Editor’s Book Choices: Emerging from our Frames and Narratives: Understanding the World through Altered Eyes

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We are all captured and framed by our background, our nationality, history classes in school, religion, experiences, language and common narratives. Psychology has shown that those frames might be an obstacle to communication, mutual understanding and might even lead to conflict. It is no different for the international community. Different frames lead to different understandings of situations, different attributions of motives by others, different fairness perceptions. Kant defined enlightenment as a “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity”. One aspect of this immaturity, one could argue, is the lack of self-consciousness about one´s own frames. Learning about other peoples´ frames relativizes one´s own (in my view something to strive for in itself) – and may lead to tolerance. My own frame is clearly western European and I have no doubt that this influences how I see the world and how I perceive international law. Challenging our own frame can be a personal as well as a professional enrichment.

My latest experiences of this kind of relativisation came through two books which I would like to share. Both books are closely connected to the developments in international relations we are currently facing. First, the events in the Arab world, including the events of 9/11: both events call for a thorough understanding of the Arab World and Islam and its frames, narratives and history. Second, the rise of China in economic terms but also the increasing assertiveness of the “Middle Kingdom”: in order to better understand the reactions of China to western moves in trade and especially security.

The first book I would like to introduce is Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary (2010). It is an encompassing history of Islam and the Islamic world, starting with the birth of Mohammed. The book describes not only the religious development of Islam, helping to understand the different Islamic denominations and their conflicts between Shia and Sunni (including other branches such as Sufis) but also vividly describes the political and economic development of the Islamic world. History helps us to understand the disastrous developments in the Middle East nowadays including the attraction of Islamic State (IS) by its leaders´ self-proclaimed re-erection of a Caliphate (associated with the golden age in Islam).

Although Europeans learn a bit of southern Mediterranean history, their viewpoint remains firmly western centric: Rome and its territories, the crusades, maybe a bit of Arab “occupation” of Southern Spain, including the attempt of conquest of northern Europe and lastly the military events during WWII in Northern Africa. The rich political, cultural and economic life of the Mediterranean world is missing in our curricula contributing to a view of (eternal) periphery and underdevelopment. But Islam also had its Golden Age (just as ancient Greece and the Roman Empire) and it was also rather influential for European development of philosophy, mathematics, science and art. Although the exact lasting of the Golden Age of Islam is disputed, it can be timed from the 8th to 13th centuries of the Abbasid caliphate till the conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, already much weakened by the crusades.  This age is rarely taught in Europe, just as the teaching of crusades firmly takes the view of the conquerors (in contrast to la conquista of Latin America, where the destiny of the indigenous population including their suffering is more deeply engrained in Western history, maybe because Francisco de Vitoria, one of the fathers of international law, discussed their plight). “Destiny Disrupted” also vividly describes the colonisation of the Arab world or the British dominance over Persia, helping the reader to understand not only some of the transnational legal disputes concerning expropriations of oil companies but also the Iranian mistrust of the West.

In early medieval times, the most renowned “Institute of Advanced Study” was in Baghdad (others existed in e.g. Cairo and Cordoba). The “House of Wisdom” was a major intellectual centre during the Islamic Golden Age. From the 9th to 13th centuries, many learned scholars including those of Persian or Christian background were part of this research and educational institute. Many classic works of antiquity that might otherwise have been lost were translated into Arabic and Persian and later into Turkish, Hebrew, and Latin. These scholars assimilated, synthesized, and advanced the knowledge gained from the ancient Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, and Phoenician civilizations. The high achievements and beauty of Arab and Persian architecture and art do not need convincing – whoever visited the Alhambra will not forget it.

The trade flows in the Muslim World did not only circle around the Mediterranean, they extended far into the East. During the Fatimid era (909–1171) Egypt flourished, and the Fatimids developed an extensive trade network not only in the Mediterranean but also the Indian Ocean. Their trade and diplomatic ties extended all the way to China and its Song Dynasty. In 2014, the Investment Moot Court in Frankfurt spot-lighted those flourishing trade and investment; the case scenario was based on a real dispute playing in Yemen, India and Egypt. The first thing I gave to my Moot Court students was the book in order to understand the context. With the exception of a student with Pakistani origin who knew the history, all others were delighted to understand the context and heavily surprised about this world they knew nothing about.

Ansary tells the story of a civilization that found itself upended by strangers several times. He shows that the history we learn is one-sided – he tells the other side and is well placed to do so. Being an Afghani living in the United States allows him to display loving and humorous distance. He gives a differentiated voice to a narrative barely known in the West. As Ansary writes himself: “The conflict wracking the modern world is not, I think, best understood as a ‘clash of civilizations.’ … It’s better understood as the friction generated by two mismatched world histories intersecting.”

The book enables an insightful understanding of how that world and its peoples were shaped by past events. It stops short of commenting on current events but is nevertheless an indispensable guide to understanding the political debates and conflicts of today, from 9/11 to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and the Islamic State. Last, but not least, Ansary has a seamless, comprehensible and suspenseful style – a real treat to read.

The second book which de-framed me is On China by Henry Kissinger (2011). Although Kissinger is not Chinese, it is probably correct to call him one of the most intimate western experts of China whose modern relations with the West he helped shape. The book starts with early Chinese history but its value added lies in the intricate discussion of Chinese culture, narratives and intellectual history. Kissinger examines how China has approached international diplomacy, strategy, and negotiation as well as its view on (international) law – he takes pains to explain Chinese interests and narratives and its quest for re-finding its place in the geopolitical game. This helps the reader to understand the narratives currently communicated by China to the world.

As we know all too well, international law is (also) a language but a language with different accents and misunderstanding may occur. Understanding narratives and background frames of other parts of the world are not only personally enriching but also help us to become international lawyers who communicate better. This is also the aim of a forthcoming book by Anthea Roberts Is International law International? (OUP, 2015), relativizing the different international law frames international lawyers are captured in due to their respective legal background and language. Even if one wants to put forward one’s own frame of international law as a neutral account of the world or one has a normative (liberal, constitutionalist, neoconservative or civilizing) agenda, one needs to make this frame understood and accepted. And in order to be able to do so, one needs to understand the others. De-Framing and taking into account the particular frames of the others is thus a necessary first step for a universal international law.

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Patryk I. Labuda says

December 27, 2014

Thank you for this, Professor van Aaken. With respect to frames and international law, I wonder if you can recommend any books or articles analysing the impact of the English language - and implicitly Anglo-Saxon law - on the discipline. This is something I have been thinking a lot about recently, and it strikes me that international lawyers increasingly accept a kind of cultural hegemony within the discipline. I don't mean the practical issue of language as a vehicle for communication; Professor Weiler has addressed this issue in EJIL talk before, and most people understand the *usefulness* of a lingua france.

I am interested in the more subtle forms of cultural hegemony (not a value neutral term, I concede) that this reliance on one language within an ostensibly cosmopolitan and supranational discipline imposes. Anyone who has a multicultural background or has lived in more than one place knows that every culture has different ways of framing the world, and it seems to me that the first book you mentioned speaks to precisely this issue, though not necessarily in terms of international law. While I understand the usefulness of a lingua france in international law, I wonder whether anyone has sought to study the impact monolingualism has on the discipline, ie how vocabulary, concepts, method *frame* the substance of international law. I would be curious to hear your thoughts.

Heiko Recktenwald says

December 31, 2014

Benjamin Lee Whorf comes to mind. The grammar makes ideas. And "Russian PIL" as well.