Hi Muhammad and Nasima,
In your Salon you mention Mr. Berlusconi.
As an Italian I feel particularly concerned (better, very worried) about our PM and I must say something about him.
"The western historical narrative rests upon the idea that progress comes from a separation of Church and State and from this will follow democracy, freedom of the individual, freedom of speech, primacy of law and science ... in this view, (as recently expressed by Sr. Berlusconi), Islam cannot be right because it is medieval in its insistence upon the unity of state and religion."
Are you sure he said exactly that? The most complete quote I found is the following:
"We must be aware of the superiority of our civilization, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and -- in contrast with Islamic countries -- respect for religious and political rights, a system that has as its values understandings of diversity and tolerance."
He also claimed Western civilization is superior because it "has at its core, as its greatest value, freedom, which is not the heritage of Islamic culture."
Berlusconi went on to say that he trusts "the West will continue to conquer peoples, like it conquered Communism," even if it means a confrontation with "another civilization, the Islamic one, stuck where it was 1,400 years ago."
I don’t know if he spoke about separation of Church and State. This is an important point which I’d like to consider later.
For the moment, enjoy some more quotations from this BBC web page:
Not exactly like George W.’s Bushisms, but what he lacks in quantity he makes up with quality.
Here is one of the Cavaliere’s last gems : "We have to impose freedom to the world, even with the use of force, if necessary… Let us say to Mr X or Y in this or that dictatorship, ‘You must recognise human rights in your country, and we give you six or 12 months to do so, or else we intervene.’
…We said to Saddam, ‘Do it, or we come’, and we came and we did it."
Notice the WE.
Make no mistakes, while he speaks a lot about freedom his real concern is his PERSONAL freedom from Italian magistracy. Now, thanks to a new law approved by his majority in the Italian Parliament, Mr. Berlusconi is above the law…
You have to understand that Mr. Berlusconi is a populist and he loves to utter opinions of the common people (or at least what he likes to think is public opinion) in disregard of his official position as a Prime minister. (He also loves firing journalists that do not agree with him.)
And… yes, THERE IS a general opinion in the west that our civilization is superior.
Shell we discuss this?
I’m more than willing to do it but for the moment I have to pause.
I can hardly imagine a constructive outcome to a debate between people of different cultures about which is superior, any more than I can imagine a constructive debate about whether the one True Religion is Judaism (Reformed? Conservative? Orthodox? Jews for Jesus?), Christianity (Roman Catholic? Lutheran? Methodist? etc.?) Muslim (Sunni? Shiite? etc.?), Shamanism, or something else. We remain cordial with others of different faiths by generally avoiding that debate.
May I respectfully suggest that the matter of the role of Islamic religion in Islamic arts be pursued without concern for the question of whether Islamic cultures are "better" or "worse" than what we loosely refer to as "western"?
Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear.
I do not want to discuss about superiority of cultures, as a matter of fact I believe we cannot compare cultures.
Mr. Berlusconi expressed what it seems to be a popular westerner opinion.
I want to discuss is IF that opinion exists, how important it is, and what are the possible origins for that opinion.
For I think that the western general view on Islam reflects what do we know about it and how we judge some of its aspects as, for example, art.
I realize that it is potentially an huge and troublesome discussion, though!
Fortunately, Mr. Berlusconi is unlikely to participate in the discussion on our boards. That will save us the trouble of telling him that his views of Islamic culture are not relevant to our understanding of Islamic art and the role of religion in shaping that art.
There are lots of venues for political debate. I don't think this should be permitted to become one. We have more important things to talk about.
It’s OK for me!
Dear folks -
I realize that we are not about discussing politics on this board. We intend to talk about rugs and textiles.
BUT, we have a salon essay that seems to me very much to introduce political points into its initial arguments. (For example, in addition to the more subtle resort I have described in my first post, the salon essay accuses the West at the end of noticing only instances in which women in Islamic societies are restricted and claims that Western reporting neglects counter instances that would demonstrate that women in Islamic societies are often treated well and sometimes perhaps even have their human capabilities fully honored and fulfilled.)
