Islam And Civilisation (and Boris)

In the ‘noughties, Boris Johnson wrote a book, ‘The Dream Of Rome’, about the Roman Empire, comparing it to the EU in a positive way, in which he argued for Turkey joining the EU as a way of bringing them out of what I presume he regarded as the “Dark Ages”. It was, as I understand it, a pro-EU book, seeing the organisation as a successor to the Empire, which he would prefer included Turkey as a representative of the Eastern Roman Empire, so the context is rather interesting and makes me feel he’s an opportunist who is saying he’s pro-Brexit when in fact he isn’t. There are various explanations for this but rather than go into them, I want to talk about another aspect of this book. In it, he describes Islam as putting the Muslim world “centuries behind” the West, which he appears to mean both intellectually and socially.

I don’t know much about the book concerned and I’m not about to swell Boris’s coffers by buying and reading it, so I’m necessarily going to be poorly informed by misrepresentations. It also seems a little unfair to dredge someone’s past to find something to defame him in this way, because after all this is in a book which I’ve been given the impression advocates for the EU, and clearly he’s not doing that now, so why would we expect him still to believe that Islam holds back progress? Maybe he didn’t even believe it then either. Having said that, his “letterbox” comment, though made in a context which supported freedom of dress, would certainly seem to suggest that he is at least passively Islamophobic if not actively so. The book itself purports to look into why the Roman Empire worked and the EU doesn’t, to which my answer might be, to the extent that it doesn’t, that the Empire was a more unified political entity than the EU. Oswald Moseley was of course very much in favour of a European Union as a kind of homeland for white people, so the idea of being pro-EU is by no means an essentially liberal one, but I’m getting too much into speculation here. The argument appears to be that the EU was born out of weakness but the Empire out of strength. The EU is a coalition of fading imperial powers, whereas the Roman Empire was more like the United States, based more on confidence and strength.

To a limited extent I’m qualified to comment on this because I wrote a dissertation on ‘Islamic Societies and the Great Transformation’ in 1986. It was by no means particularly marvellous, well-researched or accurate, but it does mean I know more than nothing on this particular topic although a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and I’ve already talked a lot about Dunning-Kruger. In this work, I attempted to apply theories of liberal democracy, Marxism, the rationalisation thesis and anomie to Islamic societies, with particular reference to a possible discrepancy between their scientific and technological development on the one hand and what we would perhaps perceive as their social conservatism on the other, and my conclusion, which I think was quite forced, was that they couldn’t be applied and that they worked in an entirely different way than these Western ideas could come to grips with. As usual with dissertations (I’ve written three), I really felt I didn’t do myself justice and it came out quite shallow and facile, which is partly because I got stressed out by how much was riding on it and partly due to being in a hurry. But I don’t want to get into personal stuff too much here because I’m trying to address his ideas with mine and it would pull me off-topic.

He asserts that the first printing press didn’t arrive in Istanbul until the mid-nineteenth century, and that liberal democracy couldn’t develop in Islamic societies because capitalism couldn’t do so either. I wish I knew more than I do about his argument. Islamic societies are, according to him, inherently less tolerant and more violent. The conflicts which exist between the Islamic world and the West are not due to Islam and Christianity but Islamic and Roman values. The most interesting assertion is the one about capitalism and liberal democracy.

Marxism says society traverses several stages, starting with primitive communism, then some time later proceeding through feudalism and capitalism finally to communism. Many argue that governments using Marxist-sounding rhetoric are not in fact Marxist because they transitioned immediately from a feudal to a nominally communist system, which brings with it a number of problems, such as those arising from the pre-revolutionary education of such societies. The issue with Islamic societies is rather different because they theoretically undermine commodification before it even starts through identifying the banking process as usury and forbidding it, and to some extent the provision of compulsory zakat provides a kind of welfare system, although this kind of thing existed in the West too before the likes of income tax. Thus there are ways in which at least at first glance capitalism cannot function in an Islamic society, and if you believe that capitalism is essential for liberal democracy, that would presumably imply that you also believe liberal democracy is incompatible with them. The question is then, how would capitalism foster liberal democracy? The welfare state could be seen as having a role in increasing the stability of society, as there might be less crime or unrest if there’s a safety net, and the welfare system built into Islam would seem to afford that. Perhaps more promisingly, having a stake in the economic system such as home or share ownership or having a paid job might lead one to have more personal interest in a stable society, and I presume the argument is that only banks able to turn a profit are able to afford this because they can then lend money at interest, allowing ambitious and ultimately lucrative projects to be pursued. But even if this is true, it doesn’t mean the system as it exists now is still doing that because my perception of it is that it’s rigged to syphon money from the poor to the rich, which could be expected to destabilise democracy through the likes of rioting and vandalism, but oddly, doesn’t. I honestly don’t understand why this is. Nonetheless it could be that historically, capitalism did in fact nurture the idea of individual rights and civil liberties. Whether this is significant is another matter.

