Outsiders Destroyed Muslim Freedom
Alvaro Vargas Llosa, the Latin American journalist and co-author of Manual of the Perfect Latin American Idiot, is working on a book about Latin American reform in the 1990s.
San Francisco—It was outside interference that destroyed freedom in the Arab lands. First, it was the Turks. Then, after the long hiatus brought about by the Ottoman Empire, it was the European democracies carving out colonial states. A little later, when those lands, including Iraq, were given independence, it was yet again the liberal democracies—this time the United States was at the forefront—propping up certain corrupt and authoritarian factions against others. By that time, Soviet imperialism was actively engaged in the Arab world, which not only introduced communism into the equation but also provided the perfect alibi for democracies supporting what John F. Dulles once called, in the context of Latin America, "our sons of bitches". Among the many offshoots of this history of outside interference in the Arab world was, of course, an increase in Islamic fundamentalism—and the likes of Saddam were propped up as a bulwark against it.
The Judeo-Christian tradition believes that Abraham—whether he existed or not is irrelevant—was the first to say there was only one God and that God did not dictate the affairs of men, who were free. He was a shepherd from Ur, that is, ancient Iraq. A few centuries later, Moses took up the message in Egypt. Later, Jesus repeated that men are free in Palestine. That is the origin of the tradition. Even more ironic from today’s perspective is what happened next.
In the 7th century, Mohammed, a traveling salesman, preached the message of his predecessors in what is today known as Saudi Arabia, stating that men are free and that religious and political organization had corrupted the relationship between individuals and God. His word traveled across the bazaars of the East and the Middle East. Arabs from the Red Sea to the Euphrates absorbed his teachings. One century later the Muslim civilization had spread from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. The gate of the West bore the Arab name of Gibraltar!
The history Europeans and Americans are taught ignores the eight centuries of Muslim civilization before the Ottoman Empire was born. Only Europe’s Dark Ages are mentioned, as if history had stopped at the end of the Roman Empire and restarted with the birth of the nation state and the cultural Renaissance. But history did not stop. The Renaissance and the "discovery" of America are the children of the Muslim civilization.
It is actually misleading to speak of a "Muslim" or "Arab" civilization. Although both were major components, the principal characteristic of that civilization spanning across three continents was diversity—all races, cultures and faiths coexisted peacefully. A better term is "Saracen," the old one used by Europeans.
There was no central authority, therefore not really an empire. There was no politically organized religion, therefore freedom of cult. People went about their business, whether in agriculture, industry, commerce or science. Under no political mandate, farmers were constantly fertilizing and irrigating land and rotating crops. The result was an abundance of food. The towns produced everything from tempered steel and porcelain to cotton and leather goods. Entire cities thrived on commerce, from the Far East to Saracen Italy (the southern tip) and Saracen Spain.
Universities blossomed—no academic divisions, no curriculum, no exam, only contracts between those who knew and those who wanted to know. From Baghdad to Saracen Spain, people went to college to learn rather than to be taught. The result of academic freedom was science. The classics were taught in Arabic. The use of zero opened the way to magic in engineering, astronomy, chemistry. The Saracens discovered local anesthetics, and medical schools and hospitals proliferated. Baghdad, Damascus, Alexandria and other emblems of today’s "Arab problem" were the pinnacle of civilization.
It is from there that the modern world sprang. It is no accident that the two Western European countries most in contact with the Saracen world—Italy and Spain—were also the seat of the Renaissance, in the first case, and the major power in the "discovery" of America in the second. Italy traded with the Saracens intensely and its southern tip was under Saracen rule. No surprise, then, that capitalism surfaced in that country very early on and that the classics, reintroduced in the continent by Arabs, experienced a revival—what is known as the Renaissance. Spain was under Saracen rule for eight centuries. The material and scientific legacy of that culture allowed the Catholic monarchs, after expelling the Saracens, to expand the boundaries of the known world. Because this was an authoritarian monarchy that spoiled the legacy, Spain eventually decayed. Freedom moved elsewhere in Europe, and, finally, to the US!
Outsiders destroyed Muslim freedom. The Crusaders were the first to try it, but they did not quite succeed. Tragically, in the 15th century, the Turks took over. They were very recent converts to Islam and not really an organic part of Saracen civilization. Empire and authority replaced individual freedom for centuries. The result was disaster all the way to WWI. New outside interference then took place at the hands of the heirs of the European Crusaders—this time called "democracies." In the 1920s, Britain and France carved up that continent and created artificial colonial states that subsequently became independent monarchies, that is, corrupt dictatorships (I dare not even mention that one Winston Churchill was the British colonial secretary in charge of the mandates). The obsession with oil and other strategic considerations were more important than Arab aspirations of freedom. Putrid governments were sustained in order to facilitate Western influence—with the result that "Western" liberal values lost prestige.
It cannot be guaranteed that, left to their own devices, the Arabs would have reverted to their great Saracen tradition after centuries of Ottoman rule. What is certain is that Western European—and, later, American and Soviet—intervention made sure we would never know.
The lesson is clear—the essential factor driving the Arabs away from the value of freedom all the way to the present situation, with no Arab state being a free country, has been the outside world, not their own, inherent tradition. An awareness of this should give sobering pause to anyone sincerely inclined to think that the Americans and British will bring about the liberty they once took away.