Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Open Minds: Lessons from Arabia's past

The Arab world is in crisis, besieged by modernity. No fully sovereign Arab state is a democracy with meaningful independent institutions where power passes peacefully by popular vote. Economies are sclerotic, but human-rights abuses are flourishing. The internet and globalisation are not opportunities, but threats. The Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman was jailed in 2007 for four years for insulting Islam and President Hosni Mubarak. His trial lasted five minutes. South Korea and Taiwan export more manufactured goods in two days than Egypt in a year; 35% of Cairenes live in slums; in Saudi Arabia, up to 30% of people live in poverty. Since 1950 the Arab population has risen from 79m to 327m, but real wages and productivity have barely moved since 1970.

Intellectual life is atrophying. More books are translated into Spanish in a year than have been translated into Arabic in the past 1,000, states the UN’s Arab Human Development Report. The authors trace much of the region’s problems back to Arab society’s methods of child-rearing (“the authoritarian accompanied by the overprotective”) which, they argue, “affects how the child thinks by suppressing questioning, exploration and initiative”. All of which perfectly suits the Arab world’s leaders and corrupt bureaucratic elites.

Should we care? Very much so. Already, poor economic opportunities, endemic corruption, education based on rote learning, state-sponsored Jew hatred, soaring youth populations and unemployment are a recipe for social catastrophe. Add the rise of radical Islam and the growth of Al-Qaeda and the mix becomes something explosive.

Paradoxically, the answer to the Arab world’s future lies in its past. A millennia ago Arab and Muslim thinkers, writers, scientists and doctors led an intellectual revolution that is still shaping our world. Without the pioneering work of the 9th-century mathematician known as al-Khwarizmi, for example, there’d probably be no computers. Working in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, al-Khwarizmi laid the intellectual foundations for calculations that centuries later would result in computer chips. He helped introduce the zero into mathematics, and his book on equations brought us the word “al-jabr”, now algebra. The very word “algorithm” is a Latinisation of his name.

The House of Wisdom, built by Caliph al-Ma’mun, was the intellectual centre of the world. An explosion of knowledge and ideas caused Arab scientists to leap ahead of their European contemporaries. This vigorous intellectual curiosity was rooted in Islamic thought and the concept of ijtihad, of continually reinterpreting Islamic law to meet the demands of the contemporary world. A similar process was occurring at the other end of the Muslim empire in Spain, known as Al-Andalus. Cordoba, Seville and Granada were the jewels of Europe, where art, learning and culture flowered; a cosmopolitan tolerance too, now almost vanished in the Muslim world. Moses Maimonides, probably the greatest Jewish thinker in history, was born in Cordoba and even wrote in Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew words transcribed in Arabic. When the Catholic kings expelled Spain’s last Jews in 1492, Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II sent a fleet of ships to fetch them.

The legacies of Baghdad’s House of Wisdom and Al-Andalus prove there are no contradictions between Islam and intellectual innovation, the motor of any dynamic society. The answer to the Arab world’s problems, say a growing number of modern Islamic thinkers and scholars, can be found in ijtihad. The word shares a root with jihad, meaning holy war or struggle. Jihad nowadays is often interpreted to mean military struggle in Iraq or Palestine, or even suicide bombing. But jihad also means the spiritual and intellectual struggle for knowledge, for self-enlightenment.

And that demands engagement with, not a retreat from, the modern world. Cairo and Damascus, the traditional centres of Arab intellectual life, are ruled by the creaking Mubarak and Assad dynasties. But the Gulf states are stepping into the gap. Al-Jazeera television, based in Qatar, and Al-Arabiya in Dubai, have revolutionised Arab journalism. Architects such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid are designing landmark museums and cultural centres. And there is Abu Dhabi’s Kalima project: every year 100 western authors, from Edward Gibbon to Alan Greenspan, are translated into Arabic to break down the region’s mental walls and hopefully trigger a new Islamic intellectual renaissance. A millennia later, the spirit of Caliph Ma’mun lives on, not in Baghdad, but overlooking the Gulf. As the Arab saying goes, “There is no tax on words.”

Adam LeBor is the author of City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa (Bloomsbury)

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