HistoryBits: Islam

HistoryBits: Islam

Bits and Pieces of History

Society

Society/Sunnis and Shiites

The British created Iraq in 1918, confident that it would become a beacon of enlightenment unto the Middle East, that it would nurture moderate Arab regimes, that its monarchs would serve as peacemakers between Zionists and Arabs in Palestine, and that it would anchor the region in the wider interests of a far-flung empire. The experiment persisted for forty years, and it failed. The United States has occupied Iraq for more than two years now. Our stated ambition there is to “spread freedom,” nurture moderate Arab regimes, act as a peacemaker between Israel and its neighbors, and anchor the region in the wider interests of American national security. But in this latest effort of ours at nation-building, we failed to consider the implications of Iraq’s new social order for relations among its Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, and in consequence, Iraq stands to reap the whirlwind of civil war. Yet the lessons of Britain’s failure have eluded the American promoters of Operation Iraqi Freedom, who remain strangely uncurious about Great Britain’s chastening moment in the Mesopotamian sun. The reality in Iraq is that 135,000 American soldiers cannot create a stable “democracy” in a society rent by intensifying religious and ethnic conflicts. It is useful to recall in this regard Henry Kissinger’s observation (made in regard to the war in Vietnam but pertinent here) that guerrillas are winning if they are not losing. The longer US troops are involved in Iraq, the more victory will remain “on the horizon” – that is, a goal that recedes as one moves towards it.

Society/Women

One wonders how the prepossession of the Arab world with public morality squares with its squalid oppression of women and tradition of polygamy. How can a civilization that was once unrivaled in its intellectual and artistic prowess insist that its women remain shrouded in ignorance and enslaved to sexual jealousy and medieval morality? With its emirs and caliphs wallowing in the intrigues and carnal distractions of the harem, the governance of the Islamic empire suffered, and ultimately left us with a discomfiting lesson as to the paramount importance of gender equality. Women were granted many rights—more than in pre-Islamic society—though more in theory than in practice; this status declined during the Abbasids; slave women were allowed more freedom than freeborn women, but only because of and as a sign of their inferior position; many were concubines; the Quran allows but does not encourage a man to have up to four wives—either serially or simultaneously; no limit on number of concubines; in practice, few men can afford four wives; household ruled despotically by the man, whose main duty was to maintain honor; women were shut up in the harem, shielded from eyes of strangers; the women spent their time trying to inveigle their way into favor of master and advance their position and position of their children;  sexual jealousy was the hinge of society; some emirs and caliphs spent so much time in the harem that it became synonymous with illicit government by women, and in later Muslim society, the harem system had ruinous effects on the administration of the empire; given the oppression of women, it’s no surprise that they pursued power through intrigue.

Society/Women/Muhammad

Who knows… it’s conceivable that Muhammad fabricated the whole business about the three daughters in order to further the misogynist agenda of Arab society. One wonders how the prepossession of the Arab world with public morality squares with its squalid oppression of women and tradition of polygamy. How can a civilization that was once unrivaled in its intellectual and artistic prowess insist that its women remain shrouded in ignorance and enslaved to sexual jealousy and medieval morality?

Society/Muslims in France

In one sense, France’s nettlesome Muslim community is the unwanted child of France’s rape of North Africa in the days of empire. In another sense, while the problems of integrating Islam into France’s glorious but hidebound culture may be quite daunting, Muslim immigration stands to reward France generously in the long run… if given half a chance. In America, immigrant communities are pretty well assimilated by the second or third generation, but at a comparable juncture in France, job opportunities and the rate of home ownership tend to be just as dismal as those of the first generation. Look at our own experience: just about everyone came to America in a desperate condition of one kind or another, and it was their sheer determination to better themselves that fostered the spirit that built America into what it is today: the World’s Country, which gets the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world. A case in point: 4 out of 5 American recipients of the Nobel Prize have been either first- or second-generation immigrants; that speaks to the highest reward of all–that which comes from intellectual capital. Whether France scorns or embraces its Muslim community may well determine whether France will remain an archaic culture, or become a progressive one. What’s more, is there anything the world needs quite so badly at this point than a bridge between the West and Islam?