It seems to me that the initial salon essay has not been "vetted" well in terms of our standing concern not to engage in political debate here.
I am not sure how to go on, since some reference to political questions such as the one above and the one I aluded to in my initial post in another thread here, seem unavoidable, if one takes the initial salon essay as a point of reference.
I await clarification about the bounds of the discussion we intend to have in this salon. We cannot have political arguments permitted only on the host side.
R. John Howe
I would hope that the discussion would focus more or less in two directions, at least initially. One is the role of religion in the arts of a culture, especially the Muslim religion. Another is the general subject of Moroccan kilims and other textiles from that part of the world.
We (Americans and western Europeans) get much of our information about the Islamic world from each other, not very often from the people in it. So, when I edited the Salon, I thought it worthwhile to leave the author's views on the political implications and imperatives of their religion in it. And, yes, in my opinion at least, they get to present their side of it without discussion. I would not have permitted them or anyone else to present one side of some political issue in a subject with which many of us are concerned in ways tha have practical consequences (the role of big business in a free society; the ethics of various systems of taxation; the proper role of the government in providing services like health care, etc., etc., etc.).
The issue you mention - whether women are liberated or enslaved by Islam - seems to me to be so peripheral to the subject of textile appreciation that I think debating it here is a distraction. If someone wants to pursue it within the context of art and weaving, of course, that seems legitimate enough to me. Debate on whether Islamic principles are moral or immoral with regard to the roles of the genders seems way outside the scope of this site. The effects those principles have on weaver's arts seems well within it.
I really don't see how Signor Berlusconi's views on the superiority of western societies contributes to our understanding of Islamic art.
I don't know if this clarifies or confuses.
some strands suggested ....
We thought we were in a salon, not a cockpit! We are a little puzzled by the
furore which so quickly arrived. What was said to incite such reaction?
Maybe we were wrong to grace Sr Berlusconi's thoughts with any intellectual depth. He was an easy example of someone who does think it is possible to consider one civilisation superior to another. We didn't use the word "civilisation" did we? We just argued that no factor should be dismissed in the way we consider Islam has been for these weavers.
Filiberto suggests some separate strands to channel the torrents unleashed!
In our essay we have tried to give examples of:
strand 1: the anthropological
How the weavers' work is more often assessed in terms of their older pagan beliefs than their more recent muslim beliefs, eg symbols - we don't want to disallow the influence of the pagan, (nor the Roman for that matter), but do we detect a unjustifiable tendency to dismiss the muslim influence - to belittle the current religion and be far too anthropological in our appreciation of these textiles - a view fairly widely held is that these textiles made an impact upon 20th century art and design - those artists and designers they influenced, we would contend, did not value them in this anthropological fashion - is there a good reason for ruggies to do so?
strand 2: Islam misrepresented
How those muslim beliefs when they are introduced, are often misrepresented, eg barakha, dowries, alms etc - there seems little evidence in the literature of a broad or detailed understanding of Islam - far too often both easterner and westerner come to the market place for these textiles without a desire for mutual understanding and only a hunger for the things which their hearts most desire - the muslim takes the cash, the consumer their tribal artefact; does it have to be like this?
strand 3: Western concepts
How western ideas seem too value laden to be useful aids to understanding, eg what is a tribal society - when we label something a tribal rug, we taint the weaving with concepts not necessarily familiar to the weaver - we are surprised that modern appreciation of the textiles needs to be so hopelessly anchored in its western outlook, especially since 20th century art and design has given us lots of opportunities to shake off this limitation.
strand 4: muslim art
We made it clear we were describing our personal views; we are puzzled that this should so outrage participants; we are earnest in what we say and our appreciation of many of these textiles has been enhanced by an understanding which is muslim rather than western and we wished to share this. We are not yet persuaded that the anomalies visible in the illustrations are explained by R John Howe's activities in the field of macrame - we would like to learn more about why our account seems a fanciful interpretation!
strand 5: political slops
this is not a strand, but more a bucket to throw in any old slops of polictical argument you may have - we will not be contributing and we will try and resist the temptation to look
Dear folks -
I have just spent over an hour carefully writing a response to what has been said so far. But my machine (perhaps wiser than I) crashed and froze and I lost it all. I probably should leave well enough alone. But I feel strongly enough about what is going on here that I am attempting to recompose roughly what I wrote the first time.
