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Wednesday, October 20

The Truth About Muslims  

Prior to 9/11 and due mostly to my interest in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I had begun to research the history of the Middle East, ancient, medieval and modern. Initial Google searches pulled up Bernard Lewis's "Roots of Muslim Rage" article from the Atlantic. Enjoying the article, I read two of his books, The Middle East and The Multiple Identities of the Middle East. I found both informative and enlightening, especially the latter book as it shed some light on why the borders drawn by the British in 1919 are particularly unsteady. Now given that my interest in this topic was born out of an interest in one of the region's most bitter conflicts, I was initially willing to take some of Lewis's more sweeping statements about rage and humiliation at face value. However, after reading Multiple Identities some things began to unravel. Lewis takes great pains in this small book to point out that any Westerner who attempts to treat the Islamic world as a unit that is homogenous in mind and religion does so at great risk. The peoples of the former Ottoman Empire do not necessarily look at the world in the same manner as the peoples of the NATO alliance. Our nation-states have been at war with one another for centuries and we developed the concept of Nationalism in order to more concretely divide ourselves between "us" and "them." And yet, the premise of "Roots of Muslim Rage" is that all the peoples of the Empire are enraged by their standing viz. the modern West. One might call it a historian/sociologist split. And to me, Lewis the historian makes Lewis the sociologist look very amateurish indeed. Now comes an excellent article from the New York Review of Books by William Dalrymple that looks at Lewis against himself and other contemporary historians of Islam. At issue primarily is the interactions of Islam and the West.
The tortuous and complex relationship of Western Christendom and the world of Islam has provoked a wide variety of responses from historians. Some, such as the great medievalist Sir Steven Runciman, take the view (as he wrote at the end of his magisterial three-volume history of the Crusades) that "our civilization has grown" out of "the long sequence of interaction and fusion between Orient and Occident." Runciman believed that the Crusades should be understood less as an attempt to reconquer the Christian heartlands lost to Islam than as the last of the barbarian invasions. The real heirs of Roman civilization were not the chain-mailed knights of the rural West, but the sophisticated Byzantines of Constantinople and the cultivated Arab caliphate of Damascus, both of whom had preserved the Hellenized urban civilization of the antique Mediterranean long after it was destroyed in Europe. Others have seen relations between Islam and Christianity as being basically adversarial, a long-drawn-out conflict between the two rival civilizations of East and West.
Lewis's most recent writing adhere strongly to the latter position. And yet, as the US becomes more embroiled in Iraq and the region generally, I think it is vital that we ascertain a clear understanding of just how what one could broadly call the Ottoman and Latin worlds have actually interacted throughout history. Perhaps the best initial way to reframe our thinking in this regard is to place the two worlds in their proper context, and that is as two major subsets of the Hellenic world. In this frame far greater attetion would be paid to the Great Schism in 1054 than the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Equally important would be to reframe our understanding of Islam itself. It is on this issue that relying on Lewis too strongly is detrimental. From Dalrymple:
Underlying most of [Lewis's essays], however, is the assumption that there are two fixed and opposed forces at work in the history of the Mediterranean world: on one hand Western civilization, which he envisages as a Judeo-Christian block; and on the other hand, quite distinct, an often hostile Islamic world hellbent on the conquest and conversion of the West. As he writes in one essay, "The Roots of Muslim Rage,"
The struggle between these rival systems has now lasted for some fourteen centuries. It began with the advent of Islam, in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests.
It was this essay that contained the phrase "the clash of civilizations," later borrowed by Samuel Huntington for his controversial Foreign Affairs article and book.
Contrast this presentation (or any found in the mainstream media) with the following discussion of a book by Richard Fletcher, The Cross and the Crescent:
[Fletcher] emphasizes how the Prophet Muhammad did not think he was "founding a new religion," so much as bringing "the fullness of divine revelation, partially granted to earlier prophets such as Abraham, Moses or Jesus, to the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula." After all, Islam accepts much of the Old and New Testaments and obeys the Mosaic laws about circumcision and ablutions, while the Koran calls Christians the "nearest in love" to Muslims, whom it instructs in Surah 29 to
