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Sunday, April 13, 2003


JFM left this comment a couple of days ago at the end of the buggy prof's April 6th commentary that dealt with the backwardness --- political, economic, intellectual --- of the 22 Arab countries. In particular, he disageed with some of buggy's historical analysis.

First JFM's Comment:

A few remarks. First the "leadership of the Arab world in 12th century" is largely a myth or more exactly it does not account for the reason. During all ancient history until the Roman empire included, the eastern half of the Mediterranean and the Middle East were more advanced culturally and technically than the West. And while the Western Roman Empire succumbed to the Barbarians, its Eastern half (Byzantius) survived and was spared several centuries of anarchy. This increased the gap between West Europe ad East Mediterranean/Middle East. The Arabs inherited this adavance over the West. While they made some advances of their own, Ibn Warrak tells that a good part of the was made by non=Muslims or first generation Mulisms (educated in a non-Muslim way and who generally had converted to avoid trouble), with most of the reaminder creative work done by Christian and Jewish minorities. After the 12th century that changed. Everywhere in the Muslim-Arab world, fundamentalist know-nothing doctrines held sway, and the technological, medical, financial, and architectural -- and literary --- creativity of the Arabs soon disappeared.

My other remark is about women in Arab world. It is generally acknowledged that the first four years in life are crucial for the intellectuual development of children. During those years they are mostly cared by women and since in Arab world they are kept in ignorance they cannot make a good job of educating their children.

The Buggy Prof's Reply:

JFM: Thanks for the comment. Briefly in reply:

1) Yes, recent studies show that a great deal of the creativity in Iberia and the Middle East under Arab rule was undertaken by Christian and Jewish minorities --- some of whom converted to get ahead, others remaining faithful to their tolerated minority status. For instance, as the great scholar of medieival Islam Gustave E. von Grunebaum noted at one time, Islamic scholars tended to regard the study of human anatomy and bodily workings in general as an inferior and even worthless subject; and so almost all the innovations in medicine in the Arab world from the 7th century on were carried out by Jews and Christians. (After Zoroastrian Persia was conquered by the Arabs in the 630's, Persian astronomers and scholars also played an influential role in the wider Islamic civilization that spread from Central Asia across the Middle East, North Africa, and Iberia).

Still, whatever the role of Christians, Jews, and others in the flowering of Arab civilization, it's to the credit of the Arabs from the 8th to the 12th centuries that they tolerated their minorities, the opposite of the European traditions until the emergence of religious tolerance in the 18th and 19th century in the liberal advanced countries --- with Jews persecuted, killed, or exiled almost everywhere in Europe after Pope Innocent III ghettoized them in 1215 before those centuries. And converts could move up quickly in Islam, something that the Ottomans also practiced after they took Constantinople and overran the Arab Middle East. After Andalusia in Spain declared its freedom from the Baghdad Caliphate in 926, Cordova became the intellectual capital of Europe for the next two centuries or so.

1a) Your comments about the superiority of the Greek-speaking Eastern Mediterranean are only partially sound. Rome, it's true, never created a mathematical or scientific or philosophical tradition that equaled the achievements of the Greeks from the 5th century B.C.E. over the next few centuries. Nonetheless, the Romans were remarkable civil engineers and architects, and they fashioned an impressive military establishment and eventually stategy for first expanding their power, then defending it from the first century C.E. on, when they had to defend far-flung frontiers from northern England across France and Switzerland and further into East Europe and the Balkans and beyond into the Middle East, at a time of constant barbarian invasions of Germanic and Mongul-Turkish peoples. Rome also developed an effective legal tradition and showed a great deal of political flexibility in governing such a widely spaced empire and hundreds of different peoples, eventually extending citizenship to all the members of the empire.

By contrast, from the first century C.E. on, Rome suffered from gradual imperial overstretch and, worse, from a narrow base of leadership --- essentially whatever Roman legion would enter Rome and its leader, kill off the emperor, and seize control himself. Simultaneously, the Roman people became a property-less mob governed by an urban and rural aristocracy, and the increasing professionalization of its military --- including the extensive use, more and more, of Germanic and other auxiliary forces --- meant that the citizenry was no longer engaged in Rome's military exploits, becoming instead a large underclass of restive people that had to be diverted by bread and circuses and constant triumphant marches.