Culture


Culture/Abbasids/Intellectual Advances

It’s thanks to the Muslim custodians of our Western heritage that we have the luxury of discussing the works of those leading lights of the Greco-Roman intellectual firmament that underpin any liberal arts curriculum. Islamic scholars, who had long recognized the value of classical Greek learning, avidly debated the legacy of the man they regarded as the greatest teacher of all: Aristotle. The great universities—the university being a Muslim creation—and the academies and the paper factories of Baghdad all facilitated the preservation and spread of the Western cultural ethos while Europe foundered in the Dark Ages, and transmitted its works to Muslim Spain and beyond, to Christian Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. In addition to keeping the torch of Western civilization flickering, the Muslims added their understanding of medicine, geography, mathematics, and astronomy to the larder of old wives’ tales that largely comprised Western knowledge of these disciplines, and Europe’s cultural backwater positively reeked in comparison with the incomparable grace of Islamic art. But speaking of old wives’ tales, it’s true what they say… that what goes around comes around. Time seems to proceed less in a linear than in a circular fashion… that brings us time and again back to whence we came. If the Islamic world has since lost its way, is it not for us, then, to return a favor long forgotten… by acknowledging–and even celebrating–the legacy of a civilization that was once the most splendid in the West? Has not the present climate of fear and loathing ushered in a shroud of darkness and gloom that is at least as stultifying as the Dark Ages that once threatened to extinguish our own civilization?

Culture/Art

Islamic art is of a piece with the legacy of wisdom that Islam left the world before the Arab world descended into the Heart of Darkness. It’s thanks to the Muslim custodians of our Western heritage that we have the luxury of discussing the works of those leading lights of the Greco-Roman intellectual firmament that underpin any liberal arts curriculum. Islamic scholars, who had long recognized the value of classical Greek learning, avidly debated the legacy of the man they regarded as the greatest teacher of all: Aristotle. The great universities—the university being a Muslim creation—and the academies and the paper factories of Baghdad all facilitated the preservation and spread of the Western cultural ethos while Europe foundered in the Dark Ages, and transmitted its works to Muslim Spain and beyond, to Christian Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. In addition to keeping the torch of Western civilization flickering, the Muslims added their understanding of medicine, geography, mathematics, and astronomy to the larder of old wives’ tales that largely comprised Western knowledge of these disciplines, and Europe’s cultural backwater positively reeked in comparison with the incomparable grace of Islamic art. But speaking of old wives’ tales, it’s true what they say… that what goes around comes around. Time seems to proceed less in a linear than in a circular fashion… that brings us time and again back to whence we came. If the Islamic world has since lost its way, is it not for us, then, to return a favor long forgotten… by acknowledging–and even celebrating–the legacy of a civilization that was once the most splendid in the West? Has not the present climate of fear and loathing ushered in a shroud of darkness and gloom that is at least as stultifying as the Dark Ages that once threatened to extinguish our own civilization?

Culture/Hagia Sophia

Imagine a church consecrated to wisdom… instead of religion. Though originally a Christian edifice, the Hagia Sophia–Church of the Holy Wisdom–has since become one of Islam’s most renowned monuments. But stunning as it is, I don’t believe that it compares with the legacy of wisdom that Islam left the world before the Arab world descended into the Heart of Darkness. It’s thanks to the Muslim custodians of our Western heritage that we have the luxury of discussing the works of those leading lights of the Greco-Roman intellectual firmament that underpin any liberal arts curriculum. Islamic scholars, who had long recognized the value of classical Greek learning, avidly debated the legacy of the man they regarded as the greatest teacher of all: Aristotle. The great universities—the university being a Muslim creation—and the academies and the paper factories of Baghdad all facilitated the preservation and spread of the Western cultural ethos while Europe foundered in the Dark Ages, and transmitted its works to Muslim Spain and beyond, to Christian Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. In addition to keeping the torch of Western civilization flickering, the Muslims added their understanding of medicine, geography, mathematics, and astronomy to the larder of old wives’ tales that largely comprised Western knowledge of these disciplines, and Europe’s cultural backwater positively reeked in comparison with the incomparable grace of Islamic art. But speaking of old wives’ tales, it’s true what they say… that what goes around comes around. Time seems to proceed less in a linear than in a circular fashion… that brings us time and again back to whence we came. If the Islamic world has since lost its way, is it not for us, then, to return a favor long forgotten… by acknowledging–and even celebrating–the legacy of a civilization that was once the most splendid in the West? Has not the present climate of fear and loathing ushered in a shroud of darkness and gloom that is at least as stultifying as the Dark Ages that once threatened to extinguish our own civilization?

