By Roger H. Lieberman
Imagine, for a moment, how much more enjoyable and tranquil our lives might be today had the US government pursued a thoughtful, prudent response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Such a response would, I believe, have rested on two essential elements: the formation of an international coalition to neutralize al-Qaeda and bring its leadership to justice, and a sweeping reform of US Middle East policy to redress the grievances that had kindled the hatred which inspired 9-11. The paramount aspects of the latter would have been ending the Clinton Administration’s pointlessly callous and horribly destructive embargo against Iraq that had cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, and reframing America’s stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict to recognize the complete equality of both peoples’ rights in the Holy Land.
There is no reason why any US administration, even a conservative Republican one like that of George W. Bush, could not have pursued such policies, given sufficient common sense and decency. But these qualities, alas, were altogether lacking in the power-crazed neoconservative ideologues that the President had most unwisely filled his cabinet with. Thus, the Bush Administration opted instead to exploit the public’s anger and fear as a license to embark on a ruthless expansion of US military power aimed at tightening control over the resources of the Middle East and Central Asia – buttressed at home by a torrent of lies, propaganda, and political mud-slinging. And so we find ourselves five years later with America and the Muslim World more estranged than ever, and with nearly 3000 US troops, thousands of Afghans, and at least 100,000 Iraqis dead who would otherwise be among the living.
It is essential to reflect on this background before one can comprehend the widespread outrage at Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks in Germany concerning the alleged philosophical differences between Islam and Christianity. This is the second time this year that unkind references to Islam from a Western source have elicited violent Muslim protests – the first being an offensive cartoon published in a Danish newspaper. Many American observers, not predisposed to thoughtful reflection, simply take such happenings as vindication of their prejudices.
But such self-congratulatory hubris ignores the unfortunate and abiding reality that the depiction of Islam as “irrational” and “violent” represents far more than a theological rumination. On the contrary, it has been the singular ideological driving force behind America’s vicious post-9/11 Middle East policy – the “clash of civiliations” doctrine dispensed like snake oil by neoconservative quacks, ever since the collapse of the Soviet bloc necessitated the concoction of a new rationale for maintaining a military industrial complex. Thus, when the Pope expounds on the “logical” underpinings of the “Judeo-Christian” West in contrast with the Islamic world, even as an aside, he is sending the message to all concerned that he sympathizes with a conceited ideology that has engendered widespread death, destruction, and misery on multiple occasions.
Benedict’s casual reference to the polemics of a late-14th century Byzantine emperor engaged in a war with the Turks taps into a long tradition of Orientalism – the pseudo-scholarly study of Asian societies that rests on the premise that they are built on moral and philosophical foundations radically different from those that inform the cultures of Europe and their derivatives. Ever since the Crusades of the Middle Ages, Western rulers have encouraged such propaganda during conflicts with Asian nations as a means to squelch self-reflection and promote unthinking patriotic obedience among their subjects. Yet, it would not take long for a good fifth-grade schoolmarm to deconstruct this obtuse theory via a brief walk through history.
The Byzantine Empire, as any honest historian knows, was hardly a paragon of religious tolerance and logical governance. From the moment Constantine I ascended the throne and wed Christianity to the remnants of Roman political power, Christians whose interpretation of scripture did not conform to state-sponsored dogma were persecuted – particularly the Gnostic sects, whose writings, such as the recently discovered Judas Gospel, continue to fascinate historians. Jews were subject to severe restrictions on their social status, and, in Constantinople, were ostracized into a ghetto. In the political realm, corruption, intrigue, and murder were commonplace.
Looking at the wider Western world of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, one finds little evidence of morally-conscious rulers seeking to reconcile faith and reason. Consider the trouble men like Copernicus and Galileo encountered when they sought to challenge the Church-sanctioned conception of a changeless universe centered on a motionless Earth. An Italian philosopher, Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake for teaching Copernican theory and speculating about life on other planets. And, as astronomer Carl Sagan pointed out in one of his wittiest books, Pope Calixtus III actually excommunicated Halley’s Comet in 1456 because its appearance in the night sky coincided with a major Turkish offensive in the Balkans – although, as Sagan points out, its prior adherence to Catholicism was uncertain!