Interestingly, a similar decline in military prowess overtook the Arab peoples after swift conquest of the Middle East Levant, the Persian Empire, Christian North Africa, and Christian Iberia in the 7th and 8th centuries. Their leaders everywhere, including in Iberia and the Baghdad center, in time declined into luxury-lovers and conspicuous consumption; and in Iberia, from the 12th century on, the warrior traditions had deteriorated on the Arab side to such a point that they had to bring in Berbers from Morocco to fight the Catholic armies . . . the Berber leaders, in turn, seizing political power in the Arab areas and imposing their far more know-nothing fundamentalist interpretations of Islam over the people in those areas. Saladin himself, the savior of the holy land from the Crusaders in the late 12th century --- using not just Arabs but Kurds and Turkish Muslims --- was a Kurd, not an Arab. By the time, two centuries later, that the Ottoman Turks took over the remnants of the bankrupt Byzantine Empire, the Arabs proved no match for the Turks on the battlefield anywhere, and the Ottomans quickly establish rule over the Arab peoples that lasted for centuries . . . in the Levant (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, the Saudi peninsula) right down until 1918, though even then the destruction of Turkish rule depended on large British aid and forces.


2) After the 12th century, as we noted, know-nothing fundamentalisms of the sort that have again flourished in the Middle East since the 1970s destroyed Arab and later Islamic creativity --- scientific, philosophical, literary, technological --- by imposing rigid orthodoxies that stifled learning and innovation. As the UN Arab Human Development Report 2002 notes here, in startlingly vivid ways, the 280 million Arabs have translated fewer books into Arabic over the last 1000 years than Spain with 40 million people translates yearly. And illiteracy is rampant, the worst in the world . . . worse even than in much poorer tropical Africa.

Exactly when Arab intellectual query --- very impressive from the 7th century until the Middle Ages --- actually waned and then rigidified under the pressures of orthodoxy and revivalism is debated among specialist scholars (in whose ranks, needless to say, the buggy prof doesn't figure). What is clear, it seems, is that it's some time in the 10th and 11th centuries --- when schisms erupted in the Islamic world (such as the emergence of Shiite extremism), plus a host of political and economic dislocations and upheavals like the continuance of the Christian reconquest of northern Spain and then the Crusades and later the invasions of the steppe peoples like Mongols and Turks into Persia and as far westward as the Black Sea in the early 13th century --- that the decline in intellectual ferment and creativity began rigidifying into orthodoxy in most of the Islamic world, still dominated by Arabs. Interestingly, the rise of Islamic mysticism also played a role in spreading what we'd called anti-intellectualism these days. The biggest challenge to Aristotelian thought in Islamic philosophy and theology --- which flourished in the Arab world early on (even before the conversion to Islam) --- was launched by a Sufi, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (1058-1128), whose book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, was a sustained attack on the entire Aristotelian and non-orthodox thinking that had overshadowed anything Christian Europe was able to bolster until the awakening of Aristotelian influence on the Schoolmen in the 11th century onward north of the Pyrenees. By rigid orthodoxy, it should be added, we mean the belief --- rife in Islamist revivalisms these days --- that the Koran and the hadith are fully revealed and perfected intellectual guides that require no knowledge beyond them on the part of true believers.


2b) A reason for the actual dating of the decline in scholarly debate is that there were a handful of brilliant dissenters like the great philosopher Averroes contested the views of al-Ghazali and orthodox-driven imams and mullahs, and one of the greatest of medieval scholars anywhere, Ibn Khaldun, pioneered his impressive economic and scholarly studies as late as the end of the 14th century. All the same, as another scholar of Islam has pointed out, essentially by the 12th century "the few who [continued to] practice rationalist . . . theology were considered troublemakers who dared criticize the Prophet's sunna (Tilmud Nagel, The History of Islamic Theology From Mohammed to the Present (2000), p. 195, as quoted in Robert Spencer, Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions about the World's Fastest-Growing Faith (2002), p. 123. Spencer is a board member of the Christian-Islamic Forum.)

Again, the startling stat mentioned a moment ago --- that Spain with 40 million people (whose language is spoken by 500 million people in the world) translates yearly more books than the 280 million Arabs have done in the last millennium --- brings out the decline in Arab creativity and the closure to science, philosophy, medicine, economics, and technological advances that China and Europe carried on after the 11th and 12th centuries and that, starting in the 17th century, would create the modern world . . . largely the offspring of Europe and the English-speaking peoples. No less startling as a symbol of intellectual closure and orthodoxy? In 1192, the ulama in Cordova (Spain) staged a public burning of its great scientific-medical library. The reason: the books were now seen as a "horrible calamity" to Islam. (Quoted in Spencer, p. 125.)

All of which, of course, underlines the core question about the growing resentments, envies, conflicts, and revivalist fundamentalisms throughout the Middle East, including Shia Iran, over the last few decades and divides the Arab and Iranian peoples into essentially warring camps (with some in between) over the attitudes to take toward the West (and now Asia too) and the failures of modernizing forces to work a similar impact on them.

