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Trial of a Thousand Years, by Charles Hill—a review

 trial of thousand years

by J. Scott Shipman 

Trial of a Thousand Years, World Order and Islamism, by Charles Hill

Ambassador Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies, Literature, Statecraft, and World Order was the best book I read in 2010, so I had high expectations for this volume and was not disappointed. Ambassador Hill provides a 35,000-foot view of the relationships between the West and Islam in history focusing on the subtitle of his earlier work in the form of “world order.”

Unsurprisingly, as in Grand Strategies Hill goes back to the roots of modern order in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). He provides a brief review of the world ushered in by the men who negotiated, and quotes another historian who said, “men who were laboring, each in his own way, for the termination of a terrible war. They had no idea of progress. The word “innovation” was anathema to them. The last thing on their minds was the creation of a new system of sovereign states…” Here we are 363 years later and “from the seeds sown at Westphalia” the system they set in place is has grown, but has been under siege many times from many fronts.

Westphalia was distinctive because it was “procedural, not substantive” and required a minimum number of procedures/practices to which to adhere and allowed disparate parties with different, “even mutually antagonistic, substantive doctrines and objectives” to work together. Hill points out four distinctions:

  • Religious arguments were not allowed in diplomacy.
  • The State was the fundamental entity.
  • Interstate/international norms and laws were encouraged, absent “divine sources” but based on mutually beneficial/positive agreements.
  • Use of professional military and diplomats with “its own set of protcols.” [Personal note: In another life, I was an arms control inspector enforcing the START I and INF Treaties—protocol was very serious and the true measure of the actual treaty language. There was also a strong and consistent application of reciprocity that made each party think before stretching protocol—this happened to my teams more than once.]

For Hill a central mission of the United States is the defense of the Westphalian world order. In less than 165 pages and six chapters, he outlines the origins of modern Western order and correspondingly covers Islamic order. From the beginning to the end Hill provides ample evidence of challenges to Westphalia, often from indigenous Western sources, but focusing mostly on our trials with Islam.

Hill sets the sources from whence the Western and Islamic world orders arose, where the West was grounded in Christianity, and the Islamic in the Caliphate. For two religions claiming Abrahamic roots, their worldviews were, and in many instances remain diametrically opposed. Central was the question of duality or unity. For the West, the State and religion were two complementary systems/powers—following the teaching of Christ ““Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (St Matthew’s Gospel 22:21) For Islam there was no distinction, and the very thought was hateful to Islamists. Islam’s “unswerving devotion to monotheism” continues to this day among those groups and states using terror to upend existing world order.

I am sympathetic to Hill’s ideas; however recognize with globalization and the internet tweaks may be required. And I’ll take this segue to introduce an idea for consideration.

Westphalia’s removal of religion made trade possible among former religious enemies. Unambiguous rules for contracts and dispute resolution evolved. What if we could bridge the gap between Western jurisprudence and tribal, or non-Western legal systems? What if, instead of insisting our way or the highway we design a solution that would allow both sides to keep their respective legal processes and procedures, thereby opening untapped markets?

At least one person has already considered these alternatives. Michael Van Notten (1933-2002) was a practicing lawyer in the Netherlands and married into a Somali tribe. Van Notten used his legal training and insights gained as a member of his new family to design a method of contracting where tribal law and Western jurisprudence could peacefully and prosperously coexist. Van Notten recorded his ideas in a book called The Law of Somalis, A Stable Foundation for Economic Development in the Horn of Africa. I’ll not review this book, but wanted offer this as a teaser alternative.

After reviewing the history of the West and Islam, Hill identifies seven Clausewitzian centers of gravity for both: legal, military, the State, women, democracy, nuclear weapons, and values. Hill makes the distinction between the use of diplomacy by Islam and the Islamist (the fundamental variety). No surprises, to the Islamist a secular State is an “apostasy,” as is international law (Sharia being the single source), democracy and the rights of women.

Hill concludes, “Islamic civilization entered the international system under duress,” which he believes has contributed to the current situation of failing states and lagging economies that establish conditions where radicalized Islam can flourish. The radicalized elements reject the secular Westphalian world order, however Hill points out that some in Islam insist that sharia imposed by the state “cannot be the true law of Islam. It is not possible to apply sharia through the state; it can only be applied through acceptance by human beings (An-Na’im).” Another alternative is the Medina polity established by the Prophet (“later called the Pact—kitab—of Medina) “guaranteeing each tribe the right to follow its own religion and customs, imposing on all citizens rules designed to keep the overall peace, establishing a legal process by which the tribes settled purely internal matters themselves and ceded to Muhammad the authority to settle intertribal disputes…Although this document has been called the first written constitution, it was really more of a multiparty treaty” (Ansary).

Hill convincingly demonstrates that more often than not, rulers have co-opted Islam as a way to dominate the people (Iran comes to mind.). He quotes Professor L. Carl Brown of Princeton, “nothing exclusively “Islamic” about this Muslim attitude towards politics, any more than the politics of feudalism or of imperial Russia was distinctly “Christian.” It is the political legacy of Muslims, not the theology of Islam…”

For the Islamist, secularism is the booger man, but secularism in the Westphalian order has its own set of problems. Hill writes, “A new phenomena arose: wars motivated by religious convictions were replaced by wars driven by ideologies—surrogates for religion—each aimed to oppose, undermine, destroy and replace the Westphalian system. The greatest of these was international communism, the latest is international Islamism.”

In many respects, Trials is as good as Grand Strategies. Ambassador Hill is to be commended for his insight, courage, and conviction—this little book packs a big, enlightening punch. Strongest recommendation.

References you may find of interest (links to quoted authors above are links to the respective reference):

The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Abu Hamid Muhammed Al-Ghazali

The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, Ali A. Allawi

The Caliphate, Thomas W. Arnold

Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism, John Calvert

Crimea: The Last Crusade, Orlando Figes —Figes’ The Whisperers was very good.

The Morality of Law, Lon L. Fuller

The Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun (Translated Franz Rosenthal)

The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making, Lydia H. Liu

The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent, Albert Lyber

Byzantine Civilization and The Fall of Constantinople, both by Steven Runciman

The First World War, Hew Strachan

Mozart and the Enlightenment; Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas Nicholas Till

Muslim Intellectual: A Study of Al-Ghazadi, W. Montgomery Watt

Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno 



5 Responses to “Trial of a Thousand Years, by Charles Hill—a review”

  1. Trial of a Thousand Years, World Order and Islamism—a review | Fear, Honor, and Interest Says:

    […] is cross-posted from: zenpundit.com Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in […]

  2. david ronfeldt Says:

    many thanks for this review, scott.  informative.  thoughtful.  a good reminder about islamist views, and about underlying currents of tribalism that extend even into the west’s secular isms.  and i appreciate the biblio pointers at the end.

  3. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi David,
    Hill’s book is amazingly brief; I read it in two sittings.
    The biblio connections are only about 10% of the total bibliography. The book is not footnoted (which for me as a reader is both a blessing and a curse…in the early 80’s I chased footnotes for almost two years and have no idea what the original book was!), but the foundation of his thinking is deep.
    I’m moving Dialectic of Enlightenment to the top of my never ending list…

  4. Military Shorts | Says:

    […] Islam, the West, and the military, from Zenpundit. […]

  5. zen Says:

    Excellent review Scott – I will be ordering this!

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