There is a vast gulf in Arab societies between an elevated self-esteem based on an alleged superiority in religion and civilisation and, on the other hand, the constant denial of this superiority by the grim reality of curtailed liberties, intellectual atrophy and institutionalised corruption
Islam today, specifically in the Middle East, can be described as being in a state of anomie. The history of the Arab-Islamic civilisation since the ascendancy of the Ottoman Empire has served to bring the Arabs to a state of physical and philosophical distress. Given the present state of the Middle East—the internal and murderous sectarianism now largely centred on Iraq and Syria, though necessarily affecting their neighbours; the peril and harm befalling, in different parts of the Islamic world, non-Muslim peoples; the mass murder being inflicted upon major European centres to cause random deaths and create civil panic; and the political chaos in many Islamic countries causing armies of displaced people to seek refuge in the West—clearly something is seriously amiss. As a consequence, concern in the receiving countries grows at the evident difficulties many of Islam’s refugees experience adjusting, or failing to settle in, to a Western culture which is almost ontologically opposite the faith refugees bring with them. For faithful Muslims, shrouding themselves in their faith is their only way forward; but necessarily a separate forward.
Modernity, now set firmly in the West upon the continued unfoldings of science and technology, has little place in the Muslim doctrine of the complete transcendence of God. Muslims believe “man is neither autonomous nor free and only God has the power to make decisions. God has sovereign control over humans and this control is exercised through Islamic law.” This simple but demanding liturgy describes the different historical trajectories that have been followed by the Western-Christian and the Arab-Islamic civilisations from their beginnings. Though following a similar early trail, their different histories have produced radically different human experiences.
Many events shaped the beginnings of both Christianity and Islam. Without the long and eventful life of the Roman Empire, Western Europe and the nations and peoples surrounding the Mediterranean Sea would have a substantially different shape today. Without Rome, Christianity might have remained as blown sands among the passions and poetry of what is now known as the Middle East. Without Christianity, with its simple liturgy and potent narrative, the peoples of Europe would have fought and died for different gods and kings among their landscapes. The beginnings of Western civilisation emerged as these three historical strands connected. Islam began and remains in the life of its founder, Mohammed (570–632).
The early evolution of both faiths overlapped in time. Following the death of Mohammed, Islam, inspired by religious fervour, the anticipation of booty and the martyrdom rewarded to a death in battle, spread by conquest to Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, North and West Africa, Armenia, Georgia, eastern Khurasan, Sind, much of Transoxiania and most of the Iberian peninsula. The Arab-Islam empire, at its height during the period 700 to 850, absorbed and was influenced by classical literature, Hellenist thought, Byzantine institutions, Roman law, Syriac scholarships and Persian art. In addition, architecture and the sciences were enriched by Muslim research and practice. But Islam in substance was selective and discriminating, excluding all ideas and materials which offended the nature and ends of Islamic society. The early intellectual promise of Islam stuttered and a long decline in Arab power commenced. In the thirteenth century the Ottomans filled this void and established what was to become one of history’s great empires.
The Western world
The Western-Christian civilisation grew out of the Roman occupation of Europe; initially, as the successor to the Frankish King Charlemagne and Emperor of the West, later as the Holy Roman Empire defending against the maraudings of the pagans and Muslims in the east. The Muslim control of Christian holy places in Palestine gave rise to the six Christian crusades called by the Pope of the time, beginning in 1096 and ending in 1229. Being multi-national ventures fighting in a distant arena, they were mobilised sporadically and performed often chaotically, achieving little that lasted.
The Ottomans were a Turkic people with a profoundly tribal mentality forged in their eastern homelands, disciplined and strong. From a beginning in the west of Anatolia, by conquest, from 1359 to 1683 when the Ottoman Empire achieved its greatest reach, it held all of what is today’s Eastern Europe, the rest of Anatolia to Armenia, Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea and Persia, the Crimea, the Aegean Sea and Greece, and the whole of what was once the Arab empire, excluding Iberia. The Ottomans accepted the Islamic faith but gave it their own cultural overlay. Faithful to its tenets as they were, the Ottoman civilisation was not one of faith but an imperium. What was rich in Arab-Islam was soon shaped to fit the Ottoman culture.