dispute not with the People of the Book [that is, Jews and Christians] save in the most courteous manner...and say, "We believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you; our God and your God is one, and to him we have surrendered."
Fletcher also stresses the degree to which the Muslim armies were welcomed as liberators by the Syriac and Coptic Christians, who had suffered discrimination under the strictly Orthodox Byzantines:
To the persecuted Monophysite Christians of Syria and Egypt, Muslims could be presented as deliverers. The same could be said of the persecuted Jews.... Released from the bondage of Constantinopolitan persecution they flourished as never before, generating in the process a rich spiritual literature in hymns, prayers, sermons and devotional work.
Recent excavations by the Jerusalem-based archaeologist Michele Piccirillo have dramatically underlined this point.
Life for the minority sects in the Ottoman Empire wasn't wonderful, but it was better than under the boot of either the Eastern or Latin rites.
There was of course no shortage of travelers on both sides who could see no good in the infidels among whom they were obliged to mingle, and deep tensions often existed between Muslim rulers and the diverse religious communities living under their capricious thumb. By modern standards Christians and Jews under Muslim rule—the dhimmi—were treated as second-class citizens. But there was at least a kind of pluralist equilibrium (what Spanish historians have called convivencia, or "living together") which had no parallel in Christendom and which in Spain was lost soon after the completion of the Christian reconquista. On taking Grenada on January 2, 1492, the Catholic kings expelled the Moors and Jews, and let loose the Inquisition on those—the New Christians—who had converted. There was a similar pattern in Sicily. After a fruitful period of tolerant coexistence under the Norman kings, the Muslims were later given a blunt choice of transportation or conversion
What I find strikingly noteworthy and informative in today's climate is the following:
Early Byzantine writers, including the most subtle theologian of the early church, Saint John Damascene, assumed that Islam was merely a heterodox form of Christianity. This perception is particularly fascinating since Saint John had grown up in the Umayyad court of Damascus—the hub of the young Islamic world—where his father was chancellor, and he was an intimate friend of the future Caliph al-Yazid. In his old age, John took the habit at the desert monastery of Mar Saba, where he began work on his great masterpiece, a refutation of heresies entitled The Fount of Knowledge. The book contains a precise critique of Islam, the first written by a Christian, which John regarded as closely related to the heterodox Christian doctrine of Nestorianism. This was a kinship that both the Muslims and the Nestorians were aware of. In 649 a Nestorian bishop wrote: "These Arabs fight not against our Christian religion; nay, rather they defend our faith, they revere our priests and saints, and they make gifts to our churches."
As a beacon of freedom to the world, we in the US do ourselves a disservice if we adopt Lewis's stark view that our interactions with Islamic world are, in fact, confrontations with The Other. It is true that the majority of governments in the region are currently cotrolled by fanatical regimes, and perhaps Lewis is unable to differentiate the people from their government, but the victory of the NATO alliance in the Cold War shows that the best way to oust a fanatical regime is to engage its people on the basis of our similarities above and beyond the necessary confrontations with the regime over our differences. It is not an either/or decision (much to the chagrin of our more hawkish elements). At least, not if we actually want to spread freedom and liberty in the world. Most importantly, we must keep in mind that the current prevalence of fundamentalism in the Middle East is no deeper-rooted than was Communism in Eastern Europe in the last century.
There is a serious point underlying such anecdotes, for they show that throughout history, Muslims and Christians have traded, studied, negotiated, and loved across the porous frontiers of religious differences. Probe relations between the two civilizations at any period of history, and you find that the neat civilizational blocks imagined by writers such as Bernard Lewis or Samuel Huntington soon dissolve. It is true that just as there have been some strands of Christian thinking that have always been deeply hostile to Islam, so within Islam there have been schools of thought that have always harbored a deep hostility toward Christians, Jews, and other non-Islamic religions and civilizations, notably the Wahhabi and Salafi schools dominant in modern Saudi Arabia. Until this century, however, the Wahhabis were a theological movement of only localized significance and were widely regarded by most Muslims as an alien sect bordering on infidelity—kufr. It is the oil wealth of modern Saudi Arabia that has allowed the Wahhabis to spread their narrow-minded and intolerant brand of Islam, notably by the funding of extremist Wahhabi, Salafi, and Deobandi madrasas across the Islamic world since the mid-1970s, with the disastrous results we see today.


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