-editor-poet — unsuccessful almost his entire life — wrote two poems that lived long after him. I include the first — which is not on the subject at hand — because it demonstrates the emotional appeal he could generate.

Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add
Jenny kiss’d me.

Now you are ready for the second poem that was read and remembered by many, and served as an example of the perception of Islam:

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still, and said “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

Now, keeping in mind the nonsense we have heard from so many public figures, such as President Bush with “Islam is a religion of peace” (and keeping in mind the nonsense some of us — including me — have given voice to until and even after 9/11, because we really didn’t want to know), allow me to do the academic thing and repeat the poem with explanatory insertions:

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
With a plethora of wives and concubines, including captured and raped infidels, why wouldn’t it?
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
Islam is peace, so if you don’t resist, Muslims can rest easy.
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
A wonderful “Christian” picture with a Persian protagonist.
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
The dhimmis are quiet lately.
And to the Presence in the room he said
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Hey, We Christians always try to get along
Answered “The names of those who love the Lord.”
Whose Lord?
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But aren’t we all People of the Book”?
But cheerly still, and said “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
As long as they love Allah and submit to Islam.

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

See? It is hard to stamp out a romantic image. (Look how hard they had to work to change Batman from a daring righter of wrongs to the dark and troubled De Niro of heroes.)

Some people got it before 9/11, some got it instantly after 9/11, some took a while to be convinced (thank you ISIS), and some of them are still listening to Scheherazade and waiting for diplomacy to work its magic. The only time they will be with us is when we are all together (in a Tom Lehrer sense) and the next great terrorist attack succeeds.

I would be interested to know — among other things I was not able to find — whether Fiorina has had anything to say on the subject since 2001, and if so, what (and if not, I suspect she will be asked to, sometime soon).

37 thoughts on “The Fascination of the East

  1. I suspect ‘Lawrence’ had a lot of influence as well, ‘5 pillars of Wisdom’ is often quoted and referred to in the inter-wars literature, so much so that I read ‘Revolt in the Desert’ to try and understand what was going on.

    This was a profoundly unhappy man, probably closet gay, writing about a male orientated society which accepted him with no questions asked.

    Lawrence had the British upper class penchant for the perverse and unusual, and his writing (and the later Hollywood production) snared many people’s admiration for things that are twisted. I cannot help but feel that there is an erotic fascination that draws many to Islam as a sort of free concupiscent fantasy.

    People find Islam attractive in the same way that some people find the very idea of Judaism revolting. Indeed Islamophilia and anti-Semitism appear to be closely psychotic allies.

  2. Just a thought

    As it is human to remember the good things and remember less about the bad things, I would think that most people escaping to the West from islamic regions over the centuries, leaving family and friends behind, would cultivate the positive elements, and even more so, the worse the bad elements would be. The worse the bad, the more glorified those few good elements.

    As extensive traveling and access to mass media is a relatively new thing, most people would get their impressions of mohammedanism from a few travelers and writers, and from people with cultural elements and traditions inherited from The Near East. With distance, in place and time, memories and traditions are more likely to have taken more exotic and mystical shapes.

    For instance, the harem was such an idea, where most people would accept eunuchs as a fact, thinking nothing more about the reasons for those atrocities behind them. Also glorifying the life for the women taking baths all day long, and forgetting or not asking questions about the actual prison they were living in.

    Unfortunately, today we are better informed to understanding these things into more detail.

    Surely, those who escaped that hellish, seemingly exotic, East, would also for their life make sure not to risk any sharia punishment. Better then to forget, and glorify more what nobody in the West would contradict anyway. Omerta.

    • Nail hitting points, that

      Also glorifying the life for the women taking baths all day long, and forgetting or not asking questions about the actual prison they were living in.

      The tolerance of ideas, that a woman in a harem taking baths all day long would be such heavenly bliss that all woman should pursue; and yet as you say, no understanding of the men that control’s her life (for his edification) or death.
      Does not all the “womanly studies” see beyond the veil; not even a hint in the “ivy towers” of feminism, to ask a question, although that would be guided by so much “tolerance indoctrination” too.

      accept eunuchs as a fact, thinking nothing more about the reasons for those atrocities behind them.

      Barely a wriggle of discomfit by the “metro male” in his all tolerant “ivy tower” glory. Why do the rest of so many follow, these “naked emperors” and not see there really are no “cojones”?

