Anouar Majid writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Greek Lessons for the Arab Spring
As the Arab Spring enters its second year and the whiff of democratic possibilities hovers in the air of many an Arab nation, a question that continues to be left unanswered is whether an Islamist worldview and democracy can truly co-exist in this climate of heightened expectations.
Revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Tunisia, as well as reforms in Morocco, with their insistence on Islamic solutions, have brought to the fore the twin but clashing heritages of the Arab world. Most of this world is part of the Mediterranean, but it is, by the same token, light years away from what the Romans once called their mare nostrum–our sea. The birth of Islam in the seventh century placed an insurmountable wedge between the northern and southern shores of this ancient basin and propelled both sides toward very different historical trajectories. The Romans learned from the ancient Greeks and laid down the cultural foundations of what we nowadays call the West; the Muslims, with the exception of a brief period when they built on Greek science and adopted parts of Greek philosophy, sought refuge in theology. Christian Europe did that, too, but the re-introduction of Greek thought (thanks, partly, to the Moorish philosopher Averroes) loosened the grasp of the Church and Europe was able to rediscover the legacies of ancient Greece and Rome.
Muslims have yet to do that. Most never study the ancient world and have a very foggy idea (at best) about the contributions of ancient Greece and republican Rome to political theory. Muslim religious scholars reject the entire pre-Islamic period as one of ignorance, while progressive intellectuals dismiss any reference to Greece and Rome as a Eurocentric plot, one that smacks of modern colonialism. Instead of claiming Greece and Rome as part of their Mediterranean legacy, they have surrendered such cultural rights to Germans and Americans, who are thousands of miles away from Athens. Greeks had no problem crediting Egyptians and Phoenicians with much of what they discovered, but contemporary Islamists are too sensitive about authenticity issues to do the same. The pathologies of this kind of thinking cannot be exaggerated. A terrorist organization that bombs churches in Nigeria is named Boko Haram, which, according to the New York Times, translates as “Western education is forbidden” or is a “sacrilege.”
Muslims need to overcome this mental barrier and not be fooled, once again, into renouncing the rich heritage of the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was the Greeks who first created democracy and explained the reasons for doing so; they also coined much of the terminology we use today. Even though the Romans invaded Greece, they learned from them and built the republic that inspired America’s Founding Fathers. The latter were deeply immersed in this ancient history; they read Roman authors and quoted them in conversations, essays and letters. One can’t imagine the American Republic without the Founding Fathers’ knowledge of Greece and Rome.
Yet the call for democracy in the Arab world today is unfolding without any education in Greek and Roman political histories. This is why I am not sure about the outcome of the Arab revolts and the rise of Islamic parties. Democracy and republicanism arose in pagan, polytheistic cultures, ones whose people could live with many gods; they came to an end with the domination of Christianity. Similarly, the American Revolution was the culmination of the 18th-century Enlightenment, when religion was being questioned by philosophers and tested by scientists.
Ancient Greece and Rome, much like 18th-century America and modern Europe, have understood that democracy and religion cannot mix in public affairs. Islam doesn’t make such distinctions and neither do many Muslims calling for democracy today. If you believe that God’s truth is final and nonnegotiable, you will have a hard time listening to others with different beliefs.
My sense is that Muslims and Arabs crave social justice but would care less about democracy, properly understood. Yet, without a culture of religious pluralism and cultural diversity, the life of the mind, which is the prerequisite for progress, cannot reach its full potential. And Muslims need development as badly as they need social justice. This is yet another reason why Arab and Muslim nations need to overhaul their curricula and rediscover, much as medieval Europeans did, the long-lost traditions of ancient Greece and Rome.
Anouar Majid is the author, most recently, of Islam and America: Building a Future Without Prejudice (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). He is director of the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England.