Sunday, May 19, 2024

New book on Shi’i Traditionalists in Italy

A new book has just been published on Shi’i Traditionalists in Italy. It is Crises and Conversions: The Unlikely Avenues of “Italian Shiism”, by Minoo Mirshahvalad, available here.

The book has three sections, though they are not explicitly identified as such. The first section introduces Evolian Traditionalism, paying especial attention to Evola’s views on Islam. The second tells the almost unknown story of the rise and flourishing of Shi’i Traditionalism, and the third looks at various issues and contradictions arising from this.

The book is based on careful readings of relevant texts and on high-quality ethnographic fieldwork, and is beautifully written, with an excellent eye for revealing detail.

The rise of Shi’i Traditionalism in Italy starts with Pio Filippani-Ronconi (1920-2010), an Italian Orientalist who integrated Julius Evola and the very pro-Iranian views of the great French Orientalist Henry Corbin. Having first read Evola in 1934, Filippani-Ronconi remained true to his principals throughout his life, including a period serving in the Waffen-SS, where he reached the rank of Obersturmführer (second lieutenant). But it as a pro-Shi’i Orientalist, not as an SS officer, that he matters. Mirshahvalad also discusses the early roles of Adriano Romualdi (1940-1973), the son of Pino Romualdi (1913-1988), the leader of the MSI, Italy’s largest and most important Neo-Fascist movement, and of Claudio Mutti (born 1946), who is already known to students of Italian Traditionalism.

For the flourishing of Shi’i Traditionalism, Mirshahvalad introduces us to three Italian organizations, the Ahl al-Bayt Association in Naples, the Dimore della Sapienza (houses of wisdom, DDS) in Rome, and the lower-profile Tarsis in Trieste. The Ahl al-Bayt Association was founded by Luigi Ammar de Martino (1964-2019), who as a young man belonged to the Evolian activist (and terrorist) group Ordine Nuovo, converted to Sunni Islam in 1982, and then to Shi’i Islam in 1983, one of many in Italy to follow this pattern, which can be seen as representing a shift from the more standard Guénonian position to a less standard position based on a specifically Italian reading of Evola.

Beyond these three organizations there is also a more general sympathy with Iranian Shi’ism on the Italian Right represented, for example, by the production by members of CasaPound, perhaps Italy’s highest profile Far Right group, of posters commemorating the death of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, part of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, assassinated by an American drone in 2020.

The third part of the book, as has been said, looks at various issues and contradictions arising from the sometimes uncomfortable alliance of Evola, Shi’ism, and the Iranian state. Mirshahvalad starts with culture, which she describes as “the Achilles’ heel” of the Shi’i Traditionalists, and Traditionalists in general. This issue has been dealt with by other scholars before, but never quite as directly and as clearly as by Mirshahvalad. Esra Özyürek, for example, wrote in 2014 of the ambivalent relations between German converts to Islam and immigrant Muslims in Germany. The point that Mirshahvalad makes is that for both Guénon and Evola, what mattered was the tradition, and culture was a human creation, not part of the tradition. But of course whatever Guénon and Evola thought, scholars of religion know that religion and culture are interwoven. the Shi’i Traditionalists generally try to keep religion and culture separate: “Converts’ Shiism is not a family heritage but an attempt for crafting a shield against modernity. This shield is fabricated independently from Shi’ism in its original contexts.” But it is not always so easy. “My wife is Iranian … but we are not Iranians, we are Italians,” one informant told Mirshahvalad. One wonders.

A number of other issues are considered, including the way that Shi’i Traditionalists often ignore central features of Iranian Shi’ism, from gender segregation to the all-important institutions of the marjiʿ  and the hawza, the foundations of Iranian Islamic authority and among the most important things that make Shi’i Islam different from Sunni Islam in the first place. An equally important question that is discussed is the way in which the view that Shi’i Traditionalists have of Iran differs in many ways from the view that most Iranians now have, a view which binds them tightly to the ever more discredited conservative leadership. There is also a brief but convincing discussion of what the Iranian state and leadership gain from their relationship with Italy’s Shi’i Traditionalists

All in all, a fascinating book, strongly recommended.

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Alexander Dugin interviewed by Tucker Carlson

Tucker Carlson, the American political talk-show host who in February 2024 interviewed President Putin for his own show on X, the Tucker Carlson Encounter, has now interviewed Alexander Dugin

In the 20-minute interview, available here, Dugin develops two arguments. The first is that the central problem today is individualism, which starts with the Protestant reformation, passes through a transition from a classic liberalism that is about the rule of the majority to a new liberalism that is about the rule of minorities and is in fact prescriptive and totalitarian. This new liberalism seeks liberation from all collective identities—most recently gender, which has now become a matter of choice, and finally from humanity itself, moving towards the post-humanism of The Matrix. The second argument is that the reason that Western progressives hate Putin is that he is a defender of “traditional values,” a phrase that Dugin uses several times. He understands these values as being the traditional sovereign state, the traditional family, and traditional belief. This, he says, is metaphysical. But he has not become purely statist; he also mentions Russian civilization as a “world region,” without going in to what he means by this. He is referring to his early understanding of sacred geography, in which the Russian world region becomes the traditional East in contrast to the modern West. This was, of course, one of René Guénon’s fundamental ideas, though Guénon’s East was a different East. For Guénon, individualism was an important aspect of modernity, and the classic pair of modern and traditional can be seen behind the interview’s pair of individualist progressivism and tradition. 

