What Can the Islamic Golden Age Teach Us about Migration and Diversity?

SONY DSCOver the epoch of recorded history, a number of periods have been labeled as “golden ages”, a label that identifies them as the best of their kind. The term “golden age” implies in some sense a period of growth and progress within a society. Scholars generally date the “Islamic Golden Age” from 750 CE beginning with the overthrow of the Damascus based Umayyad dynasty and the rise of the Abbasid caliphate.[i] The end is often seen as 1258 CE when the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan conquered and sacked Baghdad, the Abbasid capital. During this period, knowledge of and advances in math, science, arts and culture flourished throughout the vast Abbasid Empire and in the Umayyad shadow caliphate in Andalusia – in modern day Spain.

Why did this “golden age” occur when and where it did? The answer to this question lies in a combination of factors that came together in a particular time and place. The term Islamic Golden Age is misleading in that it implies that there was something inherent in the religion of Islam that resulted in this specific period of growth and progress. In reality, this growth and progress had more to do with other societal factors that came together in a vast empire ruled by Sunni Muslim Caliphs.  A critical impetus was the rise to power of a series of forward looking, progressive caliphs, beginning with Harun al-Rashid in 786 CE, who invested heavily in research and scholarship, created enormous libraries containing works of scholarship from around the world and filled Baghdad with the world’s greatest intellects. At that time the military was strong and the empire was secure.  Therefore, rather than spending more money on defense, the caliphs were able to devote more resources to scholarship and research. Another factor was the vast size of the empire, which stretched from Persia in the east, through the Middle East, and into North Africa. This vast empire contributed to economic prosperity which provided resources to the caliph. This empire also broke down tribal and national barriers, resulting in diversity of culture, philosophy, religion and knowledge. The breakdown of barriers also meant that people and knowledge could flow much more seamlessly across the empire. The caliphate was open to people of all cultures and religions, particularly people who brought intellectual prowess.

Both internal and external factors also played a role in ending the Islamic Golden Age, even while the invasion of the Middle East by the Mongol armies was the defining event in the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate. As the Abbasid Empire began to get “long in the tooth,” various provinces and regions broke away, dissipating the advantages of a large contiguous land mass with no national or tribal borders, which facilitated travel and the transfer of knowledge. These breakaway entities engaged in almost continuous warfare; the resulting instability had a devastating effect on their economies. By the 12th century, Islamic orthodoxy began to negatively impact free-thinking philosophy; i.e. faith superseded reason which diminished rationalism and scientific inquiry.

In all states and empires, governments change. In a number of cases, narrow minded, conservative and intolerant leaders succeeded the more open minded progressive caliphs who had ushered in the Islamic Golden Age. These new leaders did not value the multicultural, multiracial, inter-religious environment of the caliphate and persecuted non-Muslims and intellectuals forcing them to flee. The hubris of these self-centered, corrupt new leaders led to political and financial mismanagement and resulted in accelerated decline.


Lessons for the United States


This tale of the rise and fall of a great empire offers pertinent lessons for the United States. These lessons deserve enumeration and examination if the United States is to continue to be seen as the “shining city on a hill”.

First, leadership matters. The tone and direction of a state or empire is set by the leadership. Their language, statements and actions empower and enable the best and the worst qualities and instincts of the population. The political system needs to produce the best and most qualified people to lead. If it fails to then this raises unsettling questions about the underlying political system.

Second, priorities matter. Where and how societies invest their resources indicates a lot about where their priorities lie. When societies choose to invest an inordinate amount of resources in unnecessary and prolonged wars at the expense of investments that make the lives of their citizens better, these societies are setting themselves up for decline.

Third, permitting the movement of people across borders matters. The day of large multi-cultural, multi-ethnic empires may have passed. Empires have been replaced by nation states based on a combination of ethnicity, religion, language and race. This system has resulted in the creation of national borders which impede the flow of migration. While globalization has, for the most part, facilitated the seamless movement of goods, services, knowledge and financial resources across national borders, human movement is restricted. We need a system that allows for the orderly migration of people to places where their skills and knowledge can be most productively utilized.

Bernard Lewis, the noted British-American historian of the Middle East, once wrote that “[before the rise of Islam] virtually all civilizations…were limited to one region, one culture and usually one race. The Islamic culture of the Middle East was the first that was truly international, intercultural, interracial, in a sense, even intercontinental, and its contribution—both direct and indirect—to the modern world is immense.” The enlightened leadership of the Islamic Golden Age – with its openness to diversity, migration and scholarship – brought unparalleled achievements. The challenge for the United States is to learn from the strengths of this enormous empire and avoid the pitfalls that led to its downfall. America was built on the principles of an enlightened set of ideas. Once we lose sight of these principles, we become just another large country with a big military.

