Christopher Howse

The pangolin and al-Qa’eda

Christopher Howse meets Mary Douglas, Britain’s foremost anthropologist, and learns the connection between ritual taboos and al-Qa’eda’s cells

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Christopher Howse meets Mary Douglas, Britain’s foremost anthropologist, and learns the connection between ritual taboos and al-Qa’eda’s cells

‘It’s no good attacking enclaves,’ Mary Douglas said, dissecting a piece of guinea fowl on her plate. ‘It just makes them more firmly enclaves.’

When I had lunch with her, she sat upright in her chair, not leaning on its back, a slight woman of 86 now, her bright dark eyes set off by silver hair. She was talking about Islamist terrorists, as classified in her own cultural theory, for she is an anthropologist, the greatest anthropologist, some say, that Britain has produced in the past half century. She was made a dame in the New Year’s honours.

Her sharp mind is still teeming with ideas. Her early fieldwork in the 1950s was with the Lele, in the heart of the Congo. She had studied at Oxford under E.E. Evans-Pritchard, when English anthropology was keen and fieldwork-based. Her understanding of the ritual role of the tree-pangolin may seem a long way from her more recent work, which has attracted interest since the terrorist attacks of September 2001. But there is a continuous connecting vein of analytical tenacity.

Her most celebrated early piece of elucidation was a chapter in her book Purity and Danger (1966) on the ‘abominations’ — things forbidden to be eaten — in the book of Leviticus. Animals with cloven hooves that did not chew the cud, she argued, were anomalies viewed as out of place in an ordered world. As such, they were like familiar household categories of dirt: matter out of place. It is not a question of germs, but of categorisation: food on my plate is clean, food on your plate is dirty, food on my jumper is dirty. ‘I was saying that unclassifiables provoke cognitive discomfort and reactions of disgust, hence negative attitudes to slime, insects and dirt in general.’

If her analysis of Levitical abominations was a tour de force, a striking statement in Purity and Danger would connect it with future work: ‘As a social animal, man is a ritual animal.’ This dictum was taken up in a chapter of her book Natural Symbols (1970) called with some irony, considering her own Irish blood, ‘The Bog Irish’. In it she argued that abstinence from eating meat on Fridays ‘was the only ritual which brought Christian symbols down into the kitchen and on to the dinner table in the manner of Jewish rules of impurity. To take away one symbol that meant something is no guarantee that the spirit of charity will flow in its place.’ But Friday abstinence was abolished by well-meaning Catholic bishops in 1967. It was a prime example of insensitivity to non-verbal signals. ‘It is as if the liturgical signal boxes were manned by colour-blind signalmen,’ she wrote.

Dame Mary’s interests in systems of taboo, pollutions and dirt grew into an attempt to build a typology of cultures based on people’s need for classification. Are you in the group or out of it? If you are in it, what control do you accept on your life? For the past 30 years or so, Mary Douglas has been developing and refining — in collaboration and sometimes in sharp debate with fellow anthropologists — what has become known as Cultural Theory, with capital letters.

If you want Dame Mary’s Cultural Theory in a nutshell, it takes only two ideas and a pencil to understand. With the pencil, draw a vertical axis marked Grid and a horizontal axis marked Group. Group is the force that holds people together (either by defining themselves in opposition to the outside world, or through the pressure on them from the outside). Grid is the amount of classification that is imposed on people — what they wear or eat, where they live. So, high up on the axes of both Grid and Group, you find hierarchical societies. Low down, with little evidence of either Group or Grid influences, are the free-moving entrepreneurs. Where Grid is weak but Group is strong you find the sectarians, the enclavists.

‘Enclavists have formed a group of like-minded friends who reject the rankings, formalities and inequalities of the outside society. Their culture is radical and angry.’ Al-Qa’eda and its extremist predecessors are examples of enclavists in action. They might become dangerous when the enclave leaves mainstream society — like Mohammed shaking the dust of Mecca from his feet and setting off with the faithful remnant for Medina and the beginning of a new era. This need not be a geographical retreat. Indeed present-day enclavism is so dangerous because the internet has connected isolated adherents disaffected from their host societies and defined by their adherence to a common cause accessed through a computer terminal.

Mary Douglas’s own preference is for a hierarchical system, although, since hierarchy is so often misconstrued, the term ‘positional’ is more often used today. ‘People misunderstand hierarchies,’ she says, sipping a glass of claret at the lunch table. ‘They think it is all about the top to bottom relationship, but the people at the top can’t function without the co-operation of those below and at each side.’

It was as a boarder at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Roehampton, that the 12-year-old Mary Tew, as she was, had found the structured support she needed when her mother died. As the custom was, her parents had left her, when they returned to Burma and the colonial service, at the age of five with her maternal grandparents, at Totnes. The Sacred Heart was the school that Antonia White, who had been there with Mary’s mother, described so chillingly in Frost in May. It was far from chilling to Mary Tew.

One of the markers she noticed in that hierarchical setting was that the girls wore white gloves on Holy Days and Sundays, and brown gloves when they went for their doctrine lessons, where they sat in a circle as a teacher taught them Catholic theology.

She is going to let some of her own grandchildren accompany her to Buckingham Palace for her daming. When she collected her CBE in 1992, she had found an animated discussion in the ladies’ cloakroom about whether the Queen would prefer to shake their sticky palms or come into contact with a gloved hand. The world is full of non-verbal symbols.

Mary Douglas’s ideas of how enclavists behave was taken up by Emmanuel Sivan and his co-author as the starting point for their influential book called Strong Religion (University of Chicago, 2003). It fitted into the ten-year Fundamentalism Project sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

It would be nice to think that the American administration in its war on terror was now taking as much notice of Mary Douglas’s ideas as the academics. In Britain some in the Foreign Office have been struck by her analyses. Her current hope is that experts on culture, religion and politics can at least find a way by which extremists may be engaged in talk. The alternative is to reinforce antipathies. ‘If a sectarian enclave is never allowed to publish its dissident views, it will make itself heard by violent attacks on its enemies,’ she says. ‘If these people hate America anyway, and America attacks them, it increases the hostility of the enclave.’

In the past decade, Mary Douglas has been at work again on the first books of the Bible, finding a structure ignored for millennia in the book of Numbers. This has attracted huge admiration from biblical scholars as much as anthropologists.

The drawers of the filing cabinets in the study of her flat high above the plane trees near the British Museum read: Reviews, Leviticus, Family. I left her at her desk preparing for publication a book of essays that her father wrote on fly-fishing.