Culture/Science/Medicine/Al Razi

In addition to keeping the torch of Western civilization flickering, Muslim intellectuals like Al Razi advanced our understanding of medicine, geography, mathematics, and astronomy well beyond the larder of old wives’ tales that largely comprised Western knowledge of these disciplines (and I might add that Europe’s cultural backwater positively reeked in comparison with the incomparable grace of Islamic art). But speaking of old wives’ tales, it’s true what they say… that what goes around comes around. Time seems to proceed less in a linear than in a circular fashion… that brings us time and again back to whence we came. If the Islamic world has since lost its way, is it not for us, then, to return a favor long forgotten… by acknowledging–and even celebrating–the legacy of a civilization that was once the most splendid in the West? Has not the present climate of fear and loathing ushered in a shroud of darkness and gloom that is at least as stultifying as the Dark Ages that once threatened to extinguish our own civilization?

Culture/Ibn Battuta

In addition to keeping the torch of Western civilization flickering, the travels of Ibn Battuta advanced our understanding of the world at large well beyond the larder of old wives’ tales that largely comprised Western knowledge of these disciplines (and I might add that Europe’s cultural backwater positively reeked in comparison with the incomparable grace of Islamic art). But speaking of old wives’ tales, it’s true what they say… that what goes around comes around. Time seems to proceed less in a linear than in a circular fashion… that brings us time and again back to whence we came. If the Islamic world has since lost its way, is it not for us, then, to return a favor long forgotten… by acknowledging–and even celebrating–the legacy of a civilization that was once the most splendid in the West? Has not the present climate of fear and loathing ushered in a shroud of darkness and gloom that is at least as stultifying as the Dark Ages that once threatened to extinguish our own civilization?

Culture/Literature/One Thousand and One Arabian Nights

I suppose that my experience with Arab popular literature has left me somewhat uncomfortable with the rather chaotic nature of its social and political landscape—being one whose literary tastes run more toward depth and introspection, and which shy away from superficial chaos. It always struck me as an impoverished world of desperate passions, oppressed by tyrannical emirs and mullahs and besieged by turbaned thieves and desperadoes. These and a thousand other associations lurk in one’s mental attic whenever one entreats the lore and literature of some faraway land and its people. But, such as they are, these are things that, if overcome and embraced, can enrich your life, and if not, can leave you no less impoverished. One Thousand and One Arabian Nights has left me much the wealthier for the effort. Myth is essential to forming the emotional precepts of culture—much as Paul Bunyon signifies the American spirit of man’s primacy over nature. As myth, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights portrays the cultural and psychological underpinnings of the Arab experience whose political passions and social entanglements are as fevered and surreal as the surrounding deserts. In short, the book seems to me to be a fabulously rich vein of the raw material that fuels the Arab psyche, and one that affords a richly gratifying romp in its most lurid dimensions.

Religion

Religion/Muhammad

Arabia lay at the crossroads of commerce between India and Persia to the east and the Mediterranean lands to the west, and its merchants had grown wealthy in the bargain. As we are constantly reminded, man cannot worship God and Mammon in the same breath, and the thriving mercantile community of Mecca found it increasingly difficult to concentrate its attentions on the divine when there was so much money to be made! The Ka’aba itself—the holiest shrine in Arabia and the repository of every idol in the galaxy of animist deities that populated Bedouin beliefs–had become the hottest ticket to riches in town The tangle of superstition that passed for religion among Arabs made them the object of ridicule far and wide, and the Bedouin, stuck on their timeless warrior virtues and traditions, pondered with increasing dread and revulsion the corruption of town society. Small wonder that Muhammad made it the first priority of Islam to simplify matters, and establish Allah and the one and only God.