In effect, without simplifying too much, it is the conflicts over these attitudes that amounts to the real "clash of civilizations" these days . . . not between the secular democratic West or the secular and rapidly modernizing Pacific Asia and India (where democracy has also taken root, in various degrees of vigor and institutionalization), but rather a struggle that is unfolding at the heart of Arab and Asian Islamic countries, Iran included. The impact of modernizing forces --- now several hundred years old, born essentially in parts of West Europe, and more recently dubbed "globalization" --- ensures that the core struggle here, what with its jarring psychological dislocations and revivalist know-nothing fundamentalisms amid despotic states and economic backwardness and controversies over women's rights( to say nothing of the widespread illiteracy in the 22 Arab countries anyway), will continue for decades, if not longer.

And to that extent, too, it will continue to be part and parcel of the war on terror.


3) The Christian re-conquest of Iberia over the centuries after the early 700's --- Grenada finally captured and the last Muslim stronghold vacated in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella --- led to the creation and then intensification of the Spanish Inquisition's terrible persecution of Jews, convertisos, and Muslims. Jews and Muslims who didn't convert were expelled. The convertisos, who numbered hundreds of thousands of former Jews going back two centuries, were hounded, persecuted, burnt at the stake hundreds at a time; and then, in the 1520s and early 1530s, quickly and with similar ruthlessness, the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal destroyed all the nascent Protestant sects--- the reason Protestantism has had no influence on their subsequent history. The result? Intellectual and scientific disaster; also, economic backwarness. In partciular, by driving out the Jews and witch-hunting convertisos, the Spanish Catholics ensured that their intellectual, financial, and scientific elites were repressed or destroyed, and within decades both Spain and Portugal largely became intellectual backwaters . . . the Counter-Reformation led by Jesuits in those countries reinforcing orthodoxy. Since then, both countries have made negligible contributions to European science, mathematics, and philosophy, though Spain did nurture many great artists (Picassso and Miro ending up in France early in the last century). One of the greatest of their painters, El Greco, always had elongated reproductions of humans in his paintings. The reason: a descendant of a convertiso family, he understood fully what the Inquisition's torture did to its tens of thousands of victims . . . the use of the rack one of the Inquistors' favorite techniqus of inflicting ghoulish pain.

Something else.

Recent studies --- actually some going back a few decades, come to think of it --- also showed that from the 8th century on, the Catholic Spanish re-conquest of Iberia, which showed impressive military talents among a variety of peoples that until the Islamic threat never were unified in any national sense (Visigoths, a Germanic people, were the last to conquer Spain before the Arabs did in the 8th century), was never matched as it expanded its areas of control by financial, economic, agricultural, or technological talent. Essentially, these skills --- to the extent they existed --- were provided by minority peoples, above all the Jews . . . who, at one time, numbered about 7 million during the Roman Empire at its zenith in the second century C.E., half of them outside contemporary Israel and Greek-speaking, and who had found refuge in large numbers after the temple and Jerusalem were destroyed in the middle of the second century and the Jews driven out of what the Romans called Palestine. The Conquistadors excelled at fighting, to put this differently, and at little else. The subsequent export of a regressive Spanish Catholic culture and institutions by the Conquistadors to Latin America --- including the intellectually witch-hunting Inquisition, active there for centuries as it was in Spain --- go a long way toward explaining the huge difference in economic and political trajectories that distinguish Latin America from the English-speaking countries of the US and Canada.


4) The oppression of women in the Arab Middle East and Iran varies in intensity --- the worst in Saudi Arabia with its Wahhabi fanaticism and in Shia-fervent Iran; but everywhere women are discriminated against severely in education and professional opportunities and even in legal recourse to prevent male brutality. The UN Arab Human Development Report 2002 notes rightly that such repression and systematic violation of the rights of half of the human race are a big factor in Arab economic and political and educational backwardness. That said, Turkey --- where women face disadvantages (as they do in Latin America or tropical Africa or most of Asia) --- shows that systematic discrimination is not in-built in Islam, provided (admittedly a big big proviso) a secular political and legal system can be developed.


5) The truth is, to refine these points --- and please don't inform the incensed, politically correct ideologues running feminist studies centers: it could unsettle their sanctimonious humbug-ridden brains --- only one civilization has fostered steady improvement in the political, legal, and civil rights of women, and that is the liberal side of Europe and the English-speaking world.

Even so, the advances here are about 150 years old, and women didn't gain the vote in even these liberal countries until after WWI. A second truth: Islamist fundamentalisms are a new ideological justification for systematic persecution of women: witness the Talibans, the Shiites in Iran, the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, and their offshoots throughout the Arab Middle East. Elsewhere in Asian Islamic countries, some political leaders have emerged as electoral democracies have taken some (precarious) root there: in Pakistan earlier, now in Indonesia. Essentially, Indonesia is a secular-practicing multicultural country, despite the obvious handicaps women suffer there; and Mrs. Butto's brief rule as president in Pakistan in the last decade reflected a brief flurry of liberalism that was soon snuffed out by subsequent revivalist Islam, then support for Taliban Afghanistan, and the military coup that brought Musharraf to power (now the head of a very deformed electoral democracy).