By Ashur Shamis
In a personal contribution, Ashur Shamis calls for a dialogue between the West and the Muslim world. This is a chapter from the e-book ‘The Future of the Middle East‘ co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication in the spring.
It is all about history, or how you read it. A question. Where do the roots of conflict between the West (formerly referred to as Christendom) and the world of Islam, really lay? For, it is this conflict that has shaped and bedevilled world history over the last millennium, fuelling mistrust, giving way to conspiracy and counter-conspiracy on both sides, and leading to subjugation and armed resistance.
In this paper I will argue for a proposal for a non-political forum in which intelligent, enlightened and well informed individuals from the western and the Islamic worlds can share in dialogue and debate to arrive at solutions that can make a difference. By doing so, it is hoped that the idea itself will be honed and developed by others. However, before we can do that, it is necessary to provide a historical overview.
A new power is born
Barely two decades after the death of prophet Mohammed (570 – 632), the Islamic conquests exploded in all directions. In its first century, Islam swept over North Africa, the Levant and Asia Minor, meeting varying degrees of resistance. It reached Spain by 711 AD and crossed over to France in 730 AD.
In all the regions that Islam went to, it was adopted by people of all colours, race, or ethnicity. The majority of the new societies and populations also adopted Arabic as their lingua franca. Within less than two generations, it became the language of daily transaction, laws, philosophy, literature, arts, commerce and sciences, from Spain to Iran and from Tajikistan and Bukhara to central Africa.
The Muslims built up a multifarious civilisation and an empire that brought together different ethnic and racial groups including Asian, Indian, Chinese, Persian, European, Turk, Balkan, as well as Arab.
Islam created a truly global identity where one could travel, and settle, from the Indian to the Atlantic Oceans without any restrictions. The Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid (763 to 809 AD), seeing a cloud in the sky was reported to have said “let your water fall where it may, the benefit shall be mine”.
Nonetheless, the Muslim empire, or caliphate, had its share of divisions and internal civil strife. The vast majority of these internal conflicts were due to political and economic greed, and the ambitions of powerful men. Nevertheless, the underlying body of Muslims largely remained intact, representing what is called in Arabic, al-Ummah, the nation of Islam.
Professor Albert Hourani sums it up, saying: “the political changes did not destroy the cultural unity of the world of Islam; it grew deeper as more and more of the population became Muslims and the faith of Islam articulated itself into systems of thought and institutions”.
The contribution of Muslims, of every genre, to the world during that period is undisputed, even in the West. It is due to this human heritage, which was partly inherited by Muslims from the classical world, that human civilisation was able to progress through some tough times.
It was the tremendous translation movement, initiated and cherished by the ninth-century Muslim Caliph al-Ma’moun (786 – 833 AD) that paved the way for major developments in Europe including the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the scientific and the industrial revolutions.
The advantage of these developments was that they adopted a secular approach, totally divorced from the Church. Freed from dogma, thinkers focused on human achievement: they studied classical texts, including Arabic and Persian ones, history, literature, science and philosophy. Thus, a creative mix of Islamic, Western and classical cultures occurred.
Zealots turned Crusades
However, before these developments could take place a darker chapter in Christian-Muslim relations was opened early in the 11th century. In 1095 European Christians, mainly from France and Italy, arrived in Palestine bent on taking the city of Jerusalem back from the Muslims, whom they called ‘pagan Persians’. They came to be known as ‘crusaders’ and they were fuelled by religious zealotry.
Their arrival was a monumental event based on a sustained European propaganda campaign of misinformation, distortion, and manipulation, lead by heads of Churches from Western Europe. They sowed the seeds of animosity between Islam and Western Europe, and they started something whose ripples are still with us today.
Following roughly 400 years of crusades, the conquest of Constantinople, now called Istanbul, in 1453 gave Islam a crucial toehold in Europe once again. The resulting rise of the Ottoman Caliphate, a symbol of Islamic rule, gave the Muslims a new impetus to pursue their goals and expand far and wide. This allowed for a crucial new energy for Islam to keep going for another four centuries or so.
The West turning the table on Islam
By the late 19th century, the Ottoman Empire had self-destructed. Then in the early 20th century Europe and the United States vied with one another to carve up and share out the lands of Islam. The ‘sick man of Europe’ was dying. India and most of Mesopotamia went to the British. The Arab Maghreb fell to the French. Egypt went from the French to the British. And in 1916 the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement put paid to Islam’s central power in Istanbul, tearing most of the land under its control to pieces.
