Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Misunderstanding Cultures: Islam and the West

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Princeton University 

This paper aims to explain why the idea of the West is, for historical and philosophical reasons, an obstacle to dealing with the dangers posed by radical Islamists. Every proposed theory of the West has to account for the great internal cultural diversity both of European cultures and of those influenced by them around the world; and every serious historical account of both Europe and Islam has to recognize the long-standing, substantial, and ongoing interdependence of their intellectual and religious traditions. As a result, what is needed to face extremists, whether inside or outside Europe (and whether Christian, Moslem or neither) is not an opposition between Islam and the West, but an alliance of those of all faiths and none who can live with and tolerate cultural difference against those, wherever they live and whatever their religion, who cannot.[1]

I have given myself two tasks. One is the philosopher’s job of trying to get clear about some difficulties with the very idea of the West. The second is historical: it is to remind us of when the idea that West and Islam might be opposites began, because it turns out that history makes the philosophical task easier. So I am going to begin there.

For Herodotus, the world, like Caesar’s Gaul, was divided into three parts. To the east was Asia, to the south was a continent he called Libya, and the rest was Europe. But the ancients certainly knew that people and goods and ideas could travel between the continents with little hindrance. Indeed, Herodotus admitted to being puzzled as to “why three distinct women’s names have been given to what is really a single land-mass …”[2] Still, despite Herodotus’s puzzlement, these continents were for the Greeks and their Roman heirs the largest significant geographical divisions of the world. It took a further intellectual leap, however, to go from identifying continents to thinking of their inhabitants as a single people. It wouldn’t have occurred to Herodotus that he had something special in common with the inhabitants of Persia; something that united him with them in contrast to all the inhabitants of Europe. He was born 500 miles south of here at Halicarnasus—now Bodrum. But being born in Asia Minor didn’t make him an Asian; it left him a Greek. And the Celts, to the north, about whom he knew so little, were much stranger to him than the Persians or the Egyptians, about whom he knew rather a lot. You can have Europe, Africa and Asia without thinking of Europeans, Africans and Asians as kinds of people.

David Levering Lewis has claimed recently that it took two things to make Europeans begin to think of themselves, for the first time, at the end of the first millennium, as a people among peoples. One was the creation of a vast Holy Roman Empire by the six-foot-four-inch, thick-necked, fair-haired Frankish warrior king we know as Charlemagne. The other was the development, in the Iberian Peninsula on the Southwestern borders of his domain, of the Moslem culture of Spain, which the Arabs called al-Andalus. In making the various tribes of Europe into a single people, what they shared and what distinguished them from their Moslem neighbors were both important. 

Europeans are defined, like so many peoples, as much as anything by what they are not. This is, by now, a familiar idea. But Lewis offers a more startling proposal: in making the civilization that modern Europeans inherit, the cultural legacy of Al-Andalus is at least as important as the legacy of the Catholic Franks. In borrowing from their great Other, they filled out the European Self.

Charlemagne created his vast empire around the core of two Frankish kingdoms: Neustria—whose capital was Paris—in the west, and Austrasia in the east. He created monastic centers of learning, drawing scholars from across his empire and outside it. These cultural and political achievements perhaps entitled him to his self-conception as Rome’s heir in the West, author of an imperial restoration. When he traveled to Rome in December 800, some thirty years into his reign, he went to defend the authority of Leo III as Pope; and His Holiness returned the favor by crowning him Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day 800 … much to the annoyance of the Empress Irene here in Constantinople, who called herself Emperor not Empress and thought the title was hers.

Like Charlemagne’s empire, al-Andalus was very much the product of a war-machine. Islam burst out of Arabia in the seventh century, spreading with astonishing rapidity in every direction. After the Prophet’s death in 632, the Arabs managed in a mere thirty years to defeat the two great empires to their north, Rome’s residue in Byzantium and the Persian empire that reached through central Asia as far as India. The Umayyad dynasty, which began in 661, pushed on west into North Africa and east into Central Asia. In early 711, Tariq Ibn-Ziyad led a Berber army across the straits of Gibraltar into Spain.[3] There he attacked the Visigoths who had ruled much of the Roman province of Hispania for two centuries. Within seven years, most of the Iberian Peninsula was under Moslem rule; not until 1492, nearly eight hundred years later, was the whole peninsula under Christian sovereignty again. 

The Umayyads did not, however, intend to stop at the Pyrenees. Their first attempt to take Aquitaine in the early eighth century were frustrated. A little more than a decade later, `Abd al-Rahman, the new emir of al-Andalus, returned to take up the task. He got as far north as Poitiers, almost half way from the Pyrenees to Paris. There, however, the Moslems met their match. In October 732, Charles Martel, who had force-marched his troops from the faraway Danube, joined Duke Odo in decimating the emir’s troops. In a Latin chronicle written in 754 by a Christian scribe, the victors at Poitiers are referred to as “Europenses”: it is the first recorded use of a Latin word for the people of Europe. And it was written (either in Cordoba or Toledo) in al-Andalus.