Religion/Jerusalem

Jerusalem is the nexus of the world’s three great religions, much as America is the World’s Country. The whole point of America’s legacy of social turmoil—-starting with the Revolution and proceeding through slavery, the Civil War, the World Wars, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, Korea and Vietnam, and now 9/11—-has been to validate the central theme of the American experience: Will the most ethnically diverse society on earth learn to embrace its differences, and become immeasurably enriched in so doing? Or will it allow itself to be overcome by those differences, and become impoverished in the bargain? Jerusalem serves a similar purpose with respect to the prospects for peaceful and productive co-existence of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and will triumph in its purpose only when the time comes that members of each religion enjoy peaceful and unfettered access to this holiest of cities.

Religion/Comparison

Islam is quite different from Christianity, Judaism, and other religions in its relative absence of ritual and anything that might get in the way of the relationship between God and man. As such, there was room for only one God… and that is the first Pillar of Islam. The requirement for frequent daily worship of God—the second Pillar—is merely the outward sign of man’s complete submission to God. Fasting and dietary restrictions comprise the third Pillar, almsgiving the fourth, and the pilgrimage to Mecca the fifth Pillar. What all this means to say is that the position of God in the affairs of man is everything, and this is one reason why Islam is so misunderstood. Islamic countries—their laws, the governments, and the lives of their citizens–are ruled by God, not by man. Imagine, then, what an insult democracy, civil liberty, and the cult of the individual in all its bizarre manifestations, presents to those who would brook no intercession between God and the affairs of man.

Religion/Growing Popularity

The flourishing of Islam no doubt has a lot to do with its discipline and intense focus on One God. At the same time, its acceptance of other cultures and religions show that it is not the tyrannical with-us-or-against-us ideology that many perceive it to be. Islam has been denounced as the cause of terrorism, but actually it’s the individual that chooses violence. Most Muslims do not hate Western culture and are tolerant of other faiths. The extremists among them have chosen to adopt a literal interpretation of the Koran which states that the infidel shall be exterminated with the blessing of Allah. This has sparked endless debate on what the true faith of Islam is. Are the Islamic militants justified in their war against Christianity and the West or does their war represent a skewed view of the Koran? The Old Testament might seem to some the most bloodthirsty epic ever, yet it hardly squares with the Christianity of the New Testament. Religious doctrine will always be interpreted to support other agenda, and we should not confuse “the word of God” with the very real human grievances that it is construed to lend credence to. After all, could anything be more presumptuous than a man who purports to speak for God?

religion/Jihad

The appeal of jihad was both divine and terrestrial. In one sense it was holy war, and in another, it served the very earthly purpose of conquering desirable territories in the name of God. Whether with a neighbor’s watering hole or the Twin Towers in mind, the ambiguity of the Quran on this subject has since lent itself wonderfully to the ambitions of those who would presume to speak for God in subordinating His will to their own.

Religion/Mosques

As originally conceived, the simple elegance of the mosque reflected the forthrightness of the Muslim’s relationship with God and–as its design developed–the humanitarianism and scholarship that articulated his creed. When we Westerners carp about the virtues of secular government, we fail to appreciate that for traditional Islamic societies, God is the only source of authority on earth—political as well as divine and moral—and the ayatollahs are merely His minions. Separation of church and state is impossible, and the true Muslim exists on earth only to practice what he regards as God’s Will. If you can imagine living in a society in which all discretion, inquiry, and initiative is discarded in favor of strict adherence to God’s law, you have some inkling of why Islam has experienced so much difficulty in arriving at an accommodation with secular Western civilizations.

