Too many observers look at Iraq as if it were a boxing match. Invasion-one up for the West, well at least for the United States and Britain. Sabotage an oil pipeline-one down for the West. And so it will go on. Only one thing is clear: In the cold, searching light of history, each of these incidents that absorb us will not even rank as footnotes.
Whatever one thinks of political scientist Samuel Huntington’s book “The Clash of Civilizations,” a competition of civilizations it nevertheless is and has long been. And we need to know that history, if only to absorb its greatest lesson: Military success on either side has never determined the direction of the civilization in question for more than a century or two. That is the lesson of the Crusades and it is also the lesson of the great Ottoman Empire, which started to lose intellectual momentum in the 15th century when its military reach was at its zenith.
Yet even if the Christian West is now in the ascendancy, it has never come to terms with how much it owes Islamic civilization. It was the Abbasid dynasty, founded after an internal Muslim coup in the year 750, that absorbed the Hellenic legacy at a time when, under Charlemagne, Europe intellectually withered.
In Charlemagne’s Europe, reading and writing were not highly regarded, as they were in the Islamic world. The scientific, medical and philosophical learning of classical antiquity was almost entirely forgotten. Christian culture was backward and conservative, and intellectual life was dominated by the Bible and the Latin fathers of the church.
The Western world didn’t begin to regain its intellectual luster until the 12th and 13th centuries, when it borrowed back from the Islamic world the scientific and intellectual knowledge it had forgotten about. Then the rise of the West took the Islamic world by surprise.
Once the 15th century was underway, Europe started to find its pace. This was the age of printing, exploration and Western hegemony. Even though the Ottoman Empire was emerging as the most powerful state in the world, after the conquest of Constantinople, Islam started to regress intellectually. Historians find it difficult to explain this contradiction, but it should act as a warning to Western hubris.
The West, particularly the United States, is militarily strong today, yet it seems not to have the political leverage of only a generation or so ago.
It does not help our standing in the world to say that Islam is not a religion of the sword, as George W. Bush and Tony Blair have, in a mistaken attempt to fudge history and appear conciliatory. In part it is. Muhammad himself became a warrior, and within 20 years of his death the Muslims had captured much of the Roman and Persian empires.
Neither does it help to imply, as both Bush and Blair have done, that the West is motivated by its Christian principles. Christ, in marked contrast to Muhammad, was a man of nonviolence, as were his early followers.
It was only when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire after the conversion of Constantine in 312 that it changed its philosophy. Then it became, and has long continued to be, as much a warrior religion as Islam. Bush’s and Blair’s breath would be better spent educating electorates as to the likelihood of the Islamic world regaining its foothold in history and becoming again a mighty intellectual, scientific and, inevitably, military force. In fact, this is what Saddam Hussein in his own idiosyncratic, violence-infused way was trying to bring off.
These are today’s missteps, but this renaissance of Islam will come to pass in one not-too-distant day, if only because the roots of civilization in the Islamic world run deep. The brainpower is certainly there. It is just a question of the right political structures. In the modern world perhaps democracy can be the key to unlock the stored-up potential, as modern Turkey seems to be demonstrating.
And the West should unreservedly welcome it.
The West should take its cue from scholars of 15th century Renaissance humanism, especially the Spaniard John of Segovia and the German Nicholas of Cusa, as Richard Fletcher has suggested in his new book, “The Cross and the Crescent.” John argued that it was important to find points of contact between Christianity and Islam-convergence, not divergence. Nicholas, who became a cardinal, argued that despite the differences between the two faiths it had to be realized that human knowledge could never be more than conjectural. If there is a truth, it can be understood only by means of mystical intuition.
These eternal questions of civilization are the ones we should be concentrating on. Which side is up and which is down in Iraq are, by comparison, truly ephemeral.