I will be addressing different people about different things.
You wrote in part, "...yes, in my opinion at least, they get to present their side of it without discussion."
If I had known in advance of such an agreement I would not have participated at all. It is the heighth of irresponsibility to have someone state their views here without our being able to question them about whatever it is that they claim. If we want no politics then, we should not be "shutting the barn door after the horse is out."
I know nothing of Sr Berlusconi excepting what I see at newspaper level, and if that representation is even slightly accurate, I do not want to have our conversation here muddied by the possibility that he reflects representative western views about anything.
Mr. Muhammad Thompson -
There is no "furor." Only what I thought was a jocularly stated (I hope that we will not expunge entirely from our conversations here, any sense of humor) point or two.
But given your response let me be ethnocentric for a moment and suggest that one of the things that often seems to interfere with discussion and debate with members of Islamic societies is that they often seem (to a westerner anyway) to be a bit prone to exaggeration.
Now to your points:
Your strand 1: that Islamic influences on rugs and textiles are neglected in the literature. I do not think this is the case at all. Since the period during which the rugs we collect and own is entirely that following Moslem conquest and rule, the chief aspects of the society to be studied are almost unavoidably those of Islamic ones. Entire exhibits are organized on this basis, for example that of the Topkapi Museum artifacts at the Corcoran Gallery a couple of years ago. And at the last TM rug convention, Julian Raby, Director of the Sackler Museum gave a paper citing who quickly and thoroughly Ottoman artisans had drawn on foreign sources but then made their art their own. I simply do not experience the neglect you cite here. I merely made the counter point that Islamic treatments often seem to take unto Islam, achievements made in other eras with different religious contexts.
I am unclear what your complaint here is. The students and collectors of orientals rugs and textiles that I know talk a great deal about, and study rather closely, such things as the "weddings," and the "doweries" of the people who we believe wove the artifacts we collect. I confess to not being fully familiar with the term "barakha" and to not being clear about how "alms" might be implicated in the Turkmen weavings I primarily collect, but the picture you paint sounds like a complaint against tourists who buy casually. I less sure it applies to those who study and who collect weavings from Islamic countries.
You complain, rightly, that a lot of rug scholarship and terminology is a species of "orientalism" that imposes western terminology and does not give the weaver a chance to speak for her or him self. That is undoubtedly true, but given the restrictions on field research in Islamic societies (that is, men interviewing female weavers) and the fact that most of the people we want to talk to are long dead, it seems not entirely wrong-headed to begin to examine the weavings themselves. The phenomenon you describe is not particular at all to description of weavings from Islamic communities. Today I attended an opening of a Navajo exhibtion at the TM and the curator pointed out that none of the analytical language used to describe and to classify Navajo rugs is used by Navajo rug weavers and in fact we no longer know what terms they used for the 19th century rugs in this exhibition. So while I agree with your point, it does not seem to offer any current change in practice. Someone has said that few Turkmen describe themselves with the names of the major tribes used in the literature, that their description cite lower level groups. You specifically complain about the use of "tribe" and of the western conceptions of tribe and instances of what you complain of might well be found, but I picked up the Pickering, Pickering and Yohe volume on Moroccan rugs tonight and they seem very even-handedly to describe "tribal" relationships much as you do and are very careful with a word like "Berber." They do claim that Islam is held with varying degrees of closeness in different parts of the country and that folks further out have often combined their Islamic faith with some other traditional beliefs still held.
I don't know your own specific background but "speaking for the weaver" is something that you might well need to avoid yourself, unless you are one. The "verstehen" problem is very thorough-going.
Here you seem again to have experienced something that did not happen with your suggestion that I was "outraged." I was modestly skeptical of a story that is used widely and romantically in the market to sell rugs.
