Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What the West and Middle East Could--and Aren't--Learning from Europe's Enlightenment

By Barry Rubin

Believe it or not, the intellectual history of sixteenth-century France and Britain has a lot to teach us about our contemporary Western society and Middle East politics. At that time, France was in ferment with Catholic-Protestant wars and the conflict between the new humanist philosophers of the Enlightenment and the Scholastics, who still used Medieval approaches. In Britain, the victory of the Protestant Reformation meant the triumph of humanism and a love affair with ancient, pre-Christian Greece and Rome.

What can we learn from this time and people? Here are some ultra-relevant points:

--The extraordinary importance of free speech. Political Correctness is just another word for censorship. When Galileo said the earth went around the sun, he was forced to recant publicly because that statement offended the Catholic Church’s hierarchy.

The battle for the scientific method stressed that scientists must be able to speak freely and that debate must never be closed. Whoever is right about man-made global warming, attempts to shut people up through ridicule or what amounts to repressive measures is merely a return to Medieval methods. Arguments must be answered by better arguments, not contempt, name-calling, or threats of legal action for society to progress.

--Christians, despite persecutions at times, were more open to debate four hundred years ago than are Muslim-majority societies today. Bishop Jacques Amyot translated Plutarch into French, while pious Protestants did the same for other pre-Christian Romans and Greeks. People whose views were unquestionably highly pious studied and integrated ideas from pagans and advocated free inquiry.

Why did they not feel threatened by modernity? There were two different approaches they used to answer this question.

One was to argue that reason and science did not threaten religious belief but in fact would reinforce it. This was a strong position up through Charles Darwin’s publication of The Origin of the Species in 1859 and for many religious people continues to be their belief.

It is interesting to note that there were Islamic philosophers in earlier centuries who also held this view as they studied Classical texts. However, these people always remained few in number, had little influence, and no direct heirs in the Islamic world. It demonstrates little or nothing about Islamic thought—except its future potential--to show that these great philosophers existed for this reason or to make the common claim that Muslims preserved Classical learning since they were not affected by this factor.

A tremendous barrier is that while it was easy for Christians in the sixteenth and seventeenth century to believe that science and humanism could be reconciled with faith, it is hard to maintain this is going to happen in the twenty-first century. The erosion of religion and secularization of society is there for all to see.

Muslim intellectuals and clerics can have few or no illusions that if they embrace a Western-style world view, including equality for women and total freedom of speech, Islam is going to have far less influence on people’s lives. They can also see a whole range of changes—some Westerners like but which contemporary Muslims view as negatives; others both they and Westerners find horrifying—that they don’t want to happen. Modernization is far less attractive given these conditions.

The other position taken by religious participants in the Enlightenment was that reason and faith had their separate realms. The easiest way this can be handled by the most religious is to ignore anything that criticizes their religion, which is what generally happens in the West. If one looks at the issue of evolution, most people who describe themselves as religious take a tolerant approach, either reconciling it to their world view or ignoring it. Only a minority actively challenges it and poses an alternative view.

The “separate realm” standpoint is easier than the “nothing to fear from modernity” approach for contemporary Muslims living in Muslim majority states today, but in the public arena faith must always take primacy and reason is not allowed to challenge it overtly. In addition, Islam has a more all-encompassing scope in terms of social behavior than does Christianity.

And for a wide range of reasons, state authorities in past centuries were far more willing to confront the power of the church than are contemporary Muslim-majority countries ready to challenge openly the authority of the mosque, though they sometimes succeed in controlling many of the imams for their own purposes. Toleration, too, despite disagreement is at far lower levels in Muslim-majority countries than in the West, at least during the last three centuries of Western history and in general terms.

At least one more area is of tremendous significance in this context. The Enlightenment was based on the study of Classical, pre-Christian sources. This is what fueled a social, cultural, and scientific upheaval bringing great progress in the West. But in the Muslim world, that which came before Islam is jahliyya, the hated pre-Islamic time of paganism.

The most famous example of this problem was the book on pre-Islamic poetry which provoked a storm of protest in the 1920s when a writer dared analyze the language of the Koran as having developed out of the poetry of that era. Since the Korean is held to have been divinely dictated, this was sacrilege and the author was intimidated into silence.

Despite bloody religious conflicts in France and the repression of Catholics in Britain, there was more free speech in those two countries four hundred years ago than there is in today’s Muslim-majority world.

What is so discouraging is not just that the Muslim-majority world has still not had an intellectual Enlightenment or modernization of religion but there is no prospect for this happening on the horizon.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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