Religion/Mosques/Destruction

Speaking of mosques and shrines and such… one wonders if it is possible—just possible–that this whole business in Iraq was cunningly and masterfully mapped out to transpire precisely the way it has. After all, the Muslims leveled one of our paramount shrines, so certain sage heads may have concluded that it was only right that we should level theirs. But rather than doing the job ourselves—and getting the whole world really mad at us–we’d get them to do the job for us. We’d start with a seemingly pointless and ill-planned invasion of a nation situated in the living, beating heart of the Arab world. With the presence of our troops as unwitting bait, this would spark an insurgency that would—given the sectarian tensions that have long sundered the Arab world—inevitably turn Muslims upon themselves in an endless paroxysm of self-destruction that would, in the fullness of time, leave every mosque and shrine from Nigeria to Mecca to Indonesia reduced to rubble. With the icons of their religion thus ruined, Muslims the world over would become—as happened to the Hawaiians after the missionaries invaded and upended their idols—spiritually eviscerated and dying of despair and its attendant maladies. Within a few generations, they’d be gone, leaving the world forever rid of their terror, their poisonous hatreds, and their intractable pathologies. Meanwhile, all we would need to do is hunker down in our super-fortified bases and wait for the time when we, as victors in this diabolical intrigue, could arise and claim our prize: their oil.

Power

Power/African Kingdoms

The expansion of Islam throughout Ghana, Mali, and North Africa owed its success in large part to its embrace of the upper crust. Ordinarily animists who worshipped a multiplicity of gods implicit in each natural object, the locals must have welcomed the simplicity of Islam with its One True God, and rulers and merchants alike quickly came to appreciate the advantages that Islam brought with it: literacy; law and order and enlightened administration; access to new markets and connections; and recognition as equals. Enticing as the rewards of the Hereafter might be, it seems the promises of earthly prosperity that proceed from organized religion are no less compelling.

Power/Caliphate/Achievements

It seems that the most ardent practitioners of the faith come to the fore after the founder, in their determination to demonstrate who is the most faithful of all. But their empires come and go: the lightning expansion of Omar’s armies deep into North Africa, their conquest of Egypt, their invasion of Persia and the Byzantine lands of the eastern Mediterranean, and their push into western India all proved fleeting and ephemeral when it all came to grief on the shoals of internecine squabbling within the Muslim world. But the most enduring legacy of the First Period of the Caliphate stemmed from the ascendancy of Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad, who became the stalwart of the Shiite creed that the only legitimate successors to the Prophet could be those who are related to him. History has a very long fuse, and it is this controversy over the legitimacy of succession and leadership that today sows the seeds of civil war between Shiite from Sunni in their struggle for political mastery of post-war Iraq.

Power/Harun Al-Rashid

It seems that the most ardent practitioners of the faith come to the fore after the founder, in their determination to demonstrate who is the most faithful of all. But their empires come and go: the lightning expansion of Harun Al-Rashid’s armies deep into Asia Minor, Persia, and the Byzantine lands of the eastern Mediterranean ultimately proved fleeting and ephemeral when it all came to grief on the shoals of internecine squabbling within the Muslim world. But the most enduring legacy of the First Period of the Caliphate stemmed from the ascendancy of Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad, who became the stalwart of the Shiite creed that the only legitimate successors to the Prophet could be those who are related to him. History has a very long fuse, and it is this controversy over the legitimacy of succession and leadership that today sows the seeds of civil war between Shiite from Sunni in their struggle for political mastery of post-war Iraq.

Power/Mongol Invasion

The highest civilizations often prove to be the easiest prey to the barbarian hordes. Witness the downfall of Egypt, the Minoans, Rome, the middle dynasties of China, or Islam. But the triumph of the barbarian—absent the enduring graces of civilization–is typically brief, and the barbarian then disappears… by being absorbed and transformed by the civilization he has conquered. Just as the barbarian Manzhous became China’s Qing dynasty (and the most diligent imitators and guardians of classic Chinese culture), the Mongols embraced the Islamic civilization they nearly destroyed and became its most ardent proponents… seeing to it that the empire of Islam soon reached its greatest extent ever. The barbarian often infuses a dying civilization with new blood and the martial vigor that it had neglected in the process of becoming so civilized, and becomes its most ardent defender and propagator, but only if the patient survives the surgery (as Egypt and Rome did not). Conquest will always catch up to an empire. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation. Imperial overstretch is inevitable. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire. Your thoughts on the futility of empire, please… and the lessons that it holds for America.