Some others have raised the allied point that there may be some internal contradiction in the notion of a "deliberate mistake." "Mistakes" in common parlance, are "unintended errors" and are not usually included in the category of "planned" actions. You make much of the notion of "intent" in Islamic belief. "Intent" may not be a word that can be used readily to modify the notion of "mistake." Carol Bier, in her work on symmetry and pattern in oriental weavings says that one way that weavers create a "richer" visual experience for us is by setting up an expectation in their patterns and design and then by violating them. Would such violations qualify as "deliberate mistakes?" I wonder.
You "name call" here, and although you do not say I think you may have reference to my suggestion that you introduced a political position with regard to the western views of the place and treatment of women in Islamic societies.
You say you will "not contribute" to this sort of thing but the fact is that you raised it first from your side.
In the last sentence of your last salon note your wrote that in "western preconceptions" there has been a "huge emphasis upon the role of Islam in subjugating women and scarcely any mention of its liberating role."
So this line of argument was initiated from your side.
Now the truth is the rug and textile literature that I read often describes 19th century nomad Turkmen women as, active, decisive, responsible for important decisions, valued in their societies, making public appearances unveiled, etc. The weaving skills of Turkmen ladies seem to have provided them with a lever
for bettering their place in society. I have read that the brideprice for a Turkmen widow was usually noticeably higher than that paid for a young, maiden woman in recognition of the likelihood that the widow would be a more experienced weaver.
Pickering, Pickering and Yohe seem to say something similar about the roles of Moroccan women in more remote locations.
It is dangerous to generalize, but it seems that women in the country-side tended to be treated better, because they were more evident economic resources there and because perhaps the more restrictive grip of some aspects of Islam didn't reach them. That it was the "townies," whose wives no longer needed to work and who may have tended to "think too much" about such things, who developed the more restrictive and repressive mores to which Islamic women had to adhere.
But regardless, there is ample recognition in the western rug literature of variations in the roles and treatment of women in various contexts in Islamic societies.
R. John Howe
First, let me make it clear that there was no "arrangement" with Muhammad and Nasima to let them present their side with no debate.
Second, you are as much in charge of what goes onto Turkotek as I am, and I would not presume to give you orders about what is and is not acceptable. I have opinions on the matter and have expressed them, but in the final analysis they are just my opinions.
So, if you believe that political discourse on the subjects raised by Muhammad and Nasima can proceed in constructive directions, that's your call to make. I suspect that it will blow up in our faces, but I've already said that, and you are in no way obligated to follow my advice.
Hi Steve -
I have no interest to follow these political questions here, although they may well be far more important than the rugs and textiles of our more usual discussions.
But neither am I much interested in a salon discussion that seems arranged as a series of chiding lectures about western ethnocentrism, in which our hosts are free to flail about, but about which we are apparently expected, mostly, to be studiously and silently noteful. Good, attentive students, all, with our hands folded carefully on our desks.
R. John Howe
I don't see any "series of chiding lectures" here; perhaps I'm missing something. Nor do I perceive any "flailing about" on the part of our guest hosts. They present their view that westerners tend to be ethnocentric in their view of the arts of the Islamic world (although this is not all that they present), and that they perceive this as condescending. I've seen that many times before, usually stated by westerners. I'm neither shocked nor offended by it. In fact, I think it is a fairly obvious truth. Clearly, you don't agree.
Nobody has insisted that you (or anyone else) "...be studiously and silently noteful. Good, attentive students, all, with our hands folded carefully on our desks." My personal opinion is that debate on the subject will lead to rancor - that it will generate much heat and little light. Maybe I'm mistaken - it wouldn't be the first time and it won't be the last (Inshallah!). So, if you think you can make it go somewhere, and, most especially, if you think the view that we tend to be ethnocentric is incorrect, by all means, please run with it.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ethnocentric as:
characterized by or based on the attitude that one's own group is superior. This, the only definition they provide, is not too far from being synonymous with bigotry. I think all of us agree that bigotry is ugly.