      Just what do they study/research, verify, think about, in these “ivy towers”? (Yes a rhetorical question)

      Just how further indoctrination and guarding the changes of thought in the following 2 links.
      How do we over-though all this?
      Multiculturalism and corruption of university
      “The coddling of the American Mind”

      Thank you Baron and Dymphna for keeping this blog, and all your writings and the bringing together of “like minds” and educating us into the questions we always had. Also with understanding hardening our resolve.

      • A thing many people are ignorant of in regards to the thousands of eunuch (the Shah of Persia alone owned over 12,000 at one time) is that they weren’t simply castrated. Castration is a relatively simple and straightforward procedure, and eminently survivable, as attested to by the hundreds of thousands of bulls, stallions, and rams that are gelded each year around the world and almost universally survive it.

        They were “shaved” which also involves cutting off the entire penis, and only about 1 in 15 survived the process. So those 12,000 eunuchs mentioned above represent about 165,000 dead boys.

        And this went on for hundreds of years, and they were many, many more eunuchs in the muslim world than just those owned by the Shah of Persia.

        • “Barely a wriggle of discomfit by the “metro male” in his all tolerant “ivy tower” glory. Why do the rest of so many follow, these “naked emperors” and not see there really are no “cojones”?”,, not anything at all.!
          Oh well never mind
          Eunuchs are always talked about in “a pity, but it is would be ‘cute'” and so nice to have all these beautiful pampered woman about.
          You would be right Larry, with the “shaved” and the pitiful survival rate.

          Those “naked emporers” in Ivy filled towers and with good tenure and sinecures,
          “thinking nothing more about the reasons for those atrocities behind them.”
          as also the on going current practices of Female Genital Mutilation, stonings, amputations, beheading, honor-killings, gender segregation, crucifixions , etc., all guided by Mohammad through the koran and sira and hadith that would be cured by a #tag, such as “bring back our girls”
          All these atrocious/terror things are not only part of the Islamic world but stealthily coming to the Western World too.
          All aided by those supposed learned “naked emperors” that should put on the clothes of knowledge and be bringing forth the truth, shouting it out from the top of their towers.

        • The Arab Muslim Slave Trade

          Veiled Genocide by Tidiane N’Diaye
          Le Génocide Voilé – original title

          Massive castration

          “To have an idea of the evil, you must realize that these same observers stated that to hunt down and carry off 500,000 individuals, it was necessary to kill almost two million others (who resisted or tried to flee). So if births had ceased at the time, then, in less than a half-century, the interior of Africa would be nothing but a desolate wasteland today.”

        • As the urethra is cut during this process, it tends to want to heal shut. A good urologist can keep one alive with an annual dilation but urologists were in short supply back in the eunuch making days.

  3. MC: ” I cannot help but feel that there is an erotic fascination that draws many to Islam as a sort of free concupiscent fantasy.”

    And this may go far toward explaining the desire of apparently brainless young people to enlist in ISIS.

    • Google “ISIS Enshrines Theology of Rape,” from yesterday in NYT. Slavery as a recruitment tool. I knew conquest was allowed in the time of Mohammed, but these guys are actually saying child rape of “unbelievers” pleases their god, praying before and after.

  4. My fascination is that with Ancient Greece and the birth of democracy, free thinking and arts and sciences spawned by these essential freedoms. My contempt is that of any theocracy, plutocracy, dictatorship, nepotism, slavery, oppression. My highest contempt is that of primitive ideologies rooted in barbarism, superstition and backwardness. My obsession is that of exploring unknown worlds, discovering laws of nature. My joy is seeing to where we have come and my sadness is in understanding how many of my fellow earthlings suffered and died on that route.

    I simply am then antithesis of islam 🙂 ….

  5. Count me in as guilty of ignorance and having been entertained by commercialized tales of swarmy dudes…pirates. When my wee ones would be put to bed, I’d often sing the Disney pirate song…”Yo ho, yo ho, a pirates life for me” …not thinking about the meaning of the lyrics-
    We’ll plunder
    And pillage
    And loot and name
    We’ll take your women
    And then
    We’ll load up our booty
    Then set out to sail
    And start all over again
    Yo ho!

    By the time 9/11 rolled along, peaking curiosity about the, ahem, ‘religion of peace’ and its ties to the Barbary pirates and the creation of the American Navy…oh boy! I had some ‘splainin to do!

