WASHINGTON – With sympathy but a great deal of pessimism The Economist examines the state of perennial backwardness of the Arab world. Yes, we all know this: there was a Muslim Arab Golden Age. There was indeed –about a thousand years ago.
Arab Golden Age
When Christian Europe was in the Dark Ages, Muslim Arab societies, from Baghdad to conquered Sicily and Spain, were flourishing. Arab scholars, (Averroes and Avicenna are the best known among them), translated and interpreted the Greek classics. Arab scientists made discoveries in science and medicine. “Algebra” is an Arab word. (Al-jebr, literally: “reunion of broken parts”). And, above all, Arab societies were tolerant and inclusive, accepting Christian and Jewish minorities in their midst.
Then it all ended
But then something terribly wrong happened. And we do not know exactly what it is. Arab societies and then later on Arab societies under Ottoman rule essentially froze. Who knows why.
And so the Arab world missed the opportunity to participate in almost every transformation that (amidst turmoil and bloodshed) created the foundations of the modern West. (Famed Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis tried to address this unsolved mystery in his 2002 wonderful book, aptly titled: What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East).
Try as we may, we cannot say exactly why formerly enlightened societies that used to be animated by curiosity and the pursuit of innovation turned inward and conservative, thus missing out on almost anything important that was going on in the rest of the (Christian) world. Has this to do with a rigid re-interpretation of the same Islamic faith that had promoted science and progress earlier on? Who knows really.
No books, no knowledge
The hard reality is that the Islamic world after the 13th century stopped producing new science and culture, while its ruling elites actively prevented the absorption of any new foreign influence.
Centuries after Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type printing and thus the modern printing press that made the production and circulation of affordable books possible in the West, printing was practically unknown within the Ottoman Empire. No printing, no books, no new knowledge.
When science and modern inventions came into the Arab world, they came in the worst possible way: as tools in the hands of foreign imperialists. Therefore for many Arabs modernity was not benign. It was evil. It was a device to oppress and dominate.
Salvation only in orthodoxy
Anyway, if we fast forward to modern times, we see a clash between despotic rulers allied to the West –Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran comes to mind– and a resentful Iranian society that saw his rule as a mixture of illegitimate despotism laced with alien Western fashions.
Hence the remedy. Take refuge in an aggressive, doctrinaire, and positively deranged interpretation of Islam as the only way to restore a good society. And so, starting in 1979, Iran switched from the oppression of a secular ruler, the Shah, to the far worse oppression of a clique of religious leaders. Amazingly, 35 years later, give or take a few changes at the margins, the Ayatollahs are still there. In power and in charge.
The rise of radical Islam
And, with all due adjustments, the ayatollahs in Iran provided the blueprint for all the other motivated revolutionaries in the Middle East.
The only good change that Islamic radicals of various stripes, (from Osama bin Laden to the Muslim Brotherhood), could envisage was in the return to rigidly enforced religious orthodoxy.
“Forget about embracing Western values and Western science. The answer to all our problems is in going back to the true faith, while aggressively fighting against all its enemies. Everything else is poison.”
A horrible byproduct of this return to orthodoxy is the fight among different versions of the true faith. Hence the Shia-Sunni bloody clashes that are so evident in Syria and Iraq today; but also present in Lebanon, Bahrain and elsewhere.
Is there a way out this? of course there is. There are always better choices. But it all depends on the cultural and psychological openness of Arab societies. And, right now, the preconditions for transitions to genuine democratic institutions are just not there.
You cannot impose genuine democracy
Liberal democracy, free speech, tolerance, genuine rule of law and free markets are very sophisticated concepts. Experience proves that they cannot be successfully imposed from above. After all, even in the supposedly more advanced West, we embraced them only recently.
Recently adopted, even in the West
Indeed, let us not forget that in the midst of progressive Western Europe we had authoritarian governments in Spain and Portugal and a military junta in Greece well into the 1970s. Practically yesterday. Not to mention cruel police states in so-called “socialist” Eastern Europe that vanished only after 1989.
True enough, Europe’s bloody religious wars –the functional equivalent of the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflicts– took place mostly in the 16th and 17th Century. But let us not forget that for centuries God-fearing Christian Catholics happily slaughtered God-fearing Christian Protestants, (and vice versa); while Christian Protestants of one kind killed, (in the name of God, of course), Christian Protestants of another kind.
Last but not least, on the buckle of the belts of German soldiers in WWII there was an inspiring inscription: “Gott mit uns”, “God with us”. And this was in the 1940s. In Northern Ireland a religious war, in the form of Protestant v. Catholics violence, went on well into modernity.
And let us not forget that, although its grip on European societies diminished greatly over the centuries, the Catholic Church continued to publish an “Index Librorum Prohibitorum”, (“Index of Forbidden Books”), until 1966. Practically yesterday. So much for Christian open-mindedness and tolerance.
Arab world in chaos
Today the Arab world is in chaos, while the economies of most countries are in a sorry shape. In this misery, radicalism, seems a plausible alternative. Were it not for the reality of its incredibly cruel methods, ISIL in Iraq, (now the self-proclaimed Islamic State), appears so unreal that it may be considered plausible only as material for a most fantastic Hollywood plot.
And yet the brand new Caliphate, the Islamic State, is there, with some degree of genuine following. Unfortunately, there is not much that the West can do about any of this. Aid of any kind is likely to produce scant results, while it will be portrayed by the radicals as yet another plot to infiltrate and poison pious societies.
That said, we cannot forget that in the conspiratorial and positively crazy interpretation oh history held by the Islamic radicals, we –America and the West– are their enemy.
Therefore we have to redouble our efforts to prevent more terrorist attacks against us. After the shock of 9/11, President George W. Bush talked optimistically about going to the Middle East with blazing guns and “draining the swamp” that breeds terrorism. Noble idea, may be. But it failed, miserably. Too complicated. Not workable.
Unfortunately, as the Arab caldron keeps boiling, we are at risk. The combined resources of our intelligence services, (including the CIA and the much maligned NSA), and the Department of Homeland Security provide some layers of protection. But it is not possible to create a “terror proof”, impenetrable shield.
Sadly for us, we have to brace ourselves for more troubles ahead. The crisis of the Arab World will continue; and it will continue to produce and unleash dangerous pathogens.