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.

Israel and Palestine: Is There a Way Forward?

Originally published for American Herald Tribune

One thing I learned during my military and business careers was that the first step in solving any problem is to recognize the reality. Wishful thinking is not conducive to solving a problem and has, unfortunately, been the basis for U.S. policies related to the situation in Israel and Palestine for far too long. If any progress is to be made toward solving this intractable problem, a large dose of reality is essential.

So, what is the reality?

  1. Approximately 600,000 Israeli Jews live in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
  2. Over one million Palestinian Arabs (Muslim and Christian) live within the borders of Israel defined by the so-called “1967 borders” or “green line.”
  3. With the influx of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, immigrants with little experience with democracy, the Israeli electorate has become more right wing and this phenomenon is reflected in the Israeli government and its policies. The present Israeli government has shown little or no interest in creating a viable Palestinian state.
  4. The religious parties who believe that God gave them the land of Israel from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea are crucial to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition and thus have power beyond their small numbers.
  5. The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) is illegitimate (elections have not been held for 10 years.) and corrupt. It has no credibility with the Palestinian people. However, Israel depends on the PA to maintain security control in the West Bank.
  6. Hamas and Fatah cannot agree on a unity government and a common negotiating position.
  7. Jews and Palestinians each have a national narrative and identity and want their own state. Neither group wants to see a bi-national state as the solution.
US Middle East Policy Israel Palestine

Credit: Brian Holsclaw/ flickr

Despite the policy statements by the U.S. and its western allies calling for a two-state solution, it is evident that a so-called two-state solution is no longer a viable option and hasn’t been for almost two decades. One might be tempted, given the seemingly intractable nature of the situation, to give up and walk away from the problem. Unfortunately, this also is not a viable option. The current stalemate is a major contributing factor to the instability in the Middle East and, therefore, the U.S. has a national interest, beyond the humanitarian concerns, in a peaceful resolution. The status quo is not tenable. Many policy makers have declared the “two-state solution” to be on life support. This is true. The problem is that the patient is brain dead. We need to pull the plug, hold a funeral, go through the mourning process and get on with life. So what does that look like?

Several years ago, when I attended a conference in Jerusalem that included Israelis, Palestinians, as well as internationals, one Israeli panelist commented, “The trouble with you Americans is that you think that every problem has a solution.” If thinking that “every problem has a solution” is a crime, then I plead guilty. The attitude that we are capable of solving our problems is one of the things that makes America great. Despite the obstacles, we can help solve this problem as well. Recognizing that the “two-state solution” is no longer possible, a number of thoughtful analysts on both sides have proposed creative ways to address the issues. Examples are here and here. While I agree with the position that we cannot want a solution more than the parties themselves, we can take steps to make a just and peaceful solution more likely.

By unconditionally funding and supporting both sides of the conflict, the U.S. facilitates risky and unhelpful behavior. Making financial and political support conditional would go a long way toward forcing the parties to face reality and take positive steps toward a solution. Given the political realities in the U.S., making aid to Israel conditional is probably impossible, however, withdrawing aid to the Palestinian Authority would have much the same effect. The PA would collapse and all responsibility for governance and security on the West Bank would fall to the Israeli government, with significant financial consequences. In the short run, an increase in violence is likely, but maybe that’s what it will take to focus everybody’s mind on finding a solution. The alternative is a continuation of violence and death for both Israelis and Palestinians.

What Next After Paris?

While the outrage at the inhumanity of these attacks is certainly understandable, rage is not a strategy.

Syrian refugees strike in front of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 3 September 2015 (credit: Mstyslav Chernov)

Syrian refugees strike in front of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 3 September 2015 (credit: Mstyslav Chernov)

In the days since the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, Egypt and Beirut, politicians and pundits have filled the media with angry statements and threats. French President Hollande responded to the attacks by declaring war on ISIS and stepping up aerial bombing of ISIS sites. U.S. presidential candidates proposed banning Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. and deporting those who are here, closing mosques, forcing Muslims to carry ID cards, deporting Muslims, expanding the already intrusive surveillance system and invading Syria.

