How evil is history?
The dispute...boils down to the question of agency.
It is Attar's attribution of conscious malice to the representatives of European civilisation: the reduction of historical data to the mere epiphenomena of some elaborate racial-cum-economic conspiracy spanning five centuries; that makes his course so unacceptable.
It's a world view which substitutes the dangerous simplicity of a totalitarian morality play for the boundless complexity of human society and culture.
Such an outlook has no place in a modern university.
Chris' comment includes some interesting points, but I think the thrust of his argument is worryingly authoritarian.
Like Chris, I am unenthusiastic about efforts to interpret history in essentially psychological terms - in arguing that so and so did such and such because he was such and such a type of person, or belonged to such and such a culture. It seems to me that one of the strengths of the Marxist or historical materialist approach to history is that it enables us to avoid such interpretations.
If we take the historical materialist approach, we don't have to consider, say, the Pakeha takeover of Aotearoa in the nineteenth century as some sort of expression of the inherent evil of white people: we can see it as, in part at least, a consequence of historical forces like capitalism and imperialism that transcend individual humans and individual cultures. My Irish ancestors did not float to New Zealand and settle on confiscated land because they were racists who wanted to help push Maori to the margins of Te Ika a Maui - they came here because they were tired of struggling to survive by growing flax on a few acres of swampy land rented from wealthy Anglo-Irish families. They were part of an imperialist adventure in the south seas, but they had themselves experienced at least some of the realities of imperialism at home, and this experience is what prompted them to come south.
We can also use the historical materialist approach to avoid 'scapegoating' individuals and cultures who are on the receiving end of colonisation and oppression. For example, we don't have to see, as some right-wingers do, the gap between Maori and Pakeha technology in the nineteenth century as the product of 'backwardness' or 'a lack of curiousity' amongst pre-contact Maori - we can refer, instead, to the extreme isolation in which Maori had lived for centuries, and the limited range of resources they had access to in Aotearoa, to explain the fact that they lacked the weapons and tools Pakeha brought to Aotearoa. The technological edge Pakeha enjoyed over the people they colonised was the result of historical and environmental circumstances beyond the control of Maori.
Even if an historical materialist concedes that a people have behaved with great brutality - as Marx does, when he discusses the way the Christians of Europe treated the societies they colonised - this behaviour has to be explained, not by reference to some mystical inherent quality possessed by a culture or faith, but by the action of wider historical forces.
We only need to look at the many cases in history where an oppressed people has turned into an oppressor people - to consider the brutal way the Highland Scots behaved toward Native Americans in the colonies they founded after being driven off their own land, or the way that Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama behaved after they invaded and conquered the Chathams in 1835, or the way Israelis are behaving today in the Occupied Territories - to see the problems of talking about inherently evil or inherently noble cultures.
But this is only my opinion. Historical materialism is far from the dominant trend in the humanities and social sciences at the moment. Whilst I think it offers, by and large, a better methodology than its rivals, I don't think those who employ it have a monopoly on good research. In fact, there has been, and continues to be, some dreadful scholarship produced by partisans of historical materialism.
Equally, there has been some excellent work produced by scholars who use methodologies that play down broad historical patterns and the effects of environmental and economic forces on history. I'm far from convinced that Mohsen al Attar is employing an approach to history which emphasises psychological and ethical factors to explain events, but let's assume, for the sake of argument, that he is. What right does Chris Trotter have to demand he, and others like him, be kept out of universities?
Would Chris really be happy to see, say, Daniel Goldhagen, kicked out of his post at Harvard University? Goldhagen is a scholar of fascism and anti-semitism who is convinced that Nazism and the Holocaust were primarily the products of a deep-seated anti-semitism amongst ordinary German people. Goldhagen's angry book Hitler's Willing Executioners was immensely controversial when it was published in 1996 because it argues that most Germans not only knew about but were enthusiastic supporters of the Holocaust.
With his priorising of psychological factors over material forces and big historical patterns, Goldhagen challenges traditional leftist approaches to the explanation of the Holocaust. Goldhagen would have little truck with Frankfurt School Marxist Max Horkheimer's statement that 'he who will not discuss capitalism should not discuss the Holocaust'.
I see no reason, though, why Goldhagen's outlook should 'have no place in a modern university'. Even if I am uncomfortable with the method behind his scholarship, I can recognise the quality of his scholarship and the power of his arguments. Even if his outlook is ultimately shown to be unreasonably circumscribed, he has enriched the study of fascism and raised questions that demand answers.
There is a disturbing authoritarianism implicit in many of the attacks that have been made on Moshen al Attar in recent days. As a reader of this blog has pointed out, Trevor Loudon, the former vice-Pesident of the Act Party and New Zealand's last Cold Warrior, was the first to call for Mohsen's removal from his post at the University of Auckland. Few people take Loudon's opinion about any subject seriously, but when a figure with more intellectual substance and more progressive politics echoes his call for Mohsen's dismissal then alarm bells ought to ring.