Dugin’s views in the interview are not a great surprise. If anything, the surprise is that Tucker Carlson likes them so much, which he evidently does. The Daily Beast has described the interview as “deranged” (here), and one comment on Twitter suggested that Carlson had been brainwashed. So far the interview has clocked 5.3 million views.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

New article on Guénon in Cairo

A new article by Mattias Gori Olesen in Aries explains and contextualizes René Guénon’s impact on Egyptian intellectual life before and during his time in Cairo. It is “The Perennial Solidarity of the East: René Guénon, Sufism and Easternist Anti-Colonialism in Early Twentieth-Century Egypt,” Aries 2024, online first at https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2680-7633.

The article is developed from Gori Olesen’s PhD thesis, for which see an earlier post here. Again, we see the reception of Guénon by ʿAbd al-Razzaq al-Sanhuri, and the subsequent engagement of Guénon with the “Easternists” and the Egyptian journal Al-Maʿrifa, in which Guénon at first wrote. This engagement ended with disagreements over modern education with Muḥammad Farīd Wajdī and over modern spirituality with Muḥammad Farīd Wajdī

Gori Oleson concludes that neither “Traditionalism nor any other expressions of Western esotericism came to play a role in Egypt similar to that played by the Theosophical Society in India.” Indeed. When it comes to the roles that India played for the Theosophical Society and that Egypt played for Guénon, and thus for Traditionalism and Western esotericism in general, it is less clear. The experiences that Gori Olesen has brought to light help explain how Guénon came to modify his earlier pairing of the East with tradition and the West with modernity, as they showed that modernity was also present in Egypt. Presumably there were other experiences, of which we do not yet know the details, that would help explain other modifications, notably the growing emphasis on the need for an orthodox exoteric frame for esoteric practice.

Thursday, February 08, 2024

Traditionalism and Nikolai Berdyaev

The Polish philosopher Marek Jedliński has just published an article in Studia z Historii Filozofii (in English) entitled “Russian Yearning for Elite Power: Nikolai Berdyaev’s Reflections on the Metaphysics of Democratism” (available here). Berdyaev (1874-1948, pictured) was a Russian philosopher and exile whose critique of modernity was grounded in religion. 

Jedliński, who has previously published on Julius Evola, René Guénon, and Traditionalism, terms Berdyaev a “traditionalist” and compares him in several respects with Guénon, especially with regard to their understandings of modernity and democracy. Berdyaev even wrote of a “democratic ideology of quantity” (48). There are certainly interesting parallels, but in the end Berdyaev was not a perennialist, even if he was an anti-modernist. 

Jedliński’s article raises the question of what Guénon and Berdyaev thought of each other’s work. They both lived in Paris at the same time, and Berdyaev’s key Le Nouveau Moyen-Âge (The New Middle Ages) was published in French in 1924. Berdyaev was friends with Jacques Maritain, at one point Guénon’s sponsor. Yet Guénon never seems to have mentioned Berdyaev, nor Berdyaev Guénon.

Friday, February 02, 2024

Dugin's multiple contexts

An excellent article on the multiple contexts of Alexander Dugin and Eurasianism has just been published in the New York Review of Books. It is “Russian Exceptionalism” (available here) by Gary Saul Morson, a scholar of Russian literature who has read Dugin and other Eurasianists carefully. He places Dugin in three larger contexts: the “Russian Exceptionalism” of his title, early Eurasianism, and contemporary Russia. And he may well be right in all three ways. He concludes that “Far from distorting earlier Eurasianism, Dugin’s bloodthirstiness represents its predictable development.” I myself would prefer “apocalypticism” to “bloodthirstiness,” but I must admit that the current Dugin can certainly seem rather bloodthirsty. 

Two thirds of the article is about the early Eurasianism of Nikolai Trubetskoy, Pyotr Savitsky, and Lev Gumilev, to which too little attention is usually paid. In Morson’s view, Dugin synthesized this “with the work of practitioners of geopolitics from Halford Mackinder on, along with structuralists, postmodernists (Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze), French ‘traditionalists’ (René Guénon and Alain de Benoist), and various Nazis or ex-Nazis, including Julius Evola, Carl Schmitt, and, of course, Martin Heidegger.” Yes, though Benoist would not identify himself as a Traditionalist like Guénon, even if there is indeed much Traditionalism in his through. And Evola, of course, should be listed as a Traditionalist, not a Nazi—he was never even a proper Fascist, let alone a Nazi. But this is not the point: the article is about contexts, not the classification of Dugin’s sources.