The West was unable to contain the early expansion of the Ottoman Empire, which was founded on its army. It was a standing force, well trained and experienced in battle. It may be argued that this mismatch of military strength and skill caused the West to accelerate the move away from feudalism. As the West strengthened its fighting capability and began to industrialise, as Russia attacked the Ottomans from the east, and as internal reforms and rivalry between each new Ottoman Sultan weakened it, so from 1683 the Ottoman Empire began to fragment, a process brought to an end by the events of the First World War.
At the Peace Settlements (1919 to 1923) the victors dissolved what remained of the once great empire of the Ottomans. This gave rise to fierce national resistance by elements of the Ottoman army and led to the creation of the nation of Turkey. Turkey abandoned central Islamic institutions, thus weakening its Arab heritage. At this time the West became power brokers in the reshaping of the Middle East. France, but more so Great Britain, reconfigured the region’s boundaries. The Arabs, it must be said, had chafed under Ottoman rule and had struggled for their independence from the latter part of the nineteenth century. At this point in the history of the Arab peoples, there was a hope that the darkness that had shrouded them for so long would be lifted. In this they were to be disappointed.
In the years following the First World War there was much to be contested. The British had given their support to the Jews in their search for a national home and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 formalised that intention. But in 1915 Britain had, in the McMahon–Hussein correspondence, promised Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, an independent Arab state covering a substantial part of the Middle East in exchange for Arab support in the war. These positions would be difficult to compromise. In 1920 the League of Nations agreed to assign the mandate for Palestine to Great Britain. Article 14 of the mandate required Great Britain to “establish a commission to … determine the rights and claims relating to the different religious communities in Palestine”. This never occurred. Furthermore, Article 15 of the mandate stated that “nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. These intentions demanded good will, which did not exist.
Jewish immigration from 1916 to 1936 increased their portion of the population of Palestine from 10 per cent to 30 per cent. The Arabs protested that their representation at joint councils did not reflect their proportion of the Palestinian population. Disputes such as this were rarely resolved; except, at times, by boycott. The Arabs were not able to win their way in complex meetings in relation to the strengths of those whom they had to convince; this was largely a cultural limitation. Perhaps, as a consequence, in 1935 to 1938 an Arab revolt occurred; this was put down by British troops at the cost nearly 600 lives. This had the effect of breaking Arab leadership and demonstrating to the Jews that they and the Arabs could not live together in a lasting peace.
By the end of the Second World War the Jews had formed militias as enforcers of their demands, significantly using them to implement a program of violence against the British. In 1946, 100,000 Jewish refugees from Europe were authorised to settle in Palestine. In November 1947 the UN General Assembly voted to adopt a resolution to form independent Arab and Jewish states. This was to come into effect on May 14, 1948, the date Britain had advised the termination of its mandate. On that date, the establishment of the state of Eretz-Israel was announced in Israel, and by that act on that date a state of war existed between Jews and Arabs.
Looking back to those times one can say that all parties have lost something; the Arabs most of all because they have experienced continuing defeats since Arab civilisation once thrived. But the West failed too; and continues to find this part of the world a difficult complexity. The Jews got their homeland, but at a never-ending cost.
Arab-Islam in the modern world
Much has happened in the Islamic world since Palestine was lost to the Arabs. The United Nations Development Program began, in the year 2000, to sponsor the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) for the benefit of Arab academics, politicians and other concerned parties. These reports were prepared and issued each year by a nominally independent coterie of Arab scholars and researchers to provide information and analysis of matters upon which policies and actions could be formulated to improve human development in the Arab world. It was intended that these reports could offer far-reaching and robust policy recommendations for the good of the political process, educators, the media and the broadest needs of business and society at large. To this end, the reports are today discussed amongst Arab foreign ministers and the League of Arab States.
The first four reports issued are identified and summarised below.
AHDR 2002: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations. Specific deeply rooted shortcomings were identified in this report. These deficiencies required Arab countries to:
• Ensure the consolidation of knowledge acquisition and its effective utilisation;
• Assure the complete empowerment of Arab women by providing them with opportunities to build and exercise their capabilities in full;
• Give complete support to the development of human rights and freedoms as the cornerstone of good governance.
In 2002, Time magazine surprised its readers by naming as their Book of the Year this non-fictional study addressed to a broad readership, rich in statistics and hard data, concerning the state of the Arab world. The document has since been downloaded from the internet over a million times.