    • In the 80’s, I went to Saudi Arabia to interview for the Risk Management position at Saudia Airlines. I found it odd that I had to furnish a letter signed by my pastor that I was a Christian. Upon arrival in Jeddah I was appalled at the backwardness of the place. There were no banks so I had to exchange dollars for rials with a moneychanger in the Suk! I knew nothing of their culture. The women did not drive and always walked 3 paces behind their man covered head to toe in black funeral gear.

      I began to understand Islam shortly after 9/11. After much study, it became clear that Islam was a horrifying tribal culture bent on world domination. Most people probably do not study Islam but catch what they know from the news media. If this is not corrected, we are doomed as a country.

  6. The East AFAIK has always been romanticized the same way Russian Communism has been. Even after Solzhenitsyn exposed the true horror of Communism, it didn’t stop the intellectual class and wannabe intellectuals from idolizing and spending entire careers studying the idiocy of Marx.

    It didn’t matter how how many execution pits were discovered, it didn’t how many millions were slaughtered in the name of the “party” and “progress”. Nothing registered on the “intellectuals”. They still are attracted to nightmarish totalitarian ideologies. Consider intellectualism a mental illness.

    But this doesn’t really apply to young Muslim men, they already imbibed Islam since they were born, it’s part of who they are. Jihad is a central tenant Islam, it demands that every male be a warrior or support those that are. All they need to get on the path are a few successful examples of the glories of Jihad to seal the deal.

    AQ never had this. They were always a shadowy group where ISIS is in our face every day and on the net and easily accessible to any devout Muslim male or female with money for a plane ticket.

  7. It gives me no pleasure to say I was ahead of most of you. I found out about islam during a 1994 visit to the Pakistani North West Frontier Province. In 1995 I returned to take up a short term contract with a South London Borough with a 20 per cent ethnic minority population – most of whom were Pakistanis. It was here I learned first hand about domestic violence, forced marriage of under aged school girls and complete disregard of the UK legal system by barbaric Pakistani males who became very incensed when the Local Authority tried to prevent him from beating up their wives which they considered a conjugal right. I still think that Pakistani women wear the burqa to hide the bruises.

    • It was a few years earlier that I saw firsthand the Islamic practice of lying about how so much of the earth was swept up into Islamdom so quickly. A Muslim guest lecturer told a class, “Some people say it was by conquest, but that isn’t true; it was through trade.” One graduate assistant challenged him, and he blustered incoherently. (Another graduate assistant — a white guy with dreadlocks — later berated her for her white Western arrogance.)

      What I knew about Islam then was rather sanitized, but I knew enough history to have noticed the centrality of conquest in the spread of Islam, and to be aware that for some centuries the shores of Europe were being attacked by Muslim raiders who especially liked to plunder monasteries, and to know that large chunks of the old Roman Empire were swallowed up by Muslim warriors. So when I later learned more about the full horrors of Islam, I was not disposed to write them off as a perversion of a “great” and peaceful religion.

      • Look at all those ancient Mediterranean villages, way up high on the hillsides inland, closed by gates…

    • ‘….disregard of the UK legal system by barbaric Pakistani males…….’ How’s that working out twenty plus years later? They have upgraded their dominance to almost complete disregard for border. What’s the next level?

  8. The fascination of European intellectuals for Islam goes back a long way. Huguenot pastor Pierre Jurieu was among the first to tout the relative tolerance of Islam. In the late 17th century, in an amazing exaggeration, he “exclaimed that Christians had spilt more blood on St. Bartholemew’s Day than had the Saracens in all their persecutions of Christians.” The seventeenth century philosopher Pierre Bayle joined Jurieu in apologizing for Islam as a means of social criticism; in particular comparing the persecutions inflicted by the Catholic Church with the alleged tolerance of Islam.

    Jurieu and Bayle were soon followed by Henri de Boulainvilliers who promoted the “myth of Muhammad as a wise and tolerant ruler” in an “apologetic biography of Muhammad” which “appeared posthumously in London in 1730. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this book in shaping Europe’s view of Islam and its founder, Muhammad; it certainly much influenced Voltaire and Gibbon.”

