Empire of Tolerance

Simon Winchester in The New York Times:

WinchesterIt was in an earlier best-selling volume that Weatherford persuasively argued that the 25-year blitzkrieg mounted by Genghis and his cavalries — who, in “the most extensive war in world history” beginning in 1206, swept mercilessly and unstoppably over the Altai Mountains to their west and the Gobi Desert to their south — brought civilization, fairness, meritocracy and avuncular kindliness to legions of undeserving satrapies across Eurasia. Those who believed Genghis to be a tyrant of monstrous heartlessness have thus lately come to think otherwise: Weatherford’s writings present us revisionist history on a grand scale, but one as scrupulously well researched (with ample endnotes) as such an intellectual overhaul needs to be. Now, with “Genghis Khan and the Quest for God” he has taken his thesis still further, arguing with equal fervor and conviction that the Khan, though godless himself, favored total religious freedom for his subjugated millions. While his empire encompassed “Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Hindus, Jews, Christians and animists of different types” (Weatherford’s passions for lists can sometimes seem like stylistic overkill), he was eager that all should “live together in a cohesive society under one government.” No walls to be built, no immigration bans, no spiritual examinations. To be reminded of such secular civility is one thing; but what is most remarkable about this fine and fascinating book is Weatherford’s central claim that the Great Khan’s ecumenism has as its legacy the very same rigid separation of church and state that underpins no less than the American idea itself. The United States Constitution’s First Amendment is, at its root, an originally Mongol notion.

Many might think this eccentric in the extreme, until we learn that a runaway 18th-century best seller in the American colonies was in fact a history of “Genghizcan the Great,” by a Frenchman, Pétis de la Croix, and that it was a book devoured by both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Moreover, the quoted rubric of the Mongol and United States laws is uncannily similar: Among other passages, Mongol law forbids anyone to “disturb or molest any person on account of religion,” and Jefferson, after reading its strictures, went on to suggest in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor of the First Amendment, that “no man shall . . . suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.” The link between Genghis and Jefferson may seem tenuous to the point of absurdity; but Weatherford argues his case very well — and in doing so offers further amplification of the notion that so many of the West’s claimed achievements in fact have their true origins in the East, and that countries like Mongolia, far from being, as those hapless British diplomats once believed, at the utter ends of the earth, are very much more central than most of us nowadays like to imagine. In a sense we are all Mongols; we are all one.

More here.

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