Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Understanding Humanity's Problem Children

I have for the last several weeks been immersed in the study of Arab history and culture. I was looking for the answer to four questions. What is the cause of the violent irrationality characteristic of so many Arab thoughts, utterances and actions? How could a people so backward, primitive and ignorant by the standards of modern civilized peoples ever have had a medieval Golden Age? Why did the Arab world stagnate, decline and finally succumb to collective brain death in 1400 A.D. or thereabouts? Finally, is there any good reason to believe that Arabs can develop democratic, pluralistic and prosperous nation states?

There are two books that should be on the reading list of anyone who wants to understand 9/11, what some call Islamofascism, Israel’s struggle for survival and the current insurgency in Iraq. “The Closed Circle – An Interpretation of Arabs” by David Pryce-Jones is an invaluable introduction to how Arab culture shapes Arab politics. Pryce-Jones appears to have a great deal of sympathy for the suffering masses of the Arab world and a great deal of contempt for those aspects of Arab culture responsible for poverty, ignorance, oppression and hopelessness. His analysis is bleak, disheartening and pessimistic.

“The Arab Mind” by Raphael Patai is an analysis of how pre-Islamic Bedouin culture and Islam together shape Arab thoughts, feelings and actions. While Pryce-Jones is a journalist who studied Arab history and culture in the course of working a middle-eastern beat Patai is an academic Arabist with a deep affection for the Arab people and a profound appreciation of their cultural history. His analysis is broader, deeper and richer than that of Pryce-Jones. However, Patai provides no analysis of Arab politics and in that regard his book is incomplete.

The two books together provide a remarkably good examination of humanity’s Arab problem children. I now understand the factors that shape the Arab rhetoric that I very often find to be bizarre and incomprehensible. I understand why Arabs seem to have trouble distinguishing between the remote and recent past. I believe I understand the origin and nature of Arab irrationality, stagnation and violence. My contempt has been tempered with pity.

Is there any hope for the Arab world? Patai is optimistic while Pryce-Jones is not. Will America succeed as midwife in the birth a truly modern Arab state? I have no idea. Nevertheless, American intervention in Iraq is a noble and necessary experiment. If that experiment fails there is little reason to believe that Arab culture is capable of adapting to the modern world. Marsh Arabs will continue to live the same way they did 3,000 years ago, as will the Bedouin nomads who still roam the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East. One Arab tyrant will violently depose another in the name of some convenient ideology and then with the help of family, clan and tribe oppress the masses in the course of robbing them blind. This vicious circle would continue unbroken and unbreakable.

There was a genuine medieval Muslim Golden Age that flourished during the reign of the Arab Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad. However, one should ignore all Arab accounts of this period and its contributions to human knowledge. The honor, shame, revenge dynamic of Bedouin culture leads to gross exaggeration, credit stealing, flights of fancy and outright lying. Arabs did not invent algebra. That was a multicultural achievement. The brilliant mathematician, Al-Khwarizmi, did write a book that verbally described solutions to all first and second order algebraic equations and in so doing gave us the word “algebra”. He also refined and introduced the Indian number system to the Arab world. However, Al-Khwarizmi, like the poet and mathematician, Omar Khayyam, was Persian. Worse yet, Al-Khwarizmi very likely was not a Muslim but a Zoroastrian. Arabs claim for their own the best physicians of the time: Avicenna and Razi, both of whom were Persian. There are other brilliant Persians who have been retroactively made Arabs in order to pad the Arab intellectual resume. Nevertheless, Arab contributions to the intellectual achievements of the medieval Muslim world and later, indirectly, to the Western world are thoroughly impressive. So, what went wrong? Were successive conquests by Seljuk Turks, Mongols and Ottoman Turks enough extinguish every intellectual light in the Muslim world for six centuries? I don’t yet have the answer.

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