    The great historian Gibbon, who was a deist, viewed Islam as both a rational and priest-free faith with Muhammad as the wise and tolerant lawgiver rather like Solon. His view “enormously influenced the way all Europe perceived their sister religion for years to come.” Voltaire joined these philosophers in idealizing Muslim society as a foil for exposing the hypocrisies in their own societies. Thus, at the conclusion of Voltaire’s Candide, the travelers encounter an irritable but wise dervish followed by an old Turkish gentleman imparting further words of wisdom for the benefit of the confused Europeans. Voltaire’s fellow philosophe, Montesquieu, in the Persian Letters utilizes the fictional experiences of two exotic outsiders as a means of critiquing European society. While neither Voltaire nor Montesquieu meant to apologize for the neighboring Islamic culture, the result of these works was to help create the impression of Islam as being a reservoir of wisdom, or at the least a certain innocent and objective outlook which was lacking in Europe.

    • “Voltaire joined these philosophers in idealizing Muslim society as a foil for exposing the hypocrisies in their own societies.”

      I think this is very similar to how leftists today treat Islam. The particulars of Islamic doctrine and practice are of less concern to them than the simple fact that Islamic society is very different from Western (Christian) society and generally hostile to it. Islamic criticism of our societies becomes an instrument for amplifying the leftist critique. (“There must be a good reason for them to hate our culture! We must change so they won’t dislike us!”)

      • The treachery and foolishness of non Muslim leaders and intellectuals goes back a long way. This tendency characterized Byzantium, Hindu India and Western Europe as well. From another essay I penned a number of years ago:

        “Muslim conquerors were able to avail themselves of a remarkable and extensive pattern of treachery, opportunism and collaboration from elements among their opponents. The forces of the dar-al-harb were always plagued at the most inopportune times by rebellion, civil war, religious conflict, schism and heresy. Renegades ready to join the Arabs or to “turn Turk” abounded just before or immediately after the warriors of Islam invaded. Often, non-Muslim technicians, mercenaries and scholars seemed to queue up in seeking patronage from Muslim caliphs and sultans. Ambitious non-Muslim rulers and politicians sought alliances against their co-religionists with the Muslims. Many of these were eager to make use of the fierce military energy of Islam and turn it to their own purposes. Suffice it to say that those who played with fire usually themselves ended up burned.”

        The failure to learn from this sad history continues to this day. America has attempted to make use of Muslim fanatics against the Soviet enemy as in Afghanistan. America and its allies have rescued Muslims in the Gulf and in the Balkans and “tilted” toward Pakistan in its conflicts with India. We have been repaid with terrorist attacks among which was 911. And while I have some sympathy with post-Soviet Russia and believe our policies since the end of the Cold War have been quite bad it is clear that the usually cunning Putin is repeating the failure to learn from history. His alliance with Iran may be useful in getting even with us, but in the long run Russia will also pay a great price from the failure to learn from history.

    • The capacity for self-criticism is one of the great strengths of Western civilization. Another is a benign curiosity about different cultures. Taken to extremes, these two mental dispositions make Western civilization vulnerable to attacks from cultures that lack them and wish to “reform” us in their own image.

      • What’s amazing is that you will never convince liberals of any Western virtues. They can’t stop repeating that the West, whites, and Christianity are the most intolerant and violent forces on the planet. It is the West, and only the West, that has ever made any real attempt at accepting foreigners in large numbers and “multiculturalism.” And this exaggerated self denial and criticism has been disastrous combined with intentional miseducation. For instance, constantly bringing up the Church’s “past” (Christianity WAS largely spread through conversion) as if it compares to the horrors of the present in the Muslim world. I remember one professor in a Medieval history class talking about the violence and tribal warfare of the Franks, comparing it to that of Arabs in early Islamic times. Funny thing- France has changed a bit since the seventh century. Most students today would be completely puzzled by your statements about the disposition of Western thought. They’d be too busy browbeating themselves. These traits are made worse by ignorance of actual history, which has not been accidental by any means. Leftists truly hate our culture, and continue to stand there saying, “See, our way is much better than that of previous generations,” as the world crumbles before them. Simple rebellion is the main motivator in the population’s acceptance of this nonsense.

  9. “I would be interested to know — among other things I was not able to find — whether Fiorina has had anything to say on the subject since 2001”

    What we do know is that she hasn’t apologized to the American People for that obscenely erroneous and monstrously Correct speech.

