October 28, 2001
Among all the many splendours of Andalusia, the finest has to be the Alhambra in Granada. Sultan Muhammad V built the palace in 1350 when the Islamic state in Southern Spain was at its height.
The intricate carvings suggest superb craftsmanship. The gardens with their extraordinary variety of plants, added to the use of light and space in the palace itself, point to an advanced understanding of botany and architecture. In the 14th century this was the most advanced civilisation on the European continent and by far the most prominent intellectual centre of learning.
The Caliphate of Cordoba presided over the third most powerful region in the Arab world after Baghdad and Istanbul. Al-Andalus, as the Arabs called the region, boasted an amazing array of economic, technological, astrological and scientific achievements. Its cartographers devised the maps that allowed Columbus to cross the Atlantic, while its astronomers were the pioneers whose understanding of tides, winds and navigation, made possible the Portuguese discoveries of the early 15th century.
Yet by 1500, this civilisation which had flourished for six hundred years had disappeared, its intellectuals tortured on the racks of Torqumada’s inquisition and its armies pushed back to North Africa.
However, its legacy remains in our language. In mathematics, algebra comes from the Arabic al-Jahr and algorithm from al-Khawarizmi. Modern alchemy stems from the Islamic al-kimiya and alcohol from the original al-kohl.
Many astronomical terms and star names are directly derived from Arabic, while the modern concept of risk and hazard comes from the original Arabic name for dice: al-zahr. Along with many foods that were introduced to our culture by the Arabs — such as sugar, rice and coffee — many engineering terms, such as cable (from the Arabic, habl) have their origins in the great infrastructure projects undertaken by the Arabs at a time when most Europeans were still living in hovels or dank, dark castles. During the Dark Ages, Islam was Europe’s teacher.
One of the most perplexing questions in economic history is how this great civilisation allowed itself to be overtaken by Christianity to such an extent that by 1800 the Arab countries were lagging way behind their northern neighbours.
Arguably, the fact that the Ottoman Empire lasted until 1918 disguised an economic rot that had set in well before Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg.
The cataclysmic defeat in Spain had profound effects on the Islamic psyche. It signalled an Arabic withdrawal from the world. Worse still, it prompted a movement away from enlightenment. As long as the tolerant Andalusian approach to Islam was far away, its indulgences could be tolerated by the mainstream but such liberated ideas were far too much for many zealots to countenance after the defeat in Spain.
Many fundamentalists argued that the defeat itself proved the mistake of moving too far away from `true’ Islam. The zealots got the upper hand and science was denounced as heresy. While Christianity shifted away from dogma, culminating in the Reformation, the split between the religious and the secular did not occur in Islam. Theocracy became the political status model of choice in Arab countries.
History, both in Ireland and elsewhere, shows that theocracy — where the religious dominates the secular — is among the most economically regressive forms of government. Without questioning, irreverence and scepticism there can be no experiment, discovery or progress. (Incidentally, without the presence of questioning Moors, theocratic Catholic Spain went into rapid decline from 1600 onward)
Hundreds of years of theocracy have stultified Arab economies whether under empire or since independence. The inability of independence to stop the rot has compounded Islamic frustration.
This long, irrepressible economic decline occurred while the memory of the Islamic “golden age” remained in the arts, literature and architecture, aggravating the disappointment many Arabs feel today towards their own system and against the West.
Today Muslim societies are still very traditional, having changed little since the breakup of empire. Afghanistan and the Gulf States operate according to strict Islamic law while the secular Arab states such as Syria, Iraq and Egypt have been mismanaged with such delinquency that income per head is actually falling. A few weeks ago, this column referred to the desperate financial state of the Arab world — it is worth reminding ourselves of this again.
In the 1990s the Arab region grew at only half the rate of other developing countries. Its share of global trade shrank from 3 per cent in 1990 to 1 per cent in 2000.
Today, 37 per cent of all Arabs are illiterate and, despite having the world’s second fastest population growth per year (the fastest is sub-Saharan Africa), most Arab states give cash incentives and awards for women to have many children. In Saudi Arabia, women are not even allowed to drive and can only leave the country with the expressed wish of their closest male relative. Female unemployment in Saudi is running at 95 per cent.
Such economic suppression of women is an extraordinary waste of economic resources. This is having a clear negative impact on economic growth. Without growth, unemployment rises across the board and today young male unemployment is running above 30 per cent.
Not surprisingly, given the existence of enormously wealthy elites ruling millions of semi-literate, unemployed subjects, income disparities are huge. A political vacuum is emerging and fundamentalism is filling it.
These huge underlying problems confirm that Israel is the least of the Arabs’ worries. Palestine is more a matter of Arab pride than Arab progress. Arguably, it is part of Arab rhetoric, used to disguise the economic and social disasters at home.
This assertion is borne out by the fact that no Arab country has ever gone out of its way financially to support the Palestinians. And some, such as Jordan, have actually expelled Palestinian refugees.
Forcing Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians as a way of soothing Arab anger is political expediency. To say everything will be hunky dory if Jewish fundamentalists in illegal settlements are forced to return land to Palestinians is nonsense.
A Palestinian state will not bring prosperity to Syria, put food on the table in Sudan or allow women to participate in Saudi Arabia. It will not stop the population explosion in Egypt, increase innovation in Morocco or reduce arms spending in Algeria. This does not mean it is not desirable but it is hardly a panacea. Creating a Palestinian state is emotionally right in the same way as a Kurdish state is.
However, to suggest that a territorial settlement in Palestine goes to the root of the Arab world’s problems is bogus. Israeli flags over Jerusalem are a symptom of Arab failure, rather than the cause.
Those who argue that extremist Arab movements are attacking America because of its foreign policy alliance with Israel do not make any sense either. Israel did not cause close to 40 per cent of Arabs to be illiterate, condemn them to live in police states or repress their women. It is more likely that the Arab countries’ own societal failures are driving extremism in the same way as the jealous 15th century Spaniards ransacked the beautiful Caliphate of Cordoba because they could not stand such freedom and tolerance in their midst.