The image it shows is not appealing, and stomaching it is no easy task—chiefly because it pitilessly reveals an ongoing hiatus in the Arab world: the wide gap between, on the one hand, an elevated feeling of self-esteem based on an alleged superiority in religion and civilisation and, on the other hand, the constant denial of this superiority by reality. The AHDR uses this conflict between self-image and reality to call on Arabs to undertake self-examination as a precondition for fundamental change.
AHDR 2003: Building a Knowledge Society. This report concluded that disabling constraints interfere with the acquisition, diffusion and production of knowledge in Arab societies. An Arab renaissance was required. The report also found that the quality of education had deteriorated severely, with 65 million adults illiterate (of whom two-thirds were women) and some 10 million children who had received no schooling at all. Investment in research is less than one-seventh of the world average.
The report saw a connection between acquiring knowledge and expanding freedoms, developing good governance and attaining human justice and dignity. To reach these objectives, the report proposed a strategic vision built on five pillars:
• Guaranteeing the key freedoms of speech and assembly under the rule of law;
• Providing open and quality-driven education for all;
• Embedding science with a strong research capability for the benefit of all citizens;
• Moving quickly to a knowledge-based society to help improve its socio-economic systems;
• Developing a broad-minded and enlightened Arab knowledge model.
AHDR 2004: Towards Freedom in the Arab World. This report stated, “The Arab world finds itself at a historical crossroads. Caught between oppression at home and violations from abroad Arabs are increasingly excluded from determining [their] own future.” It presented freedom as incorporating not only civil and political freedoms, but also the liberation from all factors inconsistent with human dignity. It noted that the conditions required to overcome these oppressions and violations do not yet exist in Arab countries.
If the Arab people are to build societies allowing and nurturing freedoms and good governance, they must see as a challenge the need “to create a viable mode of transition from a situation where liberty is curtailed and oppression the rule, to one … that minimises social upheaval and human costs, to the fullest extent possible”.
AHDR 2005: Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World. While noting that “Arab countries have … attained significant achievements in the advancement of women … much more remains to be accomplished.” In particular, this report calls for “the adoption of time-bound affirmative action, tailored to the specificities of each Arab society, in order to expand the participation of women in all fields of human activity”.
At first glance, these four reports contain familiar sentiments to predictable socio-political issues fitted to our times. It is not clear how well supported within the Arab world today these recommendations are. Given the fragmentation that typifies contemporary Arab culture, how best can this support be communicated, approved and implemented? Indeed, is it possible?
In 2005, Dan Diner, a professor of modern history at the Hebrew University and director of the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Leipzig, published, in German, his study Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still. The English edition followed in 2009. Diner argues that Islam’s cultural stasis is not due to the Muslim faith itself, but to the nature of the sacred it is infused with that penetrates every aspect of life—spiritual and material. He reveals how the sacred in Islam suspends the acceleration of social time, hinders change and circumvents secularisation and modernity. Summarised extracts from Diner’s study follow:
The AHDR describes problems and shortcomings in the Arab world with which historians and scholars in the humanities and social sciences focussing on the Middle East have always been concerned: the obvious deficiencies in social mobilisation, the obstacles to technological and scientific development, the continuous omnipresence of the state, the weaknesses of political institutions, the chronic lack of democracy, and the deliberate exclusion of women …
Language in its various domains of usage is becoming steadily more important in today’s knowledge-based cultures—especially where technology produces rapid change. The Arab language, however, seems to hamper this accelerated development. On this issue, the AHDR refers to a crisis affecting the Arabic language. The crisis finds its cause in the diglossic tension of Arabic, that is, its division into high Arabic on the one hand, and the various vernaculars, the co-called dialects, on the other … whereas colloquial Arabic is a supple means of expression, adapted to all domains of everyday life … high Arabic, essentially a written language hardly used by the common people, is far less flexible …
With the passing of the Soviet Union, it is not only that the wellsprings of a technology thought appropriate to the Third World’s stage of development have run dry … what the demise of the Soviet Union finished off was the idea that there was an alternative path to modernity. The collapse of this never very convincing model affected the nations of the Third World in its entirety. The perspective of a softer, more acceptable modernity was gone for good. What remained was the Western yardstick of a ruthless modernity, based on the uncomfortable demands of freedom, individuality, and the habitual modes of accelerated time …
