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.

Questions Raised by Charlie Hebdo Attacks

Charlie_Hebdo_2006-02-08_gendarmes_mobiles_dsc07407The attacks in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical news publication, and on a kosher grocery store have dominated the news wires over the past week. Pundits and newscasters of all stripes have weighed in on the causes, meaning and implications of the events. While these attacks were relatively small in scale as terrorist events go, they have received wall-to-wall coverage in the media. The media is especially engaged because the events occurred in Europe and not in Africa, where Boko-Haram massacred over 100 people. The events also raised issues of press freedom, a cause near and dear to members of the media. But, on the whole, the coverage has raised more questions than it has answered. These questions need to be considered as they have short and long-term policy implications.

  1. Is Islam responsible? If the question is phrased this way, the answer is no. Those who perpetrated the crime are responsible. Just as 2.1 billion Christians cannot be held responsible for the massacre of 77 people by Anders Breivik in Norway and 14 million Jews around the world are not responsible for the deaths of 2,000 Palestinians in the Gaza War, 1.8 billion Muslims are not responsible for the actions of a few fanatics. Did some aspects of Islam contribute to the events? Probably. The radical, intolerant, Wahhabi brand of Islam promoted and financed around the world by Saudi Arabia can be appealing to young, unemployed, disaffected men. The concept of the “Umma,” the community of Muslims, leads to a feeling that an attack on one group of Muslims is an attack on all and requires a response.
  2. Are there limits on “free speech”? These attacks have been portrayed as attacks on free speech. However, whether by legal strictures, culture or self-imposed limits, every country imposes restrictions on free speech. In Europe many countries, such as Romania, Spain, France, Sweden and Austria, have laws against “anti-Semitic activity.” Jyllands-Posten, the Danish publisher of the Mohammed cartoons, refused to publish anti-Christian cartoons on the grounds that “readers will not enjoy the drawings” and “they will provoke an outcry.” Charlie Hebdo fired a long-time cartoon contributor for refusing to apologize for comments deemed anti-Semitic. In my view Charlie Hebdo has gradually crossed the line from satire to racism and Islamaphobia. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
  3. Why now? Why here? The U.S. and its Western allies have been at war with Muslim/Arab countries for over 50 years. This long-term war has resulted in many deaths from “collateral damage” (i.e. innocent people die because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time). Everyone killed has brothers, husbands, wives, and friends who are very angry and some are motivated to pursue revenge. As the war against al-Qaeda and ISIS has escalated, so too have the deaths. While Britain, Germany, the U.S. and others are at risk from returning jihadist and home grown terrorists, France is in a unique position. Of the 8 million Muslims in France, the vast majority are of Algerian descent. These people and their families, alienated and regarding themselves as second class citizens, have lived through a piece a French history that most Frenchmen and many Algerians would prefer to forget. The bloody 1954-62 Algerian war of independence, which resulted in the deaths of perhaps 1.5 million Algerian Muslims and many hundreds of thousands of French men and women, remains an open sore for many. It doesn’t take much to reopen these wounds.
  4. Will world leaders come together to deal with the issues? The January 7-8 attacks traumatized the French people and in response they organized a rally in support of free speech and for solidarity. Unfortunately world leaders saw an opportunity for political theater. Leaders from countries not ranked among the top of Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom rankings, Russia (148), Palestine (138), Ukraine (127) and Israel (98), showed up. Israel takes the prize for political grandstanding by sending three top candidates for Prime Minister in the upcoming March elections. Prime Minister Netanyahu elbowed his way into the front row in order to be in all the photos. With the event over, they all will return home to business as usual. President Obama was probably wise to skip it.
  5. How will the leaders react? With no end in sight to the ongoing wars in the Middle East, the threat of asymmetric response by the enemies appears likely to grow. The U.S., having adopted the Israeli model of mass surveillance, racial and ethnic profiling, enhanced interrogation, torture and detention without trial, already has a strong anti-terror program in place. From statements by European political leaders (British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “There should be no means of communication which we cannot read”), Europe, which had been unwilling to allocate the resources and give up privacy, will probably follow suit.
  6. Can a liberal democracy that values individual rights, freedom and privacy survive in an atmosphere of perpetual war? I don’t know the answer to this question. Does anyone?

The Dog That Didn’t Bark: Middle East Reaction to the Torture Report


Photo Credit: www.thefederalist.com

The release by the U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee of the Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program – the “Torture Report” – has created a media fire-storm in the United States. Even before the report was released, opposition to the publication of the information contained in the report was fierce with those opposed claiming that it was a partisan witch hunt, and, given the chaos in the world today, the timing wasn’t right and would stir up violent reaction in the Arab and larger Muslim world, endangering the lives of Americans.

Since the release of the report, reaction in the U.S. has ranged from strong defense, (“While the truth is a hard pill to swallow…the American people are entitled to it” – John McCain), to balanced realistic assessments (“The National Effort at Self-Exoneration on Torture” –Paul Pillar), to intellectual evaluations (“The report is full of crap.” – Dick Cheney).

Much of the criticism of the report’s findings has centered on the conclusions that the “enhanced interrogation” (i.e. torture) yielded little information of value. The CIA has long claimed that its enhanced interrogation techniques provided useful information that saved American lives. Even before the report was released and before they knew what was in it, three former CIA Directors launched a media counter attack claiming that the interrogation program was “invaluable” in stopping terror attacks.

Even if the Director’s claims are accurate, a dubious conclusion at best given the documentation in the report, the claim that the “end justifies the means,” anything is justified if it helps achieve the government’s desired goals and outcomes, is a slippery slope that completely ignores any concept of morality and ethical decision making.

The claims of violent reaction, endangering American lives, have proved equally problematic. While the U.S. media has provided wall-to-wall news and opinion coverage, the coverage in the Middle East has been modest to nonexistent. The reaction of Arabs and Muslims in general has been a non-issue. For them, there is nothing new in this report. It is common knowledge that, in pursuit of the “war on terror,” the U.S. has indefinitely detained, tortured and murdered numerous Muslims whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Their experience with their own oppressive regimes leads them to conclude that this is what governments do to protect themselves and their interests. What’s new? The U.S. government is no different from any other regime. The biggest casualty of this report will be American “soft power.”

As I discuss in my book, Fault Lines, soft power, a concept coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye, is getting others to want what you want. According to Nye, a country’s resources of soft power are its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad) and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority). America’s soft power toolbox has been seriously depleted over the last several decades.

Although the U.S. may get some credit for owning up to its mistakes and, perhaps, taking steps to prevent such behavior from happening again, these revelations will only make it more difficult for American diplomats to influence the behavior of other countries. Already many of our allies, some complicit in these activities, are feeling pressure to distance themselves from U.S. actions and policies. Not a good sign.