In retrospect, later Christian historians assigned to the Battle of Poitiers an epochal significance. Edward Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, pointed out that if the Moors had covered again the distance they had traveled from Gibraltar, they could have reached Poland or the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps, Gibbon thought, if `Abd al-Rahman had won, “the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.” For him, the fate of Christian Europe hung in the balance. After a week of battle, he wrote, “the Orientals were oppressed by the strength and stature of the Germans, who, with stout hearts and iron hands, asserted the civil and religious freedom of their posterity.”[4]

At the time, though, it would have seemed very strange to see Charles Martel’s victory as a triumph of religious freedom. The small but influential Jewish community in Iberia had been tolerated in Spain when their Visigothic overlords were still Arian heretics ruling Catholic and Jewish subjects; but Jews began to be persecuted in 589, when the Visigoths converted to Catholicism. For the Jews, then, the Moslem conquest, bringing rulers who largely practiced toleration of Jews—as well as Christians and Zoroastrians—in the large areas of the world now under their control, was not unwelcome. And during the first period of Moslem domination, Christians, too, discovered that they would have religious freedom, so long as they (like the Jews) did not seek to convert Moslems or criticize Islam. The contrast with the kingdom of the Franks, and, by the ninth century with the Frankish empire, could hardly have been more striking. The obsession of Catholic rulers with religious orthodoxy was one of the things that made the Dark Ages—as Petrarch was to dub the period from the fifth to the tenth centuries—so dark. 

The Great Cordoba Mosque is the most evident material embodiment of the civilization of the Arabs in Spain, but their intellectual achievements were even more astonishing. Starting in the time of `Abd al-Rahman the first, the Umayyad’s sought to compete with their Abbasid rivals in Baghdad for cultural bravura. Over the next few centuries, Cordoba alone acquired hundreds of mosques, thousands of palaces, scores of libraries. By the tenth century, those libraries had hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, while the largest libraries of Christian Europe could boast collections of only a few hundred.[5] The university of Cordoba predated Bologna, now called “the first European university,” by more than a century. And al-Andalus was a world of cities, not, like Europe, a world of country estates and small towns. By the end of the millennium, Cordoba’s population was ninety thousand, more than three times the size of any town in the territory once occupied by Charlemagne. In those cities, Jews, Christians and Moslems, Arabs, Berbers, Visigoths, Slavs and countless others created the kind of cultural goulash—a spicy mixture of a variety of distinct components—that generates a genuine cosmopolitanism. There were no recognized rabbis or Moslem scholars at the court of Charlemagne; in the cities of al-Andalus there were bishops and synagogues. Racemondo, Catholic bishop of Elvira, was Cordoba’s ambassador to Constantine VII in Constantinople and Otto I in Aachen. Hasdai ibn Shaprut, leader of Cordoba’s Jewish community in the middle of the tenth century, was not only a great medical scholar, he was the chairman of the Caliph’s medical council; and when the Emperor Constantine sent the Caliph a copy of the Discorides’ De Materia Medica, he took up ibn Shaprut’s suggestion to send for a Greek monk to help translate it into Arabic. The knowledge they acquired made Cordoba one of the great centers of medical knowledge of Europe. By the time of `Abd al-Rahman’s successor and namesake, `Abd al-Rahman III, in the tenth century, the emir of al-Andalus had the confidence to declare himself Caliph, successor or representative of the Prophet and, implicitly, leader of the Moslem World. Had the three religions not worked together, borrowing from the pagan traditions of Greece and Rome, what we call the West would have been utterly different. In an age where some claim a struggle between the heirs of Christendom and of the Caliphate is the defining conflict, it is good to be reminded of this long ago history of fruitful cohabitation.

This quick sketch of the history of relations among Europeans, Arabs and North Africans at the turn of the first millennium of the Common Era is a reminder of the messy interconnections between Islam and what we now call the West. One could explore, as well, the equally fascinating interweaving of European, North African and Middle Eastern histories that occurred as the imperial dreams of France and Britain met the fading power of the Ottoman Empire in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In each case, what we see is not the opposition of two distinct homogeneous civilizations, but conflicts within as well as between societies whose religious and intellectual lives had much in common; in part because of the interactions I have been sketching, which began a millennium earlier. I want now to turn to an attempt to explain why we so easily misunderstand this long history of sharing as well as conflict as the story of two great and utterly separate entities—the West and Islam—with distinct and irreconcilable essences. And to do that, I must sketch the story of how we came to think of modern Europeans and Americans as the real heirs to the classical civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean. 

The academic curriculum of the nineteenth century traced civilization to roots in ancient Greece, following a history of progress from the excellent beginnings mapped out by the heirs of Homer. The culture of the West is a sort of golden nugget, dug from the earth of Hellas. Perhaps it traveled with Alexander. So it went to Egypt—the library at Alexandria was once its home. And the Macedonian emperor may have left some gold dust in Central Asia. You can see that in the sculpture of Gandhara. But the treasure was taken finally in triumph to Rome. There, of course, as everywhere on its travels it was embellished: for example, in the second century BCE by Terence, the greatest of the Roman comic dramatists, who was born in Carthage (now Tunis); and—at the turn of the fifth century CE, as the empire became Christian—by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, born at Tagaste (now Souk Ahras in Algeria). In St. Augustine’s lifetime, the Visigoth’s took Rome; not long after he died, the Vandal’s captured Hippo.


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