In many ways, the newly fashioned Muslim/Arab world has been in a state of fluid transformation ever since. It has never seemed to take control of its social, political and economic destiny.
Internally, it has been in a constant state of turmoil, with factionalism, sectarianism, dictatorships, political disunity and military coup d’états.
Externally, it has not been able to decide what direction to take. Divisions, foreign interference, and chasms of all description have been visited upon it. The propensity to subjugation is arguably as palpable today as it was during the years of colonisation.
A century of disasters
Over the last 100 years the break-up of the Muslim world has proceeded at an unprecedented scale. During the period of the two World Wars, which should be called the European wars (1914-1943, with 57m dead and more than 100m maimed), the Muslim world was still, in the main, under the direct dominance of the West.
By the end of the second war Muslim countries started gaining a sort of token ‘independence’ from their colonial masters. However, in 1948 the creation of the state of Israel added another complicating factor to the Muslim world.
The fifties and the sixties were the years of the oil boom, which proved a double-edged sword. It brought numerous advantages; a game-changer that propelled some Muslim countries to the forefront of modernity. But some consider it a curse that brought the evils of corruption, profligacy, excess, and the squandering of wealth on an unprecedented scale.
For example, it made the whole of Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Algeria the focus of the West, for whom oil and gas are so critical. And a new geopolitical strategy was developed in order to secure control over the Middle East. In those oil-producing countries differences between rich and poor were quickly accentuated, resulting in huge social and economic problems. This dichotomy continues to bedevil the Arab / Muslim psyche until today.
Throughout the fifties to the nineties the Muslim nations were plagued with military take-overs and the emergence of dictatorships. Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Yemen, Libya, the Sudan and Tunisia all were under such regimes for years. They have often proven catastrophic, with the plunder of national wealth on a colossal scale, the degradation of freedom, governance, human injustice, and a total distortion of the Arab and Muslim character.
The 1980s were particularly determinantal. The Iranian Revolution (1979), the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1980), the assassination of President Sadat of Egypt (1981), the rise of Jihadism and so-called ‘political Islam’, the emergence of al-Qaeda (1989), and Iraq’s war with Iran.
Fractured but resilient
The Muslim world at the moment looks fragmented and hopeless; impossible to be able to put together again for all the goodwill in the world. Its most vexing internal division is between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Throughout the Muslim world this division plays itself out through discrimination, local conflicts, interstate warfare and regional rivalries.
It also provides opportunities for the West and others to interfere in the affairs of sovereign Muslim states. If Muslims are to move forward, they have to tackle this aspect of their being.
Emblematic of this is the contemporary tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the stance of influential allies such as the US and Britain. However, for Saudi Arabia to open a new front with Iran, encouraged by the West is clearly foolish. It would represent the continuation of a historic pattern in which the West has had undue influence in the region.
For example, America and Britain colluded in 1953 to overthrow the elected national government in Iran. Following this, it took the Iranians nearly thirty years to wrest their country back from dictatorship and forge their own future.
The West writ large
Is the West’s attitude toward Islam and Muslim nations the result of deliberate policy or misunderstanding? Is it a ‘clash of civilisations’ born out of a fundamental mismatch between the two, or is it a product of greed, jealousy, and hatred.
On the other hand, is the Muslim image of the West the outcome of religious fanaticism, or a deep-seated animosity and mistrust that goes all the way back to the crusaders and their misguided sojourn to ‘free’ Jerusalem from ‘the pagans’?
Is this ‘clash of civilisations’, which has in our time given birth to Islamophobia, inevitable or imaginary? The political elite, the Church officials and the tycoons of international media have played a central role in this sordid narrative, fuelling an aversion to Islam and the spread of Islamophobia. Is there a way that these two gigantic sections of the human race can be reconciled? Or, are they condemned to a war of attrition against each other in which one is a loser and the other a winner, a zero-sum game, for generations to come? Is this collision inevitable?
To be continued ….
Ashur Shamis is a distinguished Libyan writer and long-time political activist. When Gaddafi came to power in 1969, he was studying Aeronautical Engineering in the United Kingdom. In 1977 he obtained an MA in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Birmingham. Since 1971, he lived in exile in the UK. He turned to journalism and political activism. From 1980, he was a target for Gaddafi’s physical “liquidation squads”, and, with others, instrumental in founding one of the most effective opposition groups, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya. He went on to oppose the Libyan regime until its fall in 2011. From 2002, he was founder and editor of the influential website ‘Akhbar Libya’ until his return to Libya in 2011, after 40 years in exile. He has a long record of political and human rights activism on Libya. He is also an associated editor of http://international.minbarlibya.org/