Jonathan Lyons writes in a guest op-ed for IC:
With the change of administration in Washington, the time has come to acknowledge the so-called war on terrorism for what it truly is: the latest reminder of the West’s enduring failure to engage in any meaningful way with the world of Islam. For almost 1,000 years, attempts at understanding have been held hostage to a grand Western narrative that shapes what can – and, more importantly, what cannot – be said about Islam and Muslims. This same narrative, an anti-Islam discourse of enduring power, dominates every aspect of the way we think, and write, and speak about Islam. It shapes how we listen to what they say and interpret what it is they do. As such, it exercises a corrosive effect on everything from politics, the history of ideas, and theology to international relations, human rights, and national security policies. This has left the West both intellectually and politically unable to respond to some of the most significant challenges of the early 21st century – the global rise of Islamist political power, the more narrow emergence of terrorism in the name of Islam, tensions between established social values and multi-cultural rights on the part of growing Muslim immigrant populations, and so on.
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These failings have pushed the theoretical notion of a clash of world civilizations, advanced by Samuel Huntington back in 1993, toward self-fulfilling prophecy. In such an atmosphere it has been all too easy for the neoconservatives to sell the war on terrorism as essential to national security and to lead the West into its greatest confrontation with Islam since the Middle Ages. But the anti-Islam discourse does more than underpin the war on terrorism, the present wave of Islamophobia, or the broader cultural project advanced by proponents of a coming civilizational clash. Indeed, it has silently shaped 1,000 years of shared history – and seems destined to shape the future as well. Its powers explain a whole host of cultural, intellectual, and political attitudes without which the clash of civilizations thesis would be literally unthinkable.
Central to this narrative is a series of familiar ideas across the political arena, on the Internet, on talk radio, in the mainstream media, and, all too frequently, in academia. Such notions include: Islam is a religion of violence; its tenets are upheld by coercion or outright force; Islam’s prophet, its teachings, and even its God are false; Muslims are “medieval” and fearful of modernity; Muslims are sexually perverse – either lascivious polygamists, repressive misogynists, or both; and, finally, they are caught up in a jealous rage at the West’s failure to value them or their beliefs. Rarely are these core ideas of Islam subjected to any nuanced analysis. Rather, they are often asserted or simply left to operate quietly in the background. In a remark as apt today as when it was first advanced 900 years ago, the Crusades chronicler Guibert de Nogent noted that it was not important to know anything about Islam in order to attack it: “It is safe to speak evil of one whose malignity exceeds whatever ill can be spoken.”
As a result, the West’s “conversation” with Islam has always been a one-sided affair, a dialogue with itself. This has meant a fatal decoupling of the Western idea of Islam from its meaning and content as a vital religious, social, and cultural institution in its own right. Incompatible with Western interests or outside its conceptual understanding, the belief system of the Muslims has been set aside in favor of a denatured Islam that better first the established discourse.
To begin to address this phenomenon, we must peel back the layers of the Western narrative Islam and to uncover the wartime propaganda of the First Crusade that sits at its core. In fact, many of the same themes and images of Islam prevalent in the West today can be found in their original form. Before the 11th century CE, the Muslims were just another barbarian nuisance for much of Western Christendom, like the Vikings or the Magyars. The build-up to the First Crusade, called in 1095, changed all that forever; from then on, Muslims would be endowed with social, political, and religious qualities that were the mirror-opposite of Western ideals and values. Today, such assertions still echo: We love liberty, They hate freedom; We are rational, They are not; We are modern, They are medieval; We are good, They are evil.
The resultant distortions in public policies are clear to see. Less noticed are the underlying assumptions that serve to valorize these policies in the first place. Among the most potent is the idea that Islam and modernity are antithetical, a view supported by a Western history of science that has literally written the Muslims out of the textbooks. Yet, the arrival in Europe of Arab science and philosophy transmuted the backward West into a technological superpower. Like the elusive “elixir” – from the word al-iksir of the Arab alchemists – for changing base metal into gold, Muslim science altered medieval Christendom beyond recognition. For the first time in centuries, Europe’s eyes opened to the world around it. This encounter with Arab science even restored the art of telling time, lost to the Western Christians of the early Middle Ages. Without accurate control over clock and calendar, the rational organization of society was unthinkable. And so was the development of science, technology, and industry, as well as the liberation of man from the thrall of nature. Muslim science and philosophy helped rescue the Christian world from ignorance and made possible the very idea of the West.