The liquidation of the caliphate and the sheikh-ul-islam was to have consequences reaching far beyond Turkey. Muslims felt orphaned and abandoned … When in 1928 the Turkish Republic did away with the Arabic alphabet and replaced it with the Latin one, the secular attack on religion seemed to have reached its zenith … Osama bin Laden was to allude to these events as a catastrophe …
Before the industrial revolution, trade between Europe and the Ottoman-dominated East was limited to a handful of goods such as woollen fabrics and metal products … It was not the influx of European products—which began, in any case, only in the first third of the nineteenth century—but rather the different and opposing economic mentalities and the attendant institutions established in the seventeenth century that caused East and West to drift apart. This would become dramatically evident in the age of industrialisation …
The presence of the sacred in all areas of life—in private life, in the marketplace, in government—raises central questions. Just how is the sacred regulated? Why does the sacred pervade such disparate spheres as politics, economics, social and private life, even relations between the sexes? … These questions are especially pertinent when the achievements of Arab-Muslim civilisation in its classical age, the so-called Islamic Middle Ages, are considered. There we find all of the phenomena commonly associated with bourgeois society: urbanisation, domestic and foreign trade, finance and credit, science and technology, intensive agriculture, flourishing architecture, art and literature … The East, and Muslim civilisation with it, were off to a head start, but then ground to a halt, without ever having evolved its [own] “modernity” …
The duty, enshrined in the Koran, of every Muslim to command what is right but forbid what is wrong is diametrically opposed to Western custom … In the context of Muslim culture, one can hardly speak of a distinct private sphere in the Western sense, because proper conduct, conduct as decreed by Islam’s ethical and religious canon, is expected to the same degree elsewhere.
Is there a shared future?
It seems clear from the foregoing that many Arabs are aware of the shortcomings of their religion and their culture. And today’s complicated world will make exceedingly difficult all endeavours committed in good faith by Arab leaders to develop and improve the lot of their people. The Muslim Middle East is, in general, far from providing the basic needs of its people, and civil and political unrest remains rife. This unsettlement is affecting other states in the region. Unrest leads to conflict, resulting in the brutal destruction of lives, property and infrastructure. It is true that the oil-rich Gulf states have set up substantial welfare programs for their citizens; but the certainty of a viable economic structure developing in parallel with the exhaustion of oil resources is far from assured. The reliance on guest workers is a short-sighted human resource policy and a substantial program of training and preparing Arab citizens to fill the employment gaps in a modern economy must be established. This will require political skill and foresight.
Few Arab states in the general spread of what was the Arab empire are politically stable enough to operate a competitive leadership succession system that allows peaceful political continuity while sustaining the efforts of the political leadership to improve the daily lives of all those it must claim to serve. Family or tribal dynasties rule, as do military coups, but neither can create the vision of a future which a settled political structure would allow. That process took several hundred years in the West. The Arab Middle East must break with much of its past in its search for a more enriching future.
The present mass exodus from the chaos in Syria is a major problem for the Syrian state (being a serious loss of human capital) and a similar burden to the Western countries providing refuge (being a major cost, requiring significant resources, and risking a disturbance to social equilibrium and security). There appears to be a lack of interest among neighbouring Arab countries in providing relief to this problem. This mass movement of people, most of whom are assumed to be seeking refuge from serious distress, will soon cause a significant threat to the security and wellbeing of both the Arab and the Western countries involved. This demands a long-term resolution.
Can this situation be mitigated? Islam has no single point of worldly authority. Everything earthly and of life is subsumed into God and his law. There is yet no place in this oneness that easily accommodates concepts or principles such as “freedom”, “individuality”, “forgiveness”, “equality”, “civil rights”, or even “peace”. “Islam is a religion of law … revealed in the methodology of the Arab-Muslim historians of the classical age … [which] can only be handed down unchanged, not explored in its own terms”. This is truth by historical assertion, meaning that the historian has no authority to make deductive interpretations. This limits any reflection, renewal or revelation that could enlighten future conduct, or add to existing knowledge.
