A clash of civilisations is wrongheaded

By Jonathan Power, Jordan Times, reprinted in Al Jazeerah, 31 August 2003

TOO MANY observers look at Iraq as if it were a boxing match. Invasion—one up for the “West,” well at least America and Britain. Sabotage of electric pylons—one down for the West. Blowing up the UN headquarters in Iraq—one down for humanity. And so it will go on, doubtless for a long, long time. Only one thing is sure and clear: In the cold searching light of history each of these incidents that absorb us will not even rank as footnotes. Whatever one thinks of the exaggerations of Samuel Huntington's book, “The Clash of Civilisations,” nevertheless a competition of civilisations it is and has long been. And we need to know that history, if only to absorb its greatest lesson—military success on either side—has never determined the direction of the civilisation in question for more than a century or two at the most. That is the lesson of the Crusades and it is also the lesson of the great Ottoman Empire which started to lose intellectual momentum in the fifteenth century when its military reach was at its zenith.

Yet even if the Christian West is now in the ascendancy, it has never honestly come to terms with how much it owes Islamic civilisation. It was the Abbasid dynasty, founded after an internal Muslim coup in 750 AD, that absorbed the Hellenic legacy at a time when, under Charlemagne, Europe simply intellectually withered. In Charlemagne's Europe reading and writing were not highly regarded as they were in the Islamic world. The scientific, medical and philosophical learning of classical antiquity were almost entirely forgotten. Christian culture was deeply retarded and conservative and intellectual life was dominated by the Bible and the Latin fathers of the church.

The Western world didn’t begin to regain its intellectual lustre until the 12th and 13th century when it borrowed back from the Islamic world the repositories of scientific and intellectualy knowledge it had forgotten about, including, for example, Euclid's “Elements,” said to be the most influential book on geometry ever written. Then the rise of the West took the Islamic world by surprise.

Once the fifteenth century was under way Europe started to find its pace. This was the age of printing, of exploration and Western hegemony. Even though the Ottoman Empire was emerging as the most powerful state in the world, following the conquest of Constantinople, Islam started to regress intellectually. Historians find it difficult to explain this contradiction but it should act as a warning to Western hubris now. The West, particularly the US, is militarily strong, yet it seems not to have the political leverage it did only a generation or so ago.

It doesn’t help, as US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have tried, in a mistaken attempt to fudge history and to appear conciliatory, to say that Islam is not a religion of the sword. In part it is. Prophet Mohammed himself became a warrior and within 20 years of his death the Muslims had captured much of the Roman and Persian empires. Neither does it help to infer, as both Bush and Blair have done, that the West is motivated by its Christian principles. Christ, in marked contrast to Prophet Mohammad, was a man of nonviolence, as were his early followers. It was only once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire after the conversion of Constantine in AD 312 that it changed its philosophy. Then it became, and has long continued to be, as much a warrior religion as Islam.

Their breath would be better spent in educating electorates as to the likelihood of the Islamic world regaining its foothold in history and becoming again a mighty intellectual, scientific and, inevitably, military force. In fact this is what Saddam Hussein in his own idiosyncratic, violence-infused, way was trying to bring off—as before him Nasser in Egypt had tried to do. These are today's missteps but this renaissance of Islam will come to pass in one not too distant day, if only because the roots of civilisation in the Islamic world run very deep. The brain power is certainly there. It is just a question of the right political structures. Perhaps in the modern world democracy can be the key to unlock the stored up potential, as modern Turkey seems to be demonstrating. And the West should unreservedly welcome it.

The West should take its cue from scholars of fifteenth century Renaissance humanism, especially the Spaniard, John of Segovia, and the German, Nicholas of Cusa, as Richard Fletcher in his new book, “The Cross and the Crescent” has suggested. John argued it was important to find points of contact between Christianity and Islam. Convergence not divergence was the key. Nicholas, who became a cardinal, argued that despite the differences between the two faiths we had to realise that human knowledge can never be more than conjectural. If there is a Truth it can only be understood by means of mystical intuition.

These eternal questions of civilisation are the ones we should be concentrating on. Which side is up and which is down in Iraq are, by comparison, truly ephemeral.