Yet how many among us today would stop to acknowledge our enormous debt to the Arabs, let alone endeavor to repay it? How many would recognize their invaluable bequest of much of our modern technical lexicon: from azimuth to zenith, from algebra to zero? Or attest to more mundane Muslim influence in everything from foods we eat – apricots, oranges, and artichokes to name a few – to such common nautical terms as admiral, sloop, and monsoon? The names al-Khwarizmi, Avicenna, al-Idrisi, and Averroes – giants of Arab learning and dominant figures in medieval Europe for centuries – today invoke little if any response from the educated lay reader. Most are forgotten, little more than distant memories from a bygone era.
Yet these were just a few of the players in an extraordinary Arab scientific and philosophical tradition that lies hidden under centuries of Western ignorance and outright anti-Muslim prejudice. A recent public opinion survey found a majority of Americans see “little” or “nothing” to admire in Islam or the Muslim world. But turn back the pages of time and it is impossible to envision Western civilization without the fruits of Arab science: al-Khwarizmi’s art of algebra; the comprehensive medical teachings and philosophy of Avicenna; the lasting geography and cartography of al-Idrisi; or the rigorous rationalism of Averroes. Even more important than any individual work was the Arabs’ overall contribution that lies at the very heart of the contemporary West – the realization that science can grant man power over nature.
Our willful forgetting of the Arab legacy accelerated with the “Renaissance,” when the West increasingly looked for inspiration to an idealized notion of classical Greece. Eager to claim direct descent from the likes of Aristotle, Pythagoras, and Archimedes, Western thinkers deliberately marginalized the role of Arab learning. “I shall scarcely be persuaded that anything good can come from Arabia,” wrote Petrarch, the most prominent of the early humanists, in the fourteenth century. Western historians of science have largely carried on in this vein; many cast the Arabs as benign but effectively neutral caretakers of Greek knowledge who did little or nothing to advance the work of the Ancients. Such accounts are grounded in the persistent notion of the West’s “recovery” of classical learning, with the clear implication that this knowledge somehow comprised the natural birthright of Christian Europe and was merely misplaced during the Middle Ages. They are also colored profoundly by a Western consensus, often invoked to explain the state of the Muslim world today, that Islam is inherently hostile to innovation.
Unraveling the anti-Islam discourse allows us to identify an alternative narrative of relations between Islam and the West. This would take their undoubted rivalries and opposing interests out of the accepted framework of East versus West and place them within a common cultural arena. The prevailing discourse, however, is so powerful and authoritative that such an appeal has failed to make any serious inroads into Western thought. The result is an unnatural, and clearly unhelpful, separation of two rich and powerful cultural traditions that share far more than we are generally prepared to accept. This, in turn, perverts Western understanding of the Muslim world and its culture and all but guarantees that any attempt at east-West communication will result in what the Turks call “a dialogue of the deaf.”
Still, I would like to conclude by proposing just such an alternate reading, one that shifts the problem from the traditional view of inter-cultural rivalry to one of intra-cultural contest. Rather than delimit a boundary between East and West, it would then be possible to assign one large “interactive” cultural space, from the Indian sub-continent in the East to the Canary Islands, the traditional westernmost point of the medieval world. In effect, this would mark a return to the view of the world captured in one of the most remarkable landmarks in the history of ideas: the atlas produced by the Muslim scholar al-Idrisi in the mid-12th century by commission of the Christian king of Sicily which was then multi-faith – Muslim, Christian, and Orthodox.
We are then faced with a compelling, new history of Islam and the West – one of continuous interaction between two cultures locked in relations for 1,000 years – in which it is hard to say where one stops and the other begins. Might this not require a radical rephrasing of the West’s favorite polemical question – “What’s wrong with Islam?” – to a less comfortable query, “What’s wrong with us?”
Jonathan Lyons is author of The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, just released by Bloomsbury Press. A former Reuters correspondent and editor, he is completing his PhD in sociology of religion at Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia, and teaching at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va. Details of the book, including an image gallery and notes on the leading figures, can be found here.