Introduction to the 3 Quarks Daily Online Seminar on Akeel Bilgrami’s “Occidentalism, The Very Idea”

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by S. Abbas Raza

Akeel Bilgrami is the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University. Professor Bilgrami went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and got a Bachelor’s degree there in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. In 1983 he got his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

Akeel Bilgrami is my teacher and my friend. A couple of years ago I had him over for dinner at my apartment in New York one night. Leon Wieseltier had just published what I considered at best a confused hack job of a review of Daniel Dennett’s then new book Breaking the Spell in the New York Times. I was quite outraged by this odium-filled denunciation of one of the living philosophers that I most admire, and even orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to the publishers of the New York Times.

I asked Akeel that night what he thought of the review, and he said that while he agreed with me that Wieseltier’s attack was shameful, he didn’t see too much of interest in Dennett’s book either, because while attacking religious faith in predictable ways (certainly preaching to the choir in my and Akeel’s case), Dennett completely failed to even acknowledge, much less analyze in any meaningful way, the more important cultural, political, and philosophical underpinnings of the much-lamented religious fundamentalist resurgence here in America as well as in the Muslim world.

As I have written here at 3QD in the past, I am sympathetic to this criticism of not just Dennett’s book, but the whole slew of best-selling anti-religion books since then by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, John Allen Paulos, and others, even while I feel that these books have had the tremendously salutary effect of creating, or at least greatly expanding, the space available to atheists in the public sphere.

Akeel then told me that he was writing an essay for Critical Inquiry which addresses precisely the cultural and political contexts of religion that these books ignore, and that he would send it to me when it was done. He did, and I was immediately captivated by his subtle and deeply original analysis. After much late-night discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of Akeel’s analysis between Robin Varghese and me, we decided to send the paper to some philosophers, political scientists, and other academics for critical comment. Six of those have now responded. In the next eight posts, you will find first the full text of Akeel’s paper, followed by the six critical responses, and then finally a last essay by Akeel answering his critics. 3QD will not be publishing further replies from the participants as full posts, but additional responses can always be left as comments on the appropriate post.

By the way, I recently spent some hours attempting to distill Akeel’s argument for this introduction, only to realize that it is already very dense (Akeel covers a lot of ground in a relatively short space) and far too intricate to be comprehensibly condensed. (To give you a sense of the rare and admirable concision with which Akeel writes, let me mention that in the essay, during the course of dismissing recent attempts at inverting the argument of Edward Said’s Orientalism, Akeel gives a brilliantly brief summary of the trajectory of the main arguments of that book in one page!) So I strongly urge you to take the time to read Akeel’s essay, which follows this post, in full.

In fact, I should perhaps also add that the material which makes up this seminar is somewhat more academic in tone (and length!) than readers of 3QD may be used to seeing here. I nevertheless encourage them to make the effort to read it as it is a thoughtful treatment of most-consequential topics (as Akeel himself puts it, “There is a great urgency to get some clarity on these issues. The stakes are high and they span a wide range of themes on the borderline of politics and culture. In fact, eventually, nothing short of the democratic ideal is at stake…”) and the contributors make some fascinating arguments.

Robin Varghese and I would like to warmly thank all the contributors for their submissions, and of course, most of all we want to thank Akeel Bilgrami, not only for writing the original paper as well as a response to the critical comments, but much more for his long and affectionate mentorship.

Here, for your browsing convenience, is a table of contents:

  1. Akeel Bilgrami: Occidentalism, The Very Idea: An Essay on The Enlightenment and Enchantment
  2. Colin Jager: Literary Thinking: A Comment on Bilgrami
  3. Bruce Robbins: Response to Akeel Bilgrami
  4. Justin E. H. Smith: A Comment on Akeel Bilgrami’s “Occidentalism, The Very Idea”
  5. Steven Levine: A Comment on Bilgrami
  6. Ram Manikkalingam: Culture follows politics: Avoiding the global divide between “Islam and the West”
  7. Uday Mehta: Response to Akeel Bilgrami
  8. Akeel Bilgrami: A Reply to Robbins, Jager, Smith, Levine, Manikkalingam, and Mehta
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