Nation-building is deeply embedded in European culture. Over distant time, the peoples—the tribes, clans and proto-nations—that migrated into what is now Europe gradually formed the patchwork of nations that now exist. The hereditary monarchical system in which the people could honour their king and spill their blood fitted the practice of nationhood well; each nation had its own landscape, borders, language, history and ceremonially remembered myths. In time a flourishing Christianity gave the nations of Europe a shared liturgy and this gave rise to, or enhanced, architecture, artistry, music, literary imagination, philosophy, artisanship and, in time, helped initiate the exploration and settlement of vast areas of the world; all this and more is what gradually made the West the force it has become. Through good and bad times this process has survived well; though, as history demonstrates, all civilisations come to their end times. The Arab empire grew quickly and achieved much, but weakened and lost its place amongst the melee of peoples and interests in one of the most contested areas of the world. But it was the Arabs who took Islam into Asia.
To the committed Muslim, the Koran and the Sunna encapsulate all that man needs to know; no alternative is possible. And no absorption of the tenets from any other sacred works is allowable. Arabic is a sacred language, and the sacred fills all aspects of human life; God is one, God is all, God is the law, in God there is no past nor future—God is simply there. God commands right and forbids wrong, though this requires a Muslim to have a clear understanding of the law as to what is right and wrong. Only by living fully under Islamic law does a Muslim fulfil his obligations to God. Man’s conscience is fallible; all moral purpose comes from God. Men transmit, women obey, children are clean parchment on which to write God’s law. And death, as Mohammed said, “is the first stage of the journey to eternity”.
What of the nature of the now secular West? Secularisation is the process by which the “whole dissolves into discrete spheres of inner and outer, private and public, holy and profane”. In this way God is sought when dread or death hover, or when individual moral strength is sorely needed. If God could anoint Christian kings (as liturgy required) then he could provide succour to the king’s people. God of the Christian host was the God of the Old Testament, showing its Judaic roots: the God of the New Testament was modulated by Christ.
Christianity set humans above all living things; humanism is attached to a belief in human progress—a secular version of Christian belief. Science became the vehicle by which the West discovered and embraced modernity. By this route it interprets history and foresees its future. The West embraces life as a sacred force, and has brought into being open, civil societies under a set of laws that keeps abreast with societal changes, provides liberty to travel, to freely communicate, to associate, to enjoy leisure; and which has instituted a complex of facilities for the health and education of its people. In addition it has developed an efficiently operating economic system providing opportunities to gain wealth enough for many; and a welfare system for those who cannot. What is spiritual and needed for the inner life is found in parallel to the civil sphere.
Islam and the West are two very different life-ways that are not sufficiently adaptable to live in amity as a mixed society. It would be very difficult for the Islamic faith to “soften” its belief system to allow a civil collaboration that causes least distress or disturbance. Because of the West’s much more open nature it might not be able to protect its laws, traditions and customs with sufficient strength and certainty to satisfy enough of its citizens who wish to maintain that open nature. Already too much of that has been conceded—though in good faith—over past decades as immigration from the Islamic countries of the Middle East and South Asia has unfolded; but the present flood of immigrants and refugees into Europe is vastly more serious, and is causing considerable distress and disruption to both the immigrants and the hosts. Those fleeing their homeland will pay with their lives, money, health and lost expectations—with a welcome in Europe quickly disappearing—while those receiving the multitude must deal with the costs and burdens of the task, and its dangers, to the growing anger of its voters, both at the ballot box and on the streets.
Mary Robinson, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, expressed the opinion that Europe’s approximately 500 million people could readily cope with a few million uninvited immigrants; this is a simplistic view of a large and complex problem. The difficulties associated with the peaceful absorption of the mass of people presently kicking at the doors of the West must not be underestimated. Population growth, the wealth disparity that is accompanying globalisation, the political inequality between the West and much of the rest of the world, and the chaotic violence and sectarian murders that so typifies much of Islam—all will serve to magnify both the manner and the numbers of refugees seeking to gain entry to more ordered parts of the world.
Already large numbers of Muslims have settled in the West; in many cases they have been resident for two or three generations. Many of them still remain as “exiles”, and largely disconnected from their hosts. Further immigration from their homeland will most likely add to that lack of belonging.
The weakening of the bonds that hold the nations of the West together will, very likely, become evident, the outcomes of which will be entirely unpredictable. Multiculturalism is a redundant ideology.
All are blind on our ways into the future …
Graham Culver is a retired chartered professional engineer domiciled in Brisbane.