  10. More broadly, concerning JLH’s essay, I too had a fascination for “Oriental” literature pre-911, mostly through the 1990s, in the form of works mostly by French writers — Flaubert, Théophile Gautier, the travelogue Pierre Loti (his account of his travels to Persia, and another to Constantinople approximately in the era of the fin du siècle), the weirdly charming story Le Sopha, conte moral (“The Sofa, a moral tale”) by Crébillon — and, last but not least, the French translation of the “Thousand and One Arabian Nights” (Les Mille et Une Nuits); which happened to be the first translation into any Western language, by Antoine Galland (1646–1715).

    Surveying 1400 years in a nutshell, I’d say the West’s East has gone through three phases:

    1) lucid awareness of the Mohammedan enemy, combined with frank defensive warfare (7th–17th century)

    2) romanticization of the enemy into various Orientalist clichés of sultans, harems, caravanserais, and wisely noble Saladins, etc. (17th–19th century)

    3) historical amnesia followed by politically correct multi-culturalism, spiced with a neo-Orientalist anti-“Orientalism” (20th–21st century)

    [analysis to come later, hopefully: there are reasons for why these phases of Western response to Islam took on these three forms and why they shifted thus…]

  11. I think it is very telling how ancient Greek culture had spread eastwards in those days, as far as India and today’s Pakistan.

    Looking at the map gives you an idea of what the world might have looked more like, with more ancient Greece and less totalitarian death cult.

    Hindu Kush…

    • A biography talks about how the megalo founder of that totalitarian religion of peace had set his mind to outdo Alexander The Great in conquering…

      • As you may know, some Muslims believe that “Dhul-Qarnain”, a certain personage mentioned in the Koran (verses 18:83-98), is really Alexander the Great, whom they revere as a Muslim.

  12. The African Stockholm Syndrome
    Why this silent pact with the Arabs?

    “Very numerous are those who would like to see the Arab-Muslim slave trade forever veiled in oblivion, often in the name of a certain religious, or even ideological solidarity. It is in fact a virtual pact signed and sealed between the descendants of the victims and those of the executioners, that leads to this denial. Because in this sort of “Stockholm Syndrome African-style,” all of these fine people agree to place everything on the shoulders of the West. The selective silence surrounding the Arab-Muslim crimes against black peoples and this effort to minimize it, so as to better point the projectors solely at the transatlantic trade,…”

    This pact has so much influence on anything in our society all the way to Hollywood and back!

    • “That Arab-Muslim writers and other intellectuals attempt to make even the simplest memory of this infamy disappear, as if it had never existed, is easily understood.”

  13. Re: my comment above at — concerning the three phases of the Western history of reaction to Islam: I’d say phase 1 was due to the frank hostility of Mohammedans and the lack of political correctness during that millennium; phase 2 was due to a kind of pall of ignorance settling over the West from its stupendous rise to global geopolitical power through the Age of Colonialism, coupled with Islam sinking into a nadir of corruption, decadence and inferiority. Also during phase 2, Muslims remained outside the West (the West still lacking PC MC and thus not so stupid as to invite millions of Muslims into the West). Perhaps during this time a kind of fabled, romanticized version of Islam became popular, as mostly only seafarers and Colonialists would spin tales of Islam and (other than piracy) Islam had stopped assaulting the West in terror attacks and major military sieges.

    Phase 3 I think coincides, but unfortunately dovetails with, a fashionable explosion of a “Designer Worldview” — PC MC which, along with the dismantling of the West’s Colonial apparatus and the rise of unearned oil wealth among certain Muslim regimes, has helped to open up the West not only to millions of Muslim immigrants but also to their taqiyya which (again) dovetails with the West’s own PC MC paradigm which sees intercultural reality in terms of a morbidly irrational exaggeration of its twin virtues Respect for the Other & Self-Criticism.

    • Because Islam has so many faults, does this mean that it is weak?

      Just a few glaring defects:
      Doesn’t use its women well.
      Logic and reasoning are flawed by faith in Koran.
      Contracting and business practices with outside world must be anemic.
      People habituated to violence probably have weaker social networks and cooperate poorly.

      • “People habituated to violence probably have weaker social networks and cooperate poorly.”

        Islam in this respect, as in many others, seems unique: it is a culture of violent, hatred, and internecine strife — and yet its social networking capabilities seem better than any culture (in terms of transmitting fanaticism, communicating cohesion against the Enemy, and more pragmatically, organizing trans-national action).

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