While the outrage at the inhumanity of these attacks is certainly understandable, rage is not a strategy.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. let anger dictate the response. The subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were not only costly disasters, but did not solve the problem of radical Sunni Muslim jihadist threats to security. If we are to learn the lessons of history, now might be a good time to ask and answer some important questions:

  1. Who were the perpetrators of the attacks? While the investigation is in its early stages, the information that we have now indicates that one, maybe two, were Syrian immigrants who entered the EU through Greece, posing as refugees. The rest of the attackers were French nationals living in France or Belgium. Some were of Algerian extraction. Based on the sophistication of the attacks and the social media claims by ISIS, it is likely that they were inspired by and given technical and financial assistance by ISIS.
  2. Why did they do it? While I don’t pretend to have an inside track into the minds of ISIS leaders, it is possible to draw some conclusions from recent events in the Middle East. From its founding as a separate entity from al-Qaeda, ISIS has focused on conquering and holding territory rather than using high profile attacks to draw western forces into the region where they could be defeated. Over the last year, the Obama administration’s strategy of harassing ISIS from the air and relying on local and regional forces to do the heavy lifting on the ground has made progress. The aerial attacks combined with the efforts of Iraqi and Syrian forces augmented by Iran’s Quds force and Hezbollah have managed to stem the advance of ISIS. The entry of Russia with its singular focus on keeping the Syrian government in place and its ability to better coordinate with Iran, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Hezbollah has been a game changer. ISIS has been pushed out of some areas and increasing numbers of fighters are fleeing. These attacks in Paris, Egypt and Beirut are a sign of weakness and not strength.
  3. What did they intend to accomplish? Terrorism is designed to terrorize and to lead to bad decisions on the part of the targets.
  4. What is the best way to respond? Europe’s problem is not in Syria – it is in Europe. Europe has to deal with its large, alienated, marginalized and ghettoized Muslim population that is ripe for radicalization. This is a long-term, complicated problem. Unfortunately, political leaders of democracies don’t do “long term” and “complicated” well. For the U.S., the current strategy seems to be working. Obama needs to stay the course while increasing cooperation with Iran and Russia and working on a political settlement for the Syrian Civil War. Whatever the faults of the U.S. immigration system, the U.S. does a much better job of integrating immigrants into the fabric of society than does Europe. Following the advice of those advocating for a radical response would create our own marginalized, angry, Muslim population ripe for radicalization and would be a mistake.

As one former ISIS official told al-Monitor, a Middle East news website, “If you really want to finish IS, you need to address people’s concerns, let the sheikhs talk to youths and stop making big mistakes.”

Netanyahu Wins Big; What Did He Lose?

While I was in Israel in 2008, shortly after Barack Obama’s election victory, the mood in the Middle East was euphoric. Headlines in the Arab media proclaimed “Abu Hussein wins” and “A Dream Come True.” The expectations on the street that U.S. policies would change were unrealistically high.

As attention turned to the upcoming Israeli elections in March 2009, there was hope that Israelis also would elect a more moderate government and that the peace process would be revived. An Israeli friend of mine, known for his rather different political views, told me that his dream team was Bibi Netanyahu and Obama. “Netanyahu is so outrageous that even the Americans won’t be able to put up with him,” he said. He underestimated the tolerance of American politicians for outrageous Israeli behavior.

Netanyahu israel election obama middle east palestine democracy

Credit Wikipedia Commons

In this week’s election, Netanyahu and his Likud party have resurrected themselves from a political graveyard, in which they were predicted to trail their major opponent, the Zionist Union, by 4-5 seats, and achieved a stunning landslide victory. Expected by pollsters to get only 22 Knesset seats, Likud won 30 and positioned Netanyahu to form the new governing coalition.

While coalition building in Israel is always an adventure, with much horse trading over who gets the most coveted ministerial positions, Netanyahu should be able to pull together a coalition of right wing secular and religious parties. It has always been clear that the right would have an easier path to a governing coalition (a path that changed little in the election since Likud drew votes from other right wing parties) and that the Zionist Union platform differed more in tone than in substance. The magnitude of the Likud victory and the manner in which it was achieved, however, will have consequences for Middle East politics.

In the run up to the election, seeing Likud trailing by an ever-increasing margin, visualizing the end of his political career, Netanyahu panicked. With the help of his Republican friends in the U.S. Congress, he orchestrated his appearance in front of Congress and attempted to torpedo any nuclear deal with Iran. This move seemed to be designed to make his fraught relationship with Obama even worse. When this tactic did not seem to work, he decided to drop the fiction that he supported a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue and declare that there would be no Palestinian state if he were elected Prime Minister. This was a blatant move to draw votes from the other right wing parties. It worked. Then, in order to ensure a strong turnout, he played the race and fear cards, warning Jewish voters that the Arabs were coming to the polls “in droves.”

It worked. He won. But, what did he win?

