When they came out of their poor peninsula, the early Muslim Arabs when compared with the more sophisticated and advanced Byzantines of Asia Minor and the Eastern Mediterranean, or the Persians to the East, looked like haggard upstarts. But the tribes of Arabia, who were catapulted to a stagnant region by a new dynamic religion, and led by brilliant political and military leaders, had in addition to their memories of endless sands and unfulfilled dreams, the boundless exuberance and abundance of self-confidence that only people who are convinced that their moment has arrived and that they are at a rendezvous with destiny could possess.
Though the question of political legitimacy has haunted the Arabs ever since the dawn of Islam, and it is still one of the most fundamental problems vexing modern governance, the early generations of Muslims built magnificent centers of learning, creativity, trade, diversity and openness to other cultures in Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba.
They were so secure, that they realized immediately their limitations, and that they have to learn and borrow a lot from the advanced cultures that preceded them; the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Persians. Their embrace of these cultures led them to produce a significant body of knowledge in the areas of science, medicine, arts and philosophy that helped them dominate most of the Middle Ages. The Arabs and early Muslims were the first since the Romans to engage in their own version of globalized trade in the known world beyond the Mediterranean and deep into Asia and Africa. All of this was driven by an ethos of self-confidence and empowerment.
Yes to life
Centuries later, German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, recognized this tremendous energy and talent particularly as it manifested itself in the high culture of Muslim Spain, in the Kingdoms the Arabs, Berbers and other Muslim converts built in Al-Andalus. “The wonderful culture of the Moors in Spain, which was fundamentally nearer to us and appealed more to our senses and tastes than that of Rome and Greece, was trampled down (—I do not say by what sort of feet—) Why? Because it had to thank noble and manly instincts for its origin—because it said yes to life, even to the rare and refined luxuriousness of Moorish life!…”. The core of Nietzsche’s observation is that at its height Islam said “yes to life,” embraced it and celebrated it.
The Arabo-Islamic high culture that evolved in the great urban centers from Baghdad in the East to Seville in the West, eschewed asceticism, conservatism and xenophobia and embraced the kind of diversity, multiculturalism that only open trade and the free flow of peoples, ideas and goods in major vibrant cities can provide. The “Muslim” Medieval city was much more than the designation would imply; for it was the place where Muslims of diverse backgrounds; Arabs, Turks, Berbers, Africans, Persians, local converts, and local non-Muslim Communities; Christians and Jews, and Christians from Europe who flocked these cities to trade and learn. It is this rich tapestry of peoples, cultures and ideas that evolved under the overarching Muslim civilization that was lost later on, and has yet to be fully recovered. It is extremely instructive to note here, that this vibrant Muslim city was always threatened, by austere, atavistic, self-appointed custodians of what they see as puritanical Islam. One of these groups sacked Cordoba when it was the most cultured city in Europe and drove out two of the greatest philosophers of Medieval times, The Arab Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) and the Jew Musa Ibn Maymun (1135-1204), more commonly known in the West as Averroes and Maimonides. These groups may have different names, from the Al-Mourabitoun of North Africa in Medieval times, to the Taliban, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) today, but they are driven by the same reactionary and nihilistic impulses, the very antithesis of the spirit of Cordoba at its cultural apogee.
Wrestling with modernity
Bad times have visited the Arabs before; and ever since the waves of Mongol invasions beginning with the sack of Baghdad in 1258, and the subsequent campaigns by Tamerlane, the heartland of the Arab East went into a slow decline, first under the Mamluk dynasties and later through the long Ottoman centuries until the First world War.
For the last 150 years Arabs have been wrestling with modernity, trying to reconcile their fractured traditional societies with the modern institutions that built the nation-states of the West; accountable governments, vibrant parliamentary life based on political parties, a free press and voluntary civil associations. Long before modern independence, The Arabs of the Middle East and the Maghreb began searching for ways to join the modern world while retaining the essence of Islam, asking questions such as; where does true sovereignty lies? With God or with the people, can we compete with the West without adopting its constitutions or acquiring its sciences and rationality? What is the proper relation between the individual and the state? Can we synthesize European constitutions with aspects of the Shariah? How should we deal with the much more advanced West? These vibrant debates among Arab intellectuals, Muslims and Christians, those schooled in Ottoman schools or in monasteries were captured in a number of books, mainly Albert Hourani’s classic study titled ; Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939. It is astonishing, upon re-reading the book how little has changed in the last 150 years. Arabs and Muslims are still struggling with the same questions, most of which have yet to be answered.