In fact, in both Mediaeval Europe and today’s Islamic societies, there are a series of contracts and loopholes which lead to interest being charged. For instance, loans can be construed as the rental of money and there’s a system of three contracts none of which violate Islamic principles in themselves but which together allow Western-style banking. The same system evolved independently in Europe. Moreover, shortly after the Islamisation following on from the Hejira, a mercantile economy developed in those countries and persisted for several centuries.

The matter of the printing press may be a good point but it’s hard at first to see a link with Islam. The invention of movable type is a major stage in the dissemination of information as it brings down the prices of books dramatically and puts them within the reach of the peasants, or at least the middle class. They also led to the translation of the Bible into the vernacular and thereby the Reformation. It’s easier to print non-cursive scripts, so for example Gothic was printed in the fourth century CE and the Diamond Sutra was printed in the ninth Christian century. Arabic script doesn’t lend itself easily to printing because it’s essentially cursive – each of the twenty-seven consonants has more than one form and many have four according to their position in the word, and they often have to be linked to each other. There are also other subscript and superscript signs used to indicate the likes of the presence or absence of vowels or the case of a noun. Turkish was only officially written in Latin script from 1926, so the absence of a printing press in Istanbul until the late nineteenth Christian century is not surprising. However, Urdu newspapers, which use a different version of the Arabic script, were written cursively by pen (and then presumably copied) into at least the 1980s and are mass-market publications, so the barrier may be artificial and of course this is about the use of the Arabic script rather than Islam itself. The script works quite well for writing the Arabic language itself, and would also work well for other related languages such as Hebrew and Maltese, but despite the nationalistic insistence on using Arabic script for certain other languages such as Urdu, formerly Turkish and Malay, it doesn’t work as well for them. Studies have also shown that even proficient readers of Arabic take longer to read texts than adept readers of languages written in the Latin alphabet because they need to assimilate more diacritics. Hence it could be said that poor literacy is built into cultures which primarily use Arabic script, particularly for non-Afro-Asiatic languages, and there could be elements of information-hoarding and antilanguage in its use. This presumably would impact on the social development of Islamic societies which use the Arabic script, and in such societies it does have a privileged position which could be exclusive in a similar way to Latin in the Roman Catholic church and mediaeval Europe. Nonetheless there are Islamic societies which don’t use Arabic script for their vernaculars, such as Albania and the largest of all, Indonesia.

The Arab world was of course the repository for much knowledge which would otherwise have been lost to the world with the onset of the European dark ages. Probably most star names apart from Bayer designations (such as α Centauri) have Arabic-derived names such as Thuban and Betelgeuse, so clearly astronomy was very significant and relatively advanced at this time. The Indian use of zero and place value entered Europe via the Arab world, which considerably advanced mathematics. Arabic medicine also pioneered the use of non-biochemical compounds as drugs, and paper was also used, having been taken from China, before it reached Europe. Hence technologically the Arab world was ahead of Europe technologically most of the time until the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, meaning also that the Middle Ages themselves are a solely European phenomenon as it doesn’t apply, for example, to China or Mesoamerica either. There’s a lot of debate about the causes of and causes of the end of the Dark and Middle Ages, one suggestion being that they were caused by the adoption of Christianity by the Empire which led to a loss of civic virtue and focus on the afterlife and ended in connection with the Reformation.

It is the case that countries with a majority of Muslims are more likely to have a large number of creationists compared to most other countries, and this does have practical consequences. For instance, the treatment and understanding of cancer and antibiotic resistance depends on accepting evolutionary theory, but in some Islamic countries the teaching of evolution has been removed from state school curricula. However, the same problem exists in the United States, so this can’t be seen as a specifically Islamic issue. Oddly, the predominant belief among Islamic creationists is the least sustainable option of Old Earth creationism, which has to maintain that mutations do not significantly influence living things even over hundreds of millions of years. I would suggest that this means there’s a major disconnection between different aspects of biology in places where this is maintained to be true. You can have young Earth creationism, which although obviously untrue doesn’t need to explain why mutations don’t have a major influence on the course of life, and you can have young Earth evolution, though nobody actually seems to believe that, but you cannot possibly sustain old Earth creationism. It’s by far the most absurd option of the four. In situations where women in particular are denied full participation in society, there will be a waste of potential which could disadvantage a country or skew its research and development in a particular direction because it isn’t informed by the distinctive experience of women.