Common sense on immigration

Recently an international conference was held in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the subjects of immigration and migration. (For a discussion of this conference, click here) The booming economies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) require a large number of immigrant workers in order to sustain their rapidly growing construction, tourism and service sectors. Although it is not completely clear to me that there isn’t a bit of an economic bubble here (How many $7mm houses and 180 story office buildings can the world sustain?), government planners expect that the pace of growth will continue for the foreseeable future. In Dubai alone, immigrants outnumber natives by 3 to 1. These countries have made a decision that they do not want to become multicultural, multiethnic countries and, therefore, all of these immigrant workers are temporary workers. They have no path to citizenship. A number of NGO’s and international groups have been critical of the GCC countries for the treatment of the immigrant population and for the conditions under which they live. Because many of the GCC countries are tourism dependent and, therefore, very sensitive to their image, when the sending countries who supply most of the workers requested an opportunity to discuss the problems the GCC countries readily agreed. Most of the sending countries are South Asian countries such as the Philippines and India. They are concerned that the labor migration be a win, win, and win for the sending countries, in terms of repatriated funds, for the receiving countries, in terms of access to cheap labor and for the migrant workers themselves, in terms of providing a better income for their families. The conference, facilitated by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and International Organization on Migration (IOM), was a very civil dialogue among the interested parties. There was little arguing or posturing. In general the parties agreed that most important factors were enforceable standards in both the sending and receiving countries and status for the migrants in order that they would have access to the enforcement agencies in the receiving countries. Of all the issues discussed, there was vast agreement that status was the most important. No status is a recipe for abuse. While talk is easy and it remains to be seen how much of what was agreed to will actually be implemented, it seems to me that the US could learn a lot from this effort at establishing a win, win and win situation. So much of what passes for debate on the immigration issue in the US quickly devolves into partisan wrangling and name calling. Not everything discussed in Abu Dhabi applies to the US as these are small countries with small dense populations and the US is a large empty country with a large multiethnic population. We certainly, however, could learn the lesson that rational dialogue among the interested parties has a greater chance of success that yelling at each other.

Border security and unintended consequences

With Congress seemingly unable to reach a compromise on how to deal with immigration reform, we are headed toward more of the same in terms of an extension of current policy. Over the past few years legislation has focused on increasing border security in the name of protecting our borders from immigrants who might perform dastardly deeds such as terrorist attacks or getting a job. This increased border security resulting from manpower, technology and walls has had an effect on cross border migration, but not all of the consequences are intended. The construction of walls in urban areas like San Diego has had the effect of changing the migration routes from the urban routes where undocumented immigrants are more easily apprehended to the desert areas of Arizona and New Mexico which are harder to police and more dangerous for the immigrant to traverse. Because border crossing is now more dangerous and expensive, undocumented immigrants have chosen to stay in the U.S. rather than return to their home countries. In-migration to the U.S. has stayed relatively constant since the early nineties. What has changed is a dramatic drop in out-migration. This discrepancy has resulted in a big increase in the undocumented immigrant population. As Congress addresses this increase by such policies as forcing all 12mm undocumented immigrants to return to their home countries and preventing future immigrants from entering the country, it seems to be neglecting a number of very real considerations and responding to hysterical statements by the anti immigrant crowd. There are moral, practical and economic issues to be considered. Recent surveys show that there are 14mm people living in households headed by undocumented immigrants. Of these, 4mm are American citizens, primarily minor children who are citizens by birth right. If we deport the heads of these households, are we prepared for media pictures of crying children and parents as they are separated, perhaps never to be reunited? (For a real story, click here) From a practical point of view: How will we fill these jobs while they are gone? In the 21st century global economy goods, services and all of the inputs (capital, information, technology, etc.) except labor flow relatively freely across national boundaries. Does a policy of further restricting the flow of labor make sense? The US economy creates 400-500,000 more jobs each year than the native born population can fill. It seems to me that there are several possible solutions to this mismatch of demand and supply.
1. Slower growth to reduce the number of jobs created
2. Export the unfilled jobs overseas
3. Import workers to fill the job demand
Slowing the natural growth rate of the economy and making everybody poorer does not seem like a wise policy either economically or politically. A policy decision to export jobs overseas would result in the high skill and high paid jobs being done by foreigners leaving the low paid jobs for “Americans”. Indians, Chinese and Poles can do the high paid technology jobs; only “Americans” can mow my lawn. If we choose to import workers to fill the job demand the questions are: Will they be documented or undocumented? Will we know who they are and where they are? From a security point of view we would be better served if they were documented. Current proposals would allow high skilled workers to enter legally for 2 years. Isn’t there a disconnect between bringing in highly skilled workers, training them and then sending them home to do the job there. Maybe we should recognize that in a global economy migration “just is” and focus on mitigating the problems resulting from it.