Since the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, scores of books and thousands of articles have been written by Arab and Western scholars to explain the malaise, backwardness and the brutish life in many Arab states, and most of the analysis fell short. Is it the degradation of colonialism and its artificial state boundaries? Is it patriarchy? Is it tyranny? Is it the atavistic interpretation of Islam, or is it Islam itself? If it is colonialism then there must be a statute of limitation. Both India and Egypt were colonized by the Britain and became independent roughly at the same time.
Why is it that India, with all its linguistic and religious complexities, remained a democracy and Egypt remained under military rule for most of its independent years? Many Asian societies are Patriarchal, but they have developed more vibrant political and economic systems than most Arabs. Military rule in South Korea, Chile and Argentina gave way to elected governments, but not in the Arab dictatorships. Certainly, it is not Islam, if by that we mean the religious text. The sacred text has been the same for more than 14 centuries. It was the same text when Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba were the envy of the world. The difference of course is in the social, political and economic context that the sacred text is interpreted and who is doing the interpretation? The enlightened men who graced the houses of wisdom and the universities of the great Muslim cities? Or the austere, backward men of Al-Mourabitoun, the Taliban or ISIS? It is easy to say that the solution is in representative governments, in building open and politically diverse societies, in adopting universal suffrage, and modern educational systems, in fostering a free press and an independent judiciary. The problem is how we get from our present purgatory, to the bright future. How do we break out of the tyranny of the state and the religious dogma?
A brief interlude
The brittle state system that emerged after the First World War, and remained for a short period after formal independence was a brief interlude during which, relatively weak central authorities allowed for a semblance of political life in countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Tunisia. Yes these states were ruled by monarchs such as Farouq in Egypt, Faisal II in Iraq and autocratic ‘heroes’ of independence, such as Bourguiba of Tunisia, but they did not rule as absolute dictators and did not leave behind them a trail of blood as did in subsequent decades the likes of Saddam Hussein, the Assads, father and son and Qaddafi.
When that system was overrun by a wave of military dictators and an assortment of strong men, who imposed the one party rule, particularly the Baath party in Syria and Iraq (which was a façade for minority rule; the Sunnis in Iraq and the Alawites in Syria) which were joined by the ‘revolutionaries’ who controlled Algeria, Libya and Yemen, the die was cast, and the praetorian state was born, and the region began another long journey into the heart of darkness. Under these regimes, prisons became national monuments of unspeakable repression. These regimes controlled their countries physically, politically and economically in ways that the colonial powers could not dream of. The Iraqis and Syrians who were killed in the struggle for independence are a tiny fraction of those killed in recent years by Saddam Hussein or the Assads.
A new age of the Taifas?
Watching the slow fracturing of Iraq and Syria, the devolution of the civil wars in both countries into a series of lesser civil wars and internecine fighting among warlords controlling small fiefdoms, is reminiscent of the era of “Muluk al-Tawa’if ” or Taifas (the Party Kings) in Al-Andalus after it was split into almost 30 little squabbling Taifas run by Arab, and Berber military chieftains, princes and claimants with some of them relying on support from their erstwhile enemies the Christian rulers of Castile and Barcelona. Iran today, is the main arbiter of disputes and the most influential regional power in the internal affairs of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where it finds itself being checked sometimes by other regional powers from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.
The civil wars in Syria and Iraq, with their destructive impact on Lebanon are the greatest disasters to have hit the Levant or the old Fertile Crescent since the formations of these states almost a century ago. It will be extremely difficult if not impossible to restore Syria and Iraq as unitary states. A de facto partition of Syria into a regime dominated area comprising Damascus and its environs with a sliver of territory along the Lebanese border up to the western coastal area (where most of the Alawite community, to which Assad belongs, lives) and a number of Kurdish enclaves, with the northern part of the country divided between ISIS and its Islamist and non-Islamist rivals. This partition could remain in effect with shifting borders for years to come, since it does not appear that one party or even a coalition of forces can bring most of Syria under its control in the absence of a massive foreign intervention, something that is not likely to happen any time soon.
