[Marxism] How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom
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Sun Dec 11 17:29:40 MST 2016
NY Times Sunday Book Review, Dec. 11 2016
Empire of Tolerance
By SIMON WINCHESTER
GENGHIS KHAN AND THE QUEST FOR GOD
How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom
By Jack Weatherford
407 pp. Viking. $28.
Thirty-one years ago, while on a railway journey between London and Hong
Kong, I stopped off in Mongolia and to a briefly illustrative encounter.
At the time the British had the sole Western embassy in Ulan Bator — at
30 Peace Street, if I remember — and I thought I might interview the
ambassador and present him, as it was early December and he was said to
cut a lonesome and homesick figure, with a Christmas plum pudding. I
rang the mission’s doorbell and must have looked faintly taken aback
when it was opened by a young man of evidently Caribbean origin.
“Don’t be startled,” he said cheerfully, in a broad Welsh accent. “I’m
Trevor Jones, first secretary. From Cardiff. I think I’m the only black
man in the diplomatic service, and look see, they pack me off to bloody
Back in 1985 that set the tone. Mongolia. Utterly out there. Grass.
Ponies. Wrestling. Forgotten. Of no importance. Genghis Khan maybe. A
brute. Otherwise, a place consigned to geographical oblivion in the
minds of most.
That was then. Now, thanks in large part to the restored reputation of
Genghis and the many successor Khans — a restoration achieved in no
small part thanks to the literary diligence of Jack Weatherford —
Mongolia has come roaring back, being currently a highly modish place to
visit (tourism has tripled in the last decade), a place to revere, be
amazed by and in awe of. As a minuscule country that for a few shining
centuries — rather like Britain, six hundred years later — expanded and
held sway around a goodly part of the globe, from Vietnam, Burma and
China to Hungary, Thrace and Poland.
Weatherford (an anthropologist whose fathomless wellsprings of curiosity
once led him to clerk in a Capitol Hill porn store to write a book that
remains discreetly unlisted on the Also By page here) would like us to
believe that those centuries of Mongol rule did indeed shine, and were,
as far as imperial adventures go, among the best of their kind.
It 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.
Simon Winchester is the author, most recently, of “Pacific.”
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