BEIRUTThe Muslim world deeply resents having lost the supremacy it once enjoyed. Instead of drawing the correct lessons from its decadence, it lets political and religious leaders make excuses for that decline. Unless Muslims shake off the spell cast by these leaders, civil society will continue to suffocate under the confrontation between anachronistic dictatorships and Islamism, the fraudulent ideology that lured Islam away from its ancient tradition of freedom and tolerance, and promises worse forms of despotism.
This is the melancholy conclusion I have come to after traveling from northern Syria to southern Jordan, and from northern Lebanon to the far north of Israel, talking to many Muslims and Christiansmerchants, street vendors, shepherds, farmers, government ministers, businessmen, poets and professors. The evils of Western intrusionwhich has been abundantdo not explain the backwardness of the Middle East (and, in cases such as Lebanon, the interruption of what not long ago looked like unstoppable development). And yet, with many enlightened exceptions, the dominant view is that exploitation by the West has robbed Islam of its glory. Muslims, the reasoning goes, have strayed from the ways of Allah and have been punishedthence the need to return to fundamental Islam.
There is a tendency in the United States and Europe to confuse all strands of fundamentalism. The unfortunate fact is that Saudi Arabia, desperate to stem pan-Arabism of the kind that was sweeping Egypt after World War II, opened its doors to all sorts of fundamentalist teachers and leaders. This resulted in the cross-fertilization between Wahhabism, the radical fundamentalism originated in the 18th century, and Salafism, which had started as an interesting attempt to reconcile original Islam and modernity in the 19th century. Had the progressive strand of fundamentalism developed further, some things might be different today.
Indeed, Islam has a glorious past. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, the Muslim world enjoyed a greater degree of freedom than others. The result was cultural greatness. From Asia to Spain (where Abd ar-Rahman, who fled Damascus when the Abbasids overpowered the Umayyads, established himself), there was significant religious tolerance, freedom of commerce and scientific questioning. Capitalism and the Renaissancethe modern Westwould not have been possible without the progress brought about by Muslims.
Islam is right to look back with pride at its classical era. But only if it draws the right conclusions from what happened next does it stand a chance of ever catching up with the United States and Europe (or Israel). Carlos Varona, a Spanish Arabist who heads a cultural center in Jordan, has spent 11 years researching why the Islamic world declined. He maintains that after the 11th century, the floodgates whose opening had unleashed a torrent of experimentation gradually began to close for political reasons. Critical thinking, peoples ability to look at their own society as if from outside, gradually became restricted, he says. Historical circumstancesthe fact that certain dynasties were more intrusive than others, the hardening caused by the struggle against the Crusaders, the challenge from other Eastern powerspartially accounts for the decline of the critical tradition.
The lesson fundamentalists should draw is not the easy onei.e. that God punished them by letting the West plunder everything. It should be that the kinds of freedoms that certain Muslim dynasties allowed their citizensi.e. the values of self-reliance and responsibilityare the way to move forward. No need to just copy the hated West. Muslims can find in old institutions, such as the waqf, a type of trust used by many families to fund schools, and in the Koran itself (To men is allotted what they earn and to women what they earn), some of the principles we simplistically call Western: the supremacy of the law over the will of the rulers, the separation between state and civil society, and private property.
Greek mythology tells us that Zeus kidnapped Europa, the daughter of a Phoenician king, on a Lebanese beach and took her to Crete to found a race. Before it gave humanity three awesome monotheistic religions, the Middle East gave Europe its name. Yes, the West has oftentimes been insensitive to the plight of the Palestinians and it has contributed to the creation of some of the tensions that plague those states founded by Churchill et al in one afternoon. The way to make it right is not to harbor resentment.
The way to make it right is for the grandchildren of Islam to beat Europe and the United States at a game that, according to Europas legend, started right here.