Power/Mamelukes

The Mamelukes anticipated the mixed blessings of the Janissaries–Christian children kidnapped from their families at an early age and raised as the sultan’s elite troopers and palace guard… which in turn calls to mind the consequences of Rome letting the Republic slip from its grasp when it could no longer afford its wars, and began letting generals like Marius and Sulla form mercenary armies that they rewarded with the spoils of conquest. I see the same serpent of history coiling itself around our own feet, now that the U.S. government is hiring mercenaries (“security contractors”) to help fight its war in Iraq. Oil, anyone?

Power/Assassins

The trail of history’s long fuse—in this case, leading from the tradition of the ancient assassins to the fanaticism of the present-day jihad—seems readily discernible… with the lesson being that any reckoning of the motivation of modern terrorism is remiss without taking into account the many old skeletons of sentiment rattling around in history’s closet.

Power/Ottomans/Decline

The resemblance of the Ottomans in their decline to the decline of Ming dynasty China is uncanny: a government top-heavy in its reverence of tradition and the reigning sultan (or emperor); the intrigues and myriad manipulations of the eunuchs; the blind eye turned toward the need for creative and secular education; the failure of government and society’s leading lights to comprehend how technology (especially military) was changing—all of these point to the fact that what worked well in building the empire might be singularly unsuited for managing the empire. Then there were the usual consequences of imperial overstretch. Decline of the Ottoman Empire–as empires sicken and decline, the thing that is most affected by the sickness of corruption is the will to lead. The all-important jobs of civil administration (especially tax collection), and military leadership are sold out to cronies who are ill-qualified to perform them, and who lay the burdens of taxation on those who are least able to resist them (the farmers and other poor). What’s more, religious creed becomes doctrinaire, ossified and unwilling to adapt to the demands of changing times, and social morality starts to reflect the slovenliness of leadership; social morality starts to reflect the slovenliness of leadership and unwilling to stand up to the ruthlessness of more youthful, vigorous, and less indulgent contenders for power. Conquest will always catch up to an empire. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation. Imperial overstretch is inevitable. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire.

Power/Ottomans/Janissaries

The mixed blessings of the Janissaries call to mind the consequences of Rome letting the Republic slip from its grasp when it could no longer afford its wars, and began letting generals like Marius and Sulla form mercenary armies that they rewarded with the spoils of conquest. I see the same serpent of history coiling itself around our own feet, now that the U.S. government is hiring mercenaries (“security contractors”) to help fight its war in Iraq. Oil, anyone?

Power/Ottomans/Siege of Constantinople

The Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453 was the seminal event that turned the capital of Christendom into the HQ of a resurgent Islam that would not stop surging until it was finally turned back at the gates of Vienna in 1683. The incursion of Islam into the territorial, cultural, and psychic heart of Western civilization repaid the calamitous forays of the Crusades into Islam’s front yard, and left the balance sheet pretty much in limbo until, in the wake of World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the lines in the sand were drawn by the British and French to create new nations of “Bedouins with flags”–followed soon thereafter by the creation of what the Arabs have come to regard as the West’s very own Frankenstein monster: Israel. Having thus (in the Arab view) piled insult upon historic injury, the balance sheet was once again thrown into disarray with the events of September 11, and then further deranged with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. So we go, and after some 1,400 years of beating each other up, the West and Islam—with so much to learn from each other–seem further than ever from any hope of reconciliation.