The anthropological definition of ethnocentric is, an adjective describing the condition of viewing and judging (often in pejorative terms) other cultures and societies according to the (usually taken-for-granted) assumptions of one’s own society. I think this is closer than the Merriam-Webster definition to the meaning intended in the discussions here.
Just a clarification.
This has been a fascinating set of discussions. Thank you Muhammad and Nasima
for giving us a perspective we have sorely lacked. I am a bit perplexed by one
line of argument and hoped you would explain it for me:
"strand 1: the anthropological
How the weavers' work is more often assessed in terms of their older pagan beliefs than their more recent muslim beliefs, eg symbols - we don't want to disallow the influence of the pagan, (nor the Roman for that matter), but do we detect a unjustifiable tendency to dismiss the muslim influence - to belittle the current religion and be far too anthropological in our appreciation of these textiles - a view fairly widely held is that these textiles made an impact upon 20th century art and design - those artists and designers they influenced, we would contend, did not value them in this anthropological fashion - is there a good reason for ruggies to do so?"
Anthropologists seek to understand what it is to be human--both biologically and culturally. In the context of textiles from the Islamic world, this could encompass an array of possibilities, for example: the use of the textile, the context of its creation (by whom, for whom, their relative statuses etc.), the aesthetic and ideological values it reflects, how those values came into being (which in this case would certainly include both Islamic and pre-Islamic value systems). The list could get very long. We tend to be very interested in how societies change--religious/cultural syncretism is a subject that fascinates our field.
Anthropologists differ (often loudly) on the role of their own perspectives. Some seek to render themselves impartial observers--to maintain a scientific perspective. Others freely acknowledge, even embrace, their own biases and choose to explore how their own worldview interacts with that of the 'other' as they attempt an understanding. [Virtually] All are united in the attempt to explore other groups with utmost respect. That anthropology would "belittle the current religion" is anathema to any practicing anthropologist.
I am unsure how 'anthropological' came to be equated with a tendency to deny the impact of Islamic values on textiles produced by Muslims. I'd like to find out as it scares me a little--for my field more than present discussion. Thanks.
We probably owe anthropologists and their science an apology. Steve has identified a word that better characterises what we were driving at -"ethnocentrism".
The kind of thing we were criticising was that attributed to Westermarck, (1926 “Ritual and Belief in Morocco”, referred to at pages 144-5 of “The Fabric of Moroccan Life”), in describing what were considered to be superstitions relating to "barakha" and "jinn". I am afraid we have not read the original text - do you know it?
We of course applaud anyone who wishes to dig deep for answers and all of us can begin by digging in the wrong place. The problem we sense is a unwillingness to explore Islam for the answers before delving into something that predates Islam.
Given the historical antagonism between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the capacity of those in the West to belittle the religion of the third monotheistic faith seems to us to be profound. How do anthropologists guard against this? How do westerners explore the faith and, at least, acknowledge it as an extension of the divine revelations and prophecy upon which western faiths were founded?
Regards, Muhammad and Nasima
Welcome back Rick,
I substituted "anthropological" with "ethnocentric" in your sentence - still I see your affirmation as collectors having the "unjustifiable tendency to dismiss the muslim influence - to belittle the current religion" rather gratuitous.
I think that affirmation is correlated with the one already quoted in another thread:
There is a tendency among oriental rug collectors and writers to view these textiles as tribal and primitive as opposed to decorative/aesthetic and meditative; to look to the Amazigh (Berbers) as a pastoral people rather than as amongst the builders of the high art of Marrakech, the Alhambra and Muslim Spain. This western view is condescending at best.
Your problem here is with the term "tribal"- as you also say that the "Western markets seem more prepared to recognise the pre-Islamic and pagan origins of kilims than they do the influence of Islam; this anthropological (ETHNOCENTRIC?) approach misconstrues the art as backward rather than progressive."
First, I do not see anything "backward" in tribal kilims and rugs - otherwise we should be all happy collectors of "progressive" workshop rugs.
Then, perhaps your idea is that when that Islam arrives it wipes out all precedent cultures and establishes itself as the one and only source of artistic creation? No syncretism allowed?