With the “two-state solution,” long the cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy, now clearly dead, how much longer will a lame duck American President put up with Netanyahu’s antics? At some point Obama will reach the level of frustration that Bill Clinton reached when he famously said to his staff, “Remind me, who is the [expletive] superpower here?”

The European countries, already fed up with the lack of serious progress on the Palestinian issue, have yet another reason to distance themselves from Israel. The tendency in Europe to migrate from anti-Israelism to anti-Semitism will likely intensify.

At home, the electioneering race-baiting will undoubtedly increase the alienation of Israel’s Arab citizens who are now explicitly seen as the enemy. Palestinian Authority President Abbas, having staked his political future on a diplomatic solution, will be weakened even further. Israel’s Arab neighbors, having long promoted the “Arab Peace Proposal” as the path to a “two-state solution,” have had this option taken off of the table. Thus, meeting of the Arab League on March 28 will present some difficult choices.

In the name of political expediency, Bibi Netanyahu seems to have painted Israel into a corner, a place that will be difficult to leave. As Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf wrote yesterday, “For years we have been hearing that Israel will either end the occupation or cease to be a democracy. Could it be that the Jewish public [in Israel] has made its choice?”

The Ukraine Crisis: What We Can Learn from Syria

As the Obama administration debates whether or not to arm the Ukrainian government military forces, the President’s opponents, neo-conservatives, and liberal interventionists alike, have framed the conflict as a weak, indecisive American President versus a neo-Hitler, megalomaniac Russian President. The yearlong Ukraine crisis is now reaching a tipping point, tilting between a domestic insurgency, which has some hope of being resolved through negotiations, and a full-fledged civil war, which is likely to last years, if not decades.

Time is running out for the players to make some intelligent decisions. At this critical stage, perhaps, the four yearlong Syrian conflicts can offer some instructive lessons as to how to move forward.

In 2011, the Syrian conflict began as did the Ukrainian crisis in 2014: with a series of mostly non-violent demonstrations by citizens protesting against government policies and actions. The Syrian demonstrations were met with violent government crackdowns, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators and, gradually, the non-violent protesters began to defend themselves with arms, and the demonstrations morphed into an armed rebellion.

The U.S. and its Western allies quickly responded by calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, stating “Assad must go” and making this an a priori condition for negotiations that effectively torpedoed the negotiations. Iran, needing to maintain Lebanese Hezbollah as a deterrent force against Israel, and needing Assad’s government as a conduit for arms and funds to Hezbollah, began to intervene on behalf of the Assad regime. In response Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey began financial and arms support for the rebels. Rather than engaging with all of the external players to bring pressure for a negotiated compromise, the U.S., seeing an opportunity to weaken Iran and Hezbollah, began support for the rebels.

Kobani, SyriaOnce external players began to intervene to prop up the weaker side, it became difficult to end the civil wars. No one was thinking about the suffering of ordinary Syrians.

As a result of the choices made early on, the conflict has escalated into a civil war with many internal and external actors. With it, the war brought over two hundred thousand deaths, massive destruction of infrastructure, economic collapse, millions of refugees, and untold human suffering.

If, in 2011, internal and external decision makers had had a crystal ball and could have seen Syria in 2015, it is likely that they would have made different choices. As former Middle East correspondent Charles Glass presciently wrote in a 2013 Guardian article, The last thing Syrians need is more arms going to either side, “This month marks the second anniversary of Syria’s civil war. If the politicians of east and west go on as they are, it will not be the last.”

This month, as the Ukrainian conflict has escalated despite efforts to forge a cease-fire, eight former senior U.S. officials released a report calling on the U.S. to provide military assistance to the Ukrainian government forces. In interviews since the report’s release, the authors have framed the conflict as “good versus evil” and have variously claimed that the goals of the escalation are to maintain U.S. and NATO credibility, to create enough Russian casualties that Russia will back down (ignoring the fact that the escalation will create Ukrainian military and civilian casualties), to create a (bloody) stalemate, and to encourage the overthrow of the Russian government.

Since, to this point, Russian responses to events in Ukraine have been largely defensive, Russia will likely respond by increasing military support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine. Russia, seeing the status of Ukraine as a vital national interest, is unlikely to change its policies regardless of U.S., NATO, and E.U. financial and military pressure. The E.U. countries, particularly Germany and France, seem reluctant to participate in the spiraling conflict.

As this article goes to press, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are in Moscow consulting about a diplomatic solution. To paraphrase Charles Glass, “This month marks the eighteenth-month anniversary of the Ukraine conflict. If the politicians of east and west go on as they are, it will not be the last.”