Power/Ottomans/Status of Non-Muslims

The sultan presided over a government composed of a ruling institution and a religious institution. The senior officials of the ruling institution were Muslims, from the grand vizier on down, while the parallel religious institution was populated by the learned men of Islam who lent their moral authority to the government. This structure derived from the beginnings of the Islamic state and it still hold true today. What’s more, it account for the West’s fundamental misunderstanding of Islam. When we Westerners carp about the virtues of secular government, we fail to appreciate that for traditional Islamic societies, God is the only source of authority on earth—political, as well as divine and moral—and the ayatollahs are merely His minions. Separation of church and state is impossible, and the true Muslim exists on earth only to practice what he regards as God’s Will. As you might imagine, non-Muslims were tolerated (if they were a fellow People of the Book, such as Christians and Jews) and in some cases even attained a fair measure of position and authority–but never accorded the privilege and recognition of a fellow Believer. If you can imagine living in a society in which all discretion, inquiry, and initiative is discarded in favor of strict adherence to God’s law, you have some inkling of why Islam has lost so much ground to modern secular civilizations.

Power/Ottomans/Suleiman

The Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453 was the seminal event that turned the capital of Christendom into the HQ of a resurgent Islam that would not stop surging until Suleiman was finally turned back at the gates of Vienna in 1529. This incursion of Islam into the territorial, cultural, and psychic heart of Western civilization repaid the calamitous forays of the Crusades into Islam’s front yard, and left the balance sheet pretty much in limbo until, in the wake of World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the lines in the sand were drawn by the British and French to create new nations of “Bedouins with flags”–followed soon thereafter by the creation of what the Arabs have come to regard as the West’s very own Frankenstein monster: Israel. Having thus (in the Arab view) piled insult upon historic injury, the balance sheet was once again thrown into disarray with the events of September 11, and then further deranged with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. So we go, and after some 1,400 years of beating each other up, the West and Islam—with so much to learn from each other–seem further than ever from any hope of reconciliation.

Power/Ottomans/Tanzimat Reform

The Tanzimat Reform, while well conceived, was too little, too late. The resemblance of the Ottomans in their decline to the decline of Ming dynasty China was uncanny: a government top-heavy in its reverence of tradition and the reigning sultan (or emperor); the intrigues and myriad manipulations of the eunuchs; the blind eye turned toward the need for creative and secular education; the failure of government and society’s leading lights to comprehend how technology (especially military) was changing—all of these pointed to the fact that what worked well in building the empire might be singularly unsuited for managing the empire. Then there were the usual consequences of imperial overstretch; as empires sicken and decline, the thing that is most affected by the sickness of corruption is the will to lead. The all-important jobs of civil administration (especially tax collection), and military leadership are sold out to cronies who are ill-qualified to perform them, and who lay the burdens of taxation on those who are least able to resist them (the farmers and other poor). What’s more, religious creed becomes doctrinaire, ossified and unwilling to adapt to the demands of changing times, and social morality starts to reflect the slovenliness of leadership; social morality starts to reflect the slovenliness of leadership and unwilling to stand up to the ruthlessness of more youthful, vigorous, and less indulgent contenders for power. The death knell tolled for the Ottomans with the Great War, a geopolitical tectonic shift that heralded the beginning of the end of empires everywhere. But conquest will always catch up to an empire; conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation. Imperial overstretch is inevitable. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire.

Power/Terrorism

Islam has been denounced as the cause of terrorism, but I believe that helplessness is. Violence is the last resort of the truly helpless. Most Muslims do not hate Western culture and are tolerant of other faiths. The extremists among them have chosen to adopt a literal interpretation of the Quran, which states that the infidel shall be exterminated with the blessing of Allah. This has sparked endless debate on what the true faith of Islam is. Are the Islamic militants justified in their war against Christianity and the West or does their war represent a skewed view of the Quran? The Old Testament might seem to some the most bloodthirsty yarn ever, yet it hardly squares with the compassionate and gracious Christianity of the New Testament. Religious doctrine will always be interpreted to support other agenda, and we should not confuse “the word of God” with the very real human grievances that it is construed to lend credence to.