I know very little about Berbers. What emerges from literature about other tribal groups in the world of Oriental Rugs is:
- They are rather conservative in their artistic traditions.
- They all tend to weave geometrical patterns - this is due not only to their aesthetic choice but also to the origin of those patterns in flat-weave techniques which are to some degrees limiting in what one can draw.
- As they live in relative isolation they are less likely to be limited by strict canons of Islamic art (as city dwellers should be) and more likely, as you wrote in your website, to preserve "the ancient techniques and protective symbolism of their distant ancestors, handed down from mother to daughter."
- They are not, however, impenetrable from outside influence as they adopt and adapt some elements from different sources: it could be an exotic design, it could be a city workshop textile…But they do that for aesthetic, fashion, not for "ideological" reasons.
Having said that I think that to define Berber Kilims as Islamic, you should individuate what was Kilims production in Morocco BEFORE Islam and how it looked like. If you find a distinct change in style (say from figurative to geometric), then you are right to use that label.
On the other hand I bet there are no pre-Islamic specimens of Berber Kilims. In lack of those I tend to assume, for the reasons expressed above, that pre-Islamic Berber Kilims were not too different from what we see today.
So, it seems to me more appropriate to call them "Berber Tribal Art" (or Folk Art, if you prefer), while I could not object to call, say, Alhambra, as "Islamic Berber Art".
Dear Muhammad & Nasima,
A point that I forgot:
in defining those Kilims as tribal I don’t think I "belittle" Islam.
It seems to me that you attribute religious biases (which undoubtedly exist in other realities) to the wrong contest.
I think some of the reactions to the word "tribal" are related to the fact that the western world stopped using "primitive" as synonymous with "tribal" only within the past few decades. This is more of an issue with Subsaharan African than with Asian or North African art. Until well into the second half of the 20th century, African tribal art was found only in museums of anthropology or natural history. Now nearly every major museum of fine arts has a section for African tribal arts.
I think it's a mistake to place to much importance on the term today. But it is important to remember that collectors of tribal arts collect it, in part, because of the ethnographic significance of that art. To some extent, of course, this necessarily includes an element of ethnocentrism. On the other hand, so does any attempt to help us to understand it better within its cultural context by those of the cultures from which it came. I know of no way out of this dilemma except to plod on as best we can with an awareness that certain forms of ethnocentrism are neither avoidable nor malignant.
Yours in perpetual puzzlement,
Thank you Muhammad and Nisami. Ethnocentrism is the perfect word for the
patterns you describe.
I teach several courses that focus on cultures (e.g. the Maya, the Aztecs) with worldviews far from those of predominantly Christian, middle class, North American college students. We always spend the first lecture discussing two terms: the terrible twins ethnocentrism and civilization. I try to make my students understand that everyone is ethnocentric. We are all raised in families (and larger societies) that try to form us to be the best possible members of our own groups--to teach us 'right from wrong' (and 'right and wrong' extends to everything from sexual mores to color choice in our rugs).
Inevitably, when we are faced with groups who define right and wrong according to their own rules, we see inadequacies (at best) in those other groups. I tell my students they cannot expect to eliminate those ethnocentric perceptions, but (at least for purposes of the class and I hope for life) they must learn to recognize them as such, and see these strange (to them) societies within the context of each society's own rules. It's hard. Other societies do things--they eat things that 'aren't food' according to others, they decorate their bodies strangely (perhaps they put bags of liquid inside their breasts), and they worship the wrong deities the wrong way. But most (it's pretty hard to rationalize breast implants) of these thing make sense when viewed in context.
I recognize how limited my influence on my students' prejudices is likely to be (if I have any at all), but console myself, when my work seems elitist and narcissistic, that my students might at least pause before they judge other groups. Though Anthropology has skeletons in its closet (the 19th cultural evolutionism of Morgan and Spencer was heavily racist and colonialist) contemporary Anthropologists like to see ourselves as agents for understanding rather than division.
I'll climb down from my soapbox and go back to work now.