Arabs and Muslims, it has been said, cling to their past. And it’s true: they do cling to “their” past, as long as that past is the past that came after the pre-Islamic past that went before, which is merely one long Jahiliyya, or Time of Ignorance. There is no real interest in that past, though one will find the Iraqi peacock-proud that “civilization started here” — but he won’t know about that “civilization.” He won’t have been part of the discovery and recovery and study of that “civilization” — Ur and Babylon and Assyria. For that was a Western thing, a thing that Western Infidels, from Henry Austen Layard to Leonard Woolley, undertook. Copts in Egypt are a very different matter, because they know, even if they do not always say aloud, that they are the true inheritors of Egypt’s civilization. They are the ones linked continuously back to Egypt’s pre-Islamic civilization, including the language that existed before the Arabs arrived and came, in fits and starts, to reduce the Coptic percentage of the population. Massed forcible conversions were not unknown, especially in certain centuries when a ruler would be particularly aggressive in “spreading” the “truth” of Islam.
Islam is, as has been written here before, “history-haunted.” It has to be. It has to be in order to make up for the obviously miserable actual state of Muslims, their civilizational disarray, their primitiveness in everything that should matter and by which civilizations are judged — and that excludes the trillions of dollars in unmerited oil revenues, and will continue to exclude them, no matter how many Western skyscrapers and companies and luxury goods and palaces at home those trillions buy.
Instead, they look back to a mythical past, of highly exaggerated glories: the wonders of Old Fustat (Cairo), the splendors of Baghdad. In this narrative, the non-Muslims who contributed so much to what there was are not recognized. It’s an “Islamic science” and “Islamic civilization” — when, in fact, if you take away many who were Christians or Jews or Zoroastrians, or if they were not, if they had converted to Islam, then they were only one or two generations removed from being Christians or Jews or Zoroastrians, the numbers of non-Muslims were still sufficient to ensure that the milieu would not be bleakly Islamic in the first few hundred years after the initial Islamic conquests.
But now, because of the behavior of the Muslims themselves, they have been emptying out their lands of non-Muslims. The Jews — who, for example, constituted a third, an important enlivening third, of the population of Baghdad in the 1920s — are all gone, driven out, or killed. The Christians hang on, here and there, but they were killed en masse in Iraq — 100,000 Assyrians massacred — after the British left in 1932, and the exodus of the past few years, in response to the Islamic terror, has led to a dimidiation of Christian numbers, with more decreases to come. In Egypt, the Copts hang on, and even exhibit, at times, the usual depressing phenomenon of islamochristian attitudes when, with Muslims in power and of course vigilantly observing, they cannot complain as they would like about their status, and they often must parrot the party-line about Israel — while they are held captive to Muslim masters in Egypt. When they attain freedom in the West, they can and are more candid, less frightened, less wary.
And of course all those Levantines — those Greeks and Italians, as well as those Armenians and Jews and other nationalities, once made Cairo and Alexandria more interesting places, where in high-ceilinged coffee rooms, with newspapers including locally-produced French and English language newspapers, one could sit and read and talk to one’s friends and play cards or possibly tric-trac. And now I find myself practically writing some Farouk-era scene — or back, back further, to the last days of Lord Cromer — for the script of some movie, to be filmed by some Egyptian director, full of nostalgia (see “The Yacoubian Building”) for those Italians, and Greeks, and Jews and Armenians, and all the others, including British subjects, who were booted out by Nasser, and all of their property seized (that had been slowly amassed over many generations).
No, Ungaretti and Cavafy were both born in Alexandria. But there won’t be any more ungarettis or cavafys coming out of Egypt. There won’t, similarly, be much coming out of Baghdad. No latter-day mutannabis from a Muslim-only land will be coming out of a culture that thinks of poetry now as merely an extension of propaganda — see Adonis on the state of “Arabic literature” (he says angrily that “there is no Arabic literature” but only propagandistic trash). Nor will they be coming out of the Maghreb, now that the French (and others — Spanish, Italians, Jews) left Algeria, and Morocco, and Tunisia. The wasteland that Islam creates is obvious to all. That is why Muslims themselves keep harking back to some earlier time, some time when things were so different, their books exaggeratedly tell them (the Self-Esteem problems of an entire civilization is a difficult task to deal with), and they were sitting on top of the world.
But one wants to say, as one looks over the past thousand years or so of Muslim history, and failure to produce — see the West, see the East (the real East) — to the Islamic world, something like:
What Have You Done For Us Lately?
And then one would like to go further, and see how many of the most advanced people who were born into Islam and live in that world, can begin to catch a hint of a glimmer of why it is that Islam itself prevents the enterprise of science. Its view is that the individual is unimportant and merely part of a collective, the Umma, or Community of Believers, a mentally submissive Believer who must be a “slave of Allah” and never dare to question the rules set down by Allah (and derived by Islamic scholars from the Qur’an, as glossed by the contents of the Sunnah). A believer must be punished for any display of free and skeptical inquiry, which prevents the enterprise of science (though not of technology, not for example of computer engineering or certain kinds of medical practice — but not scientific research, unless undertaken in the West, by someone who though nominally a Muslim, has become only a “cultural Muslim”). And art, the varieties of artistic expression that are simply haram in Islam — all sculpture, and depictions in paint, or drawings, of living creatures, and most music, so that one is left with calligraphy and architecture.
All of this, at some point, intelligent Muslims and Arabs are going to have to recognize, little by little, and some are even going to have to discuss it openly. And that will be made easier for them if we Infidels show that we are perfectly at ease in recognizing that the political, economic, social, moral, and intellectual failures of Muslim states and societies, polities and peoples, are connected to the texts, and tenets, and attitudes naturally arising from those tenets, of Islam itself.
If we show that we not only can laughingly reject the nonsense about how the “root causes” of Islamic disarray, and violence, and aggression, and failures, have something to do with us and everything to do with them, and what’s more, if we can articulate it (though never as well as the defectors from Islam are able to do, for they know where every little secret lies, and we don’t), that is the only way to bring about the kind of “change” that makes sense in the Arab and Muslim world.