Power/Terrorism

The origins of “radical Islam” and terrorism are diverse and complex, but they also stem from a provenance that is hardly sacred, but profanely political. With the Soviet invasion in the 1970s, a great number of freedom fighters were recruited to abet the cause of ridding Afghanistan of the Russians. (By the way, the efforts of these jihadi, including Osama bin Laden, were generously funded by the American government.) When the Russians were finally evicted in 1979, the cause no longer had a demon to rally against, and in order to keep the movement alive, the United States was elected the new Great Satan to replace the Russians; after all, our credentials–including our support for Israel and the continuing presence of American troops on sacred Saudi soil after Desert Storm–were sterling. Radical Islam continues to thrive in the madrasses (Islamic institutes) of the urban stews of the Muslim world, which started out innocuously enough as English-language schools in the days of the British Raj in India, but which have since found a more lucrative calling in the propagation of a sinister ideology… with bottomless reservoirs of misery to draw its recruits from.

Power/Ottomans

Sultan Osman Ghazi recognized that scholars, artists and well-read men were the foundation of the state’s structure and his son was to honor them and treat them with kindness. To me, that speaks not just volumes, but worlds. I wonder, is America entering into a new Dark Age marked by contempt for learning, wisdom, and compassion? If so, we risk the same fate as the Ottomans, whose empire descended from the ideals of Osman Ghazi and ultimately succumbed to barbarism of their own making.

Power/Ottomans/Battle of Mazikert

The Battle of Mazikert was the seminal event in the long and tragic confrontation between Christendom and a resurgent Islam that would not stop surging until it was finally turned back at the gates of Vienna in 1683. The incursion of the Seljuks into the territorial, cultural, and psychic heart of Western civilization set the stage for the calamitous forays of the Crusades into Islam’s front yard, and left the balance sheet pretty much in limbo until, in the wake of World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the lines in the sand were drawn by the British and French to create new nations of “Bedouins with flags”–followed soon thereafter by the creation of what the Arabs have come to regard as the West’s very own Frankenstein monster: Israel. Having thus (in the Arab view) piled insult upon historic injury, the balance sheet was once again thrown into disarray with the events of September 11, and then further deranged with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. So we go, and after some 1,400 years of beating each other up, the West and Islam—with so much to learn from each other–seem further than ever from any hope of reconciliation.

Power/Ottomans/Battle of Tours

The Battle of Tours was a turning point in the long and tragic confrontation between Christendom and an expansionist Islam that would not stop surging until it was finally turned back at the gates of Vienna in 1683. The incursion of the Moslems into the territorial, cultural, and psychic heart of Western civilization set the stage for the calamitous forays of the Crusades into Islam’s front yard, and left the balance sheet pretty much in limbo until, in the wake of World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the lines in the sand were drawn by the British and French to create new nations of “Bedouins with flags”–followed soon thereafter by the creation of what the Arabs have come to regard as the West’s very own Frankenstein monster: Israel. Having thus (in the Arab view) piled insult upon historic injury, the balance sheet was once again thrown into disarray with the events of September 11, and then further deranged with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. So we go, and after some 1,400 years of beating each other up, the West and Islam—with so much to learn from each other–seem further than ever from any hope of reconciliation.

Power/War on Islam

The war on terror is increasingly regarded by Muslims as a war on Islam. It is only by attacking something that its defenders rally to its defense. In launching our war on terror, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban came to be seen as defenders of the faith; were we instead to emphasize the prevention of terrorism and the mitigation of its root causes, it seems unlikely that terrorists would in time come to enjoy anything more than marginalization and popular opprobrium. As the grim cycle of attack and retribution in Israel and Palestine shows, violence begets violence; for every terrorist we kill, more of their kind will be created—and there are 1.2 billion Muslims with whom we must contend in the process of interacting with the community of nations in the global village.

Power/Terrorism/Suicide Attacks

Israel’s oppression of Palestine—and its appropriation of Palestinian land—is often cited as the cause of suicide attacks. True, in a sense. But I submit that ultimately, the cause of violence is helplessness. Violence is the last resort of the truly helpless, and until Israel concedes the lands that are needed to establish a Palestinian state, the Palestinians will continue to be helpless and unempowered… bereft of a state to give shape and force to their aspirations.


Exit mobile version
%%footer%%