Iraq is breaking at the seams. The train of Kurdish independence has left the station, and formal independence is a question of time. A Shiite rump state will likely to emerge from Baghdad to Basra. This new entity will find itself in a constant struggle with the poorer Sunni region in the center of the country. Moreover, inside both the Sunni and Shiite areas, the struggle for power will continue, and it will be at times violent, and we will see from Basra to Beirut shifting alliances and very strange bedfellows, in a repeat of what happened during the age of the Taifas in Al-Andalus.
The heart of darkness
The great cities of Baghdad, Jerusalem and Córdoba, just to name few have been sacked by Mongols, Crusaders and Al-Mourabitoun, but today the great cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad and Mosul are being sacked by their own peoples. Architectural treasures in these cities have been pillaged by the warring parties who act like marauders.
Magnificent Castles, forts, museums, old graceful Mosques, Churches and synagogues have been destroyed or heavily damaged. Saddam Hussein’s despotism and lust for invasions wasted a whole Iraqi generation. Today, another Iraqi generation, and a new Syrian generation are being annihilated. The so-called “secular” regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Assads, have been very effective in the way they used sectarianism to maintain, with their own narrow social base, their economic and political dominion. Culturally, these two countries that produced some of the best Poets and artists in the last century are today a huge wasteland. When you add to that tragedy, the cultural and political decline of Egypt and Lebanon the desolation becomes overwhelming.
The Sunni-Shiite divide
The legacy of tyranny in Iraq and Syria, combined with the wars Iraq initiated or was subjected to since 1980, and the Iranian Revolution have deepened the Sunni-Shiite divide in ways that were unimaginable few decades ago.
The Muslim world is entering a terra incognita we did explore since the dawn of Islam. At its core, we are witnessing a struggle for power and influence that is framed in sectarian terms and symbols between an assertive Shiite Iran and the traditional Sunni powerhouse in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and to a lesser extent Egypt. Throughout Muslim History, social and political revolutions have always been framed in an Islamic language and terminology, even when their core was economics.
The modern day Janissaries
From Basra to Beirut, the fracturing of the states, has led to the emergence of a number of religiously led non-state actors; Hezbollah, ISIS, Hamas, Jabhat al-Nusra among others. Some of these players, control large areas in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and are engaged in the various activities of governance. The fighters of these groups are used by various states as auxiliaries, proxies or the modern day equivalent of the famed Ottoman Janissaries.
One does not know whether to laugh or to cry at the sight of the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim addressing the Muslim Umma as its new righteous ruler. This is the man who is straddling a large swath of Iraq and Syria, and imposing a primitive form of an absolute intolerant religious rule that intimidate Muslims and terrifies Christians. For years to come, we will be asking: how did we reach such a nadir? How did it happen? How did we engulf ourselves in this endless darkness?
This internal struggle in the Muslim world will likely continue for some time. This is not a struggle that lends itself to quick or clear resolution. This is a struggle the outside world, does not fully comprehend and has practically no power to influence it decisively.
The Sunni-Shiite divide, will deepen the alienation of large swaths of the Muslim world from the rest of the world, and will make life more brutish and more tragic than it already is in most Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia. It is sad being an Arab in these trying times, but looking at the larger Muslim world one sees more tragedies, suffering, poverty, and injustice than in other geographic regions. Most Muslims are happier in non-Muslim majority countries, than in Muslim majority countries. Muslims should ponder this reality and reflect on its meaning.
Many of the self-appointed custodians of true Islam have reduced a rich civilization to strict rules, rituals, xenophobia and superficial considerations. They are obsessed with how to “protect” their women, how to wear a beard or a thawb. When the anti- Muslim lunatic fringe in the West does something insulting to Muslims or Islam, violent demonstrations are organized, and radicals are empowered. Many of today’s Muslims don’t feel empowered, and certainly don’t have the self confidence that propelled the Muslims of yesteryear to build a great civilization. It is as if many Arabs and Muslims are stuck in a rut where they see the modern world like a caravan laden with riches passing them by and leaving them behind in the desert. Instead of living in fear of a supposedly hostile world, the Muslims of today should take a fresh, open look at their history, discover the dynamism and richness of a great civilization and without any hesitation shout “yes to life.”
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @Hisham_Melhem