Here I go again. People will say: you don’t really support Muslim reformers like Manji and Reza Aslan. If you did, you wouldn’t criticize their work. But in fact, I am all for anyone who will confront and combat the causes of Islamic terrorism. All I want them to do is tell the whole truth. Is that too much to ask?
From Manji’s “This Land Is Whose Land?” in the LA Times, with thanks to Looney Tunes:
Today, countries such as France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are scrambling to catch up with the changes wrought by migrants. Particularly Muslim migrants from North Africa and Turkey. As they flood in seeking jobs and education, the old social contract — our home is your home as long as you consider it your home too — looks downright naive.
“They want to immigrate,” say non-Muslims about the newcomers, “but they don’t want to integrate.”
In other words, too many Muslim immigrants insist on having their own language, their own family law, their own schools, their own neighborhoods — and their own ways of dealing with those who defy Islam.
Non-Muslim Europeans wonder: When filmmaker Theo van Gogh can be killed in the streets of Amsterdam, targeted because he criticized Islam, and when a Muslim woman who has abandoned her arranged marriage can be shot dead by her brothers in Berlin, what’s next? And who’s next?
If they don’t wish to be among us, goes the common complaint, why come here at all?
To which the immigrants respond: We want to integrate, but not assimilate. And the way to integrate is to secure jobs, pay our taxes, finance unemployment insurance, hospital beds, pensions — all the things you Europeans desperately need because of your own low birthrates, aging populations and expectation of material comforts. In short, our contract with you is to keep the welfare state intact without losing our sense of self. If you recognized all that we can contribute, then we wouldn’t need to express rage at a society that demonizes us. Now give us work instead of flak.
But here the incoherence starts to set in. “Now give us work instead of flak” sounds particularly grating to the ear after the van Gogh murder.
With identities threatened on both sides, the most frantic voices have gained traction. Some politicians in the Netherlands want a moratorium on immigration, proclaiming their country “full up.” It’s a small piece of land (unlike California), so I can see why so many Dutch feel saturated and frustrated by people who put the fear of God into their otherwise happily humanist souls.
Meanwhile, Muslim leaders cry racism and plead to journalists like me, “Do you see why we feel driven into the arms of fundamentalists?”…
On this score, both the United States and Western Europe can take pointers from the old Islamic empire. Between the 8th and 14th centuries, Muslim civilization led the world in innovation precisely because it let all manner of outsiders in — despite the threats they posed to order. The result? Several hundred years of creativity in agriculture, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, commerce, math, even fashion. It’s when the empire became insular to “protect” itself that the motivation to remain robust, and the talent to do so, disappeared.
In a certain sense, this is true. We hear a great deal about Islamic literature — or at least a lot about the Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) and The Thousand and One Nights. There is also the Persian poet Abu Nuwas (762-814), who had heterodox views of homosexuality; Al-Mutanabbi (915-965), whose surname means “one who pretends to be a prophet”; the heterodox Turkish Sufi Nesimi (d. 1417); the Persian epic poet Hakim Abu al-Qasim Mansur Firdowsi (935-1020), who set the history of Persia to verse. For his sources he made use of Christian and Zoroastrian chronicles which are long since lost; and many others. Many of these men were open Islamic heretics; few seem to have taken inspiration from Islam itself, with the possible exception of Farud ud-Din Attar’s twelfth century allegory The Conference of the Birds. They left behind many great works, but many if not most of these are notable not for their Islamic character but for their lack of it. To credit them to the inspirational power of Islam would be tantamount to crediting the Soviet system for the works of Mandelstam, Sakharov, or even Solzhenitsyn.
Likewise, it is undeniable that there was a great cultural and scientific flowering in the Islamic world in the Middle Ages, but there is no indication that any of this flowering actually came as a result of Islam itself. In fact, there is considerable evidence that it did not in fact come from Islam, but from the non-Muslims who served their Muslim masters in various capacities. The architectural design of mosques, for example, long a source of pride among Muslims, was copied from the shape and structure of Byzantine churches. (And of course, the principles that keep domes and arches up in the air were discovered over a thousand years before the advent of Islam.) The seventh-century Dome of the Rock, considered today to have been first great mosque, was not only copied from Byzantine models, but was built by Byzantine craftsmen. Islamic architectural innovations, interestingly enough, arose from military necessity: the historian of Islamic art and architecture Oleg Grabar explains that “Whatever its social or personal function, there hardly exists a major monument of Islamic architecture that does not reflect power in some fashion….Ostentation is rarely absent from architecture and ostentation is almost always an expression of power…. For instance, in 11th- century Cairo or 14th-century Granada the gates were built with an unusual number of different techniques of vaulting. Squinches coexist with pendentives, barrel vaults with cross vaults, simple semicircular arches with pointed or horseshoe arches….It is possible that certain innovations in Islamic vaulting techniques, especially the elaboration of squinches and cross vaults, were the direct result of the importance of military architecture, for which strength and the prevention of fires, so common in wooden roofs and ceilings, were major objectives.”
The astrolabe was developed, if not perfected, long before Muhammad was born. Avicenna (980-1037), Averroes (1128-1198), and the other Muslim philosophers built on the work of the pagan Greek Aristotle. And Aristotle’s work was preserved from the ravages of the Dark Ages not first by Muslims, but by Christians such as the fifth-century priest Probus of Antioch, who introduced Aristotle to the Arabic-speaking world. The Christian Huneyn ibn-Ishaq (809-873) translated many works by Aristotle, Galen, Plato and Hippocrates into Syriac, from which they were translated into Arabic by his son. The Jacobite Christian Yahya ibn ‘Adi (893-974) also translated works of philosophy into Arabic, and wrote his own; his treatise The Reformation of Morals has occasionally been erroneously attributed to various of his Muslim contemporaries. His student, another Christian named Abu ‘Ali ‘Isa ibn Zur’a (943-1008), also made Arabic translations of Aristotle and other Greek writers from Syriac.
The first Arabic-language medical treatise was written by a Christian priest and translated into Arabic by a Jewish doctor in 683. The first hospital, another source of pride among Muslims and often a prominent feature of Islamic accomplishment lists, was founded in Baghdad during the Abbasid caliphate by a Nestorian Christian. A pioneering medical school was founded at Gundeshapur in Persia — by Assyrian Christians. The world’s first university may not have been the Muslims’ Al-Azhar in Cairo, as is often claimed, but the Assyrian School of Nisibis.
There is no shame in any of this. No culture exists in a vacuum. Every culture builds on the achievements of other cultures, and borrows from those with which it is in contact. And Manji does indeed note that “Muslim civilization led the world in innovation precisely because it let all manner of outsiders in.” She makes no mention, however, of the fact that all these Christians and Jews who contributed to the flowering of Islamic society were not equals in that society, but lived in oppression as dhimmis. As such, Islamic civilization is no model for modern-day California or anywhere else.