John M. Owen IV Laura Merricks

John M. Owen IV, associate professor of politics, recently published The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change 1510-2010.

Is there a book that inspired you to study political science?

An early profound influence was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which I read in sixth grade—far too young an age for such a book, but it stamped itself onto my mind, and I do think I grasped the point that it would be really awful if the government monitored and controlled everything everyone did, said and thought. Only years later did I try to understand why some people might actually believe that a totalitarian regime would be a good thing. That’s one of the things about politics that grabs me: that people can seriously believe in political systems that we find crazy or horribly unjust; or, put another way, that people can disagree deeply about the best way to order society, and that those differences often aren’t simply caused by their self-interest but actually affect how they think about their self-interest.

Some of my scholarly work is about how these deep disagreements can stretch across a number of countries at once and can affect relations among them for many decades. Orwell was writing in 1948, just after the end of fascism, when Europeans were choosing between communism and democratic capitalism. That communism-democracy struggle went on for 40 more years and infected politics within and across dozens of countries. Now, apart from the Korean peninsula, Cuba and a few pockets here and there, it’s a part of history.

In graduate school, I was fascinated by works of great thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries—our own Mr. Jefferson, Kant, Hegel and others—who were convinced that history was progressive, that things were getting better and better, that society and even the world were becoming more rational, peaceful and prosperous. It’s a lovely way to look at the world, but the 20th century was not kind to this view. Nor has the 21st been, so far, at least in the Muslim world, which is my current preoccupation.

What are you reading now?

I’m writing a book titled What History Can Teach Us About Radical Islamso I’m continuing to read a great deal in this vein. Right now I’m reading David Cook’s Understanding Jihad, a concise and balanced treatment—scholarly yet accessible—of this crucial concept in Islam. I’m also continuing to read the writings of some Islamist thinkers, in volumes such as Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought, to try to see more clearly what the Islamists’ complaints are about not only America but the ideology and institutions of secularism. I’m trying to understand the persistent and even growing appeal of Islamism, an ideology that has been underestimated by secularists for many decades now.

What books should anyone interested in the clash of ideas read? 

The best way to set up the debate might be to read two books from the 1990s, both of which are brilliant, accessible and, to my mind, wrong. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man presents history as a struggle among competing ideas and argues that the struggle ended in the 1980s when liberal democracy triumphed over communism. It’s a terrific and profound book, but clearly history is still very much alive. The other is Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington argues that in the post-Cold War world the main lines of conflict are between cultures, such as that between the West and Islam. My own view is that divides within cultures—especially that between secularists and Islamists in the Muslim world—are more important.