As for “conversion by the sword”, it is difficult to think of worse examples than those provided by Christian Spain in the 15th and 16th Centuries. The subjugation of the Canary Islands and its indigenous Guanches inaugurated this onslaught. Every high school student who pays a modicum of attention in class knows about the ruthless expulsion of Jews and Muslims in 1492 after the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella unified Castille and Aragon. That year, of course, is also famous for Columbus’ arrival in the Americas – initiating one of the most rapid and destructive campaigns of conquest in history. Within fifty years, the Arawaks of the West Indies were virtually extinct, the ancient civilizations of Mexico and Peru lay in ruins, and millions of indigenous Americans had perished from disease, starvation, and slave labor. When the conquistadors of Francisco Coronado came upon pueblos in the American Southwest, a decree was read aloud in every town demanding the inhabitants embrace Christianity or be exterminated!
Now that we have examined some of the less admirable episodes in the annals of Western civilization, let us pause to recall some of the achievements of Muslim lands during the same period. It is a well-known fact that Arab and Persian scholars not only preserved and translated the learning of classical Greece, but also greatly improved upon the Greeks’ understanding of mathematics, geography, medicine, and astronomy. The golden age of Moorish Spain boasted many esteemed Jewish, as well as Muslim, scholars – including Hasdai ibn-Chaprut and Maimonides. When Constantinople fell to the Muslim Turks in 1453, its Jews were emancipated, and many Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in later years found refuge in the Ottoman realm – including Palestine. The cities of the classical Muslim world, from Cordoba to Cairo to Damascus to Baghdad, were revered throughout Eurasia as centers of learning and commerce.
But before we rush to dismiss Pope Benedict’s recent homily outright, we must also examine the acts of intolerance and violence which important Muslim societies have unquestionably committed. Although Moorish rule in Spain was generally characterized by respect for the rights of Jews and Christians, it also witnessed episodes of severe religious persecution – particularly under the fundamentalist Berber Almoravids. The people of Nuristan, on the northeast Afghan frontier, were indeed forcibly converted to Islam little more than a century ago. There is little to praise in the Ottoman Empire’s oppressive rule over predominantly Christian lands such as Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria, where teenage boys were regularly conscripted into the Turkish army as janissaries. Moreover, the violent collapse of Ottoman rule during the First World War witnessed the genocidal massacre of Armenians – a crime against humanity as grave as the Jewish Holocaust which modern Turkey, a long-time US ally, continues to stubbornly deny in the face of indisputable facts.
There is a lesson to be learned here by all humanity – that the true dividing line in human affairs is not between East and West, or whites and non-whites. It is between those who recognize that all cultures – including their own, have the capacity for both the profoundest enlightenment and the basest evil, and those who persist in believing that some peoples have inherently superior cultures, and thus superior human rights. Around the world one sees a veritable epidemic of blind patriots – Americans who refuse to feel sorrow for the slaughter of the First Nations, Chinese who harden their hearts toward the Tibetans whose society they have mutilated, Japanese who still celebrate the murderous exploits of their bygone empire, Australians who plead innocent to the subjugation of the Aborigines, Arabs who belittle the crisis in Darfur, Turks who persist in their deluded denial of the Armenian genocide, and Israelis (and their Western supporters) who work themselves into spasms whenever the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, and the ongoing plight of the refugees, is mentioned.
The greatest obstacle to constructive self-reflection by members of any society is, of course, the ongoing experience of conflict. If it has been difficult for Americans to recognize their societal failings in the aftermath of 9-11, it is far more difficult for Arabs and Muslims to come to terms with theirs while under incessant threat of economic punishment and military assault from the US and its allies. Yet, in spite of the grotesque disparity between the two sides in this deepening conflict, thoughtful men and women must transcend national and sectarian boundaries in the quest for reconciliation – even if, at times, this means getting our feelings hurt.
-Roger H. Lieberman is a graduate of Rutgers University with a Masters’ Degree in Environmental Science.