Sunday, 22 June 2014

The "Islamic" Inquisition

In Muslim history, the period from the seventh century up until the thirteenth century is generally regarded as Islam's golden age - an age of learning when scholars recovered and translated the knowledge of ancient civilizations, such as Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome.  Had it not been for the work of various scholars during the height of Islamic civilization, the knowledge of ancient philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, would have been lost to the dustbin of history.  Islam's golden age was also a period of great advances in technology, astronomy, medicine and other sciences.  The economy and international trade in the Muslim world flourished.  In fact, some of the most basic foundations of early capitalism were built during Islam's golden age.  And although my knowledge of the history of Islamic civilization is limited, I do know enough to safely say that without the knowledge acquired and re-acquired during Islam's golden age, modern Western civilization as we know it today would not even exist.  Moreover, at about the same time that Islam's golden age occurred, Europe was in a period of violent upheaval and economic stagnation.  But after the thirteenth century the tide began to turn, finally culminating in the fall of Granada, Islam's last kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula, in 1492 at the hands of Spain's Christian monarchs, thus ending the so-called "Reconquista".  From this point onward, Muslim civilization began a sharp decline.  Territory that was once part of vast Muslim empires slowly became European vassals or colonies.  By the beginning of the 20th century, nearly the entire Muslim world was under the control of European powers.  Perhaps, however, the tide is beginning to turn again.

Islam Emerges From Its Dark Age Just as the Europeans Did From Theirs - By Going Back Before Going Forward

By the mid-20th century, after centuries of colonization at the hands of the Europeans, most of the Muslim world regained its independence, though they became divided into many different states with borders largely drawn up by their former colonial masters.  After they regained their independence, the Muslims undertook certain actions that very much resemble the actions taken by the Europeans after the Reconquista.  Upon driving the Muslims from the Iberian peninsula, the newly-liberated European Christians began and orgy of persecution and slaughter.  They brutally massacred, deported or forcibly converted the peninsula's non-Christian inhabitants as part of their attempt to "cleanse" Iberia and the rest of Europe of foreign influence.  And so began the heydays of what became known as the Spanish Inquisition - a period of persecution for all things and people deemed by the powerful Roman Catholic church to be non-Christian.

Similarly, once the Muslim states threw off the shackles of their colonial masters, a widespread persecution of non-Muslim peoples began, culminating in a mass exodus of Christians and Jews from much of the Muslim world.  What were, for example, large Jewish communities in places like Iraq, Yemen and Morocco are all but gone.  At the same time, long-established Christian communities, some dating back to the earliest period of Christianity, have largely vanished from the Muslim world.  Many of the aforementioned non-Muslim populations fled in the face of a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement, which as we should all know is still growing by leaps and bounds and continuing to scare or force both non-Muslims and more enlightened Muslims into exile.

There is also a persecution of modern ideas in the Muslim world, just as there was when Christian Europe was beginning to emerge from its dark age.  Whereas the world of Islam once embraced modern science and education, it is now a world in which people are killed for distributing polio vaccinations and in which girls can be killed for simply going to school and trying to get an education.  In essence, what used to be Europe's Spanish Inquisition is now the Muslim world's "Islamic" Inquisition.  I use quotations with the word Islamic because any enlightened person who knows anything about Islamic history or thought knows that what is happening in today's Muslim world is the exact opposite of what Islamic is, or at least what it used to be.

Sparks of Enlightenment

Now for the good news.  If we assume that Islam is going through the same process that Christian Europe did after emerging from its dark age, we can also conclude that the Muslim world will at some point become a more enlightened place, just as Europe eventually did.  In fact, even during the dark times of the Spanish Inquisition, there were individuals that were courageous enough to raise their heads and challenge the fanatical, conservative  religious establishment.  We know, for example, that Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sailed to the so-called New World in the same year that Muslim Granada fell to the Spaniards and the Spanish Inquisition was still in its infancy, so that he could prove that the world was round.  Columbus' discovery would of course be followed by the work of scholars like Copernicus and Galileo, who also lived during the time when new perspectives on anything were considered heresy and punishable by death.