There are, of course, democratic Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, but it isn’t clear that democracy implies liberal democracy. Democratisation has sometimes led to the imposition of what many Westerners would perceive as the more oppressive aspects of Shari`a law such as stoning and execution for homosexual acts and adultery, the amputation of limbs for theft, or the prohibition of alcohol. However, in countries such as Pakistan, which were originally under the British Raj and didn’t exist as a separate political entity, there was no specific national identity and Islam has been employed to create this. This also leads to a situation in some places where just as we might identify opposition to what we see as the more negative aspects of certain countries with Islam as a negative force, Muslim-majority countries are opposed not only to the colonialist legacy of the West but also to its liberalism as part of Western identity. The social development which was able to occur in the home countries of the imperial powers didn’t take place to the same degree in countries which happen to have Muslim majorities because of the stagnation imposed by colonialism. In a Christian parallel in non-Islamic colonial countries, there is more official homophobia because of the Western creation of laws to that effect.

When a society is apparently far away or “othered” as Islam tends to be to WASPs, we tend to generalise. In fact, although Islam does pride itself on its unity there are open and closed interpretations of the faith. Where a conservative interpretation of organised religion has been allowed to dominate, the result is often disastrous. Some might say that this is seen in the US, formerly in Ireland, and also in both Israel and certain Muslim-majority countries. The situation in Israel, which is officially secular, is potentially without connection to the ethnicity of its citizens but more to do with both the secular pursuit of power and the conservative religious approach within Judaism, which neither condemns Judaism as a whole nor the Jews, and those same problems are replicated in Muslim-majority countries. For instance, in Turkey the situation hasn’t so much risen due to Islamic fundamentalism as the tendency of a party to grab power, which then established a precedence and an imbalance which made that approach seem more acceptable.

There is also the question of what constitute Islamic values. It’s perfectly valid within Islam to emphasise principles such as justice, freedom and respect for human life and base one’s political approach on those. Just because stonings, executions, corporal punishement, sexism and homophobia are done in the name of Islam, that doesn’t necessarily mean all Muslims want that or that the stress on the role of Islam in public life needs to focus on those. However, it’s problematic for many Muslims for us in the West simply to see them as “backward” and not having got to our “enlightened” state yet. That would be to presume that Islamic societies will evolve in the same direction as the West has, and not only does that not follow, but also there’s a case for that being kind of racist. I say “kind of” because although I would see Islam as a protected characteristic, I don’t see Muslims as a race and don’t think they would want to see themselves that way either. Islam is for the whole human race. Nonetheless it does reflect a form of discrimination against a certain group to exhort them to become more liberal.

Secularism, or at least things done in its name, can also be oppressive. This can be seen in China with its current persecution of not only Uighur Muslims but also Falun Gong practitioners. It’s easy to argue that this isn’t true secularism, as that involves the equal treatment of all belief systems, but it could equally well be argued that what’s done in the name of Islam is not true Islam, so this leads to a kind of stalemate. It’s also been noted by certain citizens of Muslim-majority nations that when Shari`a law is implemented it has a disproportionately negative effect on women, gender and sexual minorities and religious minorities, including non-believers. If this is also linked with democracy, this would constitute the tyranny of the majority and ignore the possible value of experience and judgement gained by working in government, having instead simply allowed it to be dictated by a particular interpretation of Islam. And this interpretation strikes at least me as odd, because the Qur’an says “there is no compulsion in religion” and advocates for the tolerance and perhaps equal treatment of Christians, Jews and even the Sabaeans, who were not monotheist. There is some problem with this though, because as represented by the Qur’an, the beliefs of the people it refers to as Christians don’t correspond to mainstream Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox Christianity as it’s understood today.

But I have to confess to a feeling of discomfort in talking about any of this because it feels like I’m telling Muslims how to practice their faith, and also probably presuming a lot more than I actually know about Islam. Boris Johnson doesn’t seem to have the same kind of hesitancy in his pronouncements, and as we have seen recently from a certain prominent head of state that can constitute a major problem. But to conclude, I suppose I’d say the following. Islam clearly did not historically hold back scientific and other intellectual progress. The practice of creationism and possible failure to exploit its human resources as fully as the West might hold it back at least economically, but that may not be so much the result of Islam as colonialism and a search for national identity. Also, we should be wary of imposing a preordained path on the future of the Islamic world just because we consider themselves to be ahead of them in some way, and be aware that what we perceive as Islamic may be just one interpretation of many, which may suit us if we wish to other them.

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