Impiety of Arab societies serves as main problem in region

July 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Arab liberals and neoliberals typically believe that the European Renaissance was in essence a process of cultural selection. The new Europeans slowly but surely rejected the backward elements in their culture, namely religion, in favor of the more progressive secular ones. Accordingly, Arab liberals argue that we need to do the same; we need to quarantine Islam out of political and social life and depend instead on other secular historical institutions.

The main difficulty faced by the proponents of such ideas, however, is that there are almost no such institutions. As far as the vast majority of the region's population is concerned, before the first colonial encounters in the Middle East it was truly difficult to find any institution, from family to Empire that was not affected by Islam.

Only the modern nation state, designed and installed in the Middle East by European colonial powers, is truly secular in that sense. This historical relationship between liberalism and colonialism has therefore caused many in the region to be suspicious of truly honest liberals. Many a Cambridge and Harvard educated Arab liberal were unable to overcome this obstacle.

On the other hand, Islamists argue that the main problem is not our lack of secular modern institutions, but rather the impiety of our societies. To an Arab Islamist, the problem is not that we have too much of Islam in our social and political life, but quite to the contrary: we do not have enough of it. But our Islamists forget that they have been making the same argument for the last 800 years, from the second Abbasid era on. If a solution to a problem was being proposed for so long and the problem still persisted, it is only legitimate to doubt both diagnosis and prescription.

Moreover, many medieval Islamic thinkers imagined the movement of history as a steady linear decline from the time of the Prophet to the Last Day. Many modern day Islamists believe in the same. Not only does such an understanding of history prevent positive efforts towards the betterment of society, it also contradicts the main argument of the same Islamists that more piety and religiosity can save the world. It seems the world can never be saved. The overwhelming power of such a prescription has been the backbone of Middle Eastern politics from the time of Ibn Taymiyya on, that is, from the Crusades up until today, and still it did not work.

How do people move from a period of defeat to one of triumph? How do the holders of a certain set of creeds overcome historical moments of confusion? Copying the experiences of others is definitely not the way; the failure of colonially created states to do anything other than colonizing their own peoples is good proof. Reducing one's rich culture into only one of its dimensions does not work either - our history since the Mamlouks bares witness to that. This is true for us and  true for Europe.

Looking at the art of the renaissance, the beautiful churches of the thirteenth century, one cannot see any process of cultural selection and exclusion, rather, one sees an indulgence in culture with all it elements. The frescos showing the trinity, the Madonna and the child or the annunciation, as well as the works of sculpture could very well be works of pagan Romans, the Heavenly Father looks very much like Zeus, the image of Christ is not very different from that of Apollo, Michelangelo's David looks like statues of ancient Greek athletes, but still the works are extremely Christian. This amalgam of two contradictory elements in European culture is fascinating.

But that's not all; the dresses of the characters from the Bible and their surroundings are those of the Italian Renaissance. The effect of seeing the Madonna in a 13th century gown must have had a similar effect to depicting Moses in a pair of jeans today. Culture was not left hanging up in heavens. Rather these frescoes brought the divine images back to earth. Legend is brought to the breakfast table and culture in all its complexity, without selection or exclusion, is mixed with the people's everyday bread. Moreover, culture is not fortified against foreign influence; rather, whatever is foreign is absorbed and made absolutely native.

The black and white stripes on the walls of the Cathedral at Siena have an amazing story. They directly recall the stripes of the Damascene Mamlouk houses and mosques, something Italians must have learned about from their continuous trips to the Middle East during the Crusades. But here is how they fit it into their own story. After Romulus killed his brother Ramous, the latter's children fled the newly founded Rome to Siena. Before they reached the city, they burnt offerings to the gods and two columns of smoke rose to the sky, one black and the other white. The black and white stripes which were adopted for aesthetic reasons were woven into the culture of the region. Dante's Divine Comedy is also like that, very Roman, very Christian and very much the product of Renaissance Italy.

In the Arab world such indulgence in our culture is needed. Islam too is needed - not one that turns the Companions of the Prophet into distant demigods but rather one that brings them to our breakfast table. For they were but some of us. An engagement  with our culture is a key to any process of selection among the elements.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::