And just as a handful of enlightened individuals arose during the Spanish Inquisition, so to have some enlightened Muslims emerged to challenge the rigidity of today's "Islamic" Inquisition - people like two of my fellow Canadians, Irshad Manji and Tarek Fatah, who have openly challenged their fellow Muslims (including each other) to re-examine and re-evaluate the way Islam is interpreted and practiced.  They, like the scholars who lived in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, have also faced threats to their lives, but they have continued their work nonetheless.  And if history is any indicator, they will be vindicated just as those who challenged the Spanish Inquisition were.

Sparks of enlightenment during Islam's current inquisition can also be found in the form of whole countries.  History tells us that when the Spanish Inquisition was not even a century old, folks in some countries decided to go against the rigid Catholic doctrine that ruled over western Europe.  One of those countries was England, whose leaders decided to break with the Catholic church in the early 16th century.  For this, England was hated throughout much of Catholic Europe.  In fact, England's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was a pivotal moment in European history as the Armada was in part an attempt to crush England's new faith and bring it back into the rigid fold of Catholicism.  A Spanish victory in 1588 would have certainly meant the slaughter of England's reform-minded leaders and perhaps even an end to the growing Reformation that was sweeping parts of Europe at the time.

Fast forward to today's "Islamic" Inquisition and you'll find one country that, like England, is also a beacon of enlightenment in a region of ignorance and intolerance.  I am referring here to Israel.  Although not a Muslim country, Israel does lie in the heart of the Muslim world and is the only democratic country therein.  As we all know, Israel is hated throughout the Muslim world, but contrary popular opinion, this hatred does not stem from the displacement of the Palestinian Arabs.  The issue of Palestinian self-determination is actually just an excuse used by people throughout the Muslim world, particularly in the Arab states, to justify their hatred.  In fact, the treatment of the Palestinians by fellow Muslims is often worse than the treatment they receive from Israel.  The real reason is for Muslims' hatred of Israel is a general hatred of non-Muslims.  So the fact that a non-Muslim state exists in the heart of the Muslim world is an abomination to Muslims who see the geographical area that encompasses the Muslim world as their exclusive domain.  Israel's victories over the forces that have tried to destroy it on several occasions are not unlike the England's victory in 1588 over forces seeking to vanquish its Reformist regime because they saw all of Europe as the exclusive domain of their rigid and intolerant Catholicism.

There are also other countries in the Muslim world where progress towards modernity is being made, though this progress has mostly taken the form of economic growth in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.  Some social and political liberalization has also taken place in states such as these, but not to the extent that economic liberalization has.  Up until recently, Turkey was the textbook example of what a modern, Muslim state should look like.  After World War I, a new, secular republic of Turkey, founded by Kemal Attaturk, was born - a country where religion and state were completely separated and where the Turks sought to do away with all the vestiges of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, even changing the script of the Turkish language from Arabic to Latin.  In recent years, Turkey has stepped back from Attaturk's modernist vision and Islamist doctrine has made a comeback with the support of a regime whose origins lie in the Islamic fundamentalist movement.  That being said, it is very common for a country or even a whole civilization to move backwards before it moves forwards.

In fact, moving backwards and then forwards is exactly what Western civilization did when it emerged from the dark age, and is just what Islamic civilization is doing now.  The West took several steps big steps backwards with the Spanish Inquisition and the persecution of modernity that it entailed, but slowly and surely began to move forward again until eventually reaching the point at which it became the world's dominant civilization.  In the same respect, the Muslim world is taking very big steps backwards with it's own "Islamic Inquisition", where modern ideas are quashed and rigid religious doctrine reigns supreme.  But even now, as I have said, some Muslim individuals and countries are making great strides towards modernity.  It will take time, perhaps a long time, but the Muslim world can, once again, take its place amongst the more enlightened regions of the Earth.                

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